Mid-Autumn Festival

The Mid-Autumn Festival is an important holiday in Chinese culture. This year, it was on October 4. The OU Chinese Language Club held their Mid-Autumn Festival Celebration on October 5. It started with a presentation about the meaning of the holiday (a fascinating story, which you can read about here) and a video of a Chinese dance.

Next, we got to hear from a student who studied abroad in Shanghai for all of last year. He mostly provided advice for students who were thinking about studying in China. The advice wasn’t especially pertinent to me, since I’ve lived it too, but it brought back a lot of memories – the joys and hardships of living in China.

Image source

We finished out the night with food! A lot of the Chinese professors made dishes to share, and the highlight of the meal was the moon cakes. Moon cakes are the traditional food of the Mid-Autumn Festival, and they usually contain red bean paste, nuts, or salted duck egg yolk. They are an acquired taste for some, but they are a beautiful and tasty treat that I look forward to every autumn.

OU Chinese Language Club: Fall 2017

This semester, I’m part of OU’s Chinese Language Club , as I have been since I started at OU. There aren’t a whole lot of Chinese majors at OU, so the club is a great way to find them. Because of low membership, the club doesn’t host very many activities. One notable activity, however, is the club’s Chinese Conversation Hour. It’s a great way for Chinese students wanting to improve their speaking skills to do so in a highly practical way.

As a committee member for the club, I look forward to helping the CLC recruit more members and really make this club a resource for Chinese students. It’s so refreshing to be able to speak with people who share the same passions I do, and I want other students to be have the opportunity to feel the same.

A Day in the Life of 戈爱玛

戈爱玛 (Ge Aima), that’s me! I thought you all might be interested to see what a typical day in Beijing looked like for me.

At 未名湖 (No Name Lake) in north campus

Peking University (PKU) is in Beijing’s university district (Haidian), in the northwest part of the city.  I was about an hour-long bus ride from the Forbidden City, which is at the heart of Beijing. Despite the distance from many things, it’s actually very accessible with both a bus stop and a subway station right outside the east gate. Being a little farther from the center of town allows PKU’s campus to be larger than most. In addition, because it’s the most highly-ranked university in China, it’s a tourist attraction and gets a lot of money from the government for beautification. The main reason I chose PKU was, in fact, because I heard it had a gorgeous campus.

Also at PKU’s on-campus lake
On clear days, I could see the distant mountains to the west. This day was so smog-free, I could open my window!

I lived in an international student dorm just outside Peking University’s southeast gate. I was on the eleventh floor (out of twelve) and, although I had a double room, I had no roommate. Somehow, in the four months I lived there, I forgot to get a single picture, so you’ll have to take my word for it – the room was massive. Probably four times the size of my freshman dorm room in Oklahoma. The best part about it was the view. One entire wall of the room was a floor-to-ceiling window. My window faced south, towards 中关村(Zhongguancun), known as China’s Silicon Valley. At night, it would light up, and it was like I was living two blocks from Times Square. It was hard to get out of bed in the mornings because it was so peaceful to just lie there and look out at the city.

I would watch the sunset from my room every night.
On top of the world!
Usually I would check my air quality app just to be sure.

Most days, my first class was at 10:10. I would wake up at 9:00 and look out the window to see if I needed a mask or not. Most days, it was pretty obvious I did.

I didn’t go outside this day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I would leave for class around 9:45. On the way, I would stop at a street food cart just outside my dorm for breakfast – 煎饼(jianbing)。Before my eyes, Jianbing Man (as we international students affectionately called him) would create a breakfast masterpiece in just 30 seconds from wheat batter, egg, green onions, and some mystery ingredients. It cost USD $1, and it is one of my top 3 foods from China.

Campus at night, taken from the bridge once after it snowed.

To get to campus, I had to cross a pedestrian bridge. Besides the two flights of stairs (which got progressively harder as the smog worked away at my lungs), I really enjoyed this part of my commute. At the top of the bridge, I could see a lot of the city and the campus. It made me feel like such a big-city girl.

My classroom building
My reading professor

The walk to my classroom building only took about 10 minutes total. Most days, I had just two classes – reading, and then either speaking or vocabulary. They lasted two hours each. I really loved my classes, my professors, and most of all my classmates. The 13 of us represented 8 different countries: United States, Australia, South Korea, Japan, Spain, Russia, the Philippines, and Brunei. My closest friend in the class was Carlota, from Spain, in the blue dress next to me in the photo below.

My class with my speaking professor

In between the two classes we had an hour-long break for lunch. PKU’s biggest and best canteen, Nonyuan, was also the closest one to my classroom building, so that’s where I normally went. This is what one of my typical lunches looked like: baked chicken, fried rice, a fried egg, steamed Chinese cabbage, and an Asian pear. Oftentimes I would also get milk tea or red bean sesame cookies for something sweet. All of this cost me less than USD $2! And it was, obviously, delicious.

Twice a week I would go to the fruit store after my classes. This is one of the parts of my daily life I miss most. Walking into the fruit store, my senses were immediately overwhelmed with the sweetest aromas of fifty different kinds of fruit, half of which I had never seen before. The store wasn’t very large, but they packed a lot of goodness in such a small place. I would always get enough pears for the next few days, since I had at least one every day. The pears in China are like an American pear and apple combined – sweet, unbelievably crisp, juicy – you could never go wrong with a pear. In addition to pears, I would usually also get some fruit to snack on, like kumquats or grapes.

After the fruit store, I would get started on my homework. Sometimes I would work on campus with friends, other times I would head back to my room to introvert and get stuff done. I always looked forward to dinner, though – another opportunity to have more of China’s amazing food. On the right is another of my top 3 dishes from China, 涮羊肉. Its English name, instant-boiled mutton, doesn’t do it justice. The cook drops thinly sliced lamb into a massive vat of boiling water for a few minutes, then scoops it into a bowl with some noodles and Chinese cabbage. Ladle some sesame sauce on top and sprinkle some Sichuan pepper if you dare, and you’re good to go! It was so incredibly savory and satisfying. The watermelon was a very nice spring and summer treat, too. This meal was also only USD $2.

After dinner I would usually work some more and often Skype my family or friends, drinking lots of tea all the while. Towards the end of the night I would have dessert: lychee nuts. If you haven’t had them before, they taste like a combination of a plum and a grape. You have to peel that spiky shell to get to the slippery fruit inside, but that’s just part of the experience. I also miss having lychee every night.

That’s what a day looked like for me! When I think about China, the things I miss most are the things in this post: the food, the friends, and the habits that made up my days there. It was a good life.

Two Adventures in Xi’an

Question: what has 11,000 legs, lives underground, and has been around for thousands of years but was only discovered 4 decades ago?

Answer: the Terra Cotta Army (兵马俑)!

If Nate and I look a little stressed, it’s because a third of China was pressing towards us at this moment.

In April, Nate and I traveled again with CET. This time, we went south to the famous city of Xi’an, resting place of China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang and his thousands of terra cotta soldier statues. After a 10-hour bus ride (we drove through the night on this trip), we rolled up to one of the world’s biggest tourist attractions. It was a Chinese national holiday so not only were lots of foreign tourists there, all the Chinese tourists were too. There’s an expression in Chinese, “人山人海”, that literally translates to “people mountain, people sea”. This phrase could be used to describe both the tightly-packed rows of earthen warriors and the seething masses of people who mobbed them.

With piles of labeled body parts, it was like a witch’s pantry.

The terra cotta soldiers were very cool. We first went through an exhibit that presented some history, which then opened up into three massive excavation pits that contained the soldiers. My favorite part was actually getting to see the excavation in progress. In two of the pits, there were ladders, tarps, and tools laid out among the bodies. The soldiers themselves weren’t finished – apparently it takes longer than 40 years to rebuild a 9,000-piece relic that was first built in the third century BCE.

This horse got stuck in a wall.

 

 

 

After we were done with the Terra Cotta Army, we went to Xi’an’s most famous street food market for dinner. The food there was mainly in the style of the Uyghur, a Chinese people group in the country’s northwest that has been largely influenced by Middle Eastern culture. The best dish I tried there was a spiced roasted lamb skewer, a street food delicacy I got to enjoy several times while in China. Nate and I also bought massive cotton candy spools for $5 each. It was luxury in excess.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thus climbing, we ascended.

The next day we tested the limits of the human body. Mount Hua is one of China’s most famous mountains, and parts of it make it one of the most dangerous hikes in the world. (Don’t worry, we didn’t do those parts. We didn’t have time.) Hiking the mountain means ascending a neverending series of staircases carved into the mountain itself. There are 5 peaks on the mountain, and we made it to two of them. It took 9 hours. Up.

Somehow, the view and the experience were worth the extreme physical pain we were all in by the time we reached the summit. China’s dramatically jagged mountains rose around us in green and yellow.

Us with Brian, a friend from South America we made on the hike!

Thankfully, we got to take a cable car down so we didn’t have to try to not fall down the mountain as we went down the stairs in our weakened state. Although the rapid descent through the mountains we had just climbed did make me question the merit of ascending the mountain on foot, the experience of flying through China’s mountains in a glass box was truly breathtaking.

The entrance to Mount Hua Park

By the time we made it back the bus, my legs were shaking so bad I could barely stand for lack of balance. Sleep was such a relief that night.

We got up super early the next day to drive back. I managed to stay awake most of the ride, and I was pleasantly surprised that the scenery on the daytime ride back was more diverse and beautiful than I had realized. I got to see mountains, plateaus, terraced rice fields, farms, and other manifestations of the landscape that must be unique to China. It was like driving through the China section of a world history textbook.

That was my last out-of-town trip while I was staying in Beijing, and was it ever a good one.

Grass and Sand: Inner Mongolia

First, a word of advice: if you ever go to Beijing, you need to get hooked up with a group called Culture Exchange Trips (CET). This student-led group organizes trips across China for internationals and Chinese students, and they are amazing. I met some really wonderful people, went to some truly incredible places, and did it all for extremely cheap.

There’s Inner Mongolia, on the back of the China chicken, cradling Mongolia (image from Wikipedia).

On our first major trip with CET, Nate and I went to Inner Mongolia (内蒙古). Quick briefer on Inner Mongolia: it is, in fact, a part of China, not Mongolia. China kept it when the rest of Mongolia gained independence from China in the early 20th century. Now, the culture of the region – food, language, traditions, etc. – is a mixture of Chinese and Mongolian cultures.

When you’re traveling abroad, hardcore travel is the only way to go. All the CET participants met up at 5 a.m. for the 8-hour bus ride to Inner Mongolia. The bus ride was long and bumpy, which made sleeping difficult. The get-to-know-you activities our group leaders (Amy and Marwan) started also made it difficult to sleep, but that wasn’t as much of a problem because Amy and Marwan were AWESOME. They really made this trip as memorable as it was (in a good way).

Look how tough we seem to be.

When we arrived in China’s northernmost province, we had a family-style lunch (about 10 Inner Mongolian dishes and a massive bowl of rice shared among 10 people at a table) and then headed out to the grasslands for horseriding.

Here’s how it works: You slap a blanket on top of a horse. You slap a tourist on top of the blanket. And then you slap the horse, and the tourist holds on for dear life as she bounces off across the Inner Mongolian prairie. 

It was a lot of fun. Halfway through, we stopped at a tent in the middle of the grasslands for milk tea and some traditional Inner Mongolian milk candy before riding back to the main corral.

A little bit of me and a little bit of Nate
It’s me on a horse!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next day, the whole group along with Nate, Tuscany, and I headed out to the Gobi Desert. On the bus ride, we got to see the Yellow River – China’s cradle of civilization! Known as “China’s Sorrow”, China historically has a love-hate relationship with this river: its frequent flooding is devastating, but is also the only thing that makes northern China farmable.

From the very touristy desert welcome center, we took a dune buggy into the heart of the desert. Truthfully, this was also rather touristy – it was set up like a county fair. But even the commercialization of a few dunes didn’t detract much from the unique beauty of the desert – just blue sky and yellow sand in all directions.

Big desert, little elephant

The sand was surprisingly soft. We walked around for a little bit, took a ride on a dune motorcycle, and finally made our way to the camels.

My trusty mount

 

Note our fashionable desert attire – shoe bags and patterned scarves

 

 

 

 

 

Out of all the forms of transportation I had experienced in the past few hours – horseback, bus, dune buggy, sand motorcycle – I would pick camel any day of the week. It was like sitting on a really soft, furry beanbag chair with a beanbag backrest. My camel was friendly to me, and the ride wasn’t bumpy at all as it plodded across the sand on its wide hooves. I’m pretty sure I could have slept on that camel’s back.

Pachyderm on dromedary!
Put me on a poster, DBo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next day was our last in Inner Mongolia. We went to the Museum of Inner Mongolia, home of the largest collection of dinosaur skeletons and fossils in Asia. Nate and I got this picture next to the most impressive one – it was really quite colossal. There were also a lot of really interesting exhibits on Inner Mongolian history and culture.

 

Somehow this happened.

After that, we went to another museum, this one more focused on the art of Inner Mongolia.

Taken as Tuscany bravely rides into battle at the head of his ele(in)fantry

 

 

 

 

Attached to the museum was a massive mall-like emporium of extremely expensive Inner Mongolian handicrafts. It was actually rather unsettling – it was a veritable labyrinth of a place, very well-staffed by identically dressed salespeople, and the members of our group were the only people there. Still, the merchandise was very cool – like this wall of swords. Nearly everything cost more than I’m worth, but I did buy several small knives that were on sale for only USD $1 each!

And that was it. After another 8-hour bus ride back, we arrived home just in time for bed. Next up: Nate and I travel south!

A Beijing Birthday

Because few memorable Beijing days start with a low air quality index (AQI), here’s an unedited photo of what the view from my dorm window was like on that day

March 19, two months after we had arrived in Beijing, was Nate’s birthday. We took the opportunity to explore the city a little bit and do some things on our Beijing Bucket List.

I knew that starting the day with waffles, even in Beijing, was a prerequisite for a good birthday. So we took the bus to the hippest coffee spot in Beijing – Maan Coffee: Waffle and Toast. Even the name, although magnificent, couldn’t do justice to the two-storied, rustic, delectable food paradise that it adorned. Seriously, though – I have never had better waffles than these. In my life. I would fly back to China just to have these once more.

After waffles, we went to an international church we were trying out. We didn’t end up settling there, but it was nice to have a place to worship with other Christians again.

For lunch, we went to the cool part of Beijing – Sanlitun, where the parties go down. For us, the part was authentic Italian pizza – pricey, in China, but worth it since it was the first good Western food we’d had in 2 months.

Next stop, Beijing Zoo! We spent a long time at the Giant Panda exhibit – we connected on a deep emotional level with this fuzzy beast that pretty much just wanted to lie on its back and eat food without moving its head.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What a lovable lump.

 

 

Nate and me trying to really get into the mindset of that slouchy panda in the back

 

As it was quite late in the day, a lot of the exhibits were already closed. The upside of this was that, for a Beijing public attraction, the zoo really wasn’t that crowded.

 

The zoo also had some really incredible birds.

For dinner we went to a hutong, which is a narrow street that is historically filled with shops and restaurants. They still are, but now they’re more touristy and less quaint and traditional. We found a Peking Duck place and enjoyed Beijing’s most famous dish!

Finally, we went to a European restaurant called M for dessert. Little did I know when I looked it up online that it would be the fanciest restaurant I had ever been in. Because most of the desserts on the menu were upwards of USD $20, Nate and I split this tiny lemon pudding. It was very tasty, but we vowed never to return there until we’re rich.

We got to see so many different pieces of Beijing that day, and eat a lot of good food. On a related note, if anyone wants to fly me to Beijing to get Maan waffles for my birthday next year, you know I’m down.

At Maan with one of their teddy bear order holders!

The Great Wall of China

On March 4, I experienced my first of the New7Wonders of the world (it’s a thing). The Great Wall was built spanning several dynasties and centuries to protect China against attack from the north. Now it’s a landmark that rides the mountains through the middle of China, and an extremely popular tourist destination. If you want to maximize authenticity and minimize crowds of people wearing matching visors, you can go to a partially unrestored part of the wall, which means it’s more of a hike and less of a selfie booth.

The whole group, pre-Great Wall (Nate and I are front left)

The unrestored section we chose to go to is in Chenjiapu, an hour outside of Beijing. I was traveling with a group of about 50 students, mostly from either my school, Peking University, or our neighboring rival university, Tsinghua. We rented a bus that took us to Great Wall Fresh, family-run restaurant and guest house in the mountains of Chenjiapu. We enjoyed a family-style lunch before our guide, one of the Great Wall Fresh family members, led us off on our adventure.

Hiking to the Wall

From the point you see in the picture up there, it was about a 45-minute hike to the place where we mounted the Great Wall. And suddenly, we were standing on bricks that were laid centuries ago.

If you look closely, you can see everyone else on top of the tower – far, far away from us.

 

The rest of the group went left along the wall to a beacon tower, but Nate and I thought we could get a higher vantage point by taking a quick detour up the wall to the right. We were right about “higher”, but not about “quick”. An especially steep and dilapidated part of the wall, it took us nearly an hour to go up and come back down, putting us far enough behind that our group was out of sight, lost to us in the mountains of China.

Nevertheless, we did not fear. We decided to just move a little quicker until we caught up with them – besides, we were walking on a major tourist attraction that was made for walking on. It would be very difficult to actually get lost. And that’s how our coolest date ever began.

The whole walk along the Wall took about 2 hours from that point.

At one point, we reached a point on the wall that was higher than any other we could see. We climbed a teetering pile of bricks to the top of the watchtower. In every direction, the hazy mountains were layered to the horizon. We could see as far as the curve of the earth would let us. The pictures I took are a sorry representation, but that truly was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. The world God created is unfathomably beautiful and wonderful, and Nate and I got to see such a unique piece of it.

Though we kept up a good pace, we never caught up to the group. As we were descending from the Wall at the end of the hike, we met a search party coming from the other direction. They thought we had gotten lost forever on the Wall. Maybe we nearly had a couple of times, but we made it in the end. And I’ve got some amazing memories to show for it.

I have so many more pictures that attempt to capture a fraction of the beauty we saw that day, so I’ll stick them here.

Click on this photo to see it bigger!

千里之行,始於足下 (A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with a Single Step)

CHINA

I arrived in Beijing the afternoon of February 13, and was met by stinging smog and smothering crowds, two of Beijing’s most distinctive characteristics. I had three things on my mental to-do list that scrolled through my head on repeat: Find a bathroom. Buy a SIM card. Get a taxi. The first was easy; the second proved impossible, after over an hour of searching; and the third was deceptively easy (I later figured out I had been charged about 8 times what I should have for the cab). But I arrived at my hotel complex by late afternoon, and, after wandering around for quite some time trying to find the correct building, I collapsed into my first bed in China.

My first meal in China.

Find food. Since I hadn’t eaten in over twelve hours, I stepped back out into the gray China dusk, intending to walk towards the main road until I found something to eat. Thankfully, I ran into a little cafe right across the parking lot from my hotel. I sat there a long time, reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child while I ate. It was such a relief to submerge myself in English, my to-do list momentarily empty.

When I started making tomorrow’s to-do list back in my hotel room, though, I lost it. Complete breakdown. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, was completely overcome by loneliness. I was in the largest, most-populated country on earth, and I knew not a soul. I hadn’t seen anyone that looked like me or spoke my language in 24 hours, and everyone I loved was asleep half a world away. By the time my parents called soon after, when they woke up and saw my texts, I was just lying on my bed shuddering and gasping. Their comfort and reminder of God’s protection was just what I needed, and when we hung up I went to sleep for a long time.

Armed with mask, I go.

The next morning, I put off leaving my room for as long as possible. The breakdown of the previous night had pushed me a little further away from denial, but inside the room I could still pretend I was wherever I wanted. Outside the room, denial would no longer be an option. Stepping into the hotel hallway and closing the door behind me took a measure of bravery I have rarely used.

Register, find food, buy a SIM card.

The greatest victory of that first day was discovering that I would, in fact, have a place to live for the next four months. After being unable to register for housing on the Peking University housing portal in mid-January, I had tried unsuccessfully for a month to contact PKU about my housing situation. On the PKU campus, after roundaboutedly arriving at the international student office,  the director viewed my online profile with a surprised “What? You haven’t checked into your dorm yet?” Indeed, I had a room!

After registering, I received a list of tasks in addition to my student card. As I was wandering about trying to complete these to-dos, I ran into a group of five or six international students, mostly from Australia, who were on the same mission. Together we checked off a lot of the things on the list, and then we ventured into one of the on-campus canteens (dining halls) for the first time.

After dinner, we had nothing to do, and so we decided the best time to try out the Beijing public transportation system was at 7 p.m. in our group of foreigners with limited English. Continuing in the study-abroad spirit of throwing oneself headfirst into uncertain situations, we descended into the bowels of the Beijing underground and, upon seeing a picture of the Forbidden City at the center of the subway map, decided where to go.

I have to say, after a day and half of feeling quite thwarted by the country I had once anticipated loving, it was very encouraging to visit Tiananmen (the entrance to the Imperial City), a place I’ve wanted to visit for years. It was a reminder that, despite the challenges of getting used to this new life, everything I looked forward to in China was still waiting for me.

And challenges there were. I won’t bore you with my to-do list every day, but here’s a snapshot: it was the same. Every day. For the first few days, at least. Each day, I would get up and try to complete each task one-by-one, and each day I would hit a new obstacle. Before bed each evening, I would think, “What should I do tomorrow?” And then I would look at my list, and be like, “Oh, same as today, just trying everything I’ve failed at so far, cool.” I learned quickly that everything in China takes four times longer than you think it should, at least for someone unfamiliar with the processes, geography, and language.

Dinner with my new friends

There were many good moments, though! I continued hanging out with the group of people I met that second day, and we added more to our cohort. Little by little, I started crossing things off of my to-do list. By the time Nate arrived a few days later, it felt like I’d been in Beijing for several weeks.

Classic couple-in-Beijing mask selfie

The first weekend, PKU gave the international students a tour of the Forbidden City. Here’s my funnest fact: the bricks laid out on the ground covering the entire palace grounds are the original bricks from when the palace was built. Knowing that I was stepping not just on the same ground, but the same exact bricks, as dynasties of historic Chinese emperors was pretty exciting. The architecture of the Forbidden City was, of course, beautiful.

Tuscany refused to take a photo with this friendly fellow.

 

 

My first week in Beijing was definitely up-and-down, but by the end I had already learned so much about how to live in China.

One of my new friends had her own Tuscany-style travel companion. The two of them became phast phriends: the ‘phant and the phrog at the Phorbidden City. 🙂

Singapore

If you’re jumping headfirst into Asia, Singapore is a great place to start. The country is a very unique blend of Asian and Western countries, and its population is notably diverse. The detailed planning of the workings of Singapore is practically a tourist attraction in itself. The food is incredible. And not only did I get to spend a week there, but I got to do so with my best friend.

Day 1

We started out the visit with lunch at a hawker centre – kind of like a food court, with individual vendors setting up stalls to sell a variety of mouthwatering dishes. Then we went to Avery’s favorite tea shop and got some time to just catch up.

Little pink king of his little orange kingdom

In the afternoon, we  made a visit to the Singapore City Gallery, the city-country’s urban development museum. Singapore has a fascinating, very dense history of development in the past century, and similarly interesting plans for the future. Tuscany enjoyed getting to see a city closer to his own size with the Singapore mini-replica.

 

Chinatown was still decorated for Chinese New Year.

We strolled through Chinatown, and I restrained myself from purchasing anything since I would soon be going to the real Chinatown (a.k.a. China). When we came across a Buddhist temple, we stepped inside to take a look around. The temple, ornately decorated, was very beautiful, although due to the number of tourists inside it felt more like an attraction than a place of worship. Temples like this one and various other places of worship can be found all around Singapore – the country’s very diverse population means that there are a lot of religions represented.

To round out our cultural experience for the day, we got dinner in Little India  – delicious dosai. All in all, a pretty good introduction to the place where I’d be spending the next 5 days.

Day 2

Setting off across the Helix Bridge to Marina Bay Sands
But the greatest piece of art is right here

The Chinese Gardens were my favorite

 

 

 

 

 

Tuscany and I spent our second day at Singapore’s famous Gardens by the Bay, a huge collection of gardens and architectural attractions infused with culture, history, and art. We started at the Heritage Gardens, which had gardens filled with plants native to China, India, and Malaysia (the origins of Singapore’s three main ethnic groups) that were also important to Singapore’s cultural history.

Tuscany found an elephriend!
And I found a camel who did not seem happy to be taking a picture with me

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I finished off my (thunderstorm-y) evening with a show. Gardens by the Bay is perhaps most famous for its Supertrees, massive tree-shaped structures of metal and glass that act as oversized trellises. At night, they flash in time to music piped throughout the park. This, against a backdrop of thunder and lightning, made for quite a spectacle. And thus I ended my day with a bang.

Day 3

Following my big day of tourism, I had a quiet morning. After Avery finished class, we go to go out on the town and spend some time together. We went to a coffee shop and tried various desserts, then walked around and stepped into a used bookstore. Their back room featured a single long, narrow aisle that was only a foot wide, and this is where we ended up spending an hour of our afternoon – just like old times. 🙂 We then ventured to a second coffee shop for chai lattes. I only got one picture from today, as Avery and I were having too much fun for photography.

We may have gotten several desserts here at the second coffee shop too.

Day 4

Zoo day! To make up for the dearth of pictures yesterday, I took way too many today. I saw a lot of animals, but my favorite was definitely the orangutans. So strangely humanlike, I couldn’t help but imagine their conflicts, emotions, daily moments of tedium…

YOU are our only chance, my daughter. None but you can push back the impending darkness.
The colony is at a crossroads. Danger snaps at our heels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our fate is in your opposably-thumbed hands.
Hum-de-dum…. Today’s a lovely day for waiting for a friend.
Not an orangutan, but look at how chubby and evil this creature is!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I arrived at the elephant exhibit just in time for their pleasurable pachyderm performance (Tuscany came up with that one), which my traveling companion and I were both quite excited about. The show was gimmicky, but that’s half the fun when you’re at the zoo, right?

Just waving hi to an elefellowphant (that’s “fellow elephant” in non-pun speech)
Close enough to touch!
**when you get stuck behind a group of slow people on the sidewalk**

One unique element of the Singapore Zoo was a domed enclosure that visitors could enter. Inside, there were no fences or glass panes – just wild animals scurrying around my feet and swinging over my head. I followed some ducks around for a while and stopped under a pair of monkeys! The exhibit also showcased exquisite butterflies and rare plants.

At this point, it was getting close to closing, so we started heading back to the gate.

Fellow pinks!

 

 

 

 

 

I stopped at a hawker centre for dinner on the way home. Singaporean food is super tasty and super cheap, and while I didn’t know what  it was that I ordered, this meal lived up to both expectations.

Look at this magnificent blossom I found outside Avery’s dorm!

 

 

 

 

But the fun didn’t end there! Tonight, Avery’s ballroom group was hosting a dance. So we got all dressed up and had ourselves quite a night. I got to meet a lot of Avery’s friends, and I even learned a bit of the Viennese waltz!

Photo credit to Averys friend Sasha

Day 5

You know how, as a kid, you always thought snow would taste really good and were always a little bit disappointed when it just tasted like water? Eating bingsu is your vision of eating snow come to life.

Avery and I started off the day with some bingsu – Korean shaved ice cream – because when you’re with your best friend in another country you can eat whatever you want for breakfast. We then parted ways so Avery could do some work and I could go to the National Museum of Singapore. The National Museum is a history museum, art museum, and bazaar combined into one. I really enjoyed the exhibit on the Japanese occupation of Singapore in World War II. I got to see a cool sword/dagger in the exhibit on the origins of Singapore.

My favorite part of the museum, though, was an interactive, animated gallery of Singapore’s wildlife. A spiraling walkway took me down several stories as I watched tapirs lumber by and orchids bloom on a first-floor-to-fourth-floor-ceiling screen to my left. Peaceful music played, occasionally drowned out by the sound of rain as seasons scrolled by. At the bottom, a room filled with beanbags awaited, and I lay on the floor for half an hour looking up at computerized flowers falling towards me on the domed screen. It was incredibly tranquil – a welcome rest from the bustle of tourism.

I spent the evening on Arab Street, a center of shopping for Middle Eastern and Singaporean knickknacks, clothing, and food. This day was yet another that allowed me to experience the extreme diversity of Singaporean culture and history.

Day 6

My last day on the island! Avery and I went to church together and got some boba tea on our way back. I spent the afternoon packing, and then we got pizza for dinner at Clark Quay, a middle-fancy food destination. We stopped to pick up ice cream, and spent the night watching a movie back at her apartment and talking. I left for the airport at 1 a.m. Although I was sad to leave, I’m still in awe that I got to spend a week with my best friend in Singapore, getting to see a bit of her life these days. Who gets to do that?! With Singapore under my belt, on to the next adventure!

The 12-Hour Tourist

I left the US early last Sunday morning, but not for China. My best friend Avery goes to college in Singapore, and being in the same hemisphere as her was too good an opportunity to pass up. So now, I’ve been in Singapore for nearly a week!

But Singapore didn’t end up being my first international destination on this trip, either. My flight out of Philadelphia was booked through Qatar Airways, with a 3-hour layover in Doha, Qatar. When my flight was delayed, however, reshuffling my connection landed me in Doha for 12 hours. So I decided to make my adventure a little more adventurous.

For breakfast: some old favorites, like potato wedges and oatmeal, and some new ones, like some kind of cheese and a Middle Eastern pastry.

Since my layover was so long, the Doha airport kindly provided me with a hotel room, and along with it, a free tourist visa. After checking into my room, I got some food at the buffet, and then went to the concierge to sign up for a tour of the city.

Mere steps away from billions of dollars of merchandise.

The tour, just 3 hours in total, was mostly a flyover of the most notable destinations in the city. We first stopped at the Pearl-Qatar, an uber-high class shopping and residential complex. With name-brands like Ferrari and Armani, it wasn’t quite a shopping stop for me.

The souq was made up of narrow alleyways such as this one.

After driving around the island a little more, we ended up at Souq Waqif, a large hawkers’ market. My favorite part of the souq was a street completely filled with birds in cages. I was wearing conservative clothing, but was still one of the few women in the souq without her head covered, and I felt somewhat exposed as a result.

Bird Street

Another observation: I felt rather ignorant at this realization, but I hadn’t known before landing in Doha that it is common for Qatari men to wear traditional Arab attire as their everyday clothing. My Western appearance definitely made me stick out as I meandered through the souq.

Tuscany and I found our next photo op on the way to the Museum of Islamic Art. We took a glass elevator up to the museum entrance, and stepped out onto a veranda lined with palm trees overlooking Doha Bay.

Doha Bay
What a model.
Elegant daggers with Arabic calligraphy incorporated into the design on the hilts

The museum was very cool – I didn’t have much time there, but I got to look at the calligraphic art exhibit, which I’ve always been interested in. There, I found these beautiful daggers, which even got the Avery Simmons stamp of approval.

After the museum, it was time to head back to the hotel and collect my things, then return to the airport for the flight to Singapore. Thus concluded my shortest vacation ever – for the $70 taxi tour, I got my own mini getaway in the lovely nation of Qatar.