Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Other Huzhou Laowai

This post isn't really a post for me. It's a link to my friend Ellis's blog.

She has a post on an all too typical experience for her: Chinese people's fascination with foreigners.


Now, it's a very interesting read, and from what I've heard from her and others, not an atypical occurrence. But not for me.

Now I can certainly understand that at first glance I may not get noticed as much as other foreigners, I'm neither glaringly white nor dark, my hair is black, and I'm not too tall. From behind, it might be hard to know that I'm not a Chinese.

Once people see my face, though, they are immediately aware that I am indeed not Chinese. I get some stares, but not the way my other friends seem to.

And as far as something like Ellis's experience at the gym, the well-meaning, yet still annoying pestering while working out... it just doesn't happen with me. The only people that talk to me at the gym are essentially one of two physical trainers that work there. One uses English, and the other uses Chinese. But even then, I wouldn't say they talk to me at length or to an annoying level, it's usually just a hello and a few words.

I'm not complaining. I'm sure this would get old fast. But for whatever reason, even though other gym members can plainly see I'm not Chinese, I guess I just don't incite the same level of curiosity. Or maybe it's because I'm a dude.

By the way, if you don't know, "laowai" (from the subject of this post) means foreigner.

July 23, Tiananmen Square & Forbidden City

The first morning in Beijing we got up early and headed out for Tian An Men Square via, and for the last time, the subway. When we got there, it wasn't too hot, as it had rained that morning and was still cloudy. It would rain later, so it stayed cloudy, but that did make our outing pleasantly cool. We took some pictures in the square.

First Arrived

Facing South

Facing North

Always LOTS of People Everywhere

As you can tell from some of these pictures, there were always lots of people here in the square... which makes this picture Jean took when she was a little girl all the more confusing. There is literally no one else in the square (only a few across the street). I asked her about this, and she said she doesn't know why there was no one, perhaps it was very early in the morning, and perhaps it had just rained. Also, not nearly as many Chinese took touristy trips 16 years ago as they do today, as the Chinese people have more money today than in the past.

Jean, age 8, Tian An Men Square

Later, we decided to get in line to see Chairman Mao's body. First we went to a building across the street to put our stuff in the locker. I knew no pictures were allowed, but I didn't know cameras weren't either, so I didnt put my camera away in the storage place. In retrospect it kind of makes sense, though they don't disallow cell phones, but you do get in trouble if you try to take a picture with one. We waited in line for about an hour until we got to the entrance and the security checkpoint. Since I had my camera on me they denied me entry. What I should've done is stopped taken a deep breath and told my family, ok you guys go through, I'll see you at the exit. Instead I wasnt thinking and I just exited. After I realized what I should've done, I hoped they still would go through, so I made my way to meet them at the exit.

20 minutes later, however, they still had not shown. I decided to wait 5 more minutes, and then if they were still a no show, I'd go to our pre-arranged "get separated" location. But just at that time, I got a phone call. Uncle Jack had borrowed one of the workers' cell phones and called me. They had been waiting at the entrance for me for the last 20 minutes. He asked if I was just going to wait for them at the exit, I said yes, and they went through, and after regrouping I apologized for making them wait there in the first place without giving them notice.

It was all good, and we then went to go eat lunch. We just walked a short way away from Tian An Men square and saw a Chinese Fast Food place. These were NOT the kind of Chinese dishes to show off Chinese cuisine, but we needed to eat, and we didn't really know where anything else was. There could've been a great place right around the corner, or just as easily 10 blocks away.

After that we walked back toward the forbidden city, but made a pit stop along the way. Katy and Uncle Jack needed to use the public facilities while we waited outside.
Uncle Jack returned first, followed shortly by Katy, who shortly began with a disgusting tirade over the state of the bathroom inside and the shortly thereafter labelled "squatty potties."

Afterward we crossed the street toward the Forbidden City. Before we entered, Beth asked me, "If it's a forbidden city, why are they letting us inside?"

Out in Front

Courtyard Inside

Lion Statue Crushing a Baby Lion
(at least that's what I say it is, but when you read
"crushing" you must imagine Borat saying it
and doing the crushing motion with his hand)

We finished the afternoon with an educational (we rented the audio tour device) stroll through the city/palace, shortly after which it began to rain. Luckily we snagged a cab back to our hotel minutes before the rain came down really hard. The driver was different than most other cab drivers I have met in China in that I could more easily understand what he was saying. His Chinese pronunciation was fairly standard, which unfortunately for my comprehension, is something that is a bit rare among taxi drivers.

Friday, August 14, 2009

July 22, To Beijing

The next morning my family was in China, things went well enough, we ate the complimentary breakfast, which had both Western and Chinese style items, and was actually not half bad.

Then we checked-out, loaded our stuff into the van, and headed to the Hongqiao Airport of Hangzhou. We arrived at about 9:30 which was actually PERFECT timing. The solar eclipse for that day had begun at 8:41, but that was just the starting overlap. By 9:30 things were beginning to get slightly dimmer, and by 9:35 it was beginning to look like early evening. And then at 9:41, the moon completely blocked out the sun and it was dark as night. Everyone was shouting and ooing, and I have to say, it was actually a LOT cooler than I thought it was going to be. The sky had been a bit cloudy that day, so the pictures and videos taken with my camera may not be very good, but because of the clouds, we were able to look reasonably directly at it without burning our retinas. It lasted about 5 minutes, and then there was light. And the crowd that had gathered outside the drop-off point at the terminal dispersed and went about their day.

In case the video wasn't very clear:

Dark out...

And a few seconds later.

Lots of people taking pictures

A couple familiar faces in this one

On a side note, as a bit of a surprise, while I was at the airport, I bumped into my school's leader. He noticed me and called out to me and said Hello. Not a big deal, but China is a huge place with LOTS of people and it's always an interesting surprise for me to unexpectedly run into someone I know here. Especially when I'm not in my "hometown."

So, we got our tickets and checked the luggage with no problems, and had about 90 minutes to kill before our flight. Our flight began boarding a bit late, about 10 minutes before the scheduled takeoff, but that can happen from time to time I suppose. The real problem was the waiting after we were already on the plane. The flight was scheduled to leave at 12:20 and land in Beijing at 2:20. We finally landed at 4:00 spending nearly 2 hours on the plane AT the gate with the AC having problems, and then another not quite 2 hours in the air. The others were rather frustrated with that flight, and they should've been especially considering they were still feeling jetlag from arriving the day before. I wasn't as frustrated as I could've been, but that's only because I have one slightly more frustrating... no, one extremely more frustrating flight experience while traveling American Airlines on one occasion... but that's a different story.

We arrived in Beijing and hopped on a van to the hotel. Uncle Jack did a really great job selecting the hotel as it was really nice, and I'll have a video of it posted soon. Our dinner outing was delayed a bit by some heavy rain, but it didn't last for too long and we went out not long after.

We found a Japanese restaurant not far from the hotel. The reason we went to the Japanese restaurant and not a Chinese restaurant is because the sign said (in Chinese) something that translated to unlimited Japanese buffet. When we sat down, but found that it was not actually what one would call a buffet, but WAS, after talking with the waitress at length in Chinese, an unlimited servings deal. Basically you would sit down around a hibachi grill and you just order anything and everything you'd want off the menu, then they'd bring it out and the guy would cook it right there for you. If you wanted more later, you could order more. You paid one flat fee and the food was unlimited and you did choose it yourself. It just wasn't a typical, get up grab a plate and pick stuff off a bar situation. It was really delicious though.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

July 21st, A Tillman Clan Arrives in China

The weekend before the travelling began I unfortunately fell a bit ill and sported a fever on Sunday while in Hangzhou visiting Jean. Luckily Jean helped take care of me and scored me some aspirin, which did help to break my fever, but unfortunately it returned, and I wasn't feeling well enough to return to Huzhou that night. Monday morning I was feeling a bit better, but not 100%, but I had to return to pack my things for the trip and get my passport so I could fly.

Tuesday morning, July 21st, I left my house at 8:30, arrived at the Huzhou bus station at 9:10, and bought a bus ticket to Shanghai. However the next bus was to leave at 10:20, so I had to just kill some time. As soon as I sat down in the lobby, I realized that after all I had remembered to pack, I had forgotten my passport. So I rushed out, grabbed the nearest taxi, told him I was in a hurry and to go to the Huzhou Vocational and Technical College. We got there in about 15 minutes, and got to the front gate of the school. I asked the guards if they would let the taxi go inside the school because I was in a hurry and needed to fetch my passport, but they said no. The taxi driver had already said he would wait, so I told him I would run. So, I got out of the car and began sprinting the nearly half a mile back to my apartment from the front gate and up the 6 floors to my apartment. I say began sprinting because I wasn't able to spring the whole way. I definitely didn't pace myself well. Half a mile should not begin with a full-on 100% dead-out sprint. In any case I did run the whole way there, grabbed my passport, drank some MUCH needed water, shut off some lights I had forgotten to turn off when I left the first time, and ran back.

Altogether the driver waited for me about 10 minutes, the last part of which I seriously began worrying about whether or not he had waited. If he hadn't it could be EXTREMELY difficult to find another taxi from there in a short period of time, and there wouldn't be enough time to catch another bus. Luckily he still was and upon seeing that I decided I'd give the driver a tip. This may not seem like much, but tips in China are essentially non-existent, so when a service-person we would usually tip receives one, their reponse is usually one mixed of surprise and confusion. In retrospect, I imagine he would've waited for me as I had not yet paid him when I ran to my apartment.

Anyhow, I did finally arrive back at the bus station at 10:00, 20 minutes to spare, plenty of time before my scheduled departure. After boarding the bus, however, I began to question my timing, and soon figured that I might be late. The bus to Shanghai needed about 3 hours, but that is just to arrive at the south station. That put my arrival at 1:20pm assuming nothing went wrong along the way. My family's flight, according to the Delta website I had checked before I left, however, was to land at 1:15 . I knew that there would be a 20 minute delay for checking everyone's temperature on board (a policy China has implemented on all incoming flights from the US and Mexico due to the H1N1 flu), perhaps another 20 minutes going through customs, and then, I guessed maybe 15 minutes getting their luggage.

But I knew that it would take be about 90 minutes to get to the international arrivals terminal once I arrived at the Shanghai South Station, meaning there could've potentially been about 30 minutes difference after their exit through the "Nothing to Declare" gate and when I would arrive, leaving them wondering where to go and having no way to contact me. I really began to stress about this, and so I called my American friend Nellie in Shanghai, to see if maybe, on the off chance that she was free, if perhaps she could do me a solid. My luck had seemingly changed as it turned out she was actually free for a few hours, wasn't too terribly far from the airport, and was willing to help me out.

I finally arrived in Shanghai at 1pm, not 1:20 (so it's 2:40 hours, not 3), called Nellie and tried to coordinate. We then agreed that I would make my way to the non-airport side of the Maglev station. Then I'd give her a call if I had not already heard from her. If my family had arrived, she'd take them to the maglev to me; if not, I'd hop on the maglev to the airport. I got to the maglev station at about 2pm, and she said she still hadn't seen them, and that it was beginning to worry her. She said the boards show that their flight landed at 1:12pm, and that people from other flights landing about the same time had already come out. I got to the international arrivals gate at about 2:20 and saw Nellie but no Tillmans. Nellie had been free up to this point, but did have something else to do later, so she had to go, and I thanked her again for helping me out. I, however, was beginning to worry too. It had now been OVER an hour since they landed and they hadn't shown. I was nervous they'd been quarantined or something. Luckily my fears were not founded and sometime around 2:45 they finally came out. Whew! Turns out it was a combination of A) taking people's temperatures, B) Stopping to take pictures, allowing others to get in line in customs before them, insuring C) a long line at customs, and D) simply having to wait a long time for all their checked luggage.

Tillmans Arrive at Customs

So, we began schlepping our stuff from the Shanghai airport, through the Maglev, then the #2 subway to Peoples' Square, switched to the #1 to the South Railway station, and landed a train to Hangzhou. This bit of travel is not too harrowing if you are one or two people travelling lightly. But if you are 5 people and 4 BIG pieces of luggage, it can be rather more troublesome.

On the Shanghai MagLev Train at 430 km/h
(That's 269 mph in, as Katy put it, "real life")

Anyhow we arrived in Hangzhou, snagged a minibus (a van) to our hotel, the Best Western Premier, showered and cleaned up, and waited to meet Jean to go to dinner. She gave me a call when she arrived at our hotel and I went down first to meet her.

I couldn't find her at first, and we were trying to figure out where the other person was. It was at the moment when we said we were both at the door that I realized that we could not possibly be at the same place. As it turns out there were TWO Best Westerns in Hangzhou, and she was not at ours. So, poor Jean had to hop ANOTHER cab to ANOTHER Best Western hotel in ANOTHER part of town that she didn't know very well. But she did finally arrive, beautiful as ever, and everyone was introduced, and we made our way to dinner. We weren't sure where to go to eat as the restaurant Jean had previously selected was convenient to the other Best Western. So we decided to take a stroll and push our luck. We shortly found a place that seemed nice and took a table.

There was no menu, the plates and foods were either on display or on display being cooked and you could choose what you liked. Jean and I chose for our party, and chose carefully for our recently arrived and certainly tired and weary (and perhaps somewhat picky) guests. While we were waiting on the food Katy said she'd like to take a look at some of the things they had, what I had ordered. She approved of the choices, but while looking at the dishes, Katy noticed some caged chickens. Katy mentioned that she thought it was strange to have the live chickens out where the patrons could see them, as if they would point and say "Ooh! I want that one!", and that you wouldn't see that in the states. I replied, "Sure you do. Have you ever been to Red Lobster?"

The food was good and everybody enjoyed most of it. I say most of it, because when selecting, I wasn't sure if deer was too outside the mainstream for my family, and as it turns out, it is. I ate it, but it looked better than it tasted. It was actually kind of bland.

Anyhow, we went back to the hotel, where upon opening the mini-fridge, Katy noticed that the Red Bull cans in China are short, fat, and yellow, as opposed to the familiar, chic, tall, skinny, and grey and blue. There at the hotel, Jean helped us negotiate a better rate from the minibus for a ride to the airport the next morning, and we all took a few pictures, after which Jean went home, and we all went off to bed for an early, action-packed next day.

Jean and the Tillmans

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Trip Posts

Ok, so I returned from my travelling about a week and a half ago. And I DID write a TON of stuff about the trip, but I never posted it because I wanted to be able to post it with the appropriate pictures.

However, since then, I haven't gotten around to doing it because there are loads of pictures to sift through and choose from. As a result, I have been procrastinating doing posting the entire bit. But, beginning tomorrow, I will put posts up from each day of my travels with the corresponding date in the header.

I'll keep doing this on a daily basis until I'm caught up, in which case I'll probably return to my weekly or so postings.