Travel Thursdays

I never really wrote an in-depth post about our “honeymoon” in Yunnan, mentioning the trip and posting a few photos when I accepted the Liebster Award.

“Honeymoon” hence forth will be in quotations because the trip included my youngest sister, and friends, who were also colleagues of mine at Xi’an International Studies University.

I’d describe it more as a trip that just so happened to precede our wedding ceremony.

Continue reading

Guest Post: Travel to Sri Lanka, A Whole Different World

Although Natalya’s post transcends the boundaries of China, AMWF, and Xi’an, it gets to the heart of the benefits of travel, living abroad, and expatriating. Seeing a country and its culture firsthand, no matter whether you travel to Sri Lanka or China, has lifelong consequences. Natalya’s story also highlights the conversational bluntness and giggles, friendliness, fresh fruits and vegetables at every corner that I experienced whilst in China. 

Want to say or share something on Xiananigans? Head over to the guidelines for submitting a guest post

If anyone visits Sri Lanka from a modern country, they are in for culture shock. That is what happened to me when I went there. One of my parents originally came from Sri Lanka, so I had already experienced some of their native culture, but it was not enough to prepare me for actually living in the country, which I did for three months. I went to visit family, and I was expecting that it would be different from what I was used to, but I was not expecting that it would be like a completely different world, which it was.

Continue reading

北京 Beijing

Finally, the last installment of Marissa & Dee conquering China, well sort-of. I will arrange this day by day as the notes I took while traveling are delineated as such.
Day 1 
The dirt market 
We arrived very early on this day via train 火车 (soft sleeper aka VIP). The hostel we stayed at, called the 365 Inn, is located several blocks from Tian’anmen Square 天安们广场. A good central location, and having previous experience with this place, we dined in the hostel’s restaurant, called Helen’s (coincidental!). After, we ventured to the Dirt Market, which Linda had recommended we visit. The dirt market is essentially a flea market full of various wares: antiques, books, jade etc. We discovered some wonderful things, such as a revolutionary collection of stamps (our Dad collected stamps as a young boy), but the seller couldn’t be bothered to negotiate with me. He gave me an astronomical quote, and was irritated that I insisted he come down in price, since his stamps were “so old.” He kept reiterating this fact to me.
After little success at the dirt market, we made our way to the Yashow Clothing Market. It’s located next to Sanlitun 三里屯, where the apple store and a myriad of embassies call it home. This market has every fake luxury brand you could ever possibly need. It’s hard to resist buying a whole lot of unnecessary items, and due to the fact that you must bargain, you always feel as though you could have brokered a better deal.
After trying our hand a second time at bargain shopping, we were famished. In a twist of events I rather regret, we ended up eating a whole lot of Western food in Beijing. I am to blame, because in Xi’an, Western eateries are a lot less abundant, and as my cooking skills leave much to be desired, I was craving a little comfort. Deanna was a very obliging companion, so we ended up at Bite a Pitta, an Israeli restaurant. I made it up to Deanna by having Beijing duck 北京烤鸭 for dinner at the restaurant next to the hostel. Ruth and I, the previous year, had duck at the famous duck restaurant and concluded that it wasn’t worth the heavy price tag. We ate the items below, and couldn’t finish everything so we had our leftovers for breakfast the following day.
Peking duck 北京烤鸭, garlicky bok choy 青菜, and tomato and egg drop soup 西红柿鸡蛋汤. Deanna was amazed to discover that the soup, which we could not finish was placed into a plastic bag. Yes, it is strange, but 我习惯了I am used to it. 
Yes, these are chamsas. We had lunch at Sanlitun 三里屯, near many of the embassies,  at a place called Pitta Bite. Yes, you guessed it, Israeli food. 
Tanghulu 糖葫芦, a traditional Beijing snack of sugarcoated hawthorn berries (to the best of my knowledge, these only grow in Minnesota stateside and are referred to as rowan berries) on a stick. 

Day 2

Baihe vegetarian restaurant. Frommer recommendation and well worth the price tag! 

Our second day was devoted to visiting Tian’anmen Square 天安门广场 and the Forbidden City 故宫. As this was my third visit to the Forbidden City, I opted to sit in the coffee shop, told Dee to take her time, and to meet me there when she was ready. I spent the time scouring Frommer’s for some other attractions and trying to plan the remainder of our days. We then visited the Hall of Clocks together, as I have a certain affinity for this hall. The clocks, either made in China or Europe, are ornate, exquisite, and all quite unique. I was disappointed to discover that the pocket-watches that had been on display the previous winter, were nowhere to be found; their display cases sitting empty, collecting dust.

We ventured to Sanlitun 三里屯 again for lunch; this time choosing a Panera-esque sandwhich shop, called Hercules. After lunch, we attempted to visit The Temple of Heaven, only to discover it closes early, and had in fact, not made it in time. So, we headed back to the hostel, regrouped, and finally headed for the Walmart Supercenter 沃你玛购物广场, as the map the hostel provided to us, made it seem rather close (we also asked the hostel for directions). After having to ask for directions, we finally found it!

To our delight, there were a variety of snacks I knew and loved, Dee was able to buy Chinese dates, tea, and some other snacks she had been longing for. A couple of hundred 块 RMB later, we had a good bounty for our Great Wall trip the next day. After our food shopping adventure, we enjoyed my favorite meal of the trip, at the Lily Vegetarian Restaurant 百合素食. We enjoyed yams with three different sweet sauces, pumpkin porridge, lily root in a sweet sauce, fake kung pao chicken 宫保鸡丁, and bamboo shoots with vegetarian meatballs 皇帝孙少丸子.  

Dee at the Baihe Vegetarian Restaurant. For those concerned if I have become vegetarian, no, certainly not, but I do enjoy some all veggie meals, even whilst in Xi’an.  

Day 3

After enjoying our leftovers from the Lily Vegetarian Restaurant 百合素食, we were off to the Great Wall 长城 at Jinshanling 金山玲. This part of the wall, which is more heavily restored than Simatai 司马台(which, I am saddened to report, is closed for repairs), but with fewer visitors was one of the trips offered by the hostel. In order for me to keep my sanity, and to save time, we opted to sign up for an organized trip. The hostel provided us with a tour guide, transportation, a McDonald’s breakfast 麦当劳的早饭, entrance fees, and lunch. Deanna 迪安娜 (pronounced Di2an1na4) and one of the other group members, an American named Ken, who had been finishing up a Master’s program that placed him in Shanghai 上海, had a great time traversing the wall. I, on the other hand, stayed behind, climbing very little. For someone who goes to the gym regularly, I am quite out of shape.

When we returned, after nearly half a day in transit, we had garnered plans to meet up with Ken for dinner. Deanna expressed interest in trying another kind of hotpot, so I recommended a Shanghai chain restaurant that has locations in most Chinese metropolises. I had tried this place numerous times in Xi’an, and it’s quite an exemplary Chinese business model, mostly because they actually have Western- style customer service here. The only downside to this place is the excessively long wait. We were fortunate to be seated shortly (30-45 minutes). After dinner, we arranged to meet up with Ken either to go to the Summer Palace 颐和园 or the Temple of Heaven 天坛 the following day.

The Great Wall at Jinshanling 金山玲. 
Haidilao hotpot 海地老火锅. We opted for a tomato-based, after Deanna’s horrific Sichuan hotpot experience. 

Day 4 
We ended up visiting the Summer Palace 颐和园 sans Ken. The Summer Palace 颐和园 is particularly nice in both winter and summer. In winter, there is skating on the lake and it’s quite picturesque. Additionally, you can avoid the hordes of visitors that plague the Palace in the summer. We enjoyed street food for lunch, although I can’t recall what it is exactly that we ate. In the early afternoon, we headed to the Temple of Heaven 天坛. We were joined by Ken. After a bit of adventuring around the Temple of Heaven 天坛 and the subsequent parks 园 within its confines, Dee and I headed off to do more shopping! Finally, our last event of the evening was Dee enjoying her final Chinese meal.

Summer Palace 
The Temple of Heaven

Day 5 

Unfortunately, I had planned too many things for this day. We attempted a walking tour of the Back Lakes. This area is composed of three idyllic lakes: Qian Hai (Front Lake) 前海煳, Hou Hai (Back Lake) 后海煳, and Xi Hai (West Lake) 西海煳. These lakes once served as transportation routes for grain by barge from the Grand Canal to the Forbidden City. The best hutongs (lanes or alleyways) 胡同 are also found in the Back Lakes. We started our walking tour with eleven sites in mind, and made it past six. We only took a look inside Prince Gong’s Mansion 恭王府 and the Former Residence of Soong Ching-Ling 宋庆龄故居.
We also started our tour by stopping at the well-known Family Fu’s Teahouse 茶家傅 (pictured below). Prince Gong’s Mansion, in 1777, was first occupied by Heshen, a corrupt official who was rumored to be the Qianlong emperor’s lover. Later, it became the home of Prince Gong, who negotiated on behalf of China at the end of the Second Opium War. This mansion was rather a disappointment as everything was in Chinese, and my ability to serve as a translator is still, to this day, a work in progress. The Former Residence of Soong Ching-ling 宋庆龄故居 proved to be far more interesting. We pitted it against our visit to her husband’s residence, Dr. Sun-Yat Sen 孙中山, in Shanghai. The residence remained intact and the rooms were staged in the manner in which they would have been during her residency. Soong Ching-ling 宋庆龄 is heralded as a feminist hero, becoming friends with Mao and a Communist sympathizer in her later years.

After our whirlwind walking tour, it was time to head back to the hostel, gather Dee’s things and whisk her off to the airport. We chose the most convenient manner of transportation, the subway. There is an airport express line that gets you there in a matter of 20 minutes. I went with Dee all the way to this line, said our goodbyes, and watched as she was transported down the escalator. Later on, I headed to the 798 art district, billed as Beijing’s Soho district. This Soviet-designed former weapons factory is a center for local art and fashion, but its long-term survival is uncertain. That’s evident once you see some of the art firsthand. Most galleries are free and you can peruse at your own convenience. I was more fond of the outdoor exhibits, as many were what I thought to be rather provoking and politically charged. I was most surprised by the representation of Jesus on the cross, as religious tolerance is becoming increasingly uncertain.

At Family Fu’s teahouse 茶家傅, drinking lemon and ginger tea. 
798 art district
Modern interpretation of Buddha, at 798. 
Day 6
On my final day, alone, I treated myself to some R&R. First, I had Chinese breakfast of porridge 稀饭and steamed buns 包子. I rarely eat Chinese-style breakfast in Xi’an, so it was nice to do something out of my normal, mundane routine. In the morning, I treated myself to a massage at an upscale salon. It was well worth it, as I had wreaked havoc on my body, due to the fast-paced nature of our trip. Also, upon my return, I would be heading for Jason’s home for Spring Festival the next day. After, I dined at Helen’s. Finally, I left for the airport, earlier than necessary, but never would I anticipate the adventure that was in store for me! Let’s begin…
When I arrived at the airport, I went to the appropriate ticket counter. Jason had purchased my ticket, because as is common during Spring Festival, tickets are impossible to come by. I had planned to take the train home, but there wasn’t a single ticket available for the day(s) I wished to travel. I purchased an outrageously expensive first-class ticket, because there were no economy class tickets available. This ticket, luckily, was fully-refundable. At the ticket counter, I was informed that my flight would not be leaving. They continued by saying they had no idea when it would leave. The flight couldn’t leave Xi’an due to engine failure. Very reassuring…
Eventually, they informed all the passengers that we would be taken to a hotel. I ended up in a hotel room with a thirty-something Chinese woman, for whom I am very grateful for. She looked out for me. When we finally exited the hotel, sometime after 11:30 p.m., she made sure I was with her every step of the way, that we sat on the same van back to the airport, and when I frantically couldn’t find my passport (I KNOW!), she stayed behind looking with me, instructing the driver to call the hotel. Finally, it was recovered; it had fallen into an open pocket in the back of the seat in front of me. You cannot begin to imagine my sense of relief.
The plane took off some time around 2 a.m. I finally arrived, via the airport shuttle, at the Bell Tower; Jason was waiting for me. It was quite an ordeal and I was glad to be back in my pseudo-hometown of Xi’an.
Starbucks, Deanna’s place of employment stateside. In every city, except Shanghai, Starbucks honored Dee’s partner number, which allowed us to receive her employee discount. I can’t hide the fact that I was elated by the fact that I could enjoy Starbucks at a lesser, more consumer-friendly price.