Who knows why we do anything? I think there are probably a variety of reasons why we decided to travel in December. Lots of things came together to make this particular month the month to take a few days off and get out of town. With my light teaching schedule and the decision to not travel during October holiday, I was feeling the itch in early November to get on a train and see where it would take me. Hong Kong, which has become the Mecca for those of us older folks around here, was on my wish list, and Brian and Jessica both were prepared to rearrange some classes for a week long journey with me. We planned to travel the week before Christmas because my classes would be finished and the other two would be nearing the end of theirs. Plus, we already had an alliterated name for November - No Shave November - which meant "Destination December" was meant to be (and we were meant to wait).
With a destination in mind and date to leave arranged, we came off our Thanksgiving high to tread through the first couple weeks of December. The weekdays themselves are generally uneventful. I finished my classes the first week of December and scheduled movie nights in their place the following week. I had a small group of students from my Monday and Wednesday night classes come those evenings to watch a film. The students who came happen to be my favorite (though they were chosen to come as a reward to their winning an ABC of Slang Balderdash game the week before), and we had a really good time together. They're pretty shy still (I'm their first foreign teacher, friend, etc.), but I'm hoping to continue building good relationships with them. I have high hopes for 'em!
RUSSIAN HATS (or, BIG CITY FUN IN SMALL TOWN FORM)
However uneventful the weekdays are, the weekends make up for it! The second weekend in December, we were visited by two of our awesome Wuhan sisters, Danielle and Carole. They arrived late Friday night, heralding fun train-ride stories involving Mariah Carey's Hero and Communist jacket pillows. It's okay if this doesn't make sense because so often, most things don't! Saturday morning we had a foreign girls brunch/study at Qi Yuan (my school). We've been doing an all girls, all foreigner brunch/study each Saturday morning and moving it around from school to school. It's been a fantastic uplift for me each time we meet. This particular week we were blessed to have some bacon, biscuits and gravy, banana bread and apple cinnamon muffins for brunch (thus noted, because this type of food is exciting for us!). We talked about affirmation and many other things, and I'm constantly reminded each week in these settings just how fortunate I am to be around other deeply spiritual ladies.
In the early afternoon, we went to the local orphanage. We really want to be a blessing to the children there, but it's hard sometimes knowing what we can do for them that will be the most helpful. We hoped to be able to make weekly visits, but the orphanage director just recently limited our coming to twice a month. It was a rainy day when we went this time. I'm not sure where all the kids were, but we were only able to meet with a handful. We sang a lot of songs from our songbook and flirted with the ultra-cute, shy little boy who easily won the hearts of all the girls there.
From the orphanage, a quick trip to the Korean Market provided awesome Russian hats with sweet, furry ear-flaps. We ate a quick dinner at Happy Guys, took some compromising photos in the Russian hats (Jessica, Danielle, and Carole, that is) and rested up before our big night on the town.
Life is a musical here. Or at least we try to make it such. Singing and dancing often happen spontaneously and serve as the answer to any mundane atmosphere we encounter. Saturday night we decided to go dancing. Given my Caucasian genes and restrictive upbringing, my rhythm is basically non-existent, but it was still a lot of fun hanging out, laughing and dancing the night away (or at least the hour or two we were out).
Intent on giving our Wuhan friends a fun experience worthy of the one they afforded us two weeks previously when we visited them for Thanksgiving, we decided to continue our musical weekend on Sunday. After our morning meeting, we went to Priscilla's to watch Hairspray and to take showers. Then we headed over to enjoy an hour of KTV (karaoke). I don't generally enjoy KTV when I go with students or other people (it's too loud and taken too seriously), but with some loud and crazy Americans, we had a blast singing and dancing in our little private room.
After KTV we went to UBC Coffee for some fried ice cream balls. You never know what type of ice cream you'll get, but the funnel-cake crust is delicious regardless. The flavors of ice cream appear to be green, off-white, purple and red. Now, one might say those aren't flavors; they're colors. To which I would respond, orange is both a color and a fruit, and in China, it's a person too! The green is my favorite flavor, I think.
Every evening in People's Square, which is very near UBC Coffee, the old people of the community get together for a little dance party/exercise routine. We, of course, decided to join them after our fried ice cream balls were sitting heavy in our tummies. There were a few different styles of dancing,: the classic, Native American-like, powwow shuffle - the easiest yet least impressive style, the subdued Irish jig - which looks easy, but proves otherwise upon attempting to imitate it, and the Chinese four-step - called that for lack of better understanding of what was happening. The old people were very kind and patient in allowing us to mimic them and even took a little time to slowly show us the steps. We didn't stay too long. As we were leaving, Jessica and Carole decided to teach them the Electric Slide. They drew quite a crowd of interested folks, and a few of the bolder Chinese followed their lead. It was great fun.
Sadly, all good times must come to an end, and Danielle and Carole left us Monday morning. Fortunately, Wuhan isn't too far away...
After a few hiccups in our travel plans, Hong Kong was put on a back burner (a destination to be revisited next semester), and Brian, Jessica and I agreed to visit Chengdu instead. Chengdu is the fifth largest city in China and is located in Sichuan Province. It's about a twelve or thirteen hour train ride from us. Chengdu is one of those cities in China that everyone will tell you is beautiful and amazing and you must visit it. Afterall, there are pandas there, lots and lots of pandas.
We didn't really plan anything for the trip. With Lonely Planet China in hand, we set off for Chengdu last Thursday night (on Jessica's birthday which we celebrated with banana pancakes in the morning, dinner and cake in the evening and a dart/stress relief board in the, well, forever actually).
Our main objectives in Chengdu were 1) hold a panda (well, that was Jessica's dream which we promised to fulfill for her as her birthday present from Brian and me), 2) eat Mexican food at Pete's Tex-Mex restaurant, and 3) visit Starbucks (although, I'm saddened by this admittance, I do look forward to finding Starbucks in the bigger cities we visit).
From the train station in Chengdu, we lugged our big bags to a taxi and were taken to Pete's restaurant first thing. The food was too amazing to describe. The atmosphere, too, was so great. The whole place had a ski lodge around Christmas type of feel to it. There were a lot of foreigners, and Brian, Jessica and I found it difficult to not stare at them!
From Pete's we found a hostel called Sim's which I recommend to anyone traveling to Chengdu. It's one of the better hostels I've stayed in, and Sim (the owner) is super cool. We did find a Starbucks that evening after we had bought a few books from a bookstore that sold a small collection of English books (several of them classics which was exciting). We spent a few hours reading at Starbucks before heading to our hostel for the night.
Saturday found us making our way to interesting spots in the city. We checked out the Tibetan district and ate some "authentic" Tibetan food. We also went to People's Park because we had read about an underground thrill ride which took you by rickety train past strange wonders and through a shark's mouth. We were so excited about this ride, but our hopes were dashed (the first, but certainly not the last time on this trip) when a self-selling tour guide told us the ride had been turned into an underground ghost town. We decided to check it out, nevertheless, and paid five yuan to walk through this sadly decrepit excuse for a haunted house. We made our own fun, however, by frightening the other unfortunate souls who were also duped into paying five yuan for this thrill-less spectacle.
Saturday night we attended the Sichuan opera which absolutely did not disappoint (minus the fact we were promised VIP seats in the first five rows and paid for such, but were given eighth row seats). It wasn't crowded as I had expected it to be. Included in the variety show were the traditional high-pitched opera that China is famous for, shadow puppets, hand puppets, an acrobatic routine, a traditional Chinese comedy, and the changing faces extravaganza. The changing of the faces (not to be confused with the changing of the guard, though I'm finding my descriptive skills to be inadequate at the moment) was quite amazing. These skilled masters could change their masks in the blink of an eye. I was and continue to be in awe of their abilities.
Sunday we took a day trip to LeShan, a nearby mountain which boasts the largest carved Buddha in the world. We arrived in the LeShan village around lunchtime, and after eating some local dishes (spicy enough to help Brian get his spice back which had been lost in recent weeks), we set off by foot to find this Giant Buddha. Entrance into the park was more expensive than I wanted to pay, but when you come this far, you can't turn back. We paid the 70 yuan and began the short trek to the top of the Giant Buddha. It also didn't disappoint. It's quite huge. They say it's fingernail is longer than the height of an average person. Upon observance, this height is clearly referring to the average Chinese person, but, even so, the carved statue is still huge.
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the park, getting lost, freaking out about birds (Jessica), visiting empty tombs and broken relics, exploring a vacant temple guarded by a ferocious dog, and finding our way out. LeShan is pretty cool. I enjoyed my time there. That night we went to an Irish pub and had the best steak burger and chicken burger I have ever had. The music was good, and it was a nice way to round out the day.
Monday we had great plans. Just kidding. Brian and I slept in while Jessica went to visit a monastery nearby. We met up for lunch at Grandma's Kitchen which turned out to be a branch of Grandma's Kitchen in the Jazz Lounge we had hoped to go to that night. (Sadly, the Jazz Lounge would have no live music that night so we didn't end up going there.) Since Grandma's Kitchen was a flop (too expensive), we went to the Cajara Indian restaurant next door where Jessica fell in love with our Tibetan waiter and my love for Bollywood was rekindled. You never know what good may come from altered plans!
We also found another foreign language bookstore and bought still more books to add to our collection. As before, we found a Starbucks soon after our purchases and read for several hours. That evening we went back to our hostel early and relaxed in the restaurant/rec room. Since we couldn't play Mahjong (no suitable table), Jessica and Brian taught me Texas Holdem'.
Tuesday was all about the pandas. We left early in the morning because we had read that pandas are most active between nine and ten in the morning. They spend most of their time sleeping each day (something about bamboo being too fibrous to be of much nutritional value and sleep being the best way to reserve what energy they do obtain from the bamboo). The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (that's the panda place's name) was surprisingly well kept. It was definitely one of the most professionally maintained attractions I've been to in Asia. We visited the Giant Panda Enclosures, the Young Panda Enclosures, and the Baby Panda Nursery (our favorite site) several times, actually. We just kept meandering back and forth. Near the nursery we were supposed to be able to pay to hold a panda, but for whatever reason, there was nowhere to do this. I'm not sure if our timing was bad, if the camera crew we saw was filming something important and, thereby, monopolizing the pandas' time, or if the place is just disorganized during off-season tourist times, but we left the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding dejected (Jessica's word) and resentful towards Lonely Planet which we feel did not prepare us for the possibility that we wouldn't be able to hold a panda.
The only cure for disappointment met by resentment and sprinkled with a little anger was dessert and coffee from Starbucks. Having thus been slightly (or momentarily) appeased, we spent the rest of the evening reading and counting the hours until we could board our train for our sweet little hometown. While Shiyan may not be the most fantastic city in China, it certainly doesn't boast great things which it will fail to deliver!
It's not that Chengdu is a terrible city, but it lacks personality. It lacks character. I'm happy I visited it, and I'm content to never revisit it. The highlights of this trip definitely consisted of our awesome book purchases (and the time to relax and read them at Starbucks), the food from various countries we partook of, Sim's hostel, some incredibly cute pets which have inspired Jessica and me to get a puppy in the near future, my company (Jessica and Brian, yay, for fun travel buddies!), and these sweet head scarves Jessica and I bought (one scarf which can be used in a variety of ways to completely change the look or fashion for which I am striving, given my mood or the occasion in which I find myself).
We are glad to be home. It's good timing too because Christmas festivities begin very soon. I'm not exactly prepared for them. I feel that this year has reached that point similar to the point at which the sun has nearly set. It's the only time when you actually see the sun moving down. It goes so quickly that if you look away for even one second, you might miss the top of the sun disappearing beyond the horizon. I feel that right now I'm watching the year slipping down so quickly into the horizon that I can't look away or I'll miss it! But that's okay; the new year promises great things.