Rewinding to March

February 28 – March 8

Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, was the last city on my shared itinerary with Kate. We decided to spend a full week there, the longest amount of time that I’ve allotted to any destination: after all, we needed time to not only bid each other farewell, but also to appreciate the city’s many “superlative sights”.

We enjoyed / endured hot pot, the spiciest dish in the spiciest region of the country.

This bubbling broth is placed over a burner in the center of the table. The taste of the inner circle's broth resembles chicken soup; that of the outer circle resembles fire.

Order as many "toppings" as you'd like. These will be dumped into the broth to cook, as the broth is too dangerously spicy to drink on its own. My preferred toppings are quail eggs (pictured above), winter melon, and tofu skin.

Note the fiery red color of the broth as the tofu skin sinks in. Beware! Have beer and rice handy to quell the pain!

We journeyed to Leshan, the world’s largest carved stone Buddha.

Look how tiny all the people are! This giant Buddha was carved during the Tang Dynasty, about 1500 years ago.

We toured the Dazu Rock Carvings, considered by some to be the most beautiful carvings in all of China.

Although it's hard to make out, this reclining Buddha is one of the country's biggest. Put it in perspective: the statues seated in the foreground are, in fact, larger than life-size.

We even saw – and held! – giant panda bears, the cutest and laziest bears of all.

After the week drew to a close, Kate and I said our goodbyes. During our six weeks together, we had managed to settle into our roles and routines; I was sad to see her go. Fortunately, I had much to look forward to in the days and weeks and months ahead. Until then, I distracted myself with some of Chengdu’s amusing products.

In China, Katie Couric is a star of the cast of Friends.

"Dance of Youth American Dance Musical"! "High School Musical" is too succinct, anyway.

At least she'll never mistake them for her pants.

March 8 – March 10

Mickey spent a total of six months enrolled in an intensive Mandarin study program in the capital city of Hebei Province. His choice of location was a good one: not only did the lack of foreigners compel him to implement his studies, but Shijiazhuang is also one of the most difficult Mandarin words to pronounce – merely saying it correctly is proof of improved language skills!

The Book allots only two paragraphs to this city of over four million people. This is not all that surprising, as it boasts only one major tourist destination: Zhaozhou Qiao, the world’s oldest stone segmental bridge. Mickey proudly tells me that it preceded the second bridge of its kind by over eight hundred years! While a fair amount of Chinese tourists do visit the bridge, the city is otherwise largely overlooked. It is, like many provincial capitals, a little bit nondescript and a little bit dusty (read: very).

Still, I enjoyed each of my four visits to Shijiazhuang (just as I’ve enjoyed many of the other capital cities along our route). The absence of foreigners (and the amenities that tend to simultaneously emerge) necessitates adaptation, but Mickey admirably managed to create routines for himself: socially, economically, and academically. His successful acclimatization enabled me – and Ming and Co. – to perceive Shijiazhuang not as a typical and grey metropolis, but as a window into China’s more authentic subculture.

After a couple days of laundry and relaxation, Mickey and I made our way to South Korea.

March 10 – March 16

By this point, the seven months that I’d spent in China had allowed for a transformation to take place. Though I’d never been a picky eater before August of 2010, I certainly – and unabashedly – avoided things like tofu in a bag, chicken with bones, or anything that’s been fermented. Spicy food did not even make a cameo on my daily menu. There was also an absence of any liquor that stings the nose and / or brain upon ingestion.

Flash forward to March 2011: the evolution of a taste bud has transpired. With the exception of baijiu, I take in each of these foods on a regular, if not daily, basis. Over time, in spite of warnings of MSG and oil and unsanitary conditions and plain old weird ingredients, I became enamored with the food in this country. I crave siji doujiao (四季豆角, or spicy dry-fried green beans) and jiachang doufu (家常豆腐, or homestyle tofu) on a daily basis; I even order the la (辣, or spicy) versions. I know I’ll be attempting to recreate them in my own kitchen at home.

Still, seven straight months of any cuisine is a long time. Upon our arrival in South Korea, I happily set myself to the task of eating my way through the fare of Seoul and Busan.

Kimchi, or pickled cabbage. All day, every day.

Bibimbap: it's so much more than meat and vegetables over rice.

Korean BBQ. Do I need to say more?

KFC: Korean Fried Chicken.

Chocolate ice cream and strawberries in a crepe. They can also include a slice of cheesecake, but we decided not to tick off that (wrong-direction) notch in our belts.

Gimbap, or Korean sushi.

Sashimi. I long for tuna sashimi.

And the pièce de résistance: live octopus. When a customer orders this delicacy, the octopus is removed from the tank, cleaned, and cut into small pieces. It's then covered with sesame seeds and served, squirming on the plate, alongside a side dish of sesame oil. The verdict? Chewy, but thrilling - especially when the suction cups stick to your lips.

Sure, we took some time off eating to focus on other aspects of our trip:

We met up with Danny and Will, two of Mickey’s friends from his study abroad program.

We perused Shinsaegae, the world’s biggest mall, and its ice-skating rink and arcade.

We spent a fascinating morning at the DMZ, South Korea’s border with North Korea.

The concrete slab on the lefthand side of the photo is the actual border between South and North Korea. If you look closely, you can see a North Korean soldier in the background.

We enjoyed faint reminders of China.

It was refreshing and exciting to leave China, particularly to a destination like South Korea. A week’s visit was not enough time to absorb the country’s delicious cuisine, bright lights, condensed alleyways, and incessant cleanliness. Oh, cleanliness, how I’d missed you.

When tragedy struck Japan on our third night in Busan, our parents encouraged us to cut our trip short; in the hours and days after the disaster, no one could predict how nuclear fallout would affect the surrounding countries. We left South Korea, eager to return at some point in the future.

March 19 – March 25

Our abrupt return from South Korea left us with a few extra days to spend together. We passed the time in Beijing, enjoying 798, the city’s warehouse-style art district, and Element Fresh, the city’s (most delicious) Western-style restaurant. Afterwards, Mickey took the train back to Shijiazhuang and I flew down to Shanghai.
The week before my return home was uneventful, in a comforting and nostalgic way. I thought often my semester of living in the city; I daydreamed about the more recent months of travel. Most of all, I tried to ignore the fact that, months ago, this return flight had been a way-more-than-halfway marker in my mind. Then, I flew home.

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Rewinding to February

February 3 – February 4

I do not generally condone superlatives. I don’t have a favorite movie, book, color, song, ice cream flavor, artist, or animal – perhaps it’s a result of my indecisive nature, but I can never seem to pick just one. Still, when I think about the “best parts” of my trip thus far, this destination seems to elbow its way to the forefront of my mind.

It was not easy to get to the Dragon Backbone Rice Terraces. They are three hours north of Guilin, which is a nearly impossible distance to cover the day after Chinese New Year: drivers of both buses and taxis are at home, enjoying the holiday with their loved ones. Still, photos of the terraces had rendered me frantic and determined. There are some places that one can shrug off whilst traveling, whether it be due to funds or weather or a lack of motivation: this is not one of those places. Kate and I decided to join forces (and pool funds) with Ben and Rachel, a couple who currently lives in South Korea: we found a driver who would schlep us for just RMB200, or about $30, apiece. It was overpriced – and worth every penny.

The view from where we spent our first night in the village of Dazhai (大寨), at the beginning of Dragon Backbone's hiking trail.

We walked through scenes like this...

... and this ...

... and this ...

... until we reached Ping'an (平安), the final town of the hiking trail.

Though our timing was a few months off (the terraces are flooded by optimal shades of green and yellow in late spring), the vistas were spectacular. I spent a fair amount of time walking separately from Kate, Ben, and Rachel – partially due to my physical inability to hike (I swear, it’s a condition), and partially due to my desire to replace small talk with personal reflection. I couldn’t help but notice that Dragon Backbone exhibits China’s omnipresent sense of juxtaposition. In Shanghai, it is the new (Pudong) alongside the old (Old City). In Beijing, it is the delicious (Beijing duck) along the not-so-delicious (snake kebabs). Here, it is the natural alongside the unnatural. Other than my own huffing and puffing, the hike was silent. The sun was out, the birds chirped, the wind literally swirled tufts of rice in the water. When I let the rest of my group wander just a few yards ahead of me, I truly felt alone. Nevertheless, evidence of humans was everywhere. The precision of each terrace itself is a testament to human capability; this meticulous carving transpired hundreds of years before the introduction of any applicable machinery. Yep, ladies and gentlemen, this was all done by hand. Think about that the next time you try to draw a straight line!

If you make it to China, Dragon Backbone Rice Terraces should make it to the top of your list. Both its environmental and its manmade qualities will leave you in awe.

February 4 – February 9

There is an unspoken code among backpackers in dorm rooms. You might think (or hope, as my mother does) that it’s Keep your distance or Don’t steal people’s stuff, but it’s not: Be neat is the golden rule of shared living space.

Our roommates in Yangshuo, 19 years old and unaware of the existence of any rules, had unfortunately not yet learned this lesson. When we arrived at our hostel, exhausted from a day’s worth of travel and hungry from a day’s worth of nothing but bananas, we were welcomed by an atrocious scene:

Food everywhere

Clothes everywhere

Boxers - truly everywhere.

Before setting out on my travels, I’d predicted that I’d meet dozens of fellow backpackers, each of whom would be somewhat like me. We’d wear baggy pants and speak broken Mandarin and sightsee and drink beer and laugh at similar jokes, then exchange information and go our separate ways.

I was (for the most part) mistaken. While I have met a handful of people with whom I intend to keep in touch, I’ve also encountered my fair share of schmucks: people who know it all, people who have seen it all, and people who won’t stop talking about either. I generally manage to see the positive in meeting this kind of person, as each one is still an outlet for exchanging anecdotes and advice. Nevertheless, I struggled to find any positivity in meeting our roommates in Yangshuo. They were a particular sort of shmuck, one that really rubbed me the wrong way (I think most people would have a similar reaction. After all, in addition to trashing our room, they also stormed back – wasted drunk – two times throughout the night. Firstly, to try to steal our pillows while we slept; secondly, to put their friend, who had cracked his head open and received several stitches, into his bed. Did I mention the friend was naked?)

Still, there are some places that not even dirty, drunken, immature boys can ruin: Yangshuo’s Moon Hill, beer fish, and karst peaks made it a definitively worthwhile detour.

February 9 – February 12

After a bus from Yangshuo and an overnight train from Guilin, Kate and I finally arrived in Kunming. Foreigners are not a rare sight in Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan Province;

– it has a mild climate,

– a nearby “forest” of unusual stone formations,

– typical, yet always entertaining, couple’s tees,

– and puppies for sale on many a street corner.

Perhaps I was exhausted from the journey from Yangshuo (or, I may have been nauseous from the previous night’s foray into the world of unique Chinese Oreo flavors),

Peanut butter and chocolate Oreo's: mmmmm

Green tea ice cream Oreo's: hmmmmm

… but I simply didn’t find much to say about Kunming. Ultimately, I’ll remember it best as a place to wind down and plan for the exciting destinations ahead. Some cities on a travel itinerary will mesmerize a spectator, while others will make a negative impression. For me, Kunming did neither: it merely fell, quite unforgettably, somewhere in the middle.

February 12 – February 16

When Kate and I realized we had a few extra days in our itinerary, we decided to visit Tengchong. Many busloads of Chinese tourists regard the city’s hot springs and volcanoes quite highly, yet it remains generally unvisited by westerners. I initially struggled to understand why, but found a probable answer during our overnight bus ride; Tengchong is most commonly reached by a ten-hour drive along a twisting, turning, unlit, unpaved, and unpleasant road.

The journey was worthwhile. Kate and I climbed the region’s highest volcano and strolled the edge of its crater.

We even indulged in an afternoon at the local hot springs, complete with matching pajamas,

bottomless snacks,

and dozens of pools.

The springs were infused with everything under the sun, from tea leaves to aloe vera to local alcohol to sandalwood.

The extravagance cost us each approximately RMB300, or $45 USD; it may be a cheap price for what similar services would cost at home, but it equaled almost two weeks of accommodation in southwest China. I suppose there are certain times when backpackers use the currency conversion rate to their advantage; Valentine’s Day in a luxurious spa is one of those times!

Still, I’ll always associate Tengchong with my first incident of truly frightening overland transportation. As the driver zipped along at an unnecessarily high speed, I wondered: Is he on a deadline? Does he have to pee? Is he even awake? And most frustratingly, What can I even do about it? Since then, I’ve endured several other rides during which I’ve debated chastising such a driver; when my courage inevitably wanes, I have genuinely wondered how my parents would find out about an accident.

This is one of the most unfortunate truths in off-the-beaten-path destinations: a lack of crowds often directly correlates with a lack of infrastructure, and therefore, a lack of choice. There are no planes or trains or boats to Tengchong; private taxi drivers are not revered for their responsible driving techniques, either. So, public bus – and nightmares of falling into a ravine – it is. After all, unless you have a staunch fondness for missed opportunities (read: missed spa days), you can’t base travel decisions on the disasters that may or may not unfold.

DALI, 大理
February 16 – February 19

Several decades ago, the old town of Dali was touted as the “original backpacker’s destination”. Today, visitors continue to crowd the streets. They traipse along the old city’s walls, taking breaks at western coffee shops…

… in between frantically snapping photos of the misworded signs,

the nearby scenery,

and the famed Three Pagodas.

And, the vast majority of the time, each person is carrying the exact same guidebook: it’s blue, it’s $30USD a pop, it’s … Lonely Planet.

These are the ingredients for a town that repels me. I do not enjoy feeling as though my itinerary or my experience is a result of mass-production; I do not enjoy visiting sites that are flooded by Lonely Planet tourists; there are times when I do not even enjoy passing a fellow foreigner on the streets of a small town. I pride myself on originality. This, of course, is pure hypocrisy. I am not original. Though my current lifestyle is drastically different from those of my loved ones at home, I’m far from alone on this path; there is always a foreigner who has beat me to my destination, whether by a few hours or by a few years. I am, simply put, just another backpacker. After all, I – using a fork – devoured the salad that is photographed above; I laughed at the sign; I posed in front of those majestic pagodas. I have even fallen asleep with my copy of Lonely Planet on more than one occasion.

And why not? As outsiders in a very foreign place, we all need input so as to best take advantage of our time here. Lonely Planet may lead us all to the same cafes and sites, but we follow their lead because we’re lost without it. Furthermore, the bulk of the most “touristy” destinations are highly visited for a reason: Dali is quaint and beautiful, regardless of how many tourists are passing by. I suppose that the next time I pass a fellow Lonely-Planet-er, I should simply overcome my pettiness, smile, and coordinate dinner plans for the next destination on our matching itineraries.

February 19 – February 21

In another effort to diverge from the predictable Dali-to-Lijiang-to-Shangri-la route, Kate and I made a pit stop in Shaxi. Not only is it conveniently located between Dali and Lijiang, but it also holds great historical importance: it was a crucial stopover on the ancient Tea-Horse Road (Completely independent of the ancient Silk Road, this set of paths is worth some research). What’s more, the most popular guesthouse offers a hearty dinner and free playtime with two dogs!

Given these attributes, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Shaxi has remained relatively intact. The town is run by and for locals: there are no more than two or three tourist shops, restaurants, and guesthouses. Even the owner of our hostel (the anti-Jane, if you will) seemed amazingly detached from China’s whirlwind of tourism. She offered us discounted rates, free maps, and a detailed route up the nearby Stone Treasure Mountain.

For the first time, we utilized the freedom that a backpacker enjoys: we simple pushed back our itinerary and spent another day in Shaxi. Isn’t life grand?

February 21 – February 23

Sometimes, the rewards that you reap from visiting a new place are right in front of your eyes.

Yak yogurt is available at nearly every storefront. It’s delicious and nutritious!

The local honeycomb, bright red and satisfyingly sweet, is also widely available.

Local women sell reasonably priced and brightly colored scarves in every corner of the Old Town.

The scenic Black Dragon Pool is just a ten minute walk from the main square.

This troupe of traditional Naxi music performers puts on a show every night of the week. One musician was 99 years old!

Other times, however, the rewards are much greater when you put in the energy to uncover them yourself. For our second day in Lijiang, one of China’s most notoriously touristic areas, Kate and I left. We decided instead to visit the nearby – and much quieter – village of Baisha.

Unthreatened by speeding cars and unstopped by old town boundaries, Kate and I truly enjoyed this bike ride.

We passed scenery that certainly competed with, if not surpassed, that of Black Dragon Pool.

We did our best to interact with these ancient women; even though they live just an hour’s bike ride from Lijiang, they speak no Mandarin at all!

We allowed ourselves to be jostled through the daily market by throngs of locals; though I’ll never adjust to the Chinese mentality of simply pushing someone out of your way, I did enjoy the lack of foreigners and (other people's) cameras.

We consulted with Dr. Ho, a specialist in Chinese medicine who happily showed us dozens of international newspaper clippings that cite his name. Weird, but true.

In the end, our extra effort to visit Baisha – which included bicycle mishaps and wrong turns – made our time in Lijiang much more unique and memorable.

Kate fixing her bike's chain for the second time that day.

Like I’ve said: sometimes, the price is just right.

February 23 – February 25

Tiger Leaping Gorge is a strikingly beautiful place. Hiking along either the low path (a paved road that can be completed in about two hours) or the high path (a rocky trail that can be completed in about nine hours) will offer uninterrupted vistas of its magnificence. These are the kind of views that, when photographed, look as though they must have been enhanced; trust me, they are not.

Kate and I fell victim to delusions of our own grandeur; we decided to tackle the high path. We spent ten hours trudging up hills, wading through streams, and snapping hundreds of photos (it goes without saying that I am not one to believe in photography’s detraction from the experience of travel; I am grateful for the memories). Our time was wholly uninterrupted, with two exceptions:

1) A HERD OF GOATS: Unaccompanied by an owner or shepherd, they had decided that this spot of shade was too good to pass up. Unfortunately for us, the area directly intersected with our trail. Did you know that goats have tiny, beady, and terrifying eyes?

I mustered up the courage to take this low-quality photo after the goats decided not to attack us.

2) A SPRIGHTLY GROUP OF KOREAN TOURISTS: Outfitted with specialized gear and ski poles, they were clearly on a different playing field. Still, they stopped at our guesthouse, conveniently located a handful of hours from the trek’s starting point, to catch their breath and have a few cups of tea.

The signs were part of a project I started when Kate and I first began our trip. They’re wishing Lisa and Mike, my newlywed buddies, a hearty congratulations on their engagement!

At that point in time, Mickey and I had just started planning our later trip to South Korea; I was thrilled to bump into these tourists. My excitement grew even more when I realized that all four had mastered not only English, but also Mandarin.

Using a convoluted blend of the two languages, we spoke for about twenty minutes. They touted their national cuisine and taught me how to congratulate my friends in Korean…

… I then answered the usual questions about my travel experience (a script that I have completely memorized in Mandarin). By the end of the conversation, I was overwhelmed by a shameful question that I recognized from my study abroad program in Italy – why are Americans so inept when it comes to foreign languages?

A large number of the people that I’ve met during my travels, whether in the booming metropolis of Shanghai or the sleepy town of Shaxi, are proficient in Mandarin and a local dialect; some can even get by in English. On the other hand, among my group of college-educated peers and colleagues, few of us can call ourselves conversational in another language. Perhaps this is a result of the fact that English truly is the international language; Americans feel no pressure to learn another one. It saddens me to think that foreign language study may stem from necessity, as I believe that speaking another language opens the door to another culture.

Speaking with the group of tourists made me ashamed to admit how long I’d studied Mandarin for; their levels far surpassed mine. Still, I’m grateful for my varied background in languages, and the conversation left me determined to further develop my skills. Plus, receiving a little bit of Korean candy is never not a good thing.

February 25 – February 28

Since leaving my comfort zone in New York, I’ve learned a lot about myself.

First and foremost, I’ve realized that I, like many other people, underestimate myself. I can withstand much more than I’d previously anticipated. Enduring 24-hour bus rides, swallowing impossibly spicy hot pot, herding a nomadic family’s yaks, pronouncing multisyllabic Mandarin words, hiking for ten hours, squatting on a moving train – sometimes these things are annoying, or even painful, but I can do them. Every so often, I can even do them with a smile.

Simultaneously, however, I’ve learned that I do not always underestimate myself. Sometimes, my self-assessments are simply dead on. There are certain traits that I know I do – and will always – possess, regardless of this journey.

Let me give you an example: I hate rats. I understand that, with the exception of mad scientists and a random girl I studied abroad with, most people share a dislike for rodents. But, let me make myself absolutely clear: my emotions surpass “dislike”. I fear them, I dread them, I loathe them with every ounce of my existence. In New York, when dusk approaches, I incessantly scan the sidewalks in anticipation of their appearance. In China, when we check into a hostel, I incessantly scan the walls in search of their secret entryways. After all, my time in Shangri-la taught me that I simply cannot function when a rat may be nearby.

Shangri-la, formerly known as Zhongdian (中甸), was renamed after James Hilton’s fictional land in 2001 as an effort to boost tourism. The goal was achieved: though Dali and Lijiang continue to receive many more visitors, Shangri-la has become a highly frequented stop along Yunnan’s northern tour route. As a result of this newfound popularity, and the fact that our stopover coincided with low season, we found that all of the city’s hotels and hostels were booked. We ended up in a small guesthouse, about 5 kilometers from the edge of town. The setting was picturesque, complete with open fields, grazing sheep, snow-capped mountains, and the occasional prayer flag.

I felt extremely comfortable at such a distance from the town, until I realized I was not the only one: the evening before our scheduled departure, we overheard another pair of foreigners complaining about a rat infestation.

Kate, being the reasonable person that she is, shuddered upon hearing the news; she then went to sleep at a reasonable hour. I, on the other hand, needed to distract myself until I dozed off.

I began by reflecting upon the sites we’d visited in Shangri-la.

Shangri-la's Old Town

The Songzanlin Monastery, which is lovely in spite of its slight resemblance to a shantytown.

Then, I researched upcoming destinations, confirmed doctors’ appointments, even refolded my laundry. All efforts were futile. The sounds of rats scurrying through the walls – and yes, the sight of them tiptoeing onto a bunk bed – ensured that I did not sleep for more than a few seconds that night. Apparently, all-nighters aren’t as simple of a task just a few years out of college; thoroughly exhausted and unenthused, I wasted the next day of touring.

I do believe I’ve matured throughout the course of this adventure. However, some of my flaws are here to stay. Like I said, I hate rats. Always have, always will.

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Rewinding to January

After almost a week together, my friends and I went our separate ways. They continued their tour of China’s notorious trifecta (Beijing-Shanghai-HK), while I veered off to trace a slightly longer path around the country.

I met Mickey, Will, Ben, Kate, and Bethany in Harbin, the capital city of Heilongjiang Province.

Harbin is in red; Heilongjiang Province is in orange.

A quick glance at the map will likely (and fairly) cause you to question our sanity: why, in the middle of January, would six healthy, educated people decide to venture towards the Russian border? Our answer was three-fold.

1) Harbin, China’s northernmost major city, is most famous for its International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. Every year, when the temperature drops to -20°F, the locals ignore the lazy bastard that I believe resides inside of everyone (and would undoubtedly encourage me to cuddle in bed with layers of socks and mugs of tea); instead, they bundle up and get to work, carving massive ice blocks that are used to recreate buildings, animals, historical figures, and slides.

2) The city’s Siberia Tiger Park was also enticing; it had been ever since I watched a video of Ming, Mickey’s brother, tossing a live chicken into the jaws of a very large and very hungry tiger. Unfortunately/fortunately – depending on the stringency of your moral code – one can no longer feed the tigers directly. The system now seemingly resembles a more refined dining experience: visitors select animals from a laminated menu (chickens cost RMB50, or approximately $8; entrees increase in size and price until the biggest of all big meats: a cow will cost you RMB1,500, or approximately $232). After a tour in a rickety bus through various sections of the open grounds, the spectators watch as their selected farm creatures are thrown onto the roof of a nearby Jeep, thus becoming the source of thrilling entertainment and helpless tiger feed.

During the tigers’ lunchtime, I found it quite effortless to push dozens of PETA ads to the back of my mind. However, towards the conclusion of the tour, I found myself reminded of my dislike for zoos in this country. China seems to believe that when it comes to animal treatment, nothing is impossible: “Sure, that panther can fit in a cage the size of a Manhattan apartment.” “Sure, those monkeys can eat whatever tourists toss them from the concession stand.” “Nope, those freezing animals don’t need any shelter.” It was painful and distressing to see leopards and lions shuddering in the sub-zero temperatures.

3) My stomach. As much as I love Chinese cuisine, I was thrilled to eat crusty bread and boneless meat, to drink a hearty borscht soup. I was equally thrilled – let’s not pretend to be surprised – to find reasonably priced vodka. Though it doesn’t resemble baijiu’s incessant burn, the liquor provided me with an extra layer of warmth. Harbin’s proximity to Russia brought these luxury items back into my life and my frozen belly, and I was so grateful to share that with both mine and Mickey’s friends.

January 22 – January 26
Most expats in China have managed to form “correct opinions” regarding this country and its sites. Sometimes, these opinions clash. Other times, they align perfectly. Hong Kong is a uniting topic, in that the vast majority of foreigners in China concur: it sucks.

My first destination with Kate, my travel partner for the upcoming two months, was a quick lesson in the importance of avoiding premature judgment. I found Hong Kong to be amazing. It is one of the places I’ve visited that could truly be my home for a long-term period.

Now, I can easily understand why both Chinese and westerners alike have taken a liking to the city, as it manages to strike a balance between the traits of both societies.

On one hand…

As in China, it's not difficult to find a dim and beautiful Buddhist temple.

Or, a nightly light show over an extravagant skyline.

Or, an obnoxiously large Buddhist temple.

Or, a market selling (still beating) fish hearts... comfort food!

Yet, on the other hand…

This is not red bean paste masquerading as chocolate. This is not even American chocolate. This is CADBURY'S, the likes of which I've never seen on the mainland.

Hong Kong's Central-Mid-levels Escalator is the longest covered escalator in the world. This sort of efficiency not only surpasses that of China, but also New York City!

And then, there are the things that are appreciated by just about everyone – regardless of where you are from.

Beautiful scenery...

...feats of gravity over more beautiful scenery...

... and dim sum.

Sure, Hong Kong’s English-speaking cab drivers and impeccable Western restaurants make it distinctly unChinese – and a target of many smug backpackers’ judgment. Nevertheless, after sixth months on the mainland, I unabashedly welcomed the familiarity with open arms.

January 26 – January 31
I never met a beach weekend that I didn’t like. That is, until I met Sanya. Kate and I had fallen victim to China’s fascination with superlatives: mere weeks after visiting the country’s northernmost major city, we were determined to visit Sanya, its southernmost major city (On a side note: as far as Chinese superlatives go, these two are impressively succinct. Other tourist destinations boast labels like “the largest outdoor Buddha that is made of clay and seated and west of (insert any random city)”. Still, one can find oneself enticed! Let’s put the cards on the table: it’s easier – and much more fun – to brag about superlative travels). Anyway, a note to future explorers of China: early February is not an optimal time for a beach visit. You’re unlikely to leave sun-kissed; if you are lucky enough to score a handful of freckles, they will only be on your face (the lone part that isn’t covered up by your sweatshirt, towel-blanket, and socks).

The owner of our hostel, Jane, also detracted from the weekend in Sanya. Her adorable smile and and squeaky voice and Hello Kitty headbands led us to an indisputable conclusion: she’s so cute! Alas, we were wrong. Jane wasn’t cute – she was conniving. She roped us into an expensive tour of a nearby rain forest, complete with a guide whose English level maxed out at “Lady, come here.” Really, Jane? My pale skin and blue eyes didn’t hint at the fact that I might not enjoy a four-hour tour that uses fast-paced Mandarin to explain the minutia of local plantlife? The next day, she tried to convince us to join an even more expensive scuba diving tour. “Yes, the instructions are in Chinese but you can use body language!” she exclaimed. I breathed a sigh of relief that the rain forest tour preceded the scuba diving one, then violently shook my head. No thanks, Jane.

Like anywhere, China has some honest people and some not-so-honest people. Let me be clear: I’ve never been robbed or legally wronged by these NSH folks. They seem to have the pure (and, ironically, capitalist) intention of bringing home a few extra renminbi, generally by taking a long route (taxi drivers) or selling me a blank DVD (market vendors) or ushering me into a restaurant (hostesses) or signing me up for a tour (Jane). This is not a problem that can be fixed by an understanding of Mandarin: I am simply a victim of being an outsider, unfamiliar with my physical and cultural surroundings. As time has gone on, though, Ms. Levy has learned to do her homework: Firstly, I find it is invaluable to do online research, reading tour reviews or familiarizing oneself with the applicable street or restaurant names. Secondly – call me negative if you will – it is just good sense to be wary of a stranger’s smiles. Finally, upon finding out that you’ve been duped, it’s okay to feel mildly irate. Then again, it’s better to accept it as a truth of travel, and move on.

In Sanya, I was reminded that the weather does not change to accommodate an itinerary, and sweet smiles do not always denote sweet intentions. Nevertheless, due to the company of some great friends, we passed the weekend with an emphasis on positivity: beachfront dancing, fresh mangoes, and the ubiquitous peace sign.

The welcome area of Yanoda Rainforest. Because, why not?

Amanda (and Mackenzie, in the reflection of Mands' sunglasses) - our CIEE coworkers who came down to Sanya for the weekend!

January 31 – February 3
Kate and I had grandiose expectations for Chinese New Year: we envisioned massive dragons, flanked by adorable bunny rabbits, parading down every street of every major city in China. We decided to pass the holiday in Guilin, a major city in Guangxi Province; we assumed that a population of 1.3 million would guarantee a decently sized celebration. Much to our surprise, we learned that many urban residents return to their family homes for the festivities. Sure, red decorations flooded the streets; but, in terms of people and dragons and bunnies, the city was relatively empty. Nevertheless, filled with dumplings and armed with (probably fake) vodka, Kate and I were determined to enjoy the night.

Apples engraved with good wishes for the upcoming year.

A New Yorker's very first fireworks!

Sometimes, being foreign really pays off: in this bar, we drank for free and got first pick of glow sticks!

Though we did not have a typically authentic Chinese New Year, Kate and I made the best of our situation. In spite of being alone in an unfamiliar city, without warm friends and close family and red envelopes, we managed to have one of the best nights of our time together. For weeks to come, booming fireworks and red confetti reminded us of the new year’s arrival and the way we rang it in: a positive omen, I think.

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The Price is Right… for some

In the past months, more than a few people have excitedly told me that I’m living out the storyline of Eat, Pray, Love. However, this is not the case. I don’t have a symbolic favorite Mandarin word, too much rice makes my pants too tight, and my days are noticeably devoid of well-timed and powerful background music. Truth be told, traveling is not always what Elizabeth Gilbert and Julia Roberts make it out to be. The breathtaking photographs, humorous anecdotes, and personal reflections come at a price: miscommunication, unfamiliarity, and in China, the odd stomachache.

Julia Roberts enjoys some gelato...

... while I encounter atypical kebabs, such as silkworm...

... and snake.

At the beginning of January, several well-adjusted months in Shanghai had helped push this notion to the back of my mind. Of course, I expected that my planned escapades would eventually remind me of the peaks and valleys that travel brings; I did not realize that the arrival of three (brave) friends in early January would bring it roaring forward so quickly.

I met Elana, Jenny, and Will in Beijing, at the onset of their two weeks in China. Though my family had finished a similar trip just days earlier, I couldn’t help but feel like these three friends were my first visitors: my family and I did not exactly “rough it” in Shanghai or Xi’an (Quite to the contrary, their visit opened my eyes to a side of China that was previously unbeknownst to me: renowned tour guides in place of tattered guidebooks, restaurants with not only napkins, but CLOTH napkins, and of course, the Peace Hotel. Let me remind you, my previous housing experience involved a determined water rat). While I thoroughly enjoyed – and appreciated – my brief encounter with what I call “grown-up tourism”, I was excited that these three visitors would have a closer glimpse of my ordinary lifestyle. Moreover, I was thrilled that I was not only about to see Beijing, the capital city, but I was to see it with some of my favorite people.

The only thing is, visitors from home are inevitably stressful. Even when they are organized and adventurous – as Elana, Jenny, and Will were – there is a very real fear that they will leave with thoughts like “Why would she want to live here?” or “Why is everything so different?” or, quite frankly, “Yuck”. After all, it is well known that China is an extremely polarizing country, not only in terms of politics but also in terms of tourism. Some visitors enjoy the public transportation, rejoice at the prices, scrutinize the history, chuckle at the babies with slits in their pants. Others don’t. Some struggle with chopsticks, critique the spelling mistakes, avoid the smells, nauseate at the incessant phlegm-clearing. Others don’t.

While this is an undeniable truth, I continue to feel a palpable urge to defend China to anyone and everyone. I have endured the differences that make this country so unlike my own, and in doing so, I’ve learned how much it has to offer in cultural, historical, and even gastronomical ways. I suppose I should allow others to undergo their own experiences and develop their own opinions… but I find it hard to (silently) do so when I’m so aware of how drastically different, and therefore offputting, this society can be.

Being photographed like a celebrity as a result of our pale skin tone. Pretty hilarious, but not quite normal.

Playgrounds that are sporadically scattered around a city, as a means for adult exercise. Still not exactly normal.

Dancing the cancan with a complete stranger. Getting farther and farther from normal.

And after an early-January dip in Beijing's Houhai Lake, a local man rinses off the filthy water and ice particles. So, so, so far from normal.

In the end, though, Elana, Jenny, and Will were incredible troopers who seemed to be as entertained and intrigued by China as I am. Elana made a fiercely ambitious list of cities to tour on her next visit; Jenny eventually made peace with her chopsticks (only one restaurant offered her a fork!); and Will gallantly survived his first foray into the world of baijiu.

And while the bathroom outside the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall was one of the most repulsive that I have ever encountered, the wall itself did not disappoint. On that day, my friends learned firsthand what it is to adapt and enjoy China: pay the price of squatting in an inexplicably stinky bathroom, and you earn the opportunity to admire a wonder of the world.

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The End of a (five month) Era

In some ways, my life has been pretty regular since I last posted in November.

The holiday season came and went:

Despite – or, perhaps, because of – my location in a Chinese city, I had what may have been my first “real” Thanksgiving. After all, my family’s holiday dinner has always seemed a bit factitious, seeing as we’ve never included a single person who was raised by American parents. As it turns out, surrounded by American expats in a crowded apartment in Shanghai, I re-learned the lesson that Mrs. Rabina taught me in the fourth grade: Thanksgiving is simply about being full of gratitude and full of turkey. And I was, thanks to a bunch of good friends and – after several hundred RMB and a catering service – a plate of delicious food.

The remainder of Shanghai’s holidays continued to, in some ways, mirror that of New York. Lights, both Christmas-related and not, ignited the city’s skyline and downtown bars.

Holiday gizmos (ranging from Jesus Silly Bandz to Denver Bronco’s wreaths) flooded stores.

Unsurprisingly, I engaged in the traditional Jewish pastime of eating Chinese food on Christmas.

And finally, as the lights turned out and the local Chinese people regained control of their skyline and bars, I eagerly anticipated New Year’s Eve.

All sounds pretty standard, right?

It wasn’t. That paper Christmas tree was photographed inside the Shanghai World Financial Centre, a skyscraper that not only resembles a bottle opener…

Can you find it?

… but also offers quite a view of Pudong from its observation deck, the highest in the world.

Looking down on Jinmao (金茂) Tower, China's tallest building until the completion of the World Financial Center.

The time that my family and I spent together was in Xi’an (西安), the capital city of Shaanxi Province that is most famed for the Terracotta Warriors.

The army is said to represent that of Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇), the first emperor of China.

Apparently, every single soldier has a different facial expression!

The food that we ate was not Seven Woks’ chicken and broccoli, but – much to my father’s despair – a hole-in-the-wall’s yangrou paomo (羊肉泡沫).

Unlike most Westernized Chinese food, this Chinese-Muslim dish is of the "DIY" persuasion. First, grab a bowl and a few discs of dense, white bread.

Next, rip the bread into miniature pieces. If you're dedicated, this can take as much as thirty minutes. If you're hungry, it can be done in under five.

Toss a numbered card into your bowl of crumbs, then take it down to the kitchen. This is a very important step, as it guarantees that you'll get a bowl filled with the bread that YOU meticulously tore apart for minutes upon minutes.

Listen to the slurps of other patrons as you wait for your bowl to be filled with mutton stew and returned to you. Garnish with pickled ginger and chilies as you see fit.

Put it in your belly. All of it!

And finally, the eagerness that I felt about December 31st was not only towards the anticipated strike of midnight, but also for what the date signified: my last day of work in Shanghai, and my last day of work for the foreseeable future.

It was predictably bittersweet to bid farewell to Shanghai. I suppose that this emotion was, in itself, a lesson: I was initially disappointed and frustrated when I moved back to the city. I had felt strongly about the immersion opportunities that Taicang would have offered, and my emotions contrasted starkly with the foreign-influenced expat lifestyle that Shanghai boasts. Nevertheless, over time, I adjusted to my new living situation.

I became infatuated with, and thus fattened by, the Shanghainese cuisine.

Hand-pulled noodles (拉面, or la mian) are a daily staple.

Red-cooked meat (紅燒肉, or hongshao rou) , with its artery-clogging cubes of silky fat, cannot be a daily staple.

And of course, soup dumplings (小笼包, or xiaolongbao). Some, like the type sold at Yuyuan Gardens, are sold with built-in straws to help amateurs drink the broth.

More soup dumplings, sans the straw.

Even more soup dumplings.

(Let's be honest, though, I still miss cheese).

I overcame my first foreign work experience, one that was both trying and rewarding.

I even triumphed over Winston, a water rat who thought 4:00AM was an optimal time to crawl up my shower drain in a futile effort to become my roommate.

Here is my bathroom. Note the blockade over Winston's entryway in my shower.

As it turns out, an oversized bottle of water every day keeps the pesky water rat away.

Best of all, I made friends that can best be described as family. After all, when our own relatives are across the globe, we inevitably play the roles of each other’s siblings and parents.

Those five months were filled with highs and lows, challenges and feats. I loved most minutes of it. Nevertheless, leaving my Shanghainese life in my rearview mirror ensured I was moving on to the next chapter of my experience: seven uninterrupted months of life on the road. Let the adventures begin…

The backpack, the blackberry, and the girl.

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Long Time No Speak

Stay tuned for Expat Nat’s revival! Many months’ worth of anecdotes and photos are on the way…

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Noodle in Nanjing (南京)

November 24, 2010

I am on a mission: before I leave Shanghai in about a month’s time, I want to see as many of its surrounding cities as I possibly can. After all, when I return to visit my Chinese “hometown” in the midst of my travels, I know I’ll simply want to relax and unwind.

So, this past weekend, the battle of Natalie vs. Her Local Traveling To-Do List continued…

The accomplices: Kate and Bethany
The target: Nanjing, the capital city of Jiangsu Province. Nan (南) translates as “south”, while jing (京) translates as “capital”; this city is extremely historically significant.

The weekend started off on a bleak note. We first visited the Memorial Hall of the Nanjing Massacre, a graphic documentation of the 1937 Japanese occupation. This six-week window is infamous for the accounts of rapes and mass murders committed by Japanese soldiers against Chinese civilians. Yet, as is the case with many historical tragedies, some controversy remains over the details of the time period. Chinese historians and the Memorial Hall hold the Japanese responsible for the torture and death of 300,000 innocent people; many Japanese maintain that any incurred casualties were a result of routine military invasion procedures. The debate is complicated and intricate. In spite of these outside deliberations, however, the inside of this museum is worthy of a visit. It paints a somber picture of past agony, then encourages a future of coexistence and peace.

The site of a mass grave, said to contain over 10,000 bodies

A wall that commemorates the victims' names; the pictured names share my Chinese surname, 李 (or Li).

After the Memorial Hall and a brief reflection on the pitfalls of human nature, I was eager to explore a more uplifting aspect of Nanjing: its temples. I am far from a religious person, but I’ve always admired devotees’ ability to express their faith in the form of breathtaking structures.

Kate and I visited the Heaven Dynasty Palace, originally constructed as a court etiquette school during the Ming Dynasty. Today, it functions as a beautiful Confucian temple – and, according to our tour guide, an artisan’s market (unfortunately, our dreams of unique tchotchkes were unfilled, as Lonely Planet lived up to its reputation as a completely unreliable source of information)!

The Fuzi Temple, our next stop, was a center of Confucian study for over 1,500 years. Today, however, it functions as a center for tourist shops and restaurants. I appreciated this dichotomy: after perusing the temple’s sculptures and lanterns, I spent the evening satisfying my earlier tchotchke craving.


Chinese paintings

Wood carvings

Goldfish and turtles... in keychains. Yes, they're alive!

And, what market would be complete without piglet-shaped red bean buns?

Later that Sunday evening, Kate and Bethany returned to Shanghai to begin their regular Monday through Friday work week. I, on the other hand, reveled in the joy of my bizarre weekend schedule: Monday was all mine. For the first time since my arrival in China, I finally had a chance to explore an unfamiliar city by myself.

My 8:15 A.M alarm awoke flashbacks of family vacation mornings: while Mikey and Jessie and I would lie in bed at the crack of dawn, our parents’ voices would fill the room. “Don’t waste the day!” “We are so lucky to be here!” “You can sleep at home!” Then, eventually, “There’s breakfast downstairs!” As I resisted the urge to snooze my alarm, I saw the method behind my mother and father’s morning madness. Even without the promise of a free continental breakfast, I was out the door by 8:30 A.M.

I spent the day rushing between tourist sites, slowing down at each one to soak in the lovely weather and culture. Some said I’d only be able to visit one or two places; thanks to my Levy travel genes, I managed to prove them wrong.

1. Jiming Temple, a Buddhist temple that parallels the original city walls while overlooking Xuanwu Lake, was my first destination.

The Jiming Temple’s pagoda offers magnificent views of the lakeside city, as well as Nanjing’s tallest skyscraper. Constructed less than a year ago, the Greenland Square Zifeng Tower is also the fourth tallest in all of China.

2. Next, I took a cable car up Purple Mountain (紫金山, or Zijin Shan). I immediately fell under the impression that Monday is an optimal sightseeing day, as the other cable cars were completely empty. Of course, I realized I was mistaken when a small crowd of Chinese tourists welcomed me at the top of the mountain, shouting “Hello, white lady!” After a quick greeting, I was able to enjoy Purple Mountain’s innumerable walkways, sculptures, and views on my own.

Buddha tries to hide from me behind a flimsy tree

Many tourist attractions are also located further down from the summit of the mountain. Sun-Yatsen’s mausoleum and Zhu Yuanzhang’s tombs are the most well-known destinations. I took a bus, a tram, and a long walk before I finally arrived at the entrances.

Unfortunately, Lonely Planet failed me again; the encyclopedia-sized tour guide neglected to mention a pretty useful tidbit of information…

What can you do? On to the next one.

3. Another long walk, tram ride, and bus ride led me to my third destination: the Ming Palace Ruins. In its heydey, this imperial palace was said to resemble Beijing’s Forbidden City. My visit proved that time has taken its toll: all that remains are a few scattered column bases. The city has also complemented these with a public park and an outdoor food market.

4. I finally concluded my Monday at the ancient Zhounghua Gate (中华门, or Zhonghua Men), built during the Ming Dynasty. Fittingly, there was not a tourist in sight.

As the sun set on my first day of solo sightseeing, I felt content and proud. I had formulated my own itinerary, navigated my own way around a foreign city, and successfully used my own self-timer to document the occasion. What’s more is, I had thoroughly enjoyed myself during the process. I now know that I’d like to – and, more importantly, am fully able to – incorporate many more of these days into my future travels.

In the meantime, I’m one step closer to mission accomplished.

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