Monday, June 30, 2008

Chinese Chinese Chinese

Nope, I'm not trying to spam Google into thinking my blog is awesome for anything that has to do with Chinese. The title only reflects how my life seems to consist of only Chinese right now.

The classes at the Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU for short) are strange for two reasons. First, we have separate classes--speaking class, listening class, reading class--but we have the same classmates for each of them; it's the teachers that change. That's a weird way to do things because a lot of the people here are ethnically Chinese, so they speak fluent Chinese, but are just illiterate. And a few people are Japanese, so characters don't give them a problem, it's the pronunciation and grammar they need to work on. And I'm American and don't know anything. So this seems like the perfect place to let the really good speakers take a really low-level reading class, and so on. But they don't, which means I know some Chinese who are in the lowest level and some who are near the top, even though they know the same amount.

The other weird thing is that they rank classes from A (you don't know ni from hao) to E (where you watch the news and discuss it the next day). So I'm working my way up to failing. I was originally placed in C level, but I already covered most of the curriculum and my main teacher wasn't very good, so I decided to bump up today.

And now I'm in D. This is the most intense class I've ever been in. Even in C, the teachers didn't speak any English, but now that I'm in D they expect that anything they say that they think isn't complicated we should understand. My class is almost all Korean and Chinese, and everyone in there is amazing. The only other white guy is an American who now lives in Italy teaching English and Chinese, but is here because he thought that his speaking wasn't quite up to par.

And the craziest part--and I say this having been in Chinese classes for two years now, and four years of language classes in high school--is that we actually speak in Chinese during the break. In C, we would've felt like a chump for doing that, but now in D I feel pressure to have international friends in Chinese. Even my break isn't a break.

So here's why I want to stay in the class. (I say this, by the way, only being about 1/8 of the way through my homework for tomorrow, and if I don't finish then I'll obviously switch down and regret writing this paragraph.) The teachers are awesome and the workload is heavy. My speaking teacher was really pushing us. There's only one D class, and today it had too many people, so he kept saying, "If you think this is too hard, get out." We'd be reading things that were a little over my head, and he'd say, "I know you guys all think this reading is easy. It is. this first paragraph is A-level. But knowing how to read is nothing! Tomorrow we're going to be discussing it with the book closed. If you can't handle that, switch to a lower level."

I'm going to have to bring my A-game (or D-game, as it were) every day. After three hours of class today (I missed the first hour changing my schedule) I was exhausted.

I think, though, that if I can survive, I'll learn a lot. Maybe by the end of the eight weeks I won't even be the worst in the class, although I don't really care if I am or not. I just need to know all the words that everyone is using and if I can start accomplishing that, I think it'll be a huge accomplishment.

That's my self pep-talk, because my elation at being rigorously challenged didn't even last the 3 days I thought it would. I started on my homework and already discouragement crept into my mind as the vocab definitions did. I'm a little stressed because I don't know how to eat to Mom's satisfaction. If I had three stomachs, I think I would, but now I just feel like I'm wasting things that I didn't sign up to eat anyway. And I realized that the long discussion I had with her where we were talking about American and Chinese trends with love and dating... every time I thought I was explaining my views by using the word "Christian," as in "I'm a Christian so I don't want to have sex before I'm married," I was actually saying "civilized." Play that back and I feel so embarrassed at what she must have thought I was saying.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Geography Lesson

My five weeks of blissful (and blister-ful, see the entries about my sunburn) traveling have come to an end. I'm in Beijing now being pummeled with Chinese at home and school. But I start this entry with a map of where I went, partially to congratulate myself on having been so adventurous, and partly because I'm pretty sure even people who read my blog regularly don't know where Chengdu is.

I've reopened a years-old account on Photobucket just so I could upload a high-resolution version of this picture, so you should be able to click it and view it a lot larger. You'll notice Chengdu is about halfway up just to the right of the crease. That's where I lived all spring.

Geographically, Chengdu is in about the middle of China, but you'll see the whole brown part, which is Lonely Planet's rough topographical map, and that's Tibet. No one lives there. North of Tibet is another huge region called Xinjiang. I went there, but it's not really the same as the rest of China. So the most Chinese part of China ends at about Chengdu, which is why the school I went to was called "The Southwest School for Minorities."

But enough about Chengdu. From there follow the dotted line for Alex and my flight to Urumqi in the far northwest. We went to Kashgar together, and back again. Then Alex left and I had the great idea to go to Kyrgyzstan. I flew to Bishkek without a visa, which I successfully got in the airport, spent most of my time getting a visa but had time to visit nearby Karakol Lake, and then went to Almaty and met all of Borat's relatives (a joke for readers under 35). I took a brutal 30+ hour train ride back to Urumqi, then went on a multi-day public transport marathon to Turpan, then Dunchuang, then Lanzhou, then Xi'an, then back to Chengdu.

I stayed in Chengdu long enough to ship my luggage to Beijing, then flew to Yunnan province, where I enjoyed Lijiang and nearby Tiger Leaping Gorge, then went to Shangri-la, then bussed south to Dali, and then to Kunming.

I stayed four hours longer than I wanted to in Kunming because right when our flight to Beijing was going to come in, a storm was pouring its fury on the city and the plane was rerouted. By the time the storm stopped, the plane came, and they cleaned it, it was pretty late at night, but my sketchy study abroad program came through and had a driver waiting for me at the airport when I arrived at 3 am.

And then I was in Beijing.

This is Beijing on a sunny day. If I think these two months will pass as if in a haze, it's because they will. I hear that walking around in Beijing for a day is the equivalent of smoking 70 cigarettes. That's a pretty high number. After being here for a few days, though, I can relate. I didn't have a problem with pollution in Chengdu, I didn't feel it in Xi'an, but I step outside here and I feel like I'm licking the sidewalk every time I take a breath.

Beijing, while I'm talking about geography, is similar to Washington D.C. It doesn't belong to a province; it just is. Officially, I think, it's a "municipality," but China has so many special cases (Tibet is one of five "autonomous regions," Chongqing is one of three "municipalities," Taiwan is something else, I think Macao has yet another title) that I can't say for sure.

Beijing the city (what New York City is to New York) is huge. It's organized into five concentric "ring" roads. Chengdu had three. I live in the north-northwest part of the fourth ring road, and it takes forty minutes by bus just to get to the north part of fourth ring road where I have classes.

And Beijing the municipality is the size of Belgium. So I can travel all over China (and have) but two months won't be enough time to see everything one city has to offer. And that's China for you.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Homestay Dinner

The Internet is moving too slow for my life right now. I'm skipping the last few days' worth of interesting things to talk about dinner tonight with my homestay family in Beijing.

The family I'm staying with is a mom, a husband who's home in the evenings, and a son about my age who I haven't met yet because he's still at college. We ate dinner together for the first time tonight, and this is how it went.

My Chinese mom (who I'm just going to call "Mom") cooked food that I told her I was used to when I lived in Chengdu. While she cooked, I sat in the kitchen doing homework and trying to have a conversation with her.

She served up the food, each dish on a plate in the middle of the table, asked me how it was. Providing some manly unsentimentality Dad said to her, "Don't ask him how it is. Even if it's horrible he's still going to say it's good. You have to wait until after the meal, and then you just look at which plate has the least left to see which was your best dish."

We ate. I listened to them talk about things I didn't understand but which might have included affirmative action in Chinese colleges (since she's a teacher). Then they started talking about the names of the food we were eating, and it was remarkable how familiar the flow of the argument sounded.

"So," Dad says. "You told him there's spicy chicken, chicken with vegetables, and sweet-sauce chicken. What was your argument again?"

"That he can tell what kind of flavor it is by paying attention to the beginning part. Look at this," Mom said, pointing. "Spicy chicken is spicy. Sweet-sauce chicken is sweet. You only need to understand the first part to understand the flavor."

"Ah, a teacher being a teacher. I don't think it's that simple, though. What would you call this?" Dad points at one of the dishes we're having.

Mom says something that isn't what he wanted to hear.

"Well, you might call it that, but everyone else is going to call it Green Beans and Chicken. But there's more chicken than there are green beans."

"Well, that's true. It's only a generalization."

Now, don't think that I know words like "generalization" or "affirmative action" in Chinese. I'm more working on "green beans" and "argument." But that's the reconstruction of what I heard in Chinese. Isn't that exciting?

They looked at me and asked what I was smiling about. I said I was just happy that I followed what they were saying, and raised my arms in triumph after having struggled to be in Chinese mode practically all day. I don't know if they understood.

Later they tried to include me in the conversation, and we talked about how often college students talk to their parents.

"I talk to my mom maybe twice a week," I said. "She likes to email me, so whenever I get an email from her, I just email her back. Short messages, you know."

"Oh," Mom says. "That's who you were emailing last night when you borrowed Dad's computer."

"Yeah," I said. Then I started paraphrasing my email in Chinese (which I will now paraphrase back into English). "'Just got to my Chinese family's house. They're pretty awesome. Will.'"

My grammar in translating this wasn't impeccable, of course, so Mom had to repeat it in good Chinese before Dad understood, but they were very touched. "Thank you," Mom said. "Tell them we say hi."

Then after dinner we drank tea. Mom tried to teach about how each tea has a different flavor and thereby a different way to prepare and drink it. I fumbled my way through a cup of some kind of tea. Mom poured some more water into the tea pot.

"You know," Mom said. "I think the second batch has the best flavor."

"Nah," said Dad. "I like the third cup best myself. The second is still too bitter."

"Really? I think the second is fine."

It was getting late, so I moved to go to my room. "Make sure to tell me what time you're going on your field trip tomorrow," Mom said.

"Yeah, I still need to text my classmates about that because I wasn't paying attention."

"Okay, goodnight."


And there you have it. A perfect family portrait with one member grafted in.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Stone Forest

I've seen lots of things traveling in the last month and a half, but possibly my favorite was Stone Forest. The name explains it pretty well. Imagine several thousand natural rock pillars sticking out of the ground. Or better yet, look at a picture of it.

Over the years, some of the rocks got lodged in awkward positions.

I usually don't like people to be in my picture, but here the perspective of random tourists at the bottom might help you understand the scale of the location. Many of the rocks were fifty feet tall (with the tallest being ninety feet, according to Lonely Planet). At the entrance there was a technical description of how the rock formations came into being, but I understood that even less than the average translation.

There were paths all over, and many of them weren't taken up by the innumerable Chinese tours (which are just as obnoxious as Chinese tours in America, by the way). I found one path that led to the top of a high rock and got this picture looking into the distance.

A note about my hat. I'm glad April and Kristie like it, because all the Chinese think it's ridiculous. Now that my language skills can recognize when I'm being talked about, I only ever hear people talking about my hat. I bought it in Kashgar, so it's legitimately Chinese—but maybe too Chinese. I think it's a hat similar to the kind Mao wore, and any time a foreigner wears a Mao hat it must be hilarious.

Something about me, though, attracted all the Chinese ladies. I couldn't leave a rock before a random Chinese tourist asked if they could take a picture with me. After my third picture at the same place, one guy started joking (probably jealously) about how I should charge. Maybe it was my sweet shirt with Naxi hieroglyphics. Or maybe looking at rocks made everything else look exciting, too.

The rocks really were amazing, though. Some had small lakes surrounding them.

Others were so strange that people had named them for their shape.

I did get the impression that for the people who worked there every day, the limestone lost its allure.

I was not so jaded. I hope the pictures convey some of the grandeur of the garden. Stone Forest was a must-see.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Morning McDonald's

Today I went to one of the best sights I've seen ever.

But this post is about the morning, which actually began last night. At 9 in the evening I boarded a horrible sleeper bus from Dali to Kunming. There was the usual problem: the bed was too short. But they also played music until around midnight, trolled Dali for more passengers for an hour before we actually left, and then--ironincally--didn't take long enough to get to Kunming, so we arrived at maybe 4 in the morning. I'm not sure exactly what time, because I was so tired that I looked around, kept sleeping, then woke up at half past seven to see we were still in the same parking lot. I asked where we were and disembarked a little embarrassed.

I walked around trying to figure out what I wanted to do today, since it was still so early in the morning. I saw a McDonald's, really needed a taste of home, and went in hoping that an Egg McMuffin wouldn't taste much different in China than it did before debate tournaments in high school.

Good ole Mai Dang Lao. It didn't. I ate 17 kuai worth of America with my #2 meal, which at $2.50 is a really cheap meal in the States and an incredibly expensive one in China. They had corporate decorations of appropriately diverse people in McBliss, a computer with Internet, and even two other traveling Americans. The workers had a bad attitude and slight smell, which just made me miss the branch in Waterford.

McDonald's in China is practically the same as in the States except that they get offended if you try to throw away your own trash. They also have weird menu items (like stuffed hash browns, which I barely avoided this morning) but all the normal ones, too.

So I might not have even mentioned my trip, but I've never shaved in McDonald's. Until this morning, at least. The overnight bus ride left me feeling pretty gross, so I just took my dopkit out of my backpack, walked over to the nice sinks, and hygiened myself up.

At least I bought something.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Biking to Baisha

While I was in Shangri-la, I met two people who knew each other from Shanghai and we traveled together for the last few days. One is Rachid, an ethnically Moroccan Muslim who lives in Amsterdam. The other is Lizzie, a really pretty girl who goes to Yale and is in Shanghai this summer interning at a gay rights organization. (Coincidentally, one of Lizzie's roommates this upcoming year is the daughter of the guy who made the video I learned to juggle from. Weird.)

We had a whole day in Lijiang together before they went back to Shanghai and I moved on to another city around here. We decided that we would bike to a nearby town, Baisha. Lonely Planet, the best travel guide ever, is usually accurate, but we knew that it was not an "easy 15-20 minute" bike ride there. Lizzie and Rachid had already been and told me that it was more like twice that.

The first challenge was getting out of town. Lijiang's streets in the old city all look the same, and they have practically no street signs once you get to the new part of town. There were about five street signs in the entire city (which I think we covered by bike several times before we found the right way), and I took a picture of each of them, because they had the standard Chinese characters and pinyin pronunciation, but the signs also had Naxi at the top, the only living pictographic language.

Once we were definitely biking toward Baisha, Rachid fell behind and called us a few minutes later to say that he was going to stay there because the guy he met said there was about to be a bull fight. Lizzie and I couldn't make sense of that and kept going, but Rachid showed us pictures later of the bull fight and I'm a little disappointed I missed it.

Lizzie and I had enough excitement on our own, though. Halfway there, her bike broke. I knew when we were renting our bikes that they weren't in the best condition, but I didn't expect the crankshaft to fall off. Obviously we didn't have the tools to screw it back in, so after we tried to force it on a few times and have her ride it like that, we gave up and hailed passing vehicles.

A minivan stopped and we explained the situation, mostly by holding up the pedal and crankshaft. The guy told us in Chinese, "You can't fit the bike in here, but I can take the girl and then you can just bike while guiding the other one." So Lizzie hopped in the van, I navigated my bike with one hand and hers with my other, and away we went (Lizzie in the van at a much faster pace than me).

Twenty minutes later, I approached the intersection to Baisha where Lizzie was chilling by the side of the road taking pictures of my sweaty effort.

We walked our bikes the rest of the way, ate lunch in the village while her bike was being repaired, and then slowly started back. We lost the way several more times before we arrived back at the hostel. I was unsurprisingly sunburned and grouchy, but we had done it. We had biked to Baisha. Lizzie's bike was returned without charge.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Tiger Leaping Gorge

In pictures:
The gorge:

Scenery along the trail:

Mountains on the side opposite our hike:

The five of us who did the hike (do you like my Thai shirt?):

Me, day two:

A waterfall we had to go over:

And while crossing it:

Then I felt like cooling off:

Then we were done and it was on to new friends and fun in Shangri-la:

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Travel Strategy

I arrived in Yunnan province yesterday morning and it's made me reconsider how I'm traveling. Before, I assumed I could see everything there was to see in China in this five week or so summer break. But I'm down to ten days now before I have to show up in Beijing and I don't think that's going to happen any more.

The town I'm in, Lijiang, looks like a page out of a nostalgic old book on China. The narrow cobbled streets twist and turn so that last night we were afraid to leave because we weren't sure we could get back, and seriously contemplated acting out Hansel and Gretel in China. Here's a picture of a woman selling live eels in a bucket, and then one of locals haggling over vegetables (can you tell I have wireless Internet access?):

The scenery is gorgeous here, and I'm beginning to think that in order to "do" Yunnan, you have to sit for a few weeks, relaxing and enjoying the view.

On one hand, I want to see what China has to offer. On the other hand, I don't want to spend a lot of money to gloss over all the best parts. Maybe it won't actually be a problem. We're about to go on a two day hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge, which has been given rave reviews by my friends, and then probably go to Shangri-la, which is supposed to be another place where you can just soak up China.

I say "we" in the last paragraph so naturally; Lijiang is a haven for backpackers and I've already become friends with a group of about six or eight. We have fairly compatible schedules, so we might be together for several days.

Not to describe things too romatically; this is a picture of a bug (not a butterfly, the Chinese woman running things here said) that attached itself to one guy's shirt. This is not a tattoo (although we did tell him that it would make a good "tramp stamp" to commemorate the event).

So hopefully I figure out a good travel strategy.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Having Chinese Friends

The last few days I've been saying goodbye at rapid-fire pace. I said goodbye to my language partner and gave her my US phone number so she can call me when she gets to America this fall and needs help. I said goodbye to a family here who's moving back to the States. Then I said goodbye to my Chinese family, the Xiongs, and tried to explain how much they had helped me, but I don't know if my Chinese carried the thought. I said goodbye to everyone at the Sunday Fellowship, and to the few people left from my spring program.

And then this afternoon, after I mailed the suitcase I left here to Beijing, I went to say goodbye to the Chinese people James and I met when we climbed Emei Mountain, right before the earthquake. They live in a rural county outside of Chengdu, but after a lot of hard work (and frustration at how inadequate my Chinese is) I met up with them in their home town.

Dinner together was fantastic. The whole spring semester I didn't have many Chinese friends because my Chinese wasn't good enough to have friends who didn't speak English. I was too much hassle for myself and them. I expected my time to be like that, where I would be lost and unhappy and they wouldn't know how to say things that I could understand, but my Chinese is not what it once was!

As much as I feel how bad my Chinese is--and I feel it, like today when someone complimented how good my Chinese was and I didn't understand what they meant--my Chinese is also almost up to the challenge of having friends. I can just imagine arriving in Beijing in a week or two and being able to make friends with people I meet there!

So we had dinner, and they carried the conversation, obviously, but I could keep up pretty well as we talked about the earthquake, and natural disasters in general, and the Euro Cup (learning Chinese keeps you on top of world events). I told them about my travels, and they eventually understood some of my stories. We ate weird food, and I ate some vegetables that were just supposed to be for show, but they just laughed with me. I toasted various things and was introduced to old friends who happened by the restaurant.

If they all jumped off a cliff, I would have too. As it is, I'm the example that kids shouldn't give into peer pressure:

Then they drove me back themselves, and we were talking about things the whole way back. A sunroof is a "sky window" in Chinese, which sounded so logical that I promptly forgot the English word for a few minutes. They told me the names they had given themselves in English. I tried to explain that even though in Chinese any word can be a name, that's not the same in English. So no, Rena and Yook were not suitable names.

We promised to see each other again if we ever happened by Chengdu or Orlando. And then we said goodbye, and it was like when real friends say goodbye. A fitting end for my last day in Chengdu.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Contacting Me

To make it easier to pump me for information, stalk me, or hawk Viagra, my email address should now be viewable somewhere on this page. I can't see my blog again now that I'm back in China, but my email address should be there. And just so everyone knows it, you can reach me at:

I thought it would automatically show up, but maybe to protect super-famous bloggers who don't want their inboxes flooded by adoring fans Google set the default not to show your email. I'm not super-famous yet, so email me away.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The O'clock Effect

When I traveled to Guizhou with Alex during spring break, I noticed that all the hotels had a price board which, in addition to "deluxe suite," "single," "triple," etc., also included the option of an "o'clock room." Alex and I discussed what the o'clock room could be used for, and could only think of prostitution. But now, a few months and many more o'clock-able hotels later, I have discovered how to use the o'clock room.

Before I continue, I just want to wonder for a sentence or two at how all of China has become convinced that "hourly room" should be translated "o'clock room." I think Chinese-English dictionaries should include a special entry for shijian fang.

Here's how it happened. I was in Lanzhou waiting to board my sleeper train to Xi'an. The night before I had taken a sleeper train from Dunhuang, where I climbed sand dunes and explored cave art that survived because in the desert there isn't much moisture. The night before that I had taken a sleeper bus from Turpan. Before I boarded the bus in Turpan I took a shower, but that still left me in Lanzhou two overnight trips on public transportation and two days of sweatiness later. Among other things, the white dress shirt I was wearing had soy sauce spilled on it from dumplings gone wrong.

I thought to myself: I really need to take a shower and change my clothes. I don't need a full-blown hotel, though, because I'm leaving for Xi'an in a few hours. I only need about an hour to get freshened up. That's when I thought of the o'clock room.

I found a hotel, negotiated for a reasonable rate (30 kuai isn't steep when you're desperate), and was the proud owner of an o'clock room—for an hour, at least.

The bathroom light didn't turn on, but that didn't faze me. I took a fantastic shower in the dark and then had energy to consider the rest of my appearance.

I hadn't shaved since leaving Kyrgyzstan, so my whole time in Almaty my facial hairs had time to show me what they could do. I was rather impressed with myself to see that my upper lip had definitively more hairs than I have fingers. And the hairs on my chinny-chin-chin were working to complete a formidable (quarter of an inch long) goatee. The rest of my face was barren except for a small oasis of ambitious mole-hairs, but I think a beard would swallow me, so I'm okay with that for now.

Still, I was overwhelmed by my sudden influx of masculinity and shaved it all off. I did take a picture, though, because I think I'm slowly developing what I hear is called a "tan."

All my efforts to look presentable must have had some effect, because the next morning in Xi'an when I was waiting to take a picture in front of the Terracotta Warriors (along with more foreigners in one place than I've seen since coming to China), there was some pretty American girl there distracted from her picture because, I promise, she was looking at me.

It's all about the o'clock room.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Mercurial China

I really just wanted to post today to use the word "mercurial" (changeable) in the title. I think it's one of about ten words that I've ever learned from a vocabulary list they gave us at school (another one is "draconian"--isn't it a great word?). I can even use it in a sentence: China's policy on anything remotely having to do with Tiblet is mercurial.

I've been wanting to go to Xiahe, a small town in Gansu province that's a microcosm of Tiblet: prayer wheels, native people, beautiful scenery. The only problem is that China is freaked out.

I'm used to China's paranoia, though. What bothers me is how no one knows what China's official stance on things is. I came by train to Lanzhou last night (and it was a very comfortable ride, by the way) and talked to several people about my plans. Lanzhou is only four or five hours away from Xiahe, so I thought talking to people who lived there would be helpful.

One guy said he thought foreigners weren't allowed, his friend said she thought they were allowed now. There was also a girl who works as a tour guide around the area who was convinced that foreigners are allowed in with no problem. My mom, with magic powers for finding things out, told me that I'd need a permit.

Then I got to Lanzhou this morning and decided to ask the people at the Public Security Bureau. They said, after talking among themselves, that they thought foreigners weren't allowed. I tried to bring up the idea of a permit, but I don't know how to say that in Chinese and I don't think they understood me in English. I asked them what would happen if I bought a bus ticket to Xiahe anyway. They said they didn't know.

All the conflicting views aren't because everyone is wrong; they're because everyone is right. At some point since the Tibletan riots, things have been closed down, tentatively reopened, reopened further, and probably closed some more.

I decided that things were sufficiently unknown for me to try to go to Xiahe. I came to the bus station and finally got a definitive answer on China's atittude today: she said she couldn't sell me a ticket because I'm a foreigner.

So now I'm going straight to Xi'an tonight if I can buy a ticket. And 111 degrees gives a new definition for Mercurial China. I can't believe I made it through that kind of weather in Turpan without my skin peeling again.

The Desert

Our family moved from Bakersfield, CA about five years ago, so I don't rememeber really well how hot it was. But in Turpan, China, I think Bakersfield was beat. A native said that it was 44 degrees Celsius the day I was there, and if anyone wants to work out what that is in Fahrenheit, it would make my claim more impressive.

I prefer to give the more personal explanation of how hot it was. After a day of seeing the sights there (including ruins to a city which, when destroyed in the 14th century, was already over 1,000 years old), I took a sleeper bus to Dunhuang, where I am now.

The idea behind a sleeper bus, since I don't think we have them in America, is that there are three long rows of bunk beds. Each bed slopes downward so you don't slide back when the bus is in motion. In theory, you have enough room to lie down and sleep, so when they aren't playing Uighur music videos from the TVs hanging at the front, you can let the bouncing of the crappy Chinese roads lull you to bed.

In America, I'm short. In China, I'm too tall. (I can only imagine how difficult it would be for me here if I actually were tall.) I needed another six inches of space. I mentioned that the beds aren't flat; that makes it so that my feet have some pressure against the back of the bed in front of me.

Oh, and there was no air conditioning. Or it broke, or something. I only caught the gist of it in Chinese: things were not the way all the Chinese expected them to be.

I would lay on one side for an hour or two, half sleeping, then roll over and feel much cooler because the side of my body now exposed had been sweating. I think my neck was sweating the entire night.

Sleeping on my side worked the best since then I could bend my legs a little. If I laid on my back, my knees splayed out to the side and it looked like I was trying to do yoga without sitting up.

I'm still in a desert-y area, about to go see the best Buddhist cave art ever and then tonight slide down sand dunes or something before getting on a sleeper train (which are much better, but more expensive) to Lanzhou.

For those paying attention, my sleeper bus experience did mean that I sweated all night, am sweating today, and will board a train tonight. My plans after that are tentative but likely won't include much sitting around; I will definitely take a shower when I get back to Chengdu in a few days, though.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Being Interrogated

The interrogation was in Chinese. I was still in the giddy, "I know what you're saying and want to prove it" thrill of hearing Chinese spoken again. I might have been even more excited except we spent six hours at the Kazakh border and that wore me out.

Six hours. What could they possibly do for six hours, you ask? I'm not really sure, but it involved a bunch of military guys taking all of our passports, putting them in a briefcase, and driving away. We eventually got our passports back so maybe they came back. There was also a lot of waiting. I listened to some passengers speak Chinese for a few hours and felt totally exhausted afterward. Luckily, all I did that day in the train was sleep, so I had energy to be awake for the whole visa process. (Incidentally, I was also lucky that all I didn't do that day in the train was drink water, because the toilets didn't work when the train was stopped...)

Six hours also gives enough time for the military people to hassle us. I don't know why they were so particular about people leaving their country.

But at 11 that night (give or take two hours; when we crossed into China we were officially on Beijing time, which was two hours later) they let us get to the Chinese side of the process. The Chinese put the Kazakhs to shame in terms of paranoia. You would think that some of the old USSR spirit would linger, but the Chinese had them beat. I'm just glad I wasn't carrying anything that was actually private.

First they started on the French woman in my cabin. She was into some kind of Tibletan (now that I'm back in China I should censor myself) religion and had some documents in French with suspicious writing. She's French, though, and so no one could understand what it said. I acted as informal translator from her passable English into my bad Chinese for the beginning of the questioning about that, but when I was unable to translate phrases like "the divinity of justice" the Chinese got frustrated and found someone else. The first guy in charge called in his boss, who called in his boss, who called in his boss. Each time they went through the same questions, and the only thing that changed was her answers became more and more simplified until it got to "Daoist stuff."

Finally they let her off.

Then they came through and made us unpack our bags and show them everything. I had to open my computer and show them my videos (they enjoyed my juggling). Suprisingly, my Bible made it through without incident.

We thought it was over and started to repack, but then another guy told us to collect all of our things to go be questioned. They asked us all the questions I know how to answer now in Chinese: where are you from, what are you doing here, etc. Then they started up my laptop and looked at all of my pictures. They saw a lot of Melanie, because if Melanie touches a camera and my computer, hundreds of almost identical pictures of herself magically pop up. I said it was indeed my little sister.

Eventually they let us into China and we passed the next 12ish hours asleep. Going out of the country hasn't killed my ability to speak Chinese. The Vietnamese-American guy in our cabin was going to go to Shanghai, but the French woman and I realized we both wanted to see the same city next, so we're in Turpan already seeing ancient city ruins. I am happy to be somewhere I can take a shower, though. I only managed one when I was living in Almaty's train station, and even though I brushed my teeth this morning on the train, it's not quite the same.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Friendly Central Asians

I'm not in a good mood right now because I've logged onto my bank account for the first time in a month and found that Kazakhstan/Kyrgyzstan have been nipping away at my balance every time I've walked near an ATM. So maybe now my mood fits my topic.

People here are weird. (Can you tell I'm still in cultural adjustment?) My first day in Kyrgyzstan I was exposed to it, but I didn't know how to classify my story and have held back until now, when I've just had it happen for the third time.

Here's what happens: I met someone, and after about ten minutes, they ask me to buy them things. I don't know why they do it; at this point I'm so tired of all the differences that I don't really care. But it does make me confused.

The first time it happened I was trying to find a place to change money. I met a guy who took it upon himself to help me. He didn't know any better than I did, of course, but it was nice to have someone who spoke the language and a little English. Eventually we found a bank, and once he saw I really was rich, he started directing us to stores. We bought a drink (I paid for both), then we went to a convenience store and he picked out something for me and him--which I would pay for, of course. When I figured out what he was doing, I told him I had to go home. I didn't know how far I was supposed to recompense him, but he hadn't been that helpful.

I thought it was a tit-for-tat thing.

Then a few nights later on my way home I ended up playing soccer with some local kids against a group of military guys. After we were done playing, the guys asked me to buy them something to drink.

"Why don't you buy something yourself?" I asked him nicely.
"We don't have any money. We spent it all on drinks on our way here, and now we're really thirsty."

I was hesitant, because there were a lot of guys, but they kept talking to me. ("Will," they would say before every phrase, to give it extra punch, "we're not, like, robbers or something. We're good guys.") Finally I agreed to buy us all a liter of Coke (not water--"Will, we drink Coke"), which they said wouldn't be enough but didn't complain after that.

I figured maybe it was something that new friends did for each other.

Then today I bought some water and sat down at the stall to drink it. After a few minutes, a middle-aged guy sitting there motioned for me to sit next to him. We proceeded to have a conversation for the next fifteen minutes. This was a remarkable feat since he didn't speak English and I didn't speak whatever he spoke, but it happened. When I looked about finished, he motioned me up and away.

I started walking with him down the street, not sure where he was leading me. Then me motioned to himself. "Money," he said in an undertone. I played dumb for a few seconds, but he was quite able to communicate his desire for me to buy him something. I talked to him in English about why I wasn't going to give him money.

"No," I said patiently. "I don't have any money to give you. I know I showed you some American money; that's not to buy beer with. I have to use all this money--Almaty is expensive." He said something in Russian. "Not even one. I'm not going to give you money just because I just met you." Eventually we came back to the train station and I told him I had to go back to the bed I'm renting.

So this whole way of doing things is weird. I don't know if it's just because everyone is convinced that Americans are rich, or if it really is something that has to do with friendship here, or whatever. It's just strange and I'm glad I'm going back to China (although when I land in Xinjiang it'll still be foreign until I take another 40 hour train ride to Xi'an).

Friday, June 6, 2008

Just Say "No"

All the motherly advice I've ever received in 20 years came into play last night, and although I wouldn't have passed Mom's inconspicuous nightly sniff test, I still returned to my bed in Almaty's train station sober and not-high. (Incidentally, I've found that the best way to sleep on an uncomfortable bed is to start sleeping at 4:30 in the morning.)

Maybe I should explain how I went from being depressed and bored last post to being at a party for rich graduating Kazakhs until almost dawn. As soon as I finished yesterday's post, I went back to my room where I met Nick, a guy from Australia here for a week or so while he gets his India visa set up. We talked for a while, went out for a beer (because I'm pretty sure Kazakhstan doesn't have a law about being 21), and then decided to have dinner. While we were eating some amazing doner (like a Turkish taco), some people happened by speaking English. We started talking to them.

One girl was from Australia, but her multi-national parents also qualified to have a Kazakh and Swiss passport. One guy had missionary parents but was only working himself as a translator. The other girl had just been traveling through when she decided to stay in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) and learn Russian, and had just popped up to see the guy, who she was kinda involved with.

Nick and I played pool with the Australian girl, then she talked about how her friend was having a party at which she really needed to make an appearance. We accompanied her, and from there I was introduced to a side of society that I've never seen before.

The kids, around my brother's age, were the richest of the rich. They know Russian, but go to the Baccalaureate school in English because English is powerful. One girl's family is hosting a party at the most exclusive club in town after paying $10,000 for the table. Needless to say, the most exciting thing for them to do is dabble in drugs a bit. At the party a few people were already passed out on the likely-expensive alcohol. Soon after when the weed was passed around, everyone compared their experiences of favorite drugs. Friendly, airy debates were had about the advantages and disadvantages of disassociatives versus stimulants. Much information was disseminated about the availability of drugs in other countries in Asia, since the kids travel whenever they want and we've been traveling through nearby countries ourselves.

I didn't have much to contribute to the conversation, but it was very educational. One girl tried to convince me that having control of my body wasn't what God wanted (they had discovered I was a Christian) because whenever we try to control things we end up with Nazi Germany and other societal evils. I was unpersuaded.

Eventually Nick and I got tired and we left. Then I realized that I forgot my camera and phone there, so my plans for today (which if you recall, were unformed yesterday) consist of me getting my stuff back. I think that's a full day; when you wake up at 2 pm there's a lot less time you have to figure out what to do with.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Will goes to Kazakhstan

And lives in a train station there.

If I thought that I went into Kyrgyzstan with too little information, I'm surprised I'm not huddled on my bed in the train station now crying in the fetal position. Although, actually, I was close last night since I put my bag at the end of the bed and didn't have enough room to stretch out.

When I went to Kyrgyzstan, to review, I didn't know Russian or Kyrgyz, I didn't know anyone, and I didn't have any plans. When I went to Kazakhstan by taxi yesterday, I didn't know Russian or Kazakh, I didn't know anyone, and I didn't have any plans. I also had all the pages for Almaty, the city I'm at, ripped out of my guidebook, leaving me without a map, without any idea where to stay, and without knowing where to go to eat.

So I'm in Almaty until Saturday night when I take a 40 hour train back to China. Yes, 40 hours. Initially, I was going to get to Almaty, then take a train somewhere, spend a day or two there, and come back in time to go to China. The nearest cities are 15 hours by train, though, and the idea of spending a whole day riding in a train each way as preparation for a 40 hour train ride didn't sound appealing. I also was intimidated by the schedule board that I couldn't read, and the fact that no one speaks English.

Before I came to Kazakhstan, every time I mentioned Almaty I heard "It's very expensive." When I arrived, the other guy riding the taxi with me wanted to be helpful, and told me that I shouldn't go directly to the train station to buy a train ticket and check out the rooms they had there, I should go to a travel agency he knew where they spoke English. I followed his advice, because I was new to the country and thought he might know best, but he didn't. We rode a bus for an hour, trekked around looking for the travel agency, only to find that it didn't do anything international. The hotel nearby was asking more than $200 for one night's stay.

So I went to the train station, worked out a train ticket for Saturday, checked into one of the rooms for a reasonable $12, and even timed my dinner with the rest of the country's so that when I went to a restaurant I could point at others' dishes to order.

I got some money changed into the local currency, Tenge ($1 to 120T), which is much easier to convert in my head than som, which exchanged at an awkward 37. I always found myself converting back to Chinese money in Kyrgyzstan, which only frustrated me at how much more it was. Now, though, I divide by 100 and another fifth and I have the American equivalence. Food seems to cost about the same as it would in America.

My room is in the International Hall of the train station. The room has three beds and a hatrack, and no air conditioning. The door doesn't close very well, but that's okay, since there's another room that attaches to ours and when those people want to leave they have to go through ours. The train station has a bathroom that we can use, and they have a plug where I can charge my laptop. My stuff isn't really safe, but it's unlikely to be stolen since this hotel wing isn't by the rest of the train station.

Today I've walked around looking for Internet and eating. I hope I can find my way back. Tomorrow I don't have plans. On Saturday I can go to a canyon with 50 other tourists and a Russian guide; it might be fun.

My whole situation here kinda sucks. I think it's a bad sign that I'm looking forward to a 40 hour train ride across Kazakhstan.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Kyrgyz Culture Shock

No, I haven't had another run-in with the shower bucket; that's just what they call it when you've been in a foreign country long enough to realize that it really isn't like what you're used to and that you really aren't that open to new things. I've been in Kyrgyzstan for a week and a day now, and I've hit that point, something I've managed to skip in China. So this is me reacting to everything that seems stupid about society here right now. Don't take me too seriously; if I was going to live here for years I'd get over it and then laugh off this post.

First, I hate it how people here grab your arms. I was going to get a taxi once, a competing guy wanted me to look at his car ("Audi" he was probably repeating to impress me with his wheels) and he grabbed my arm. I was ready to fight him. I stopped, shook him off in likely a very unpolite way, and then kept walking all mad.

I hate how everything is so far apart here, and how they have stores where you have to buy things instead of hole-in-the-wall places like they do in China where you can just look in and see if it has what you need.

And I hate the feeling of being ripped off. I don't always know if I am, because I can't ask a native about every transaction I make, but it feels like it. I'm only shielded if I already know what the price should be: a kg of laundry costs 45 som here, otherwise the lady at Karakol wouldn't have gone below 100. The taxi from the bus station to the place I'm staying should have been 150; they started at 700! And despite me repeatedly saying "Don't rip me off because I'm a foreigner" (in English, let's remember where I am), they refused to go below 200. And I hate how you have to negotiate for taxis instead of just reading the meter, and I hate how an 8 hour drive costs 250 som but a drive anywhere in town costs at least 200 round trip. And then I see the minibuses that you ride in for 8 hours, and I realize how they can be so inexpensive when you have 18 people in one van, and I hate that too. I don't like it how little kids ride in these buses, too, and then throw up in the seat in front of you.

And I don't like how everyone here is ugly. I'm finally in a land with white people; give me some beautiful ones to remind me of home. And I don't like how they speak more than one language here, so I don't even know which one I should be trying to learn, or which one to speak, as if I knew overlapping words. So I don't like how I say "thank you" in Kyrgyz, "hello" in Russian, "five" in Kyrgyz and all the other numbers in Russian, and that's it. I should order vodka just because I know what I'd be getting.

Speaking of that, I hate how none of the restaurants have picture menus. And how they eat so much bread here, and how expensive food is. Where are the fruit sellers like in China?

A lot of my frustration has come not from this being different from America, but from it being different than China. It's like I managed to totally accept what goes on there, and now I expect that every foreign country is like that. I wish Kyrgyzstan was like China, because I understand the way things work there, even the things I don't like.

In China they freak out over foreigners and make you show your passport every time you check into a hotel. Here, they don't, and I was wondering how I had gotten away with not showing my passport the whole time I've been staying here. My passport is at the Kazakh embassy now, so I wanted them to sign my photocopy so that when I have to show it, they'll know that my real one is actually with the Kazakhs. They said that wasn't necessary, but I didn't trust them and had the girl here write it in Russian so they would understand if anyone hassles me.

The only people who hassle you, though, are crooked cops looking for trouble or a bribe, and I don't know who those cops are and what to do about them. I don't like how all the cars drive here without concern for the people--it's fine if they want to speed, but if I'm crossing the street, swerve a little instead of making me run for my life. And I don't like how it's not safe at night.

I think that covers most of it. I'm sure I've forgotten something, but you get the idea. So what should I do? Leave the country, of course. Really. I need to head back to China sometime, and it's not like I'd have the time to adjust if I stuck around for another week. I'm not even retreating to America, I'm just going back to a different foreign country. That's totally fine, I think.

And I don't like how often they use the word "no."

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Skin Balls

The Sunburn Saga lives on. First, let me set the scene.

I'm in Kyrgyzstan, still on break in between semesters in China. After a few days in Bishkek, I took some time off while my Kazakh visa is being processed to go to Karakol. So yesterday I went for an easy hike in Karakol National Park, met some Kyrgyz boys and had fun with them, and then came back to my room exhausted since I was recovering from the flu. I go to take a shower, but the water wasn't getting hot, so I go back to my room ready to sit there until hot water is available. I notice that my left arm has started to peel (surprisingly late--I was sunburned more than a week ago), so I help it along and skin comes off in rather big strips. I didn't want to just throw it on the floor, and there wasn't a trashcan within reach, so I rolled up the first piece.

Once I had a little ball, it was natural to add the next piece on, and the piece after that, and the piece after that. It was a little addictive: the edge of dead skin was just begging to be pulled off.

My skin ball became larger and larger until it was full-grown:

This is a picture of the ball I made from the skin of my left forearm (approximately 10 sq. inches). I'd estimate it to be about the size of a large spitwad, but as straws are scarce here, I couldn't test this hypothesis.

I know what you're all wondering: how do I make a skin ball of my own? Be patient, and I'll give you some tips.

First, it's important to have a large area of skin to work with. If you've only sunburned the back of your neck, for instance, you likely won't have enough skin to make a satisfying ball. I found that my arm skin works the best because the arm is less sensitive than other areas. When my face peeled, the exposed skin underneath really hurt, but when skin came off my arm, it didn't even sting (despite the horrified looks of the Kyrgyz boys as I patiently peeled the skin off my right arm earlier in the day).

Second, the size of the strips of skin is important. This is what was lacking when my face peeled: the skin came off in flecks, and slowly. It took a whole day or two for my face skin to come off, and a lot of that came from just rubbing my forehead in the shower. Water is a killer for skin balls.

Here is an example of the ideal size for adding to your skin ball:

You'll notice in the picture that the extracted skin is directed toward my (apparently emaciated) wrist; this is common. Skin peels forward from the elbow to the wrist and inward from the pinky to the thumb.

Now that I've explained how to harvest the skin, let me give some advice on actually making the ball.

It's important to touch the newly gathered skin as little as possible: hold the strip by the edge with one hand and bring the skin ball to it, wrapping the ball with the skin as evenly as possible. As you roll the strip onto the ball, feel free to press the ball to give it added firmness. Small pieces of skin (ones that don't cover the whole surface area of the ball) can be difficult to add.

When your skin ball is finished, you can sit back and admire your handiwork. Sell it on eBay to help fund cancer research--that's what I'm going to do with mine.

Good luck, and send me pictures of your efforts. You might have to provide a link, since I don't think pictures are allowed in the comments.