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.

An Introduction

I’m going to be studying abroad in Beijing this semester (February – June), and this travel blog will be my way of recording my adventures there, and on future study abroad trips. But first, I must introduce you to my travel companion:

This is Tuscany. My friend and suitemate Mary 3D-printed him for our suite our freshman year, and kindly gifted him to me at the end of the year. Now, he’s my traveling buddy! He’s already been to Virginia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and road-tripped with me from Oklahoma to Colorado. And now he’s left the country with me for the first time! Look for him in future posts.  And beware: He’s a fan of puns.

China’s Housing Crisis

In my Chinese class this semester, I had to do a presentation on a current cultural topic. I chose the housing crisis in China. China used to have a public housing system – all housing was owned by the government, and rent was due to the state. But the financial burden of building and maintaining housing for all of China’s residents became too great, and so in the 90s the government implemented a plan to change to a public housing system. People still couldn’t own land, only rent it from the government for a 70-year period.

Now, however, China has a new problem: with the housing market boom has come an increase in financial prosperity for residents. Houses are getting more and more extravagant, and as a result more and more expensive. It’ s becoming difficult for medium-income people to afford housing. The government plans to, by 2020, encourage housing developments to create housing that has fewer square footage and costs less.

Overall, though, the change to private housing has a net gain. The average living space per person before the change was 3 square meters, and the conditions were horrible. Now, conditions have improved greatly, and the living space is 17 square meters per person.

I look forward to seeing how this information impacts my lens of housing and life in China while I’m there next semester.

Getting Ready for China: Part 1

I’m going to be studying abroad in China for the coming spring semester! I’ll be at Peking University (Beida, colloquially) in Beijing. Last week, I got the opportunity to meet with a friend who studied abroad at the same university over the summer. He gave me SO much helpful information – I took pages and pages of notes! I need to let the first layer sink it and revisit my notes later, but I thought I’d share some of the most interesting and useful things he told me that are currently at the front of my mind.

  1. An incoming traveler is allowed to bring up to three pieces of Christian literature into the country. More than that, and the customs officials will throw them away at will to get down to three. However, an NIV Bible in English can be purchased at the university bookstore in their “Superstitions” section.
  2. “Cars WILL hit you”, he said, regardless of where you walk. When this happens, don’t panic; simple bang on the hood of their car, curse at them in Chinese, and walk away.
  3. Go on a date to Pizza Hut. It’s what everyone does – Pizza Hut is fancy in China, with waiters and mood lighting and everything.
  4. For the second part of your date, go to the Pearl Market and pick out individual pearls to have strung into a necklace. A $300 value for just $20!
  5. Go to the American Embassy. When you step through the gates, they say, “Welcome home!” They also host celebrations on minor American holidays.

I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts to share as the time approaches, but this is all for now!

Chinese Club

This semester, I got the opportunity to be the Vice President of OU’s Chinese Club. We were able to do more activities this semester than in previous semesters. In addition to the Mid-Autumn Festival, which you can read about in one of my previous posts, we had a conversation hour weekly for about two months. I was only able to attend two of them, but both times were very helpful. We were able to gather a group that was about half-and-half Chinese language learners and native speakers, so that we were able to practice our language skills in an effective way. The Chinese Club also took an outing to get dim sum in OKC. I was unfortunately unable to go, but I heard that it was a great time. It seems that the people who participated actively in Chinese Club this semester enjoyed it very much, but we did have difficulty garnering interest for most of our events. I’ll be abroad next semester, but the following semester, I’ll hopefully be able to help the club develop new strategies to reach and attract more students on OU’s campus.

Mid-Autumn Festival

The OU Chinese Club hosted its Mid-Autumn Festival celebration on September 15. Both for Chinese exchange students away from home and tradition and for American students interested in Chinese culture, it was a great way to come together and commemorate this important Chinese holiday. There were several components to the evening: eating red bean and five-nut mooncakes (which I got the opportunity to help make!) decorated with traditional designs, hearing a presentation about the origins and celebration of the Mid-Autumn festival, listening to popular Chinese music, and playing popular Chinese board games like Guo and Mahjonng.

In additions to experiencing the aspects of Chinese culture facilitated by the club, I was able to talk to OU students who have studied abroad in China. They gave me advice about what to do and where to go when I’m in China next semester. Although the Chinese Club hasn’t done much this semester, this event was a perfect example of what the Chinese Club’s vision is: to bring together anyone who cares about Chinese language and culture and allow them to celebrate that together.