Sunday, July 11, 2010

A 3 Hour Tour

Yesterday Megan updated her facebook status with this statement, "I have seen heaven and it is called Guilin." I couldn't agree more. We got off the plane Thursday morning and were greeted by our English speaking tour guide, who made sure that we each had a bottle of water as soon as we boarded the bus. (It didn't take long for us to feel like we were in heaven. Compared to Nanjing last week, this was unbelievable.)

Our guide's name was Katherine and she was great. She was about our age and we made friends quickly. She was adorable. She always called her boyfriend her "lover" and she kept telling us about the bars in Yangshou with the sexy steel poles. "Very sexy." Somehow, we missed seeing those. Our group was smaller this time and without Dr. Walters there we may have felt a bit more free to relax. We played games and sang songs on the bus. Our first destination was the Reed Flute Cave. It is massive and is displayed as only the Chinese can do. Much of the cave is lit by neon green, pink or blue lights. In the largest cavern there is a laser light show, complete with music and bubbles. Can you imagine seeing that at Timp Cave? The workers there are all in parkas, even though we thought the temperature was perfect. I guess anything under 85 is just too cold.

After the cave we climbed Fubo Hill and had an incredible view of the city. The formations in Guilin were formed when the whole area was underwater. It is easy to feel like you are still underwater when you look out over the green, otherworldly peaks of the landscape.

We checked into our hotel that afternoon and had 3 hours of free time. That seemed a little excessive, so we decided to add our own extra tourist spot. We would walk to the Solitary Peak/Prince's Palace and have a look around. It would cost 15 RMB. It was a good plan. Then we started walking, and walking. It took about 45 minutes to find our destination and cost 70 RMB to get into the park. However, even though things didn't go as planned, we still had a great adventure. We climbed to the top of the peak on stairs that were at least 8 inches tall. I had a hard time scaling them and can't imagine how the Chinese can walk up them with their petite legs! In the park there was a Peace Cave that we really wanted to see, but the doors were locked. We could hear people in there and became determined to find our way in.

It turned out that only tour guides had the key to the cave, so we waited for a group and then sneaked in with them. It was a little awkward because several members of their group were sneaking pictures of us while they were waiting for their guide to explain the cave. They weren't actually very sneaky. Sometimes I wish they would just ask us for a picture so they didn't end up with pictures taken from strange angles as they creep around behind us to try to get a shot. We are all pretty used to it now. I will post a facebook album when I get home of all of our paparazzi pictures. They are pretty great. The cave ended up being less than impressive, but we were still proud of our mad sneaking skills.

When we were ready to go back to the hotel we were running short on time so had to hail a cab. In China. Without a Chinese speaker. This hadn't happened to us yet. We ended up showing our driver our hotel key card and that worked just fine. On the way back we witnessed a drug deal outside the car window when we were stopped at a red light. More adventure for us!

The next day we took a river cruise down the Li River to Yangshou. It was a 3 hour tour and it was phenomenal. The river cuts right through the famous peaks of Guilin and there were people on bamboo rafts on the river, others doing their laundry, and there were lots of water buffalo along the banks of the river. It reminded me a lot of cruising down the Tracy Fjord last year, but this time it was anything but freezing outside. When we got to Yangshou our tour guide took us to ride another boat. None of us were exactly sure of what the activity was, but she said we might get wet.

Heather and I did NOT want to get wet. We only went on the condition that everyone in the group would promise that they would not get us wet. When we got to the river there were hundreds of bamboo rafts, built for two floating on the river. We each got on a raft and our guides pushed us along the river with their bamboo poles. As we were pushing off a little old lady came out on one of the rafts to try and sell us a water gun or plastic bags. We didn't want the water gun for sure, but it was only as we were pushing off that I realized what the plastic bags were for; they were to cover our shoes and suddenly I knew that we needed them desperately. We practically threw money at her, and she reached out to hand us the bags. They ended up being lifesavers.

We sat back and relaxed and took in the view for much of the ride. Every once in a while someone from a neighboring raft would spray us with water guns and we would put up our umbrellas to protect ourselves. There were rafts in the middle of the river selling beer and dried fish. The whole thing was very quaint and incredibly beautiful. Halfway through the ride our guide gave us a water gun so we could defend ourselves. I don't know if he was being merciful or malicious. Once we started defending ourselves, we had much more to defend. We worked out a system where one person would shield us with both umbrellas and the other would squirt our attackers with the water gun. Of course, this just made them more persistent, and we ended up getting soaked by lots of Asians who were getting a kick out of seeing these two American girls hide behind umbrellas. We had a marvelous time. Everyone on the river was good-natured, and we all came off of the river wishing that the ride had been longer.

After the river we went to a park where there was a 1,000 year old banyan tree. We all walked around it for luck and longevity. Soon it started to rain, and even though we were already soaked, we ran to the bus and back to the hotel. We spent the evening bargaining on West Street and went to sleep incredibly happy. For most of us it was our favorite day thus far in China.

Saturday morning we drove back to Guilin and visited the Elephant Truck Hill. (It looks like an elephant, if you hadn't guessed.) We had some more great paparazzi moments and spent too long posing with elephant statues in the river. Because of time we ended up eating lunch at KFC. I will tell you now that NONE of us complained. We are enjoying the Chinese food, but sometimes we just need something familiar.

After lunch we rushed to the airport and flew back to Xiamen. We got in at 3:30 pm this week, as opposed to last week's 3:30 am. We were exceedingly grateful for that, even though I think all of us would have been happy with more time in Yangshou. This weekend was unbelievable.

Monday, July 5, 2010

How I Spent My Nanjing Vacation

We were up bright and early on Tuesday to catch our 7:30 flight to Shanghi. Once we landed we drove to Zhouzhuang. It is often referred to as the "Venice of China". It is an old canal city that is very beautiful, but it is also very small and packed with tourists. They did have boats running up and down the canals with little old Chinese men and women piloting them and singing traditional Chinese songs. That was one of my favorite things that I have seen thus far.

The Nanjing area is known as one of the 3 furnaces in China and let me tell you, it lived up to its name. It was so incredibly hot. When we first got here we saw all of the girls carrying umbrellas and fans on hot sunny days and we thought it was adorable. Now we know that it is both adorable, and a necessity. We don't think twice anymore about busting out an umbrella for some portable shade.

We also visited a Buddhist temple and had some very fancy meals. I ate duck brain again. I had to. The boys were daring each other to eat from the duck head and when they gave in, they just picked out little bits of meat that weren't much different than the meat on the plate. When Jasen said, "Jennica, show them how it's done," I had to. I couldn't look as I cracked the head open, but I sure ate that brain and showed everyone up. It was a triumphant moment, if not a little disgusting.

On the second day we visited some very beautiful and very Chinese (surprise!) gardens and made the 3 hour drive to Nanjing. (My favorite garden was the "Humble Administrator's Garden". We all made jokes about becoming humble administrators. I am already succumbing to MPA humor. Yikes. At this point I was on day 2 of heat exhaustion and I didn't know if I would make it through the day alive. I was feeling less than congenial and it showed. When Seth and Sarah asked me how I was doing, I said that I wanted to kick a kitten. Now Seth asks me how my KKM (kitten kicking meter) is doing. It is usually very low, just so you know.

However, in that moment it was at 100%. Our tour guide didn't speak any English, so we just had to follow him around and listen to 10 minutes of a Chinese explanation of a rock or a bush or an old room that looked like all of the previous 50 rooms that we had seen and then one of our Chinese speakers would translate the 2 sentences that they could remember and we would shuffle along to the next place. It was excruciating. It was 94 out with 70% humidity. I honestly didn't think I would make it through the day.

We had arrived in Nanjing at the Presidential Office of Sun Yat-Sen. We had just driven 3 hours in a poorly air-conditioned bus and the site closed in an hour. Our guide talked at the entrance, in the heat, for at least 30 minutes. I wanted to die. Luckily I lived through the day, if only just barely.

That night the beds at our hotel were soft. SOFT! I haven't slept in a soft bed for almost a month! All of the beds here (including hotel beds) are just raised sections of floor. They are rock hard. I am used to sleeping on them now, but it was a treat to sleep on a soft bed! We also had "western" breakfasts at our hotels. It was Chinese style french toast, breads and cereal, but it counted and was a relief from some of the crazy food we have been eating. Usually I am very adventurous with food, but after a month I am just craving sandwiches and cereal.

Our last day in Nanjing was incredible. We were met in the morning by an MPA grad who is working in China. He toured with us and acted as our interpreter! It was so refreshing! We saw the tomb of Sun Yat-Sen. We had to walk 392 steps to get there. Each step represented 1 million people who lived in China at the time of his death. It reminded me of the Spanish Steps in Rome. We also went to see the Ming Tombs where the emperor of the dynasty is buried. (Along with his 40 concubines that they buried alive so they could all be together in the afterlife). Yikes.

My favorite part of the tombs were the stone animals and soldiers that guarded the way to the tombs. There were huge stone elephants, camels, lions, and chimera. We took a lot of pictures with them and our Chinese tour guide thought we were nuts. In the afternoon we went back to the Presidential Office and then had about an hour to run through a Night Market. Our group is becoming rather adept at haggling.

At dinner we found out that our flight was going to be delayed more than 3 hours, but less than 4. (At 4 hours the airline has to put you up in a hotel.) That put us flying out at 1:30. It was a long night. However, the airline did hand out Sprite and ramen while we waited. I can't imagine an airline in America ever doing that. We finally got home at about 3:30 and discovered that the University would be having an all day power outage starting at 7:30 in the morning. What a warm (literally) welcome home. We showered before we went to sleep and got up just as the AC clicked off for the day.

We were all especially grateful for church today. It was fast and testimony meeting. When it came time for testimonies, they asked for 2 volunteers from the Xiamen group, so Jasen and I volunteered. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to bear my testimony across all of China. I imagine that I probably won't have many more opportunities to bear my testimony via Skype. It was a little weird to have my back to the group and just talk to the computer, but it was also pretty awesome.

After church we had a 4th of July BBQ! Skip and Callie had brought buns and BBQ pork, and potato salad, AND homemade rootbeer! Alicia provided the salad, brownies, and jello and we brought drinks and chips. I am not kidding when I say that several of us were very close to getting emotional over the welcome sight of such familiar food. We all ate our fill and were incredibly happy.

Traveling abroad always makes me very grateful for all of the blessings that we enjoy at home. I am very grateful to be an American.

We went home and struggled through the rest of the day without electricity. We tried to nap, as we had only gotten 3 hours of sleep the night before and, as Talia said, "We slept like sweaty babies". It didn't last last long. We went out to find some kind of relief and discovered the only hotel on campus that still had AC and sat on a couch there for 4 hours until the power came back on.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder and there are no words to express how fond I am of air-conditioning.

Today I miss regular toilets (not squat pots), and reliable electricity. I also miss fireworks on a warm summer night. God bless America.