Bullet trains, birthdays, and boat parties

Warning: another long post since it’s about the whole weekend!

A group of us decided to take a trip over to Tianjin for the weekend to check out the city and also attend an once-in-a-lifetime party on a decommissioned Soviet aircraft carrier. You know a trip is going to be epic when:

  1. You wake up to clear Beijing sky, sunlight, and clouds. Remember, this is after not having seen the sky/clouds/sun for about 2 weeks.
  2. You get on the subway to go to the train station only to find a kid squatting down in front of the door IN THE TRAIN to pee and poop.
  3. A group of people who don’t really know each other really well get stuck together at the train station for about 2 hours because one person had to go home since they forgot their passport.

So that is how our trip started: with public urination/defecation on the subway and a hangout session at the Beijing South Railway Station. To purchase a bullet train ticket (55 yuan) you need your passport (for foreigners) or your hukou (learn the basics about the hukou system here at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hukou_system) since each ticket is issued to correspond with your identification number. After the wait, we all were extremely excited to board the train since we had never ridden on a bullet train in China before and were looking forward to the shortened transportation time between Beijing and Tianjin (approximately 2 hours by bus, but only 25 minutes by bullet train WHAT WHAT? :D). If it wasn’t obvious before, it instantaneously became obvious that we were foreigners once we boarded the train because we all whipped out our cameras and took pictures of almost every possible angle of the train. Although there are trains every 10 or 15 minutes heading from Beijing to Tianjin, every section of the eight cars were still packed with people. And when I say packed, I don’t mean packed in the sense that three people are crowded on a seat with chickens milling about, but packed in the sense that every single nicely-cushioned and spacious-legroomed seat was occupied. The seats even reclines further than seats on an airplane (Economy class airplane seats, mind you). Needless to say the ride was NOT long enough for our liking.

After the six of us checked into our badass hotel, we congregated in the lobby of the hotel to officially start our day in beautiful Tianjin at 3pm. I’m not sure whether the Tianjin weather is always beautiful or whether we just hit the jackpot and decided to travel on a smog-less day, but yes, Tianjin is beautiful with its high-rise buildings, meandering river, and calm pace (as compared to Beijing of course). We strolled through the city in the general direction of the Ancient Culture Street but decided to take a detour through a food street/local shopping scene where everything and anything was sold (think smaller version of Chatuchak). Digression: one really cool thing about Tianjin is that they have redesigned the stoplight. So instead of the usual red, yellow, and green lights lined up in a vertical column, the whole thing is replaced by one big vertical interface that shines either red, yellow, or green with the color slowly disappearing like an hourglass to indicated how much longer the light will shine that color. THAT is innovation at its best. However, my silly self did not take a picture of the stoplight or else it would be up for show by now on my blog.

At the Ancient Culture Street, we were exposed to just that: a modernized and reconstructed version of “ancient culture” through small shops and local flavors. One main thing Tianjin is known for is its “Gou bu li” bread bun which translates loosely to “even dogs won’t eat it”, which obviously meant that we had to try it. We entered the first restaurant we saw boasting Gou bu li and ordered ourselves a steaming container of eight Gou bu li bread buns and went straight for the kill. According to our residential food expert, FM, the buns got their name from the fact that the owner of a particular store in the long and distant past was always too busy to take care of his customers so that everyone was angry enough to say that even dogs won’t eat his food since the service is so bad (just so you know, if that is the real story then I’m not sure how much worse service here can be because service in China is already actually really bad since there are no tips to incentivize people to follow the “customers are always right” rule). I’m not sure what I actually expected out of the meal, but ended up actually liking the bread bun – it’s basically like any other bread bun with just a little bit more flavoring to it. Digression: I’m not sure if it was just the areas we visited in Tianjin or not but there is A LOT of artistic expression there. The area where are hotel is situated had rows and rows of art shops both selling pieces of art and also selling art materials like paint brushes and canvasses. I also noticed that the Ancient Culture Street contained a lot of artwork and calligraphy art as compared to the places I’ve been to in Beijing. Maybe it’s because Tianjin is known for its miniature clay sculptures.

After walking through the Ancient Culture Street, we meandered our way to see the different foreign concessions in Tianjin and ended up seeing the French and the Italian concession up close and personal. The buildings are obviously out of place amidst the modernized and faceless Tianjin architecture (read: it looks like any other building in any other big city) since the buildings in the concessions were designed and built in the archaic style from each country. We met up with another friend hanging out in the Italian concession’s Starbucks and decided on Thai food for dinner which meant I had an opportunity to show off my Thai skills during dinner (booyah!).

Another great thing about Tianjin is the Hai River that runs through its center. Not only did the government do a great job constructing large walkways running parallel to it, but they also have managed to keep the entire area relatively clean. Nearing sundown, the river area became a place for peoples of all ages to congregate and do everything from chewing the fat to taking a dip. And in case you were wondering, yes, we did indeed see a group of about 30 old Chinese men in Speedo-like swimwear taking a dip and hanging out next to the river). Since we really wanted to ride up the Tianjin Eye (think London Eye but in Tianjin) to see the sunset, we tried to walk as quickly as possible back towards the Eye, which is nearer to our hotel where we started off, but did not entirely succeed since we basically had too much fun observing people doing their own thing by the river. We sprinted to the Eye as we neared it and got our tickets literally right before the rush and managed to get a whole box to ourselves in under 10 minutes. According to the Wikipedia, the relatively trustworthy social encyclopedia, the Tianjin Eye is “The world’s second largest Ferris wheel and the only Ferris wheel built on the bridge in the world”. The five of us piled into the box (two passed on the ride and headed straight back to the hotel) for our 40-minute ride around the Eye. Since the Tianjin eye is built on a bridge connecting two sides of the river, traffic is definitely visible as it whizzes by the box in both directions as we ascend up into the sky. Although we weren’t able to see the sunset due to the high-rise buildings blocking the way, we managed to get beautiful views of the city and some Disney songs into the mix.

Since we saw a released paper lantern floating up into the sky while we were up on the Eye, we decided to go for it and bought ourselves a lantern at the foot of the Eye. After signing our names on it, getting lots of pictures in, and having the seller repeatedly yell at us to release it since the fire was starting to singe the edges of the lantern, we released all that is bad out with the lantern. The fun obviously didn’t end there as we also decided to have some fun with sparklers by the river. Interestingly so, we had to ask four men before we actually found one with a lighter (read: less men smoke in Tianjin than in Beijing).  

Since we were also in Tianjin for its Great Aircraft Carrier Party, we went back to the hotel and didn’t leave it again until about 10pm to head out to the harbor in which the aircraft carrier was parked in, which is about an hour away by taxicab. Continuing the trend, JC and PH forgot their party tickets and since they were both on different cabs, both the cabs had to make a U-Turn to head back to the hotel again and we didn’t set off again until about 11pm. Heading out again, I had to take a quick nap and was pleased to wake up right at midnight to people singing happy birthday to me in Chinese. Yay! This lights and sounds of the aircraft carrier could be seen for miles, but it was only when we arrived that we realized its massiveness. Apparently the Chinese government purchased this aircraft carrier from the Russians and has spent millions and millions of dollars re-doing the interior to create a destination hotel (aka a hotel with a starting price much too high for anyone except the Chinese nouveau riche to visit). Although the novelty of the experience got us all very hyped up, the music was subpar and the limited access to certain areas were a turnoff to the whole party. After dancing a bit and exploring all the places we were actually allowed to visit, we decided to call it a night and head back to the hotel to crash. I know it wasn’t safe, but we all fell asleep in the cabs we took back and only woke up again to discover a different driver behind the wheel (we found out later the drivers do a tag-team thing with the cabs so the cars are out all day while the drivers get some sleep) before finally making it home.

Starting off the day at 11am after a restful sleep, we headed to lunch at a food market where we were exposed to various different types of snacks and desserts we have never seen before. After lunch, we took the speedy bullet train ride back to Beijing (where we all fell asleep for the 25 minutes on the train) and then headed our separate ways. Note 1: CL did it again and left her passport in the waiting area before going onto the train, luckily we managed to retrieve it before it was stolen! Note 2: JK decided to drop all his credit cards while buying a ticket for the Beijing subway home and never even realized it until a Chinese man started flailing his arms in front of him. Note 3: the subway ride from the Beijing South Railway Station home was LONGER than the bullet train ride to Tianjin – HOW CRAZY IS THAT? Good times in Tianjin.

I definitely went to sleep a bit earlier and woke up to watch Spain DESTROY Italy in the Euro 2012 final match at 2:30am. It was absolutely worth it despite the fact that I could barely make it through the day (don’t worry, I still did well in classes and learned all my new vocabulary and sentence patterns!) and will probably fall asleep very early tonight.

And now we’re back to the grind of classes and homework! Let’s go!

Destruction, imprisonment, routines, and bad food

Apologies for being so MIA these past few days. Needless to say, things at school have already vamped up into full swing. I have four hours of class total each day (split between 8am-2pm with two hour-long breaks in between) and about eight hours of homework total each night so I have been pretty preoccupied lately. The four classes are divided into two different subjects altogether with one using a custom text entitled “Across the Straights” (as in the demilitarized zone between the mainland and Taiwan) while the other custom text is entitled “Talks on Chinese Culture”. Although all of my classes require intensive listening to a pre-recorded mp3 track, one is definitely more heavily weighted towards listening as we are not even provided with a script to follow along to. There are about 150 or so vocabulary words to learn each night along with sentence patterns, grammar, tones, and the difficult written characters. The one nice thing about the schedule is the lunch break since we all have the same lunch break and a large chunk of the entire program always heads over to the dining hall together to enter the lunchtime fray of the establishment. Although the noodles at the dining hall are nothing to boast about, the countless rice dishes available makes up for it with so many delicacies represented (nothing earth-shattering though). So all in all, my days have been entirely consumed by Chinese courses and preparation for the aforementioned courses.

Before all this gongshow started this Monday, I definitely had time to have some fun. Last Wednesday, I had a chance to go to one of the many snack streets in Beijing and try some delicacies like yangrouchuan(r) (again), dumplings, and some pork buns. Although this was less of a tourist trap than the other market that JK and I stumbled upon, the foodstuffs were still very bland while the stall-owners all seemed a bit too stiff for the establishment to be entirely “real” or “authentic”. The day ended on a high note as JK, JC, and I all met up at Yuanmingyuan (aka the Old Summer Palace) and just spent the rest of the day exploring the entire park until sundown all the while feeling guilty for the destruction that the “white man” brought upon the entire area as they rampaged and burnt the palace and its surroundings down to the ground. The only section that were still standing were made entirely from rock and stone and even that looked like it went through a rough time. At the center of the northeast section of the palace lies a surprisingly intricate maze surrounding a beautiful edifice. This Alice in Wonderland section of the park drew large crowds even near sundown since the maze was surprisingly tricky and the edifice in astoundingly good shape for what it has been through (maybe the white man gave up on destroying it after attempting to navigate through the maze?). Reaching the palace’s central lake, we discovered a slightly submerged rock near the bank and immediately set about starting a (probably illegal) trend of taking pictures of ourselves standing/walking/prancing on water. Dinner ended up being at a Japanese restaurant near our apartment in the Wudaokou area that caters to the local nouveau riche and to hipster foreigners studying at the major schools nearby (read: Beijing University or Tsinghua University).

Last Thursday brought another interesting adventure for me as I decided to explore the Beijing Zoo and Aquarium. Upon walking into the zoo, I regretted paying the 40 yuan to enter and therefore support the imprisonment of these animals. The caged animals themselves were not that entertaining since they were mostly trying to sleep through the excruciatingly hot day. Pandas, obviously the main attraction of the Chinese zoo, were a heartbreaking sight since they were all trying to claw their way back into the air-conditioned interior of the building they were housed in or just plain sleeping near an air duct. The most interesting sight though, would be the raccoons on show (no explanation needed here!). The newer Aquarium was another world altogether as the sea animals lived in luxury in a modern establishment in the northeast corner of the zoo. After happening to stumble in on a seal and dolphin show, I decided to stay and was both awed and appalled by the tricks and show. Honestly speaking I was probably struggling with these two emotions the entire zoo trip as the despicable living conditions of the animals starkly were juxtaposed to the grandeur of the zoo arena. The Chinese have found another way to make money off of something unbelievable (innovation part 3) as they now allow people to pay a little fee to be taken up and down the zoo’s meandering water source in a speedboat in an action-movie style with intense turns and high-speed chases. In conclusion: go to the Beijing zoo for the experience of walking around underneath the trees and being creeped out by the appalling conditions the animals live in.

Hotpot. Although I have never had a Chinese version of hotpot before, just the mere thought of the dining experience makes me uncontrollably salivate. I decided that this had to end so JK and I decided to try a hot pot place nearby to where we live called T6. WARNING: DO NOT GO THERE. And here’s why. After looking at the menu, we decided to order the numbingly spicy soup with another bland counterpart, one meat dish, one vegetable dish, and a bowl of rice for each of us. The fuwuyuan (waitress) repeatedly scolded us while telling us that it is not enough for the two of us to just share two dishes. Foolishly believing in her (false) expertise, we decided to order their “house special” of pork with egg (the words “house special” are in quotation marks because it falls short of anything special. ANYTHING). Needless to say we were unable to finish our meal and were also constantly in a passive aggressive fight with another waitress who manned the area we were seated in. Since we both thought the soup was too hot and the boiling bubbles were starting to get dangerous, we turned down the boiling soup but was met with condescending stares from the waitress who repeatedly came back to turn up our soup in spite of our constant objections (seriously, this happened about 5 or 6 times…). Since there was a watermelon, nut, and chips appetizer buffet, we gorged on that and basically filled ourselves with that rather than the subpar ingredients going into our boiling hotpot (under the constant searing stare of the area waitress). At one time, the waitress even just stood there right in front of our table (she was literally leaning on our table) staring down at us eat and shaking her head. Despite the overly hostile waitress and revolting food, we paid for the dinner and scampered out unscathed and secure from the whispers of other hotpot-loving patrons.

More (mis)adventures from last week are to come in a later blog post! For now, it’s study time!

Note: I feel like I am starting to get comfortable living in Beijing since I am hardly ever noticing the little eccentricities anymore. People rolling luggage in the middle of a historical site? Meh. People spitting near me/at me? Meh. Kids dropping down their pants and taking a dump in the middle of the street? Meh. In my mind, the mark of assimilation to a new place is when you’re able to function normally/on autopilot without having to do a double take at each weird/different/new/eccentric sight and I am kind of sad that I have reached that point after only a short while in Beijing. I’m going to make it a point to be more observant of my surroundings from here onwards!

Forbidden City, Jingshan Park, and culture shock

The initial plan for the day was to visit the Chinese National Museum with JK and JC, but since the plans fell through, I set off to explore Beijing again as a lone warrior after a tasty (albeit sweet) Korean BBQ lunch with JK. The lunch special at this particular place indicates that after ordering two servings of meat, the table will be presented with a complimentary noodle hotpot. Not knowing our limits, JK and I set out to order the two servings of meat and ended up with an excessive amount of food sprawled over the table. Interestingly enough, the fuwuyuan (waitress) cooked all our BBQ for us right at our table (includes grilling, cutting, and plating) under our salivating mouths. Honestly the condiments (mashed potatoes, jap chae, kimchi soup, mungbean kimchi, steamed egg, and beet soup) were less than par, but the ribs we had were succulent and just chewy enough to make it an enjoyable dining experience.

I arrived at the Forbidden City only to discover that the ticket booth had “Palace Museum” written all over it. To my surprise, the government here has chosen to name this particular locale the Palace Museum despite its lack of resemblance to one. I bought my ticket and prepared for all the glory that waits behind the southern gate, but discovered, to my own astonishment, the lackluster spread before my eyes. Although beautiful in its architecture and exterior renovation, the Forbidden City does not quite live up to its name when it comes to renovation of interior areas since many of its cavernous rooms have been left to mold and rot. The entire establishment, similarly to much of Beijing, has morphed into a commercialized plane selling standard kitschy souvenir comparable to those found at other famous locations. Despite all this, the traveler’s worry is quelled by the structure’s magnificent courtyards and pavilions where people of all ages have come to hide away from the glaring sun. As I weaved through the different sections of the Forbidden City, I suddenly stumbled upon a crotch-less pants kid quickly urinating in the middle of the walkway. His mother, seemingly without a care in the world, has lifted the kid’s legs up so that the hole in his pants is enlarged and he can freely urinate to his liking. Talk about Culture Shock!

After drinking in the many sections of the Forbidden City, I left straight out its Northern gate and crossed the street to Jingshan park, famous for its mountain-like dirt mound created from the dirt lifted out to make the Palace Moat. The serenity offered by the park drastically contrasts to the hustle and bustle within the Forbidden City that sits just across the street. Clambering up to the top of the dirt mound (for some reason I’m making this sound small, but really, as pictures will show, it definitely is not), I was able to get a panoramic view of Beijing. Well, a panoramic view of (tiny) parts of Beijing anyway that the smog lets me see through to. Welcome to Beijing (haha). I took a long rest at the pavilion atop the mound (it helps that it was very windy up there), read up on the different descriptions of the park, and looked down to the Beijing that is today. Despite the beautiful misty haze that can be observed in my pictures, the reality is more stark as the smog has formed an unrelenting cloud around Beijing, shielding its residents from sunshine and clear blue skies (seriously, I physically cannot see the sun). After drinking in the smogery (smog + scenery), I leisurely walked down the never-ending steps and meandered around the park, discovering to my excitement, a little book of Mao Zedong’s quotations which I quickly purchased. Claiming one of the many benches strewn around the tree-lined park, I sat and read while time slowed down almost to a stop underneath the cover of the trees.

Side note from today: Today was the first day I actually felt like I was drowning in my own sweat. The unforgiving Beijing weather ranges from scalding hot to cloudy and humid to muggy and rainy in an instant. All this under the cloud cover of the infamous Beijing smog, mind you.

Walking out of the park towards Tiananmen, I peeked into many of the hutongs (alleyways) lining the street and got a glimpse of the old Beijing lifestyle still encompassing (according to Lonely Planet) about 20% of the city. When I reached Tiananmen, I heard a loud whistle and saw three PLA guards marching by (to the tune of, I shit you not, 108 paces per minute) so I obviously took to their heels and stalked them all the way to the flag in Tianamen Square. Turns out that I came just in time for the guard-switching process that draws a large crowd every day. I decided to stick it out until the flag-lowering ceremony at 7pm, hunkered down in the square, and just people-watched (I creeped especially hardcore on the really cute Asian babies stumbling around the square with their parents in tow). 10 minutes into my wait, I spotted a crotch-less pants kid stumbling by. 20 minutes into my wait, a woman literally a meter in front of me sat down and whipped out her breast for her hungry child. 30 minutes into my wait, a child five meters or so away from me squatted down for some good ol’ public urination. Good times.

The crowd stirred at 7pm when lesser guards came out to secure the perimeter, but nothing exciting happened until almost 8pm when traffic was halted to allow PLA guards, marching out from underneath Mao’s picture on Tiananmen, to cross the street to the flagpole. The guards lowered the flag and marched back across the street and into Tiananmen again as the night was welcomed with the illumination of the Gate and the Square.

Side note: How Beijingers know I’m a waiguoren part 2: I was not able to procure an umbrella or rain coat from the depths of my purse when it started raining today and had to suffer through walking in the rain (blasphemous!!!). Honestly, I probably got exposed to weak amounts of acid rain and should get myself checked out ASAP.

Getting home again did not mark the end to my night, but rather the start of another adventure as JK and I planned to meet up with other IUPers at a bar nearby (5-minute walk) called Lush. The second-floor bar was modern in its interior design, but still afforded an old-Beijing atmosphere in its wooden tables and chairs. The intimate atmosphere (and the Tsingdao beers we were able to procure for 10 yuan/bottle before Happy Hour ended) allowed the 9 of us, all crowded around a small table, to break the ice late into the night.

Edit: For some odd reason, it’s really not weird to go around Beijing lugging around a suitcase behind you. I see this sight everywhere (and I mean everywhere) I go (picture of this to come)

Orientation, bicycles, and smog

I don’t know why jetlag is still cramping my style but I woke up at 5:30am today and couldn’t go back to sleep. After twisting and turning for half an hour, I gave up and decided to finally start the day. Today is the day! I started off the day with another dose of jianbing (yes, the stuff is slowly immersing my whole being). Every time I purchase myself some street vendor food, I hope that none of China’s ditch oil (地沟油) craze (and apparently increasingly large industry: http://globalvoicesonline.org/2010/11/28/china-ditch-oil-floods-restaurants/) will keep its grimy hands off of the foods I pick to eat (shout out to Howard for giving me a heads up on this notorious phenomena). Yes, this is actually pretty innovative since, well, who woulda thunk, but after looking at the pictures from this website (http://chinadigitaltimes.net/space/Ditch_oil be sure to click on the “English” link to scan through some pretty gruesome pictures of what goes on behind the scenes), I can’t help but think to myself: why do I even eat when I’m here?

Since we never did a test-run of the distance from our apartment to the IUP building on the Tsinghua campus, JK and I crossed the busy streets (read: almost died twice) and briskly walked towards the South Gate. Upon stepping through the grand stone South Gate, we were transported into a different world away from the concrete jungle of the Wudaokou area that we have been accustomed to traversing. Great trees lined the pedestrian walkways while the greenery encircling me made me do double takes. But wait, when I say pedestrian walkways I actually mean those sidewalk paths that bikers have quickly and hungrily claimed. When people say “everyone bikes in Beijing”, they mean just that: hordes and hordes of bikers traverse the city streets and not a minute, nay, second goes by without the spotting of the un-helmeted bicycling Chinaman. Similarly to how the Chinese roadside spitters probably believe they own the road they spit on, the typical Chinaman knows that when he is on his bike, he is invincible. No matter the helmets (why would I fall?). No matter the cars (I’ll swiftly pedal around them). No matter the people (expendable since there’s at least a billion more).

Here is my take on the order of importance when traveling through the streets of Beijing (think of this as a food chain): cars, bicycles, electric bicycles, trash, questionable dead animal, mops, and then… people. At U.Va, when you begin to even think about crossing the street, you are already met by a long line of cars that have stopped in preparation for your arrival at the street (not even the crosswalk mind you, just any random section of the street). Oh and don’t forget the other side of incoming traffic that has also stopped for about 5 minutes now because they saw you teetering close to the road. However, here in Beijing, pedestrians fend for themselves on the streets. I’ve never been to the south side of anything, but this is probably pretty close to what it’s like – scrounging up the courage to make a run for it. My second-best comparison is probably to those clever little Hobbits in Lord of the Rings who always manage to escape from the line of fire (except Frodo, of course, who always needs Sam to hold his hand and pick up his slack).

But I digress. Although the buildings hover on the older side of the scale (renovation does not seem to be high on the list since the smog will instantaneously eat at it anyway), the Tsinghua campus is beautiful in its tree-lined glory. The IUP building is pretty centrally located and was not too difficult to find. At seven floors, it seems to be the tallest building in this particular section of campus. The rundown exterior and the dusty signage leaves one cringing at the possibility of taking classes within the building. Since the building does not contain an elevator, walking the seven flights of stairs up to the IUP section of the building can break hearts force out tears. But then again, I’m thankful for the exercise merely being in Beijing is providing to me *Eye of the Tiger plays in background while Nalin dreams of calves of steel*.

The 40 or so students gathered within the big conference room for an orientation session (this is where all the Chinese begins – everything from here on out was in Chinese) where we were introduced to all the important administrative staff, curriculum, textbooks, program schedule, and the dangers of Beijing. Yes, we were actually spoon-fed horror stories of foreigners in the IUP program from the student who was in a coma for 2 or 3 months because s/he didn’t look all ways before crossing the street and got hit by a bicycle to the student who fell to his/her death after some drunken missteps on the second floor of some bar. Immediately proceeding after the orientation was the two-hour written and listening exam which consisted of questions which ranged from the easiest matters to the most incomprehensible. The IUP pizza lunch brought upon us even greater levels of confusion as the program happily served us Chinese versions of the Italian pizza from a rip-off store named Mr. Pizza. Although some of the pizza toppings can be found on any “normal” pizza as seen in the U.S. or Italy, the creativity found within each pie is definitely only afforded within the Middle Kingdom, especially that one pizza with a large slice of potato as the main topping. Despite its eccentricity, the teachers and students all collectively helped devour most of the lunch before heading off to continue the day.

We all just spent the rest of the day chit-chatting and getting to know one another. The people who I have met in the program are actually all from very interesting backgrounds and have such wide-ranging interests – it’s going to be great getting to know them all bit by bit! The other highlight of the day was definitely the campus tour that culminated in an IUP welcome dinner complete with round tables, refillable tea, and dishes upon dishes of food. Since it really was not that great of a meal, the food was easily eclipsed by all the get-to-know-you conversations and my enlightenment of Pleco, a portable Chinese-learning app that alone has me yearning to switch over to a Mac.

The walk back to the apartment at around 8pm after the long and exhausting Chinese-filled day was the first time the Beijing smog and I actually shook hands (and then it proceeded to kick my lungs into a million pieces). Despite its dangerous nature, the smog actually added a stunning misty and foggy glow to the Tsinghua campus as we strolled through the tunneling trees. I’m almost ashamed to say that I actually enjoyed that beauty and sense of calm that the smog brought upon the end of the day. But then again, the unknowingly beautiful smog is one of the many Kontradictions (shout out to Chinese writer 茅盾 for his clever wordplay/characterplay) that makes Beijing a very unique city.

Tourist Traps, Beijing Kaoya, and a New Apartment!

Note: Long day = long entry. You have been forewarned!

Finally met my future roommate, JK, last night who got in late Friday night from California. We chit-chatted a bit over his chao mian(r) dinner and tried looking up more apartments on websites like the Beijinger, Wo Ai Wo Jia, and Homelink. Thankfully he is VERY fluent and was able to talk to the agents on the phone and even set up some appointments for us for the next day.

The day started off bright and early again with me trying to catch up with the on-goings of the Euro 2012 soccer tournament. I managed to watch about 40 minutes of the previous night’s match between France and Ukraine (France won 2-0 by the way) but was left craving for more.

Taking full advantage of the easily accessible jianbing outside of the hotel, I happily munched away my breakfast while we called up more agents to set up appointments. Interestingly, one of the agents we went with took us to two of the same apartments I saw yesterday with another agent. This system is clearly very different from that in the U.S. since many agents are in charge of any one unit and they might cross paths some time. Little did I know, this particular incidence of re-seeing an apartment with a different agent will come back and bite me in the butt later that same day. Since we both really liked one of the apartments we saw (the same one I liked yesterday), we quickly signed with the agent that took us around today and happily handed over our security deposit and was told that we could move in at 8pm that same day after the current residents move out.

With that being said and done, we traversed the busy streets to the nearest shopping center called U-Center, which is about 5 minutes away on foot. After a few laps around the restaurant-packed 5th floor, we decided on a place where the mixture of food was to be served in a large wok in the middle of the table while everyone is handed their rice and chopsticks. As we waited for our food to arrive (a mixture of pork, mushrooms, and cabbage in a relatively hot sauce) and drooled over the possibility of scrumptious food, JK and I built up the meal in our minds only to be let down by something that was positively lacking. The large red peppers that inundated the dish did nothing but add color while the entire mixture left a lot to be desired in all flavor categories. Although we had to fork out a total of 75 yuan for the entire meal, the lunch turned out to be a small victory after all since I ran into an old friend from Thailand, AH, who is also in Beijing for two months with another language program and made promises to meet up.

Since we made plans to meet up with another friend, JC, for dinner at a Beijing roast duck restaurant, we did not have enough time to do anything real (like go to the National museum like we initially planned) and just ended up taking the subway to the Wangfujing street where a lot of the shopping and fooding occurs. I was extremely hyped for the food street since JK showered me with promises of authentic Beijing street food. We were promptly lulled to the food street by the delectable smells and were surprised to discover a street with matching-uniformed stall owners selling novelty items such as starfish, sea urchins, snakes, scorpions, and more. Although we were absolutely confused about the commercialization and uniformity of everything, we went with the flow and immersed ourselves into the fray only to discover much later in the night (after we already bought and ate a 15 yuan stick of disgustingly-flavored squid) from the Lonely Planet guidebook that the particular strip of land is a well-oiled tourist trap of overpriced novelty food items. The one “good” thing that came from this trip to Wangfujing street, though, is that I have decided to try dog meat if I ever do come across it. Obviously will feel immensely guilty with every single bite, but hey, when in Rome…

JK, JC, and I met up at Beijing Dadong Kaoyadian (北京大董烤鸭店) and were completely thrown back by the posh-ness of the entire establishment. Stepping into the restaurant, our shorts and t-shirts were quickly thrown into shame by the accessories and fashionable items hanging off other local bodies and the intricate and modern designs lining the walls of the restaurant. Luckily for us, the kaoya we were there for was relatively cheap despite its fancy backdrop. Rows and rows of uncooked duck lined the open kitchen of the first floor while fires raged in open ovens to cook the ducks to perfect crispiness. We were led up the stairs through the large maze of the establishment to be seated in another cavernous room with modern décor filled with lines of tables as far as the eye can see. We could barely contain our excitement as we saw that chefs would bring up a whole fully-cooked duck to each table and carve the skin right there in front of you. When we came to our turn, our cameras were at the ready and our chef quickly morphed into an A-class celebrity as he expertly skinned and dismembered the duck. Probably sensing our sheer incompetence (was it our clothes? Was it the camera? We’ll never know), our waitress promptly came up to our table after the duck was carved to physically show us how to correctly eat the kaoya (read: less hands, more chopsticks – this soon became troublesome for JC who resorted to full-on grabbing later into the meal). She showed us everything from what condiments to put to how to correctly wrap the duck in the wrapping paper. The duck was delicious to say the least. The sauce, duck, wrap, cucumber, all melted together to form a delectable meal bite after bite after bite. And for 10 bonus points, the skin basically did not even have a layer of fat sticking to it! Although it cost us only 238 yuan for the entire duck, the meal came complete with duck soup, raspberry sorbet and lychee fruits at the end of our meal. It should be noted that our cheap selves refused to pay the 60 yuan ($10) for Evian water and landed ourselves the cheaper alternative of juice for around 16 yuan.

The problem with this apartment leasing process is that the apartment was shown to me twice by two different agents. Oblivious of industry standards, I signed for the apartment with the second agent and was met with angered cries from the first agent. While on the phone with Beijingbuddy agents (www.Beijingbuddy.com; a program of volunteers that helps foreigners like myself find accommodation when traveling to Beijing) who were helping me resolve the problem, I was inundated with horror stories of evil agents trying to get back at their residents for something or another (ex: super-gluing the front door so that you cannot leave, picking up and leaving with the apartment deposit) and the realization that local police tend to side with agents and landlords when disputes ensue. Thankfully the agents from Beijingbuddy was able to help me settle this matter in a timely manner after some heated back and forth between the two agents and a highly mellowed landlady who just kept smiling and saying that she is very easy-going and can settle with whichever conclusion we arrive at (probably because she is nabbing 19000 yuan in rent from us nonetheless). After the case was settled, we paid our full two months worth of rent, electricity, internet, gas, TV fee, and managed to move into our 7th floor apartment in building 10 of the Huaqingjiayuan complex by 9:30pm. Yay new apartment!

An important side note for those who are looking for apartments in China: industry standards here rule that the first agent to show you a property should receive the commission. SIGN FOR THE APARTMENT WITH THE FIRST AGENT WHO SHOWED IT TO YOU OR ELSE SHIT CAN HIT THE FAN.

Note: JK figured out that it would actually be cheaper to stay the whole two months in the hotel that was booked for us by the school than to rent out an apartment. Damn.

Note 2: I put off writing this post for so long because I dreaded putting into words the drama that ensued with the two agents but it turned out to be much easier than I initially imagined. But then again, what I wrote up just now doesn’t even begin to cover the stress weighing down on me when the drama was in full-swing.

Although we were lucky enough to have spoken to the previous residents of the place who left us with kitchenware and lots of pillows so we did not actually have to start from scratch, we soon discovered that we needed to go shopping for things such as sheets, blankets, pillowcases, etc. On the way to Lotus supermarket (a 5-minute walk from our apartment – we nabbed a pretty centrally located place), I caught a whiff of something that was positively atrocious which forced all my cognitive resources into overdrive to prevent myself from doubling over and heaving. For those of you who have braved the sewage smells of Bangkok, Thailand (or anywhere else in the world for that matter actually), multiply that by 15 and then take that to the power of three. My handy-dandy Mandarin/Chinese-culture savvy friend JK, puzzled by my strong reaction to the smell happily informed me of the tastiness that choudoufu offers, despite its pungency. So THAT’S what the smell is. I was always told that choudoufu smells exactly like what its name implies (chou = stinky), but was absolutely unprepared for the overpowering smell that completely overwhelmed me in the 7 seconds it took to walk past the food stall. Needless to say, it’s going to be an interesting meal when I do actually try it.

Since we missed Lotus supermarket’s 10pm closing time by thirty minutes, we laughed to ourselves and accepted the unavoidable fate of starting off our first night in our apartment with none of the bedding we actually need to be comfortable. Deciding to make the best of our time wandering the streets and knowing that our water supply was running low, we asked the security guard of the main Huaqingjiayuan compound whether we could go inside to access the convenience store (entries into and exits out from the compound are only allowed with a specific access card which we were not provided with since we are in the building right next to the compound although we are technically under the same apartment complex). The main guard on duty yelled something at us in Chinese while another guard quickly walked over to swipe us into the compound. We are scheming up ways to cozy up to the guards so that they will be able to let us into the compound without further trouble (i.e. oh we had some leftover beer, do you want some?). Filled with an intermix of local residents, local students, and foreign students, the compound makes an interesting sight day and night ranging from an overwhelming amount of signs in Korean, kids playing in the centralized playground, daily activities for residents (chess, aerobics, etc.), and night runners. Although we wanted to purchase a large jug of water to fit into our water dispenser (no more drinking of tap water like in the U.S.), we were unable to locate a store with it in stock and settled upon a 4 or 5 liter jug that would definitely last us camels the night. In his lackadaisical attempt at befriending the guards, JK gracefully ended our night at the compound with a smile to the guards as we exited, but was unfortunately overlooked as they were all laughing away at a joke we didn’t hear.

Since my dad ended his last e-mail to me saying that the peaches in China is sweeter and smells better than peaches in the U.S., I forked out 13 yuan for a large peach in the mini-store right in front of our apartment building while JK bought an orange and peach for himself.

Although the landlady did not have the password for our internet connection, we tried calling one of the previous residents for the password and were happily connected to the internet in a matter of minutes after the call. As per usual, the internet and our VPNs quickly absorbed us into its intricate web and before we knew it, it was 11pm and we hadn’t even picked our rooms yet. Since we both liked the same room and I wouldn’t have survived the apartment process without JK, I let him pick the room and I ended up with the less-wanted larger room with the balcony (which, unbeknownst to me at the time, equated to bugs crawling around on me and flying around above me at night as I try to fall asleep). After pillaging through the different cabinets and drawers in the room, I actually found pillowcases a bed sheet so I guess it was pretty lucky that Lotus was closed! Snuggling down into bed after a quick shower (sans towel – my t-shirt proved to be pretty futile in its attempt at pretending to be a towel), I instantly drifted off into a dreamless sleep.

Re-Living the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Jetlag does no one any good. I went to sleep at 8pm and woke up at 4am. Thankfully, after twisting and turning for only about half an hour, I was able to force myself back to sleep until 8am. Used the hotel internet (which is only available in the lobby) and finally figured out UVa’s VPN so that I am now able to use Facebook (and other sites blocked by the Chinese government) as much as I want! Yay! Saw a Chinese man making jianbing outside the hotel so I quickly ran up to him to order one. One thing though, is that I am definitely not yet (and probably will never be) used to the Chinese way of doing things. Instead of lining up in a fashionable way, everyone pushes to the front, shouts out what they want, and thrusts money into the face of the recipient in hopes that they will beat out the other contestants for the product. Needless to say, the shy person that I am did not stand a chance in the fray. I patiently waited until a brusque elderly woman and 4 weighty men shoved by me and got their food before I was able to meekly place my order and ask for, to his surprise, extra la (spicy). The jianbing’s deliciousness makes up for the mini-loss that I suffered this morning.

Man making jianbing in front of the hotel

So for this program, we’re supposed to find housing by ourselves. Thankfully I was able to nab someone else who is in this program and we’re setting out to apartment-hunt together. I started the hunt today and was surprised by the price of the apartments I was introduced to. A two-bedroom apartment in the Wudaokou area around the major universities runs from 8000 yuan/month and up (divide that up by 6 and you get the price in US$). I guess I shouldn’t be surprised considering the fact that they are all pretty nicely furnished. Luckily the last apartment I saw belongs to two girls from England who has been here for a year on a Beijing University program and will be moving back tomorrow so I managed to nab some things from them like pillows and kitchenware. This means fewer things for my roommate and me to scrounge up for our short three month stay here.

The day’s free time was later consumed by my touring of the Olympic Stadium (the Bird’s Nest in layman terms) and the Water Cube. I was quickly hit by the massiveness of the entire Olympic park and then by the relative emptiness of the area. The emptiness that pervades the place lives up to the short spiels about it in guidebooks like Lonely Planet. The colossal Bird’s Nest can be seen for miles and only increases in grandeur when up close and personal with each twisted beam. The amount of stairs one is required to take to get from one floor to the next can de-obesify even the heaviest set person (and we all wonder why the Chinese are so skinny). Sitting in one of the 91,000 number of chairs, it isn’t difficult to envision the majesty of the opening ceremony that allowed China to flaunt its powers to the world during the 2008 Olympics (read: how the world can literally be trampled by the billion or so Chinese people alive). Hidden away in a corner on the second floor of the Bird’s Nest are paraphernalia from the 2008 Olympics like the drums from the opening ceremony and a mini-exhibit of the movement of the Olympic torch. The most gruesome part of the visit to the Bird’s Nest was not the never-ending staircases, but the segway park that has dominated the main stadium area. Instead being able to envision runners cross that finish line, I was daunted with high-spending Chinese people segwaying themselves around the Olympic track. Despite the segways milling about, I definitely took some time to drink in all the majesty of the Olympic stadium and the amazing structure and construction.

The Water Cube is another story altogether. My naïve self entered the cube expecting to see the original pool where Michael Phelps won his 8 gold medals but was welcomed by empty pools and construction workers who seem to be ripping the place apart. One section of the Water Cube has actually already been turned into a water park complete with multiple slides and play areas. The large-screen TV overlooking the water park blaring last night’s Euro 2012 match pushes this particular water park over the top. It is a wonder how long it will take before the whole entire cube will be transformed into the best summer hang-out ever. The warm-up pool has been overtaken by swarms of swim classes hoping to churn out the next Chinese Michael Phelps. There is a long leg of the entire cube that has been consumed by the commercialization of the 2008 Olympics; probably hoping people will want to relive the good-old-days by buying an old shirt or an ugly mascot doll. Speaking of mascots, I’m not sure whether the Beijing 2008 mascots or the Cyclops mascots of the London 2012 Olympics wins the butt-ugly prize. I’d have to say that the Beijing mascots look normal when compared to the London Cyclops.

EDIT/ADDITION: So the interesting thing I noticed about the two different major Olympic complexes is that in the Bird’s Nest, everything is written out in Chinese and English while in the Water Cube everything is in Chinese, English, AND French. 为什么?Why? Pourquoi? Also, when visiting these “modern” complexes, still prepare for finding a domination of squat toilets as 95% of every bathroom decked out with a squat toilet. Sitting toilets, shunned to the far and dark back corner of the bathrooms, also lack toilet paper so make sure to keep lots in handy. I never (ever) liked the squat toilets back in Thailand where I grew up so I will go out of my way to not go native here either.