Monday, February 26, 2007

Spring Festival Trip part 2

Feb. 19 - Pandas and Roast Duck

Our final day in the capital was a visit to the Beijing Zoo. The highlight of their zoo is, of course, their panda exhibit. In fact, the last time I visited this zoo, our tour went directly to the panda exhibit only. But this time we scheduled ourselves a healthy hour and a half to wander the zoo on our own.

Alex, Myself, and my buddy Chas didn't waste much time at the Panda exhibit. They were all sleeping and being lazy. First we checked out the impressive lake/bird sanctuary near the zoo's entrance. For the extra hour we had, it was enough to get a decent impression of what the zoo has to offer. Its certainly no San Diego or Brookfield zoo, but the variety of animals is there. Some animals were very odd looking, 4 legged things that I had never seen nor recognized from any American zoo. I couldn't get a reliable name, as they were all writtein in Chinese and Pin Yin. The only thing I could tell, was that they were native to western China, as next to each name was a map of their natural habitat.

One I remember looked like a cross between a hog, a large dog's face, and something equally ugly. The monkeys were cool, but the gorilla house was especially sad looking. Pretty run down, dreary lighting, and a pair of depressed looking, massive Kongs.

Also different from last year was my Roast Duck experience. Roast Duck dinners are the most famous, traditional dinner developed in Beijing's traditions. Whereas last year I didn't enjoy the meal, I found this trip's to be a highlight lunch for the entire tour. New restaurant, lots of beer at noon, and a much better tasting duck helped to make this possibly the best meal of the trip.
Northern Chinese food differs much from its Southern brethren. I found that Beijing's meals were easily my favorite of the trip. The south prefer very sweet, lighter meals, where the north enjoys saltier, heavier meals.

I spent my free afternoon hunting the streets near our hotel for a guitar. I've always wanted a thing, hollow body jazz guitar and knew Xiamen didn't have any to offer. Drew, another traveling buddy , went with me, as he was curious about getting a bass for himself.

The streets lined with music stores were chock full of people and clsed off to cars thanks to the Chinese New Year. Of all the stores, there was literally only one guitar that stood out as one that fullfilled my dreams and could be proud of. They had rip off Gibsons etc...but I wanted legit. Only problem was, the legit PV guitar was listed at 3,000 RMB. But two hours of haggling, 1 walk away from the store, and a lot of acting and debate later and the price had dropped to 1,600 RMB with a hard case thrown in. With an exchange rate of US$1 = 7.7 RMB that works out to...just a hair over $200. This same model guitar in the US probably retails for $400. Not too shabby. Not to mention a hard case that was thrown in for free usually would cost 50-70$ by itself.

On another note, the Chinese New Year on the night of the 17th was like nothing I've seen/heard before. They may not have the best quality fireworks (as they big ones usually explode before clearing the 2o some story buildings) But it seems every person in the city of 18 million are launching bombs for 12 hours straight. It actually went on for the entire trip, but those first hours from midnight to 6 in the morning were literally non stop. They didn't have any single, planned fireworks show, just regular citizens on every street corner and parking lot blowing things up.

It seriously sounded like a war zone. I thought I was in Beirut or something. IThat same night, I also got to play guitar in the same hole-in-the-wall bar as last year. Instead of Andy Oswald (my good friend from last years trip) on the drums, I had the priviledge of jamming with a 50-something year old Swiss man who told me it was his first time playing in 25 years. The 15 or so Swiss present were all raucous, drunk, loud and fun. He was a ton of fun to perform with, even when he stumbled and dropped a drum stick mid-song. Just a good party.
Mao's Mosoleum

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Xin Nian Hao - Spring Festival Travel

After only 2 weeks in Xiamen, it was time for the Chinese New Year. Its the Chinese equivalent to our Christmas/New Years holidays. Also known as the Spring Festival, the official length of the event is 15 days. So while I have been attending my classes, only 5% of the local 30,000 students have been on campus. They were all on break until the conclusion of Spring Festival. With this in mind, Eckerd and Xiada worked out a deal where our troop of 12 students would travel for 9 days through some of China's most important cities.

Following the structure proven successful in last year's Semester in Asia program, we visited the capital of Beijing, the ancient capital of Xi'an, and one of the premier economic hubs of the world, Shanghai.

I traveled light during the trek and opted not to drag my laptop with me. Instead, I kept a handwritten journal as required by our course leader Professor Grasso. So I'll be posting numerous days worth of travel in what will probably broken up by only a handful of actual blog postings. The first of which is my thoughts and experiences in Beijing...

BEIJING: February 16-20th

DAY 1 - February 16

Beijing's literal translation is "Northern Capital." Judging by the drastic change in temperature (its now peaking in the mid 40's) as well as the absense of greenery, Beijing seems to remember everything I remember it for last time. But that's not really a fair way to put it, other than the Chicagoesque scenery and weather, Bejing is an amazing place to visit.

After a delayed flight, which was explained by personel as everything from weather to conjested air traffic, we finally were back en route to the "heart of China," as our guide Mike put it.

Day 1 in Bejing could easily be summed up as the day of nostalgia. Before even boarding our Xiamen Airlines carrier, my buddy Galway was clearing space for us to play Chinese hackey-sack ala our trip from a year ago. Its the little things, like us falling into line behind the guidance of Mike's yellow flag that gave me a kick this first day back. Each time we'd go out in one of these big cities, the guides always carry a bright flag for us to follow like a flock of ducklings.
Its not quite as embarassing as some of the domestic Chinese tourists who all wear matching, brightly colored baseball caps to find their way through the masses.

Now I truly felt like I was back "in the saddle." From there was the bus rides I learned to love. Even if they're kind of like the shopping carts...They're not always the most comfortable things, the tour guide in front usually has to fiddle with the microphone settings and such, but its all good. Its an amazing thing for me to be living out this trip again, as it certainly qualifies as a "once in a lifetime" trip.

The best part was not only revisiting sites and maybe experiencing them in a more relaxed way, but also seeing new things that were originally overlooked. Thanks to the Chinese New Year, much of Beijing and its sides are relatively emptied. Following tradition, many of the people in the cities leave during the holidays to return to their hometowns and families.

Whereas Tianamen Square was a mad house last year, this time we were able to enjoy it with ease. At one end of the giant city square is Chairmen Mao's resting mosoleum. His final resting place usually has a three hour line in front of it, but this time we were able to view his body within 10 minutes.

Its perfectly maintained, resting in a giant empty room with stern faced gaurds overlooking his glass encased coffin. A soft light shines on Mao's face and, at first, looks as if his body is a replica with a jackolantern for a head. But as I walked silently by his resting body it became clear that it was his actual face being highlighted.

Our first evening consisted of a 1 hour traditional Beijing Opera performance. Their are only three places that still practice the show, one of which is attached to the hotel we stayed at. Two stories are told over the hour with an intermission in between. The first story was of an emperor and his interactions with his favorite concubine while his undermanned army was under seige. The concubine kills herswelf so aso not to distract the emperor from his own survival, regarding the iminent invasion that was about to come down on him and his nation. A tradtional tragedy from Chinese history.

DAY 3 - February 18

This marked my return to the Great Wall. An hour drive out of the city at the crack of dawn helped our tour bus be the first to arrive at the scene. There are a handful of spots outside the city that are designated as sites for visitors to climb, but the one Grasso takes us to is considered the most rewarding of them all.

In order to understand my experience climbing the wall, its important my history with such. The wall had my number last year. It was a rough climb to the top, and I ended up throwing up only after I reached the top. The section of wall we climb is roughly 2,500 jagged, uneven steps to the top. Needless to say, not everyone makes the complete climb. Its quick to reveal what level of shape you're in. Thisyear, I'd already spent plenty of time playing hours of basketball everyday for the past 2 weeks in Xiamen which definatly helped.

Not only did I reach the top, I was the first of the group to reach the top. Our bus was the earliest to arrive at the walls base, so it was especially rewarding to reach the summit. I was completely by myself and able to take in the view/accomplishment. It was a very rewarding experience. Following not far behind was my travel partner Alex Roche and Prof Grasso.

That was just the warm up for the day, as plenty of steps and walking lied ahead. After the Great Wall, we visited the Ming Tombs, a sprawling grave at the mountains base. Its a scenic walk, highlighted by a large, cavernous underground palace complete with a throne room.

As if that wasn't enough, we then moved on to the Summer Palace. The site in Beijing where the emperors would spend much of their time during the hotter months. A large, manmade lake (in the shape of a giant peach symbolizing completion) helped to create a cool breeze for the park. Highlights include the Marble Boat, a decent sized foothill to climb thats well worth the view. Tour shops selling scrolls, books, and other trinkets are speckled throughout the park as well. Its a beautiful place and one of my favorite sites throughout all of Beijing.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Xiamen in a Nutshell

I thought I’d take some time to familiarize everyone with my new residence, Xiamen. For Dr. Grasso’s Chinese Seminar course, the first thing we had to do was round up specific information in our teams. Each team was assigned a different subject, either Xiamen in general, Xiamen University, and China as a whole. The following list is information gathered on the area that should help give an idea as to what sort of place Xiamen is.

Xiamen Info

- Amoi is the old name for Xiamen (Located in the Fujian Province)
- For more info on Xiamen, a good site to visit is It is maintained by the wife of a professor here at Xiada (Xiamen University).
- Xiamen is an island in a sub-tropical climate, resting within the monsoon season belt.

City History

- Major trading post during western imperialism
- Gulanyu is small island, within a 2 minute ferry ride from Xiamen Island
- Was famous for settlement by westerners. Beautiful gardens, courtyards etc…
Gulanyu AKA Piano Island (Highest concentration of piano’s in the world)

o Architecture = combo of traditional Chinese, british colonial, and modern skyscrapers

o Fujian Province is one of China’s richest thanks to trade, int’l airport etc…

o One of China’s 5 original Special Economic Zones from the 1980’s
- Allowing for foreign direct investment from an early start

Xiamen University (Xiada)

- Designated as one of China’s “Key Universities”
- Allows for priority, extra funding and choice in student selection
- Top 10% of schools nationwide
- Key Schools get to give invitation only to students
- Only Key school in a special economic zone.

Students & Faculty

- Over 30,000 students

- 40% of faculty have their Doctorate or equivalent
o 32% of which received degrees abroad and returned
o 1,200 International students
o Over 80 Research facilities
o 4,000 staff on campus
o Home to largest Taiwan Research Institute

Well that’s Xiamen by the numbers. Its an amazing place, small mountains are to my rooms back, the ocean and beach are only a 15 minute walk away, and the students are very kind.

Two nights a week, Chinese and foreigners meet at a place called “English Square” to exchange ideas, practice each other’s languages, etc…Its only a block down from the hotel I’m staying in and is great. Now that the numbers and specifics of the place are out of the way, I’ll start posting more interesting, personal experiences with the city.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

BACK IN THE . . . P.R.C (People's Republic of China)

One week and counting in Xiamen, (pronounced Shaman) China. I haven’t had to time to maintain the blog as often as preferred this first week, as I have been very busy getting settled. Getting from India to Xiamen was no simple little jump.

My first connection was waiting four hours away in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia. I had a few hours to kill there. Luckily, the place was much cleaner than Delhi’s rotten airport. In fact, the airport had banners posted advertising its success in winning a worldwide competition as the “world’s best airport 2006.” No gimmick, its top notch.

From there I had another 3 hour jump over to Hong Kong. What a tease, Xiamen is only a 1 hour flight north of Hong Kong, yet I had to sit at the HK Airport for over 5 hours waiting for my connection. Ahh! Alex and I had left Delhi at 11pm Friday night, and had yet to find any real sleep. I had watched the most amazing sunrise of my life (no exaggeration) from Malaysia’s airport. It was one of those huge fireballs you see in National Geographic documentary’s about Africa, only this time it came rolling out from behind some rolling mountains. As beautiful as it was, it served as a reminder that I had yet to get any shuteye, and the day was upon us.
After the dreadful waiting in Hong Kong, our little skip over to Xiamen was short and sweet. By the time I had just closed my eyes and begun to nod off, I felt a huge jolt. Fearful, as it would have been a nervously serious air bubble, it turned out it was actually the feel of our wheels touching down in Xiamen.

My camera is busted, or I’d be posting some pictures to accompany. Somehow, my camera was only willing to work up to the very final days of India…bizarre. I will be borrowing a friends in the meantime, so I can better show my new home for the next 4 months: Xiamen, China.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Sacred Rapids

Hello hello, I'm now safely in Xiamen, China. It was a long, tiring string of flights but now I just appreciate my bed that much more. Not much has happened yet, we had an official campus tour today which was nice. The campus is huge, supporting over 30,000 students in attendance. Our International Exchange Home is near the main gate which is nice. My room is on the 6th floor and is a basic hotel room. Of course, it doesnt look much like a hotel room now. Within our first 10 minutes, Alex and I had rearranged the beds, tv, and desk in a way that is much more homelike. More on Xiamen when things begin happening.

As for Rishikesh...after our ride to the top of the mountain, we through our stuff in our room and were met within the hour by a truck full of locals and a river raft. We had met the guide on a pitstop going up the mountain and made the deal. For 700 Rupees (Roughly $23 US) he rounded up some coworkers and a few of the local kids to help guide us down the rapids. They put Alex and I in the front which was great, and let us on an hour long ride down the Ganges River.

The river water is about as cold as possible, as it is all recently melted glacier and snow caps. It was fun for a first timer like myself, as the rapids were considered category 3s. We caught a good drenching of ice cold holy water and had a handful of harry moments filled with good laughs.

An equally pleasant part of our trip was the ride our guide offered us after we reached the end. He was happy to give us a life back up the mountain side on his 200cc motorcycle. No towels, just a sip of hot tea before we left was all we had to help us through the cold. But it was strangely relaxing and less scary than the initial taxi ride. It was getting late and there was hardly any traffic. The moon was near full and bright white, lighting our path as we winded up the mountainside. Looking down I could see its reflection in the river hundreds of feet below.

It was great to get back to the Glass House. Unlike most hotels, our room was its own seperate little cottage with a front porch and incredibly large bathroom. And thankfully, the shower water was quick to get up to a heated temperature!

Our Rishikesh trip was the perfect ending to an invigorating and once in a lifetime type of trip. India was full of surprises, colors, people, and none of it would have been possible without the help of a loving family and friends, thank you to all!

From here on out, my focus is schooling in China. My first class is tomorrow morning, "Modernization and Economic Development." It is taught by a local Xiamen Professor and should be very interesting. I will continue to update my blog here as much as the rest of the trip.

Keeping an eye on home and my interest in journalism, I found this blog entry regarding the current state of our media and the ethics that it is obligated to uphold very interesting. It is worth checking out as it effects each and all of us.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Holy City in the Mountains

Hello everyone! I'm sitting stuck on a 5 hour layover in Hong Kong waiting to board the third and final connecting flight that will finally get me to Xiamen, China for the semester. Xiamen is only a 1 hour flight north of Hong Kong, so this final layover is quite the tease as I have been hopping planes for what will be 19 hours...phew.

So while I'm catching my breath I thought I should get a final India post up. I mean, I really have to since the highlight of the entire month came on the last two days in the country.

I have been sitting on a train ticket to the city of Rishikesh for about a week, waiting to head towards the Himilaya Mountains foothills. It was a 5 hour train ride from Delhi to Hagiwar, another city resting on the holy Gangas River. From there, Alex and I negotiated our way to a taxi driver who would take us another 2 hours north, through Rishikesh and up the mountain to our reserved hotel, The Glass House.

We had no problems on the trip, everything went as planned with plenty of pleaseant surprises along the way. The ride up the mountain was more thrilling than any roller coaster ride at Six Flags. The road barely fits 2 vehicles at a time, and often is only made for one direction at a time. Pot holes rule the half paved, half washed out road only adding more difficulty to the trek. But the scariest parts are the blind turns, and they come often. The driver would fly at probably 5o kilometers an hour, winding up the mountain path, approaching these sharply blind turns blaring his horn. Blowing the horn is the only way to alert possible oncoming traffic of your presence. No music plays, the drivers window is down, and he goes into military focus mode.

Alex and I sat in the back seat with our hearts racing, clinging to the "ohshit" handle that came in more than handy during this ride. Besides the blind turns, oncoming mac sized trucks, local motorbikers, and rock slides (yea, traffic was backed up on the way back down because a bulldozer was busy removing a rock slide that had covered the road) the other doozy was when you looked out your passenger window. More often that not, it was a beautiful view of Himalayas foothills and the flowing Gangas river, but look a little closer to the road and its clear that the car is always mere feet from certain death. The cliffs are steep drop offs in the hundreds of feet, the kind where no seatbelt will help (oh, that didn't matter because our taxi cab had no seatbelts).

Once to the hotel at the top, we were river rafting right back down to the bottom within the hour. More on that, and the subsequent motorcycle ride back up the mountain later...

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Indian Ear Exam

This post is regarding my doctor's visit back on the 29th. I haven't had time to get the story up til now thanks to a side trip to the holy city of Rishikash. Watch for a post going up in the near future about that awesome trek.

Now to my doctor story. To set that stage, I've had ongoing problems with my left ear since late November. I've had several doctors visits regarding what started as a simple ear infection. The eardrops I had been described before leaving the US had been tearing up the outside of my ear and appearing to do more harm than good. Finally, seeing no end in site, I lined up an appointment with a local Indian doctor who runs an office out of his home (as is quite normal for many surgeons, salesmen, etc...).

The first meeting was about a week and a half ago. He took a look, said there was far too much swelling and mucus to make out a clear site of my eardrum. With a quick prescription I was out of his office and told to return in a week when the antianflamitory had done its job.

The 29th, I returned. This time, instead of a quick seat in his office, I was taken back to a surgery room for an ear canal cleaning, audiogram, and full doctors visit. Luckily, my travel partner Alex, was able to tag along with camera in hand.

For a westerner used to American doctor's offices, the initial impression of the surgery room was quite a shocker. I have to admit, my heart started beating a bit faster. I know this for fact, because they hooked me up to a pulse monitor. I was running just above 60 when I arrived, and by the end of the session was running at about 20 extra beats a minute.

As you can see in the photos, the room was very bare. From my position on the very sad looking surgery table, I could see loose electrical wires hanging from the ceiling, many of the towels and even the sheets on me looked...a bit on the unsanitary side. I don't want to say that for certain, as I'm sure they wash them regulary, but they certainly were old and had seen better days (pre stain days I hope).

As scary as it all appeared, the doctor was more than adequate for his job. I wasn't worried about him at all. He cleaned out my ear, which desperately needed it according to Alex, who was allowed to look through the lens down my ear canal.

My ear is still infected and the ear drum is very red and irritated. The doctor put me on two different two week prescriptions and gave me an audiogram to test my hearing. The news wasnt great but not bad: my damaged left ear is hearing about 10 decibals less than my right. But, according to the doctors, this is minimal and will improve as the eardrums irritation subsides.

The total experience cost me 4,000 rupees...or roughly $80 US dollars to include the visit, cleaning procedure, prescriptions and audiogram. Not bad, as you can't put a price on your hearing.