CIEE Week 8: Sichuan Province

This week, about a 1/3 of my classmates and I embarked on a tour of Sichuan province. The trip got off to a rocky start when security confiscated my portable charger because it was so old none of the details were legible. Thankfully I have wonderful friends who let me borrow theirs to keep my poor old iPhone 5 alive enough to snag a few pics of the trip.
We arrived in Chengdu Monday afternoon and promptly hopped on a bus with our Australian tour guide to the Wolong Panda Research Center. Up in the mountains, the area was beautiful and the cool free air was a welcome respite from the ever present layer of smog in the big cities. That night, our bus driver taught us how to play MahJong, a traditional Chinese game that I’m told resembles the card game Gin. Our hotel had these fancy tables that shuffled the tiles for us but mahjong can be played anywhere with a flat surface; you’ll often see groups of elderly men and women gambling and playing ferociously in Chinese parks.  The premise of the game is simple: make three sets of three (either three of a kind or a sequence of the same pattern/suit) and one matching pair. Everyone takes turns drawing tiles but the twist is in the ability to steal the most recently discarded tile if it completes one of your sets. After a few rounds of MahJong we wandered down into the nearby town which consisted of two convenience stores, one hotel/restaurant and a KTV. Naturally, we settled on the KTV (what the Chinese call karaoke). The place had a limited selection of English songs but between some old Tswift and James Blunt, we had a great time. As most of you know, I love karaoke (even went to a Karaoke Bar with my parents for my 21st) so KTV with my new friends helped fill the Wok n Roll shaped hole in my heart.
The next day (Tuesday) was our first full day in Wolong aka PANDA TIME (you better believe this broad from Atlanta was humming Desiigner all day). We spent the day volunteering at the Panda Base. First, we split into groups to clean their enclosures which meant scooping the panda poop. Surprisingly, this wasn’t as gross as it sounds, mostly because panda poop is essentially processed bamboo with occasional bits of carrots. To clean and interact with the pandas, the center made us wear these oversized overalls that had us looking like we came straight from an Industrial Revolution-era factory. Having paid our dues and cleaned all the enclosures in the breeding area, we got to feed the pandas. Watching the pandas eat was lowkey mesmerizing. Some of their mannerisms were so human-like; to get to the bamboo shoots the pandas rip the sheaths off with their teeth. In addition to bamboo, the panda diet consists of carrots, apples and these multigrain based cakes, which we also learned how to make. While we were reminded time and time again throughout the day that pandas are beasts, the babies lazing about in treetops and rolling around in the mud were adorable, and it was so cool to see them up close.
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Sleepy panda does a yawn

According to our trip itinerary, the next morning in WoLong was reserved for a hike in the nearby mountains. Having climbed TaiShan, I was anticipating quite the trek but it turned out to be a rather chill stroll along very muddy paths. While the weather was brisk, the scenery was beautiful and we made some goat friends, I realized I prefer hikes with a goal or a destination rather than what was essentially just an hour walk. Following our hike, we piled back in our trusty Yak Tourist bus and headed to our next destination, the “old town” of ShangLi. What was supposed to be a straightforward three hour bus ride turned into quite the adventure. First, on the road to ShangLi we were informed that a mudslide the night before had caused a buildup of debris, so we received a police escort to guide us through. At one point, we were all asked to empty the bus and walk along the road; to be honest, it was nice to stretch our legs and get a break from the stuffy bus while admiring the pretty awe-inspiring valley we’d stumbled upon.
Once we’d crossed the mudslide and made it to ShangLi, we were informed that the military had recently set up a base nearby and as such, no foreigners were allowed to stay in the town. Undaunted but momentarily without a place to sleep for the night, we forged on to explore ShangLi while we could. The town was relatively small and touristy but provides us with the opportunity to have our first “authentic” Sichuanese meal. For dinner, I enjoyed Ma Po Tofu, a classic, and fried sesame balls for dessert. 10/10 would recommend.
We still had a lot of time after dinner as we waited for our teachers to inform us where we’d be spending the night, so we joined a circle of dancing locals, much to their amusement. Once the sun had set, we made it back to the bus with a new hotel in Ya’an as our destination. But as luck would have it, the local authorities decided nighttime was the perfect time to start construction to clear the debris from the mudslide, causing a long winding line of cars at a stand still on the side of a mountain. While we waited for over an hour, a few of my friends and I played music from a portable speaker to pass the time. Finally, we reached our hotel near midnight. My roommate for the trip, Cat, and I fell asleep to a CCTV broadcast on human rights abuses in a Louisiana prison. Just state-run media things!
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Picking tea — peep the fashionable waist basket

The next morning, refreshed from a good night’s sleep and ready to leave ShangLi in our wake, we drove up into the mountains once more. MengDing Mountain is home to the oldest tea factory in the region. Armed with wicker baskets, we were sent into the never ending rows of bushes down in the valley to pick green tea leaves. Once we had amassed a collective basket worth of leaves amongst the 30 of us students, we trudged back up the mountain to prepare the tea for consumption. Unlike black tea, green tea is not fermented. Instead, the fresh leaves are dried in a large wok. Our tea master kneaded the leaves with his bare hands in the wok three time, with the heat increasing each time. The fresh tea was very soothing; prior to coming to China, I wasn’t a huge fan of green tea and preferred to stick to black or masala tea. However, Chinese green tea is fairly tasty and is supposed to be very good for one’s complexion and digestion, as a bonus.

From MengDing we headed to our final city, Chengdu. Somehow, our itinerary only allowed for one night in the city, so I was determined to fit in as much sightseeing as possible. Upon learning we’d have a few hours of free time in Chengdu, I had done a bit of online digging to find out what was worth visiting. The internet suggested the combo of WuHou Temple and JinLi street, a suggestion our teachers had also partially echoed, so there we went. The temple was surprisingly large and peaceful, with beautiful little gardens and imposing statues. The temple backed into JinLi street, where vestiges of the old Chengdu remained.
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My friends and I at WuHou Temple

Before arriving, my main goal for the trip was to try authentic hot pot in the region where it originated. Luckily, one of my friends was equally inclined which is how we ended up at a hot pot restaurant in Chengdu ordering the spiciest broth and asking them to add chilies to it. For those of you who’ve never had it, hot pot is essentially the Chinese version of fondue, where you choose a base and then order a combination of vegetables / meat to dip and cook in the broth. What I realized is that the unique thing about Sichuan spice is it’s more mouth numbing than what you’d typically characterize as spicy. It was quite the experience and to be honest, I’d happily do it again.
As we were waiting to clear security at the airport the next day, several of my friends remarked that were excited to get back to Shanghai and that they couldn’t wait to go home. It was the first time I remember hearing anyone on my program refer to Shanghai as home and it really made my heart swell.
On Saturday, I celebrated the latter half of Georgetown day with Will, the other Georgetown student still in Shanghai. We wandered through the park behind campus, which was a lot bigger than I had imagined. The park was full of little Chinese kids checking out the aquarium, a large chorus rehearsal and several groups of elderly adults practicing Tai Chi; to my sorrow, no mahjong tournaments were underway. After a quick hot pot brunch #SorryNotSorry, my friend Will and I checked out QiBao, an ancient town located conveniently just a few stops away from campus on the Shanghai metro.
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QiBao’s iconic bridge

Being back in Shanghai feels right, and settling back into the comfortable routines and walking patterns was much needed. I shocked myself by how much I missed it even after just a week away.
image1(1)I’m excited to spend the rest of my long weekend for International Labor Day exploring parts of the city I have yet to see; I started with a Sunday afternoon trip to the Starbucks Reserve Roastery downtown. In my Business Chinese class, we have been learning about how Starbucks has developed a new culture in China, so it was neat to see that in action at the two-story behemoth of a building that was jam packed with locals and tourists alike. In addition to the classic coffee drinks for which it’s known, this Starbucks also has a full bakery selling fresh bread, a cold brew bar, a Teavana station and an actual bar serving cocktails, beer and wine. Unlike your average Starbucks, this one roasts its own China-grown coffee beans and sells t-shirts, several coffee related products, water bottles, bags etc. Even as someone who isn’t a dedicated Starbucks consumer, it was still really cool to experience. Despite some recent issues, you’ve got to hand it to Starbucks for the ambiance they create in every store; it’s what my teacher swears enticed the Chinese market, and by the size of the crowds lining up to spend an afternoon eating drinking and soaking in the Starbucks experience, I’d say he’s probably right.
On Sunday, I also had the opportunity to grab a home cooked Indian meal with some friends of a family friend who have been in Shanghai for over 10 years. While the food itself was beyond nice, it was especially interesting to hear about their experiences living in Shanghai. As someone who keeps saying I don’t think I could live here because I’d constantly stick out, it was reassuring to hear that even if the feeling of being an outsider never fully goes away, it is possible for someone who looks like me to create a life for themselves in this city.
The prospect of returning to Shanghai for a longer period of time gets more and more appealing, especially as my remaining time here begins quickly slipping away. Somehow, I’ve got only a month and half left! Brb while I slurp up all the hot pot I can before I leave.
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CIEE Week 6: Shanghai

As much fun as it was exploring a new region of China last week, it feels good to be back in Shanghai. Getting out of the cab outside the school gates and hearing the familiar jingle of the on-campus grocery store as we walked by, I felt a sense of home coming, like I do every time I get back to Georgetown after a break.

 

Unfortunately, getting back from a break also means returning to the reality of school. This week, we had class on Friday to make up for what we missed on Tomb-Sweeping day. What with all the traveling and the full five day week, not to mention the start of midterms, I was feeling pretty tired by the time Friday rolled around. But, after Chinese class, I rallied to do some sightseeing and explore some of the areas of Shanghai I had yet to see, starting with the Propaganda Poster Art museum.

Located in the basement of an apartment complex, this tiny private museum houses several Chinese propaganda posters from different pivotal moments in the country’s history. Unlike the propaganda I’ve seen in train stations and on billboards since I’ve gotten here, these posters are less about touting Chinese values or encouraging certain types of behavior but more political and reflective of the tense relations China has had during periods of conflict with other nations, especially the U.S. Several of the posters depicted the U.S. as barbaric, old, greedy men; it was fascinating to see America and certain key moments in history from a Chinese perspective.
After the propaganda museum, I had wanted to check out one of the modern art museums but a spontaneous downpour had other plans. Caught umbrella-less downtown, my friends and I headed to an underground area called Found 158 near the expat neighborhood, which was full of multicultural restaurants, including the best pizza I’ve had in China so far.
One of the interesting aspects of being in China is how my craving for certain foods has changed. On Thursday, the weather got cold and gray out of the blue, and all I wanted to eat was hot pot, which I had only had maybe once before in my life prior to coming here. I’ve now made it my mission to identify good hot pot places in D.C./Georgetown, so if anyone has any suggestions, let me know! Additionally, earlier this week, I took my roommate to an Indian restaurant because she had never had Indian food and because I wanted a change of pace from my steady diet of dumplings and noodles. I never thought I’d reach a point in my life where I wasn’t in the mood for noodles but somehow, there we were.
My feelings about food aside, this was a fairly normal week. As is often the case, I feel like I’ve settled into a comfortable routine just in time for the full brunt of midterms to shake everything up starting this Monday.
In honor of all the plans I had this week that didn’t pan out and the great time I had regardless, the song of the week is You Can’t Always Get What You Want, as a personal reminder that sometimes, the best days and the best moments are unplanned, like stumbling upon an I <3️ Shanghai sign after walking for an hour to find a specific restaurant.
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While photographically it’s hard to be sure, even when it rains or I have midterms, I really do love Shanghai! 

CIEE Week 5: Tomb Sweeping Extravaganza

Ni howdy,
I am fresh off of an extra long weekend, courtesy of Tomb-Sweeping day, a national holiday during which Chinese families go home to visit and clean the tombs of their ancestors. Seeing as I have no ancestors in China to pay respects to, I decided to use the five day weekend as a chance to do a little exploring around China.
Despite a solid two hours of sleep on Thursday morning, my friends and I somehow managed to make our 7 A.M. train to Qingdao for the start of our adventure in Shandong province. Fun fact: Shandong is often considered the birthplace of dumplings (饺子 or 水饺 for those in the know), which totally definitely didn’t factor into our decision making when selecting our trip destinations.
Upon arrival in Qingdao, we trekked across the city for a few hours, ending up at the large pink balls which house the observatory tower with a rotating view of the whole city. From above, Qingdao looks almost more European than Chinese,  with the red tile roofs that remain a subtle reminder of the city’s former German occupants.
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A view of Qingdao from above

 
 Walking around Qingdao worked up quite an appetite so we ducked into the first restaurant we saw with a sign proclaiming they sold dumplings. While at first we thought it was actually someone’s house it turned out to be a delicious restaurant that served classic homemade steamed dumplings and a variety of fresh seafood (a plus for the rest of my non-vegetarian traveling companions). The next morning, we toured the Tsingtao museum/brewery to learn about one of the most popular beers in China and spent the rest of the day wandering downtown and eating as many dumplings as we possibly could before heading to our next destination.
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The city of Tai’an in the distance as seen from the climb up

We arrived in Tai’an around 10 pm at night, only to find out that the hostel we booked online had apparently been closed for two years. After a slight moment of a panic in which our cab driver circled aimlessly, probably vowing to never pick up Americans ever again, we hit up the closest hotels in the area. The first one we visited was already full but the second had space, so we booked one room

for all six of us. Six college students in one hotel room is not the easiest fit but we managed, going to sleep almost immediately after checking in. Originally, our plan had been to climb the nearby mountain, Mount Tai or Tai Shān, at night to see the sunrise from the summit, but following our chaotic arrival to the city, we pushed back our start time in favor of some sleep. In hindsight, best decision we could have made.
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One of the temples along the mountain

Even during the day, the climb was fairly strenuous, taking us about five hours to surmount the several flights of near-vertical stairs and reach the summit. However, after the amount of food I consumed in Qingdao, it felt great to get some exercise. Luckily, the weather was beautiful, and the view from the top was definitely worth it; I can totally see why it’s a UNESCO world heritage site.
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Small Tara, Big Mountain

By the time we reached the end of the hike, my friends and I were blasting pump-up music and singing, much to the shock of the locals climbing alongside us, who were primarily surprised to see foreigners had made it so far up the mountain. Because our feet were slightly sore/jelly-adjacent after the ascent, we took the overpriced cable car down and grabbed a quick bite to eat before jumping on a train to our next destination — Qufu.
Qufu is known for being the home town of Confucius, so tourism oriented around him seems to be the main focus of what is otherwise a  sleepy, fairly small town. For example, my travel buddies and I think our hostel, located a mere five minutes from the city’s main tourist attraction, was no more than an addition to a family’s house; the bedroom for the son of the owners was across the hall from my friend’s room and the whole place was locked when the family went to sleep until 6 A.M.  My friends and I were definitely a rare sight for most of the locals; the owner of the noodle place we hit for lunch even filmed us exclaiming positively about his food so keep your eyes peeled for my breakout acting role, coming soon to a WeChat near you. Additionally, I am pretty sure I was the first person of color most of the city’s residents had ever seen, as evidenced by another restaurant owner who told me I didn’t look like I was from America as well as the middle-aged woman who reached out and wiped at my skin in shock as we passed each other entering the temple.
The Confucius temple in Qufu is known as one of three great ancient building complexes, and while most of it has been restored, some of the original temple structure remains.  In addition to the temple, we saw Confucius’s former residence and his tomb. The park surrounding the tomb was lush, with small purple flowers in full bloom. It was nice to have a moment to just meander and enjoy the beautiful warm weather after the other jam packed days. Once we were done, we called the tour bus to take us to the train station; for just a few extra kuai, we ended up with the entire bus to ourselves, which was pretty neat.
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The whole travel crew at the Tomb of Confucius)

While we saved money on transportation in some cities, like Qufu, young dumb and broke is probably one of the best ways to sum up this trip. Despite the low prices for food and drinks in China, the relative lack of ATMs compatible with my American bank, combined with the oftentimes ridiculous prices of visiting these tourist sites and spotting my friends who don’t have WeChat pay make it such that I have blown through my cash this weekend and will be subsiding off of 4 kuai jian bings (egg pancakes) for the foreseeable future. It’s worth it though because spending a long weekend with some of my closest newfound friends has led to some ridiculous shenanigans and dumb inside jokes, most of which I cherish deeply.  And most of all, this weekend has reminded me not only of just how wild and unpredictable it is to travel as a young adult, especially in a country like China, but also of how much I love exploring new cities and wandering beyond the comfort of my designated home base.

CIEE Week 4: Nanjing

Happy Easter, for those of you who celebrate! To the rest of you, happy Sunday! I spent Good Friday like any good Catholic school girl* would, exploring Buddhist temples.

(One of the many buddhas at the Jade Buddha temple, however, not one of the jade buddhas, which I was not allowed to photograph)

Some of my more religious friends actually tried to attend mass on Friday, so I tagged along, curious to experience church in China because, why not? Unfortunately, English services here are hard to come by, improperly publicized and in niche locations so our plan quickly fizzled out. Instead, we ambled between neighborhoods, eventually settling upon a small restaurant named Abbey Road, where we indulged in some fondue for dinner. I can’t tell you how excited I was to taste real cheese, but if you’ve met me, you can probably guess.

I blinked and somehow I’ve been in Shanghai for a month. To cap off these jam-packed, culturally immersive past four weeks, CIEE (the organization running my study abroad program) took my classmates and I on weekend trips to big cities within our province. I ended up in Nanjing, a city just two hours west of Shanghai. Nanjing was previously the capital of China, on several occasions; in English, the city’s name literally translates to South capital.

Throughout China’s history, Nanjing has borne witness to several key events, from the beginnings of Dr. Sun Yatsen’s revolution to the infamous Nanjing Massare. We managed to pack a lot into two days, starting with Sun Yatsen’s mausoleum, followed by a monument honoring the Ming emperor who first set up Nanjing as the country’s capital.

(ABOVE: Cheesing at Sun Yatsen’s mausoleum; BELOW: Iconic stone camels at the Ming mausoleum)

At night, we took a brief boat tour to admire the light installations up for the lantern festival. After a full day of walking, we treated ourselves to some local street food, culminating in this towering mango milkshake masterpiece with a layer of cream on top of fresh mango juice, topped with mango slices and one scoop each of mango and vanilla ice cream. If none of my post-grad plans pan out, catch me bringing these bad boys to the U.S.

(ABOVE: My friends Julia, Suzy and I with our cherished mango creation; BELOW: Some of the lights along the river. Not pictured, the several Chinese ladies who crashed our boat, kicking our several students along with our tour guide in the process, and kept telling us to quiet down)

Sunday morning, we soaked up the sun and heavy 污染 at Xuan Wu lake, just across from our hotel, before hopping on our trusty tour bus over to the Nanjing Massacre memorial. In remembrance of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who were raped and murdered at the hands of the Japanese in 1937, this museum was a profound and emotional experience. I’m constantly struck by the deeply personal and different ways that people decide to honor and remember tragedy. The memorial reminded me of the Holocaust museum in D.C.; in my opinion, both institutions effectively blend personal narrative, external media and historical context to convey the depth of the tragedy. Prior to coming to Shanghai, I knew very little about the massacre, so it was powerful to learn more about such a pivotal time in China’s history.

(Outside the memorial)

In addition to expanding my cultural and historical awareness of the country I’m calling home for the next few months, the weekend trip was a nice opportunity to continue my ongoing tradition of weekend exploration. Additionally, since we signed up for these trips before reaching Shanghai, the mix of participants in each city kindly forced us to branch out beyond the initially-formed friend groups and get to know people not in any of our classes. If there’s one thing studying abroad in high school taught me, it’s that there’s nothing like several hours together in a bus to forge friendships.

With this latest trip, I have now knocked off all three cities on my initial China bucket list that I cobbled together before arrival— Suzhou, Hangzhou and Nanjing. I’m excited to add more train tickets to my growing collection next week as my friends and I head North to the Shandong province for the upcoming Tomb Sweeping holiday. Until then, I plan to recharge and catch up on my sleep as much as possible.

 

* NB: To clarify, going to Georgetown, a Jesuit university, makes me a Catholic school girl. Also, after 13 years of non-denominational Christian education, including several years of Bible class, I’m feeling qualified enough to claim this title. #SorryNotSorry