HOME SWEET HOME
Back to reality, I guess. School resumes today after a week long hiatus. We were given the entire week off to celebrate China's national holiday. I'm not up to date on my Chinese holidays yet, but I do know that Friday (the 6th) was Mid-Autumn Day (aka, the Moon Festival) where everyone supposedly spends the day with their families, eats moon cakes and looks at the moon which is supposed to be full that night. Although, I talked to several Chinese people who didn't even eat one moon cake! I was so disappointed. Plus, in Shiyan the sky was too cloudy to see the moon. Mid-Autumn Day was the only cloudy day all week.
Derek and I joined Jakie and Frank on quite a long journey to Shanghai where his brother and sister live. We left Friday afternoon at 4:30 from the bus station. We decided to take a sleeper bus which is exactly what it sounds like - a bus filled with beds instead of seats. There are three rows of bunk beds with two aisles in between each set of bunk beds. It's really difficult to explain seeing as we have nothing similar to it in America. But it was pretty much awesome! I slept quite a bit, read some, talked some and watched a few movies. There were two ridiculous Chinese movies with English subtitles and one American movie (The Medallion with Jackie Chan) which had been dubbed and had no subtitles, but since I only watch a Jackie Chan movie for the action anyway, I still enjoyed it!
We arrived in Shanghai 20 hours later. It was a LONG trip, but since we could sleep a lot, it wasn't so bad. Jakie's siblings don't live far from the train station so it wasn't long before we arrived at their apartment. They weren't home yet so we went for lunch at a Muslim noodle shop. The Muslims are well known for their noodles. Even in Shiyan the noodle restaurants are run by Muslims.
We returned to the apartment where we basically hung out the rest of the day. Jessie, Jakie's sister, came home around five-ish. Jessie works for a Taiwanese English magazine, and her English is incredible. She is so well read and knows more about western literature than I do! She made dinner for us while we began watching the first season of PRISON BREAK. I never really cared to watch it, but we weren't going to do anything else that evening so we ended up watching like six or seven episodes in a row. Shameful, I know! We were actually waiting for Darla to arrive. Darla is a returning American teacher at the medical school (where Andrew, Jaime and Brad teach), but she hadn't joined us in Shiyan yet because she had been waiting for her sister-in-law to have a child. Anyway, she and Jakie and Frank are really good friends so she was flying in to Shanghai to spend the week vacationing with us.
Darla arrived sometime after eleven and after some catching up, we all went to bed. Darla and I shared a room so we spent awhile updating each other on some things: I caught her up on everything that's happened in her absence, and she gave me a lot of background info on the people I know now as well as on different things that happened last year. She's from Tennessee so we actually share a lot in common - two Southern girls and all.
The next morning the boys, Darla, Jessie and I caught a train to Hangzhou. Hangzhou is famous for its beauty. In fact, some saying goes that the skies have heaven, but the earth has Hangzhou - or something similar that probably sounds much more poetic! We arrived in Hangzhou after noon sometime and tried to catch a bus to our hotel. We had a lot of difficulty, however, and finally decided to take a taxi. It seems everyone and their dogs were trying to get taxis too so we spent a really long time trying to hail down two taxis (since there were six of us, and they don't allow you to pile into their taxis like they are clown cars).
When we did finally get a couple taxis, they brought us to a hotel which Jessie's friend who works there had pulled some strings to get us in. It was a military hotel, and we were given a really good deal for the rooms. Unfortunately, no one told us that foreigners were forbidden to enter the gates of the hotel - only veterans and military personnel. So they recommended some other hotel to us and worked out a much lower price for the rooms than what we were supposed to actually pay. However, we almost had a problem with that because Darla forgot her passport, and they didn't want to let us in without each of the foreigners' passports registered. Fortunately, Jessie is the master negotiator and worked things out.
We ate that night in the expensive hotel restaurant, and afterwards all of us, minus Darla who wanted to take a nap, walked around West Lake - one of the main attractions of Hangzhou. There were a lot of people walking around enjoying the fresh night air and beautiful scenery. After our walk, we returned back to our apartments to do what we normally do on Sundays but hadn't yet had time to do. Jessie joined us to "watch"; she is searching, I think, but she's quite an intellectual in the negative sense of the word, and I think she just needs more time to study. Remember her!
Monday we had our hotel's van take us out to Dragon Tea Village - a small village famous for its tea. We first walked along a pathway crossing several streams and passing terraced earth planted fully with tea plants. It was so beautiful. After walking a short while, we arrived in the Dragon Tea Village. Last year the government made the people living in this village build lavish homes to perhaps increase the image of the village. The homes were ridiculously huge and cost a lot of money which the homeowners had to shell out personally.
Since it was too early to eat, we just wandered around the village. There was a VIP entrance which would have cost 10 kuai to enter. We didn't want to spend that so we took another route. We walked up some trail that led through the tea plants. Jessie and Darla took a rest while the boys and I climbed higher up the mountain. We wanted to reach the top so we cut through some areas that didn't look like real paths. While we were up there, we heard some people yelling and singing so we yelled back. Before long the workers, or the ladies picking the tea leaves, began singing traditional Chinese songs which radiated throughout the mountains. It was incredible. All we could do was yell "RICCOLA!" in return. (: We climbed pretty high and found a map which said the next nearest destination spot was a 30 minute walk so we decided to go back to the girls. Instead of going back to the trail, we took the more interesting route - straight down the mountain. It was fun. Derek about bit it several times, but we all made it in one piece. We came back to the village taking a different route - one that spit us out into the VIP area where we were supposed to have paid to enter. We didn't know what we should do because if we walked by the gate, the guards would clearly remember us from before and know we didn't pay. So we decided that Jakie, Jessie and Frank would leave first since they're Chinese and not so identifiable as the rest of us. Then we would leave a couple minutes later, and if the guards tried to say anything to us, we would say, "ting bu dong" (I don't understand) and keep walking. But we weren't stopped so it all worked out.
For lunch we ate at a place Jessie had tried once before. We ordered fish soup, chicken soup, and a bunch of other dishes. It took awhile to prepare our meal because they killed the chicken fresh, and Derek and I actually watched a guy kill and gut the fish for the fish soup. The meal was good, and we also drank some of the tea from the village. It was pretty expensive, and I couldn't tell the difference between it and the tea we normally drink. Then again, the Chinese people here can't tell the difference between Nescafe instant coffee and Starbucks coffee so I guess I haven't been raised to be a tea connoisseur like they haven't been raised to be coffee connoisseurs.
There was a rumored bamboo forest which we next set off to find. We had a map of Hangzhou, and we kept asking locals where to go. We started walking through the fields of tea, and the area was pretty steep. Then we entered a wooded area, and it got REALLY steep, even sporting several switch backs. I got quite a bit ahead of the others, and then Frank and Jakie caught up. We stopped to wait on the others, but only Derek showed up to tell us the girls were stopping, and Jessie thought we were going the wrong way. I wasn't ready to give up yet so while the boys grabbed a snack, I told them I would go a little further to make sure we weren't near the bamboo forest. I went for quite a ways, and finally the trail opened up onto a paved pathway leading higher. I remembered the word for bamboo and asked a couple people where it was. They kept pointing up the pathway, but I was concerned about the others so I called Jessie and let her talk to a Chinese guy to get directions. It turned out that we were headed the right way. So everyone finally met up with me, we rested for a bit, and then set off. We were actually a greater distance away from the bamboo forest than we realized (and it's probably a good thing we didn't realize it), but we walked down hundreds of steps before reaching our destination at last. It was well worth the ridiculous hike, though. At the bottom of what I assume is a sort of valley was a small area with a restaurant, a temple and several other attractions.
While there we tried lotus powder which is made into a porridge of some sort. On top was sprinkled the flower from the guai tree - my absolute favorite tree here so far. When it blooms, its smell permeates the air, and it is the sweetest smell ever. It even masks the smell of rotting garbage and some of the other interesting smells we usually encounter in the streets of China - like stinky tofu! Anyway, the lotus powder porridge was amazing. I loved it so much that when we went shopping at a big grocery store a few days later, I bought some instant lotus powder porridge which I've yet to try.
Our train for Shanghai didn't leave until 9 p.m. Tuesday night so we had all day to hang out in Hangzhou. We mostly just stayed around West Lake. We took a small boat onto the lake for a few minutes. We were hoping to take it around the lake, which is huge, but the boatman only kept us out there for maybe 10 minutes - which just happened to be enough time for the boys to teach Derek how to harrass and embarrass Chinese ladies by saying the equivalent to "What's up, Baby. Come over here and give me a kiss." Of course, he's said it so many times since then that I can now add that phrase, as well as "I'm going to eat your table" which Derek uses at restaurants quite frequently, to the small number of phrases I can already say.
After boating we walked around part of the lake. It was really crowded, and we saw quite a few foreigners. Jakie and Frank know English really well including a lot of slang. Whenever they saw foreigners (white people), they would say things like, "What's up, man?" or "What's up, Baby?", depending on the sex of the person, or they would just say "Cracker" every time they saw a whitey. They think "cracker" is absolutely hilarious to say when refering to a white person. Of course, they said all this under their breath so as to avoid offending anyone.
We took a break in a grassy park area. We had our backpacks with us so it was nice to lay them down and relax for awhile. Jessie, Jakie and Frank wanted to rent a few bikes and bike around West Lake, but the three of us Americans opted to relax in the park and eat ice cream - thus reinforcing the image that Americans are lazy and Chinese are active! (: We spent most of the time watching a group of young Chinese people playing some version of duck, duck, goose. It seemed that no one wanted to sit by us because when you looked around, you could see pockets of people congregated closely together, but around us was a rather large, empty space. We did have a few people ask to take pictures with us. I wonder how many times I show up in other peoples' photo albums. "On my holiday vacation, I saw an American..."
When our Chinese friends finally returned, we decided to eat dinner at a Papa Johns that was nearby. On the street with the Papa Johns, there was a Starbucks, Dairy Queen, TCBY and perhaps some other American restaurants! We had little time before our train left, but we downed some breadsticks and two pizzas before rushing off. It was so good! It was my first taste of western food since I left over a month ago.
We got back to Shanghai late and slept in the next day. We didn't really have much of an agenda Wednesday. We went grocery shopping and bought stuff to make hamburgers for lunch. We watched some more PRISON BREAK and pretty much just hung out all day. That night Jessie and Neo (her Shanghainese boyfriend) took us to the famous downtown area of Shanghai. We saw all the skyscrapers you see in the movies (the Pearl Tower and the two important skyscrapers in Mission Impossible 3). Since it was night time, everything was lit up. We also walked along the river. There were several boats along the river including one carrying a cinema sized tv which broadcasted commericals with Yao Ming and Jakie Chan and other famous Chinese people. We found a Starbucks, ordered some drinks, and sat out on the patio overlooking the river and the rest of the downtown area.
Before returning home, we stopped for a really late dinner at a barbecue place. Everything tasted really good, but it wasn't even close to our barbecue back home.
THURSDAY - TOURIST DAY
Thursday we were given the option of going outside the city to some nearby towns (one where MI:3 was filmed or another that is known as China's Venice). Since my cash flow was getting low, I suggested just hanging out in Shanghai and getting to know the city better. Everyone else agreed that that would be a better choice so Jessie and Neo acted as our tour guides and took us to some of the local tourist hot spots. I can't even begin to explain the places we went to, and unfortunately, Derek didn't bring his camera so I couldn't even show pictures. Basically, we walked through several areas that have a lot of western shops dealing with high fashion, foods, etc. as well as a lot of touristy souvenirs. It was cool to see. We had fried quail on a stick and bought a Dairy Queen blast to share among all of us. I was constantly surprised by how much our Chinese friends enjoyed the greasy, sweet or terribly fattening American food, but they loved pizza, hamburgers, Starbucks and Dairy Queen a lot!
We pretty much spent the afternoon walking around. Since we were in the touristy part of town, we ran into tons of British and German tour groups and many Americans too. It was interesting seeing so many foreigners. In Shiyan there are very few foreigners.
Thursday night we ate street hot pot. You can choose whatever foods you want to be put in your very own hot pot, and they cook it for you. They call it crazy hot pot, but it was pretty good. Usually, anything I didn't like, Frank or Neo would eat it and anything anyone else didn't like, I would eat it.
FRIDAY - HOME COOKED CHINESE FOOD
Jessie wanted to cook some Chinese food for us Friday before we left around 9 p.m. that night. So in the morning we first went to a Carre-four, a French/Chinese joint supermarket. They are supposed to have foods we don't have here in Shiyan, which I think they do, but we wanted cocoa powder, which they didn't have. We did buy a lot of snacks and things for the train ride home that night.
Next we stopped by this special bakery shop - Lillian's bakery. Jessie said it is the best bakery shop in Shanghai so we bought some egg tarts which were amazing. There was cheese tart that Jessie said was horrible, but Derek bought one anyway for us to try. It turned out to be cheese cake! It was awesome, but none of the Chinese with us liked it. Then Jessie bought each of us a beautiful pastry to have after dinner later.
After buying veggies and some meat at the outdoor market, we went home where Jessie prepared a fantastic lunch. When lunch was over, the boys wanted back rubs so everyone left but Jessie and me. We immediately began working on dinner. It took a really long time to get dinner ready, but when everyone returned, we had just enough time to eat dinner, eat our pastries, grab our stuff and run to catch the tram. The tram took us to the train station where we parted with Jessie and Jon (Jakie and Jessie's other brother who is a professional cook at one of the Shanghainese restaurants and who worked so much we seldom saw him) and boarded the train. We each had beds on the train so we were able to sleep a lot. Well, I was able to sleep a lot, anyway. When we first got on the train, Derek made friends with two little kids - a boy and a girl. They NEVER left us alone after that. They climbed all over our beds and woke Derek up whenever he tried to sleep. They climbed all over Frank like he was a jungle gym, and they yelled a lot. Fortunately, I can sleep through anything.
Twenty-two hours later we arrived in Shiyan. Jakie, Frank and Darla headed for the medical school, and Derek and I came home to unload our stuff. We then met back up at Happy Guy's. It had been too long since we'd had some good sweet and sour pork and some of our other staples here.