Friday, August 28, 2009

They've landed ....

This report just in from Sandy Welter:

"I've heard from many of the teachers as they have arrived in Beijing and Hong Kong. All are just overwhelmed, excited ,and so thankful to Skidmore for offering them this opportunity. Yesterday the two groups from Qufu and DongYing unexpectedly met each other...on The Great Wall! Their universities are touring them around the highlights of Beijing before heading to Shandong. So they've already had a China reunion after only one day!

"The Hong Kong group has arrived at Sun yat-Sen University and are settling in. Internet access is sketchy for the next few days as they get set up in their apartments...."

Monday, August 24, 2009

Down to the Wire

Tomorrow's the big day for most of the 19 recent Skidmore graduates who will be teaching in China this summer -- the day that the seven of the eight who are going to Sun-Yat Sen University will fly to Hong Kong from Boston and Newark and ten of the 11 who will be teaching in Dongying and Qufu will be flying to Beijing from Boston and New York. (One teacher will fly to Hong Kong next week and another will fly to Beijing from India.)

Crossing the international dateline, they'll land in China on Wednesday. The Sun-Yat Sen contingent will stay overnight in Hong Kong and be picked up by their hosts on Thursday. They'll begin their teaching assignments September 10. The Dongying and Qufu contingents will have less time to prepare, beginning their assignments September 1 and 2.

We've asked members of the Class of 2008 who taught in China last year to pass on their reflections and advice. As the next crop of teachers tends to a myriad last-minute pre-trip details, we share the following perspectives from Karrin Varucene below.

Q: Are you glad you did it?

Karrin: I am absolutely glad I did it and wouldn't take it back for anything. At about the halfway point, I remember doubting my decision, feeling lonely and eager to return home. However, after entering the second semester refreshed from time spent traveling (mostly in the south where it was warm and sunny) and with a new outlook on how to approach my role as teacher, I found myself in disbelief that the whole experience would soon be drawing to a close.

I'm glad I did it for many reasons:
  • I made closer relationships than I ever expected to with my fellow Skidmore teachers and especially with my Chinese students and colleagues.

  • I got a view of China that most tourists never get.

  • I got to live, eat, breathe (unfortunately?) China for almost an entire year, something that often seems like a far-off dream.
  • I got to travel and see a part of the world the way I most prefer to: from the inside.
Q: What are the main lessons that the experience taught you?

Karrin: I learned to have patience, with myself and with others. I learned to have confidence in myself and my abilities, having been thrown into completely uncharted waters--standing at the front of the classroom, charge with the responsibility of somehow imparting knowledge. I learned things about the Chinese people and culture that one simply would not learn in a book. And that is, perhaps, most valuable.

Q: Have you changed your career plans as a result of the experience?

Karrin: I had never considered teaching as a profession before going to China. But I loved the experience so much. It is such a gratifying feeling to stand in front of a classroom, explain something to the best of one's abilities, and see 35 heads nod with understanding. It is even more meaningful to build personal relationships with certain students who come to see you outside the classroom, perhaps to discuss class material, and sometimes to discuss non-academic subjects.

Sharing life knowledge and exchanging opinions and ideas with my students was so enjoyable that I am now considering teaching as a profession, though I have decided first to focus on my interest in book publishing. My teaching experience in China was such a great one that I fear most of the passion and enjoyment came from such a unique and isolated circumstance. I'm not entirely sure those charged feelings would occur for me in an American classroom. However, if publishing does not work out, I intend to explore a career in education.

The experience overall did give me some much-needed self-confidence, especially when it comes to applying for jobs. I currently have a number of resumes out to most of the major publishing houses on the East Coast.

Q: What advice do you have for the next crop of Skidmore teachers in China?

Karrin: I suppose I would say: It is all what you make it. Many of us Qufuans agreed that we could see how one could be miserable in Qufu (as many of our students claimed to be). It is still "developing," quite filthy, and about three decades behind us in many ways. However, there is also much to love about it. Qufu has character, charm, great food and an authenticity not found in Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong. It is "the real deal," so to speak. We all seemed to make the unspoken decision to fall in love with Qufu, and that was it.

Also, I would say:
  • Don't be afraid to try new restaurants and food.

  • Make yourselves available to students and colleagues. There are truly wonderful relationships to be made if you make the effort and put yourself out there.

  • Enjoy the quiet and simplicity that the yearlong experience has to offer -- you'll miss it once you return to the U.S.

  • Take calligraphy lessons if you can! It's an unbelievably cool (and challenging) art form.

  • Always have some TP and sanitizer on-hand.

  • Be sure to ride in a rickshaw. (Don't forget to bargain!).

  • Soak it up and take it all in.

Monday, August 3, 2009


Sandy Welter, director the Teaching in China program, divides the Skidmore graduates who will be teaching in China into three groups based on the geography of their assignments:

The four members of the Dongying group are assigned to the city of Dongying, which is located southeast of Beijng in Shandong Province near the mouth of the Yellow River. Close to the giant Shengli Oil Field, Dongying's economy revolves around the production of petroleum and it's various by-products, including pneumatic tires and rubber and petrochemicals. Teaching at Shengli College will be Ryan Smith (far left) and Alexandra Tedaldi (far right). Teaching at China University of Petroleum will be Amanda King (middle left) and Andrea Scharf (middle right).

The seven members of the Qufu group will go to the city of Qufu which, also located in Shandong Province, is the birthplace of Confucius and is one of China's oldest cities. Teaching at Xintan College will be Dana Gresham (far left), and Lauren Offringa (third from right). Teaching at Qufu Teachers University will be Charlee Bianchini (far right) and Lisa Klane (not pictured). Teaching at Qufu Teachers University High School will Steven Mastanduno (third from left) and Alexandra Preefer (second from right). Teaching at the Rizhou campus of Qufu Teachers University will be Jessica Yan (second from left). (Note: Michal Ault and Matt Michaels, also represented in this photo, subsequently had to withdraw from the program for family-related reasons.)

The eight members of the Sun-yat Sen University group will go to the city of Zhuhai in southern China. Teaching at Sun-yat Sen University will be (from left to right, starting in the back row): Brad Nesbitt, Geoff Parsons, Mariso Cimino, Ana Pugatch, Amy Proulx, Phoebe Conklin, Olivia Duong, and Greg Luhn.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Tradition Continues ...

Nineteen recent Skidmore graduates will board planes to China this August to begin a year of teaching English literature, composition, speech, and western culture to English majors at six universities. This is by far the largest number of recent graduates that Skidmore has sent to China since launching its "Teaching in China" program 20 years ago.

The 14 alumni sent by the College last year have finished their assignments. Over the next few weeks, we'll ask them to reflect on their experience and offer suggestions to the new team of teachers. And we'll refurbish this space for the new team of teachers who will begin their assignments soon.

Nearly 100 Skidmore graduates now have had the experience of teaching in China and the program has expanded to seven institutions. It started with Qufu Teachers University in Shandong Province, where retired Skidmore English professor Murray Levith and his wife Tina made the China connection during Murray's sabbatical in 1987-88. The College embraced his proposal to establish a formal exchange and sent a first contingent of new graduates to Qufu in 1989-90. Recent Skidmore graduates are now also teaching at China University of Petroleum and Shengli College in Dongying, a new branch of China University of Petroleum University in Qingdao, a new branch of Qufu Teachers University in Rizhao, Xin Tan College in Qufu, and Sun Yat-sen University in Zhuhai, near Guangzhou.

"China is opening up and there's so much more that these English-speaking university students are now able to do with their English instruction," said Sandy Welter, director of the Teach in China program. "They're more open-minded and they can now freely spend their money."

In January, the new team of selected students begin an orientation workshop that lasts throughout the spring term. Students learn teaching strategies and techniques for cultural assimilation. They also receive assistance with the myriad details of travel and living in a foreign country for a year, such as medical needs, insurance, and visa applications.

Skidmore teachers live with other foreign teachers and international guests in apartments on the campus where they teach. Each teacher has his or her own apartment with a living area, bedroom, western-style bathroom, and some have kitchens. Others may have a communal cooking area. The apartments are fully furnished and include heat, air conditioning, and Internet connection.

The 21 students who qualified for teaching assignments in this year's program come from a wide range of majors and career tracks. Only four know Chinese, but from a pedagogical standpoint that makes little difference because they will speak English at all times in their classrooms.

By the end of their year abroad, all of the Skidmore teachers will be able to speak enough Chinese to shop, travel, and communicate regularly with their students and colleagues, Welter says. Some students have extended their assignment in China to two or even three years so as to continue to hone their language proficiency.

Their experience of teaching in China is much different than seeing the country as a tourist or even a study abroad student, says Welter. "During their year, these young alumni are defined and viewed as professionals living and working in a university setting. When they return to the US, their cultural identity is grounded in choice and commitment, not just in the arbitrariness of birth and location."

Many Skidmore teachers come to the realization that they love teaching and move in that direction. Others decide to attend graduate school in international relations, international business, law, human rights advocacy, literacy, and Chinese history and culture.

Following are the 21 Skidmore teachers who leave for China later this month:
  • Michal Adut '09 (Government and Dance) - Xintan College
  • Charlee Bianchini '09 (American Studies) - Qufu Teachers University
  • Marissa Cimino '09 (IA and French) - Sun Yat-Sen University
  • Phoebe Conklin '09 (Psychology) - Sun Yat-Sen University
  • Olivia Duong '09 (Chemistry) - Sun Yat-Sen University
  • Dana Gresham '09 (Government) - Xintan College
  • Amanda King '09 (English) - China University of Petroleum
  • Lisa Klane '08 (Government) - Qufu Teachers University
  • Greg Luhn '09 (Anthropology) - Sun Yat-Sen University
  • Steven Mastanduno '09 (Philosophy and History) - Qufu Teachers University
  • Matthew Michaels '09 (History and IA) - Xintan College
  • Brad Nesbitt '09 (Philosophy and Environmental Studies) -Sun Yat-Sen University
  • Lauren Offringa '09 (Psychology) - Xintan College
  • Geoff Parsons '09 (Business and Spanish) - Sun Yat-Sen University
  • Allie Preefer '09 (English) - Qufu Teachers University
  • Amy Proulx '09 (American Studies and English) - Sun Yat-Sen University
  • Ana Pugatch '09 (English) - Sun Yat-Sen University
  • Andrea Scharf '09 (IA) - China University of Petroleum
  • Ryan Smith '09 (Religious Studies) - Shengli College
  • Ally Tedaldi '09 (History) - Shengli College
  • Jessica Yan '09 (English) - Qufu Teachers University

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Leaving "Home" and Coming Home

I am home in my mother country, sitting at my gate in Newark Airport. It seems cliched to say that there are no words to describe my feelings as I stepped into the main hub of Newark, and yet, I am really without words. Perhaps because China has dumbed me down in the sense that I have lost a great deal of my English vocabulary and now struggle to put together a grammatically correct sentence that makes sense. It could also be that I have been traveling for twenty-four hours straight at this point, having slept for only moments here and there on the 13-hour flight from Beijing.
Rachel and I pulled away from the gate of Xingtan College what now seems like days, even weeks ago, when in fact it was only yesterday morning. We were seen off by around fifty students and The Gang (our teacher/office friends), all waving and giving heartfelt wishes for happy healthy lives, success, and our return to China. Many were also crying, including Rachel and myself.
I look at my only half-filled journal and wonder why I suddenly stopped writing in it. A bit of laziness, I'm sure. But more than anything, I think, by our second semester life in Qufu became my life. My apartment was my home and all the things once crazy and novel eventually blurred into just daily life, the norm. It is still a shame, though, and I hope the hundreds of photos I have taken can help to fill in the gaps.
As for my thoughts and feelings now being back in America, I will do my best to give them justice with the words I find myself limited by. Lost. Lost in my ability to suddenly understand and comprehend. Thrilled. Thrilled to see/hear diversity in all forms--race, skin color, hair color, fashion, food, language. Relief. Relief to be able to ask questions and comprehend the answers. Joy. Joy for finally being back in a culture where, for the most part, people don't hesitate to lend a helping hand, where a kind smile goes such a long way, and where perfect strangers can comfortably engage in conversation. (I must note here that this is a general Chinese cultural comment, and that I feel blessed to have found several exceptions to this in my students and good friends. I got to know some of the kindest and most genuine people I have ever met this year, and I will never forget them.) To illustrate, just standing in line to go through security for my domestic flight I noticed the woman in front of me was crying and mumbling to herself. At first I thought she was perhaps unsound in mind, but then I remembered I am back in a place where it is acceptable and common to reach out to strangers. So I dug in my bag for a tissue, softly touched her arm and handed her a tissue. She took it, thanked me and murmured that she was trying to get home in time to see her mother, but that her mother had just passed away. I told her I was so sorry to hear that, and my eyes fell to the ground as I silently said a prayer for her. Then, not two minutes later, a boy behind us in line dropped something on the ground, and the woman touched his arm and called his attention to the dropped paper. I was reminded then of the idea of paying it forward, and I really believe that is something very present in American culture. Something I am proud of. This small scene was certainly a far cry from the scene of Rachel and I schlepping our six bags (between us) on and off the airport shuttle with great difficulty as several large men just stood and watched us struggle. Different from the several seats on the shuttle being occupied by small bags and careless people who didn't think to move their bags and offer us a seat. Different again from the scene of me, mid-flight, attempting to hoist my uber heavy backpack into the overhead compartment as an older man stood watching me, impatiently waiting for me to move out of his way. Even when he saw it just wasn't gonna happen for me. Thank goodness for my SPW in crime, Rachel, who quickly jumped up and came to my aid. Apparently The Gentleman died with chivalry.
My Rochester flight was delayed an hour, so with this in common, I chatted with several strangers. It's so nice to be able to do that again. I only wish I could have engaged in such casual conversation with the Chinese. There are a few Chinese on my flight, and it makes me feel more comfortable. Already a kind man offered to help me hoist my bag overhead, and the friendly flight attendant offered me a better alternative when it didn't fit. This is, by the way, a very extremely small plane. Especially after the giant Boeing 777 we had for the international flight.
I don't really know how I am feeling in this moment. Content? But that seems impossible given all that I have left behind and all the uncertainty and reality that lies before me. But it is my goal, as a world traveler, to be content wherever I am and to not mourn for too long what I have left behind. I prefer to hope, look forward and dream. And I look forward to returning to China in the near future.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Raining Buckets in Zhuhai

With the spring season has come the rainy season.

It's quite a change from home: no changing foliage, warm and humid temperatures, tons of rain. These flash floods bring a rush of water down the road up to my apartment building from the main campus road. I almost got washed away in it when I grabbed some breakfast, a sort of triangular-shaped piece of dough and an Eastern-style egg and pork sandwich, and was almost swept away by all the water.

It's almost week 10 here at Sun Yat-sen, meaning only seven more weeks of teaching classes and then its time to start packing for home. Amazing how the time has gone by. When I look back it doesn't feel like eight months, but that's how it always goes, right? Our sense of time changes so much, it's disorienting.

Classes have been fun. I had my sophomore verbal classes watch the movie My Cousin Vinny (1992) outside of class. They ate it up. If you've ever seen the movie, they particularly enjoyed the seen where the two boys just get arrested for murder and Billy calls his mother to explain the situation, shouting, "ma! ma!" The students loved how similar it was to how they say "mom" in mandarin. I truly feel that the movies are a powerful tool for teaching those certain intangible qualities that fill foreign cultures: Intonation, body gesture, emotionally-wrought phrases with a whole history.

Okay, that's enough blabbering for now. Until next time...

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Back in the Swing of Things

With the end of our winter vacation in late February, I got back to work. Just as I had imagined, things are moving at warp speed since classes started. Now, it's already the end of week three out of 18 for teaching classes, and then it's bye bye China.

Carrie and I have had to make the tough life decisions of the future: Should we stay in China next year or take our chances back in the states? After a lot of thought and considering the options, we decided to not renew our contracts for next year. Our school, Sun Yat-sen University, is taking EIGHT Skidmore teachers, which is such a great step for the school's China program. To those who go to SYSU, I wish you the best of luck. You will have plenty of fun, new experiences, challenges, and adventures, and you should embrace it all when it happens.

That's all for now... I want to make this short so that it is given the chance of being read by others. To my fellow teachers up North, I hope all is going well and that your giving those Chinese students hell.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Spring Festival From the Outside

Yesterday, January 26th, was the first day of the first month of the Lunar year. The most important holiday of the year in China, the new year and Spring Festival have a number of traditions involved. Unfortunately, I haven't really been able to participate in any of these traditions, but I have observed some different behavior and scenes. On the 25th, Carrie, Travis, Karrin and I were in Guangzhou after flying back from Sanya late the night before. That day we went to a wonderful dim sum breakfast with one of Carrie's freshman and she then showed us around the city for a bit. The main visit of the day was to the main flower market near Beijing Lu. During spring festival families decorate their houses with flowers and bring flowers to others when they visit. Their is one specific flower having to do with 5 generations in a family that is one of the most common flowers during this time of year. I had never seen it before, and it is a strange sort of flower in that it doesn't blossom and you can't eat it. The flower market was filled with these, though orchids, lilies, gladiolus, and others were also there.

Also being sold along the market were pin-wheel type toys, bought and carried about by both children and adults. Decorations for Spring Festival also include red and gold posters of traditional phrases or images of plump children, and also never-ending knots. Red and gold-or yellow-are unavoidable during this time or year.

Also unavoidable this time of year are images of the Ox. This new year's animal, the ox is everywhere and everyone wants a picture in front of it-or rather all of them. I particularly enjoyed these grandparents and grandson posing in front of an Ox with winnie the pooh at the entrance to the flower market.

Yesterday, the new year, we arrived in Hong Kong. Most shops, restaurants, and business had closed for the holiday-usually new years and the following 2 days-but though much of the city was closed, the streets were still alive with activity. That, I think, is what I've enjoyed most about the New Year and Spring Festival-seeing families together. It is a common sight to see grandparents toting children around and spoiling them, but rarely do you see both parents-mother and father-walking leisurely with their child (or children). Tonight, the 27th we went to California Pizza Kitchen for a western treat and got to watch a spectacular fireworks show over the water. The feeling, the crowds were calm and quiet. No drunkenness, no rushing about, but rather families sharing the spectacle together. It is this sense of togetherness and the enjoyment in simply being together that has stood out most for me. The lunar new year and spring festival really are about family-being with your own and visiting others-and so as a foreigner here I have really only experienced the festivities from the outside, but I've enjoyed observing nonetheless.

Imlek - Chinese New Year in Indonesia

I thought that my decision to spend my winter vacation in Indonesia would mean a temporary hiatus from all things China. I didn't quite do my homework, however, and was surprised to find out that Indonesia actually harbors a rather sizable Chinese minority, about 5% of the total population. I was surprised to see Chinese architecture and Chinese characters throughout Jakarta. In addition, the government of Indonesia recognizes six official religions, one being Buddhism and one being Confucianism (yea Qufu!)

I am currently volunteering in Jakarta at an orphanage/free education center. Because it is volunteer run, underfunded and serving over five hundred students, there is not a lot of free time to explore the world outside the center. However on January 26, the Chinese New Year, we happened to have left to go to a technology mega-mall in search of a wireless router. We took a forty-five minute bus which allowed plenty of time for me to peer out the window and soak up the sights. Street after street I continued to notice red banners with Chinese writing and red Chinese lanterns filling the sky. I turned to one of the boys who lives at the center and asked him what this was about. "Imlek," he said, and then told me that this is the name for the Chinese New Year, a public holiday in Indonesia. Curious to learn more, I asked "why is Chinese New Years celebrated here?" His answer was to the point but sufficient, "we respect the Chinese people." Why didn't I think of that?

Intrigued, I did some research when I got home and learned that Chinese New Year is celebrated here very similarly to how it is celebrated in China, with a large family meal, gift giving, firecrackers, decorating with banners and more. On the holiday, all schools and offices are closed. Street parades are held and singers and dancers flood the roads, making their way from one temple to the next. Something unique to Chinese New Year in Indonesia though, is the TV programming, which includes hour after hour of celebratory Imlek themed variety shows with Indonesian actors dressed in traditional Chinese garb. I was not lucky enough to catch the shows first hand, but when I asked another Westerner here to describe her impression of the shows, her words were "entertaining" and "less than politically correct."

Before I left, my students made sure to remind me what a pity it was that I was not spending New Years in China. I agreed, but am happy with my decision to come volunteer. It seems that today I was fortunate enough to have the best of both worlds: Chinese New Year celebrations and a tropical climate. :)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Chinese New Year in Yangshuo

Happy Spring Festival! (the Chinese New Year, for those who don't know)

I'm currently sitting in the Yangshuo Culture House, the small hostel I have made my home for the last few days, and where I spent Spring Festival last night. Staying at the Culture House was in some ways an attempt at experiencing the festival with a Chinese family - the Culture House is operated by a Mr. Wei and his family, who cook all the meals for the guests, eat with us, and offer things such as cooking classes, Tai Chi, and calligraphy lessons. I've been here five days now, and it's fantastic - if you ever find yourself in Yangshuo, China, I recommend looking it up...

Anyway, lets talk about the festival!

Like New Years in the States, Spring Festival is very much a midnight celebration, and "ringing in the new year" is actually similar to how we do it in the U.S. (think firecrackers, and lots of them). Now, Spring Festival is a big deal here. While the western calendar is used for all things official, it's not really 2009 in China until the lunar calendar says so, usually sometime in early February; this year happened to come a bit early. I'll get into the specifics of how I spent my first Spring Festival, but I don't want to get ahead of myself.
Ask any Chinese person and they will tell you how extremely important Spring Festival is to everyone here in China. They will also most likely mention that one of the most important aspects of the festival is that it should be spent with your family. I've been at the Culture House for five days now, and one of the big reasons is travel. China, as most of us know, has a very large population. Combine that with an ever growing migrant worker population all trying to get home at the same time, and add a dash of trying to buy train tickets (it's rare to be able to buy round trip tickets, and most places you can't buy tickets very far in advance) and you've got absolute mayhem. I'm told that last year in Guangzhou, home to one of the biggest migrant worker populations, there was at one point a million people standing outside the train station trying to get home. That's a lot of people. Suffice it to say, laying low for this period of time is something all of us took to heart.

Sunday was New Years Eve, but instead of spending the day in preparation for the festival like our hosts, Eva, a German woman staying at my hostel, and I decided to go for a hike along the Li River. Considered one of the most beautiful landscapes in China, we didn't want to miss out on catching a glimpse of the scenery, and here is a 24 km hike along the banks which was supposed to be fantastic.

The towns were completely alive when we headed out - the markets were busy, the bus station was busy, everything was busy. The air just had that electric tension which only comes from great anticipation and excitement; really a cool feeling to experience in another culture. We arrived in the town of Yangdi, about 70 minutes north of Yangshuo and headed out along the banks of the river. Long story short, we went left when we should have gone right, and ended up high in the mountains surrounding the Li River. Absolutely beautiful, if not about 15 kilometers from where we wanted to be hiking... When we finally realized what had happened, we were too far along to turn back (the road we were on led to the same place, just not via the river), so ended up hiking through the one and two house farming communities which dot the area. When we finally made it back to civilization (by way of the two of us crammed on the back of a motorcycle taxi), we were shocked at how dead the towns were. The same city streets, crowded not hours before, were total ghost towns. I've never seen a Chinese city as quiet as I did yesterday.

We made it back to the Culture House just in time for dinner - a fantastic feast consisting of about 10 to 12 different dishes, and after dinner everyone at the hostel really got into the New Years spirit. Now, as I mentioned before, the Chinese take Spring Festival very seriously, and they also take firecrackers and fireworks very seriously. In the last few days, massive wheels of fireworks had gone on sale on just about every street corner. Myself and Eric, a businessman from Holland, bought several of these firecracker wheels, one of which you can see in the picture.

These aren't your everyday firecrackers... they pack serious punch.

One of the most interesting things I noticed about the fireworks, is the complete disregard for the way in which I was raised to deal with fireworks. Most notably demonstrated by the three eight year old boys running around launching bottle rockets and roman candles at houses, people, the unlit firecrackers in an attempt to ignite them (they were successful to), or anything else that suited their fancy, yet nobody really saying anything... It was a bit wild.

After fireworks we all headed downtown and hiked to the top of a peak in the middle of Yangshuo and watched the fireworks at midnight. I've never in my entire life seen so many fireworks, firecrackers, and other explosive and incendiary devices ignited all at the same time. It was a spectacular sight to behold - the entire town became immersed in the smoke cloud associated with large fireworks displays.

That sums up my Chinese Spring Festival for the most part - in a lot of ways similar to the New Year in the U.S., but with a very distinct Chinese feel. In a few minutes I'm going to help make jiaozi, or dumplings, which are eaten on New Years Day for good luck.

That's all for now - as for a travel update, not quite sure what is next. Perhaps Hainan Island, in my increasingly desperate search for warmer climates. I'm heading to Thailand on the 5th of February, and if all else fails I'm sure it will be warm there. Happy New Year!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Travel Update and Harbin

So I apologize for the general lack of blogging in the last few days... Sometimes it's just not in the cards. I mean lets face it, between Counter Strike and playing Risk on Facebok, who has time for things like "reading," or "traveling," or "blogging" anyway?

Okay so in my defense, yesterday I got fed up with my muscles being weak with atrophy and the impending feeling of office-ass hanging over my head and played basketball and went for a run. And today I went out to lunch! ...Don't judge me you've all been there.

Anyway in all seriousness, due to the suns rays reflecting off of Venus thus igniting some swamp gas in Florida and the deepening economic and financial crisis in the United States, my travel plans have become FUBARed (that statement is 50% right!) and I'm in the midst of re-arranging travel plans for the prolonged break I am currently on. Noah (my older brother for those who don't know) was supposed to visit from the 21st of January until February 7th(ish), but, because of the deepening economic and financial crisis in the United States (I wasn't lying), at the last minute had to cancel his trip. I have now found myself alone in Qufu attempting to re-sort and re-tool my upcoming vacation, and I think I've almost got it worked out. If (and this is a big if) buying train tickets goes according to plan, tomorrow or the next day I will head for Beijing to meet up with Rachel, Olivia, and Lucy to hang out/get out of Qufu while they sort out visas for the rest of their travels. On the 20th I will hopefully head for Guilin and Yangshuo where I will hole up for somewhere in the realm of a week to a week and a half. Following that I will head toward Hong Kong, see the sights, and quickly depart via plane for Thailand on or around the 6th of February. Depending on funds and general interest, I'll spend the better part of February visiting LT (Lowell Thomson, former high school teacher and mentor who now lives in Thailand with his family and who has very graciously offered me a place to stay for a few nights), exploring Thai mountains, and of course, going to the beach. After that I'll head back toward China via Hong Kong and, most likely, head on back to Qufu. Maybe go to Hangzhou or Suzhou along the way, they are supposed to be cool.

So that's whats on tap - now lets take a step back...

About two weeks ago, right near the start of our vacation Olivia, Eliza, and I set out on a 23 hour train ride (don't worry we had beds!) to the city of Harbin, located in the northeastern most section of China and home to the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival. The trip in some ways was lackluster for me - Our hostel was gross, I spent a lot of money (mostly on cabs that ripped us off), and most importantly, I'm not a big fan of being cold (To be clear - I enjoy cold, and I enjoy snow, and cold, snowy places, but I don't like being cold. Call me picky or whiny or whatever - it is what it is). Despite some of the lame aspects of the trip, the city itself as well as what it had to offer more than made up for having snot-cicles in my mustache.

There were 4 main attractions we visited in Harbin aside from the city itself: the small (very much a relative term here) ice lantern festival, the Siberian Tiger Park, the snow sculpture park, and the grand daddy of em' all, the big ice lantern festival. Harbin itself was originally founded as a Russian city and is still shows signs of Russian influence to this day; notably so in architecture as well as food. It also serves as a very popular tourist destination for Russians from Siberia, and local signs will often advertise in Russian, and annoying street vendors trying to rip you off don't only shout "HELLO!" but also the equivalent word in Russian (unfortunately my Russian is a bit rusty so I'm not exactly sure what that is...).

We arrived late Saturday afternoon and one of the first things that struck us was the ground. Olivia slipped and hit the ground hard disembarking from the train... It was to be the first of many. This is also a good time to mention one thing I found most interesting about Harbin, where, more months than not, the temperature is well below freezing; that being, the complete lack of sidewalk or road treatment. The entire city is very much a giant skating rink. When you combine this with typical Chinese sidewalks and taxi drivers, it's devastating. I saw no plows (although it never actually snowed while we were there, they've got to have plows stashed somewhere...), no sanding trucks, no salt. In fact, the only way I saw ice being removed from roads was, in true Chinese fashion, by hand. That's right, crews of six or seven people with sledge hammers, pick axes, and giant chisels going to town on the expressways. This was all well and good for the fifty feet of curb they had managed to clear that morning, but unfortunately neglected the several miles of black ice underneath the hydroplaning wheels of our taxi. Even more astonishing (or not at all I suppose) was the lack of thoroughfare de-icing at the festivals themselves. When we went to the big ice festival (don't worry I'll get there eventually), which is very much an international event, going up and down staircases made of ice was, well, icy! I mean I can't complain too much it was a world made entirely of ice, I wouldn't want them to skimp on the stairs.

The small ice lantern festival was in the city itself near a very popular and very chic walking street with all sorts of fun shops and touristy things. We had dinner on this street at a Russian cafe recommended by the ever trusty Lonely Planet, which was an adventure. We were famished and hadn't eaten since the train, so we decided to have an early dinner at around 5:30... After sitting down, we slowly began to notice that, while there were many people actually in the restaurant, very few people were eating, and fewer still had apparently given their orders. Not wanting to miss out on our one chance at piroshkis, we patiently waited for them to take our orders. Long story short, we waited until right around six o'clock, at which time they finally came over to take our order - except that every time we tried to order, the waiter would shake his head and say "we don't have." Apparently all they had was cold sausage and bread. We thought that was a very fitting Russian meal, in the end.

After dinner we headed straight away to the festival. This one was Disney themed and had an ice castle (with working three story elevator - one of the only things not made of ice), a pirate ship, and all sorts of other smaller structures and buildings.

Approaching the Castle
The castle - notice the functional escalator and elevator.

Part of the slide which came off the castle. Yes, its amazing, and yes, made entirely of ice.

There was much more happening at this festival than these three pictures show, including some very elaborate and finely crafted sculptures, but that will have to do for now. Remember, this was the small festival...

The next day we started off with a sure winner - the Siberian Tiger Park. The park itself states that it raises tigers to be released back into the wild. As the guidebook explains however, how exactly it does this is not clear, as you can buy strips of meat (10 yuan), live chickens, (40 yuan), goats (200 yuan), or whole cows (somewhere in the range of 200 USD) to watch them eat while you drive through the park. The park was in some ways a bit sad - lots of cages and the tigers looked completely immune to the OBNOXIOUS heckling of Chinese businessmen (I wanted to punch one guy in the face), but you cannot deny the awesomeness of the animals.

"I could kick your ass if I wasn't a big lazy cat."

We all wanted one afterward. They just look so adorable!

After we went to the tiger park, which was located a good distance outside the city, we made our way back to Harbin proper via one of my favorites of the trip, the snow sculpture park. While it wasn't entirely completed when we were there, the scale of it, as well as the intricate and cool designs, carved entirely out of snow, blew us away.

I Thought this arch was really cool.

There was a whole section of different Santas.

This was only a small part of this particular sculpture... it goes to the left another three pictures. Just to give you an idea of the scale.

We could have gone across the street to the big ice festival that evening, but at this point we had been outside in the Harbin winter for almost five hours, we had another full day in the city, and there were back to back episodes of "Corporate Law All-Stars" on TV, so after the snow park we grabbed dinner and headed home.

The next day we packed in a bunch of very cool sights, including the Church of St. Sophia, a Russian Orthodox church in the heart of the city which is now a museum, a Buddhist monastery, and finally the big ice festival. Unfortunately My camera battery was on its way out, so I only have a few pictures of the grand finale ice festival, but let me tell you - it was awesome. Remember, EVERYTHING in these pictures is made of ice.

The Church of St. Sophia (not made of ice)

The entrance gate to the ice festival.

The center castle. This thing was massive.

Another view of the center castle.

A checkers board made of ice... Also gives a good perspective in the background to the scale of the whole complex.

Snow Buddha visible through some ice pagodas.

The Snow Buddha up close and personal. Use the flowers for scale.

Okay I think that's all for now - I took almost 300 pictures all told while I was in Harbin, these are just the highlights. I'll do my best to blog about my travels to Guilin, Hong Kong, and Thailand as they unfold. We'll see how it goes.