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January Travels – Part 1

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Monday 18th January 2016, ~5:30pm

I have been travelling for a whole week now, and man, is it tiring.

I find myself on yet another train in China (this time, a nice high-speed one) bound for Guilin.

I left Shanghai last Sunday morning on a flight to Beijing, where I met Nafeesah who made her way up from Nanjing. We spent the afternoon wandering around the area we called home about three years ago, when we studied abroad at Beijing Normal University. Though there were some differences, it was a strange feeling walking around knowing where I was going in a place so far away from home and familiarity. I happily discovered one of the local jianbing makers was still there, and satisfied my craving for one of those eggy, crunchy, tasty snacks, but the day was miserably grey, gloomy and dull, giving me the feeling that the university was a ghost town. The whole afternoon was, overall, rather unpleasant, and confused me slightly as to what I had missed this place for!

Delicious Beijing jianbing!

Delicious Beijing jianbing!

Luckily, I met an old friend for dinner, which was lovely, brightening my evening and pretty much redeeming the day that had thus far been pretty miserable.

The next day was the Great Wall. I felt unsatisfied by my first visit three years ago to the most popular section of the Wall, Badaling, and wanted to visit a different section, bringing us to Mutianyu, a ~2hour journey from Beijing. In total contrast to the previous day, we got a bright sun and beautiful blue skies – a rarity for Beijing with its usually high pollution levels. The temperature remained below 0°C though.
Despite being semi-scammed on our way there, I was amused by our taxi-driver, whose response to the pollution problem was “Oh that’s nothing to worry about, the government is sorting that out right away!” – showing his innocent faith in the government.
Surprisingly, it was less cold once we were actually up on the Wall, but nevertheless, still cold, and very steep. Due to the time of year, there was little greenery, and even fewer visitors. This emptiness atop the Wall gave us some excellent picture opportunities, and luckily it was a wonderfully clear day, so visibility was high 🙂

My Wall

My Wall

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On Tuesday we visited Jingshan Park and Beihai Park, both very central, where we enjoyed scenic romantic walks through the parks, past pagodas, frozen lakes and over bridges. I also witnessed possibly my first real proper sunset in China.

View of the Forbidden City obscured somewhat by the trees...

View of the Forbidden City obscured somewhat by the trees…

Middle of Beijing

Middle of Beijing

 

Having fun in the cold

Having fun in the cold

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Frozen lakes: ice skating and sleighs

Frozen lakes: ice skating and sleighs

My first beautiful sunset in China

Catching some sun in below freezing temperatures :p

On Wednesday morning we left Beijing (and left China), on a flight to Macau. (Macau is not part of Mainland China).

Departing for Macau

Departing for Macau

To be continued…

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Studying Chinese: FAQs

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1. Why did you choose Chinese?

Sometimes I think I’m only asked this because my course choice is unexpected for a person of my colour, religion, race, culture, all of that. I’m almost certain I would not have been questioned at all had I been studying medicine, pharmacy, optometry or dentistry, or straight Economics. Depending on who I’m talking to, I usually have to repeat my degree title, because they’re not sure they heard correctly.

My answer really isn’t all that special. I really enjoy languages – and aren’t we always told that we should study something we enjoy? I decided to study Chinese because it was new to me – a language with which I had zero previous experience. The fact that it is also the most commonly spoken language on our planet possibly helped that decision, as well as encouraging me to study Economics alongside it.

2. How was China??

It was great. Indescribably so.

No, but seriously – I still need to come up with the perfect one-liner to answer this EXTREMELY broad question. I know I’ve already ranted about this, and I know it is only asked good-naturedly, but it can get hella annoying.

3. Wow, so are you fluent in Chinese?

This one always gets me. I’ve thought about it a lot but I think I’ve found an answer. The first step was defining ‘fluency’ in my own terms. For a language student, attaining ‘fluency’ at a native level is incredibly difficult, if not near impossible.

After exchanging greetings with my neighbours when in I was in China, they would often ask if I speak Chinese. I would always smile and reply ‘yes, a little’. My answer stayed that way for a long time, even when I was having full conversations in Chinese. It took me a few months to realise what I was doing, and that prompted me to question why I answered as such. It was difficult though – at what level does my Chinese have to be until I can just reply with ‘yes’?

That’s where my definition of fluency comes in. To me, fluency means being able to say pretty much whatever you want to, even if you don’t know all the correct terminology. For example, I may not know how to say ‘unemployment’, but I can express the same thing by saying ‘people without jobs’. Or I may not know how to say ‘fructose’, but I can refer to it as ‘the sugar in fruit’.

In this way, you can still make yourself understood, even without the same extensive vocabulary possessed by native speakers.

4. Is your course mostly full of Chinese people?

Sorry, but I don’t even understand the logic behind this question. I am studying the Chinese language as a foreigner. How on earth would it a) make sense to put total beginners and native speakers in the same classes?, b) be fair to test them in the same way as learners?, and c) be worthwhile for a native speaker to sit in classes well below their knowledge and ability??

In short, no – my course is not mostly full of Chinese people. It’s full of people, who, just like me had little or no previous knowledge of Mandarin and chose to take it up as a totally new language.

5. Would you want to go back to China?

Without a doubt, YES. I definitely want to go back – for the food, the cost of living, and the opportunities – for work, for travel, for language practice. But there’s a caveat. I don’t want to live there permanently. The absence of family, the lack of a supportive and tight-knit community, …the pollution.

Who knows, though? Times are changing…

Who’s in the Library?

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I’ve spent a fair amount of time recently in unintentional observation of the creatures that often migrate to a particular book-filled place of silence at this time of year. Yes, I am talking about the university library, which draws students in their masses towards it when exams inevitably roll around.

Below is a short list of the different types of library-goers I’ve encountered on my travels. Perhaps you will recognise a few; you may even spot yourself.

1. Organisational overload

This person will come in, set down their lever-arch file, books, pens, paper, highlighters, post-it notes, spare pens, hole-puncher, stapler, spare pens for the spare pens… you get the picture. Naturally, their file is colour-coordinated as if their life depends on it: dividers all down the length of the folder, those colourful sticky labels, and not a sheet out of place. By the time everything is arranged on their desk, it’s almost time for lunch.

2. ALL the technology

They walk in with headphones on, iPod in hand, sit down. An iPhone comes out of their pocket, and onto the desk. They fish out a charger from their bag, and pull out a MacBook Pro, its charger and an iPad. I don’t know what they might be eating for lunch, but my bet would be on apples.

3. The one who’s always there

My library isn’t open 24 hours like most university libraries. But there’s always that one person who, when you go in just as the library has opened, is already there, head-down, scribbling furiously. They don’t move the whole day: you  take your lunch break, come back, leave at the end of the day, and come back the next morning only to find them in the same position, in the exact same spot.

4. The one who’s never there

In total contrast to the one above, this person will come in, claim their place, and then immediately leave, having marked their territory.

5. The water drinker

There is nothing more to be said about this girl (yes, it’s gotta be a girl) except that she is taking gulps of water before and after taking gulps of water. Nothing else is getting done.

6. The noisy one

They stumble in oblivious to the rustle of their rustly jackets, drop their bag with a thud, and proceed to rustle as much as possible while taking off their rustly jackets. They plop into a squeaky chair, jiggle around in order to confirm whether it was a one-off squeak or actually a squeaky chair – it’s almost always the latter – thus leading them to get up and swap it for the one at the next desk. Of course, there will be much banging throughout this oh-so-reckless process, followed either by excessively violent keyboard-bashing, or paper ruffling, or both.

7.  The cluttered one

Their work space will often be filled with a bunch of stuff that they will have undoubtedly convinced themselves are necessary: Vaseline, hand cream, an energy drink, hand sanitizer (why..?!), tissues, cereal bars, chewing gum.. Again, usually a girl, though I mean to make no generalisations.

8. The enigma

Typically an unshaven male wearing a crumpled-tshirt (again, meaning no generalisations) enters the library, takes the first empty spot he finds, sits down, opens his laptop and alternates between peering intently at the screen, typing with a furrowed brow, and biting his nails. After about two hours of this, he suddenly yet purposefully closes the lid of his laptop, tucks it under his arm and strides out.

9. The couple

This is a library. Go away.

10. Silent disco-ers!

A line of people came stamping (read: attempted dancing) through the library, in some sort of substandard recreation of a conga line. I’m not sure what the purpose of this was – I understand it’s a bit of fun, but seriously, there’s better places and better ideas. It actually turned out to be not-so-silent after all anyway, because muffled giggling was accompanying their failed attempt at marching silently through.

My exams for this year have only just ended, and I’m already actually missing the library! (Is that weird?)

新年快乐 – Happy New Year!

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Before the surprise even registers in your mind, yes, yes – I am still around. Just quickly accept that and pretend this post is nothing unexpected. I know I’ve been quiet for over 6 months, but now is not the time to offer any reasons or explanations for my absence. Rather it is the time for fresh starts (perhaps not for my blog though), and even though I’m still late on the bandwagon with this, Happy Chinese New Year!

The truth is, I’ve been missing China more than usual in the past couple of weeks, and the New Year celebrations only served to make me more nostalgic. Last Friday, in an event organised by us, a SOAS lecture hall was transformed into a Chinese scene, for an evening of performances and food to inaugurate the Year of the Horse. I have a few pictures of the evening, and though they’re not particularly clear (in fact, they’re pretty rubbish quality, but there’d be no substance to this post without the pictures) many of the performances themselves made us very nostalgic.

Some of the decorations: a fish represents bountiful wealth

Some of the decorations: a fish represents bountiful wealth

The group below had come from a primary school in Beijing. They gave a performance to be admired, especially given how nervous they must have been!

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The girl below in the red dress performed a traditional dance from the Xinjiang province. It was probably my favourite performance, particularly because my own trip to Xinjiang was unforgettable and amazing (which you guys don’t really know, because I never got round to finish writing about it…) Either way, it brought back good memories of my travels and experiences, like the time we tried on Kazakh style dresses exactly like the one she is wearing, on our trip to the Heavenly Lake. *sighs dreamily*

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In a presentation about Chinese culture, this picture just goes to show the important role that alcohol has to play.

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And finally, despite not being the final performance, the last pictures I have are of this very traditional Han dance, complete with fans.

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The start of the Summer holidays

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And so it begins…

The Summer holidays. With which comes the end of my year abroad.

Okay, not quite yet, but the end is in sight!!

My exams (which started on Wednesday) finished on Thursday, bringing me to the end of my academic year abroad. I’m basically finished! Our visas don’t run out until the end of June however, and as mentioned previously, I will be flying to Xinjiang on Tuesday and spend a bit of time travelling in the region. The plan is to spend a few days in the capital city, Urumqi, then take a 2.5hour train to Turpan, a city famous for its grapes, where we’ll stay a couple of days, and finally a 6hour train to Hami, famous for its melons. (‘Hami’ 哈密 is actually the same as the name for honeydew melons – hami gua 哈密瓜). Fruit seems to be a recurring theme, yes. Although we’ve booked hostels, we’ve yet to book our train tickets, because of the system in China, which means that you can only buy your train tickets 10 days before the date. And we didn’t have the time for that before exams.

Xinjiang: Locations of Urumqi, Turpan, and Hami

We’ve also been spending a fair bit of time trying to properly research and plan out our trip. In Urumqi’s vicinity are the Tianshan Mountains, and the Heavenly Lake, which does look rather heavenly in pictures we’ve seen online, but hopefully I’ll be putting up some of my own pictures soon! This is supposedly the ideal place where you can get a break from the stifling heat, with its clean and cool air, refreshing water and…. I can’t concentrate, this just sounds so HEAVENLY compared to the greyish yellowish whitish scene I could see out of my window for the whole day today. And for the last three days. It looks like a sheet has been hung over the outside of the window, for all the visibility out there.
Anyway, back to the Heavenly Lake at the Tianshan Mountains, you can also spend a night out there in a traditional Kazakh yurt. When am I ever going to be able to do that?! I really hope we can make this happen!

Plus! This time next week, I will be able to say (hopefully, fingers crossed, touch wood, etc etc) that I have been at the CENTRE OF ASIA. The very middle of the enormous continent that is Asia. It sounds much better in Chinese: 亚洲之心 (yazhou zhi xin) which translates to “The Heart of Asia”. Wow. I was impressed. And if you’re not impressed, it’s only because you must be jealous! In all fairness, there’s nothing actually there, except for a very..fanciful…marker, which probably tells you that you’re standing in the centre of Asia (now doesn’t that sound cool?!), and there’s probably nothing to do but take a picture, and then…well, leave. But either way, I’m excited for it!!

More in Urumqi includes the Food Night Market (Hell, yeah!!) and the Tianshan Grand Canyon.

According to Lonely Planet’s guide book, Turpan is the Death Valley of China. Now, I’ve been to the real Death Valley, and boy, that was hot! I guess it’s lucky that there’ll be no shortage of juicy grapes in Turpan to keep us cool and hydrated…? >_<
In Turpan, apart from the Grape Valleys, we can ride camels along the Flaming Mountains (this all sounds so surreal!), and see ancient cities of pre-Islamic civilisations.

Hami is going to be even more scenic, we can go to another part of the Tianshan Mountains again, if our visit there from Urumqi was so amazing that we want more, ride horses around what I expect to be another beautiful lake, we can go to the Grand White Rock (what a name…), as well as eat lots of melons and absorb a completely different kind of culture than the standard Han Chinese one that we’ve become accustomed to all year.

I didn’t mean to write so much about this trip that hasn’t happened yet… I expect I’ll be repeating a lot of this when it actually happens, but well, I got carried away….

From Hami, we’ll get a 27 hour sleeper train back to Beijing – I already know this is most likely going to be extremely unpleasant, but whatever – I’m all for ‘experiences’! I’ll be spending my final week in Beijing, packing up this one year of my life here, before returning to the UK, with my mother who will have come out pretty much as soon as I return to Beijing. It’s all gonna happen so fast!!

In the meantime, I wish I could say I’ve been truly making the absolute most of these few free days in Beijing, and regale you with exciting stories of final Beijing experiences, but in all honesty, there’s been a fair bit to do! Chilling has been on the list too, I won’t lie (some things can’t be helped), but researching for this trip has been and still is an arduous task. It’s not as ‘out there’ on the internet yet in terms of tourist destinations as a lot of well-known places are. We can’t find out everything before we go, so I’m certain a lot of it will be made up on the go, but that’s all gonna be part of the fun!

Not to mention, the weather here has been absolutely appalling lately. The smog/pollution is the worst I think I’ve seen it all year. A friend of mine has a theory that goes a bit like this… Because the government will want to ensure glorious weather for the national holiday next week (the Dragonboat Festival, which falls between the 10th and the 12th of June this year), they have to temporarily pause whatever weather/pollution controls and measures that are in place, for a few days prior, so that they will be more effective when they bring them out again for the national holiday. This, according to a friend, is why the pollution has been worse over the last few days. I guess we’ll see if there’s any truth to this when I look out of the window on Monday morning…

Tomorrow is our Leaving Ceremony at uni, and if the Opening Ceremony was anything to go by, it’s going to be an extremely boring couple of hours of speeches. Lots of SOASians aren’t going, but I figure I might as well. I’m only gonna have one Leaving Ceremony in China, so, why not? Boring as it might be, I won’t know if I don’t go 🙂 My class is also planning on going out for lunch after, and it’s the last time I’ll see most of them ever again!

Finally, I’d like to share something that I’ve found, which actually stemmed from a real conversation I was having with Beth about all the delicious food there’s gonna be in Xinjiang, including kebabs, nang (the Chinese word for what we call ‘naan’, because it’s not actually a Chinese food, but has come from Central Asia, and is found around China in the Muslim restaurants only), yogurt, and some good old pilau rice. I was saying that we should make a map of China using foods to represent areas, so Xinjiang could start out as a whole big nang, and we’d add in other foods at different cities in it, Beijing could be…well, the obvious choice would be roast duck, but I/we wanted it to be personal, something we’d experienced for ourselves and could relate to. Beth pointed out that this probably already existed (breaking my heart in the process), and sure enough…

Amazing grilled lamb kebabs, you say?! I’m so there.

This isn’t exactly what I had in mind though (but nice enough anyhow), so maybe I’ll still make my own one after all, but it’s a taster 🙂
Hmm, I’ll be tasting some o’ those kebabs pretty soon….
*mouth waters*

Skies, sirens and Summer!

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I’m sitting here, pretending to revise for an exam tomorrow, and looking out the window at the sky.

It’s a strange colour.

A disgusting colour in between yellow and grey.

Apparently this is what you get when you cross Mongolian sandstorms with Beijing pollution.

It is a sight extremely off-putting. If I could take a picture that would accurately depict it to you all, I would, but alas. It’s probably for the best anyway, the weather wherever you’re reading this from is definitely better, no competition.

In other news, earlier today we heard a lot of sirens. This might sound like a completely normal (but of course, unfortunate) occurrence to most of you, but it took us a while to register that those indeed were sirens we were hearing. This was unusual. Extremely unusual. I can safely say I can count on one hand the number of times I have heard sirens here. Wait… make that, ‘ on one finger’. I have NEVER seen any flashing lights here, not a police car, not an ambulance, not a fire brigade, let alone hear them often. So it turns out, the sirens apparently only get used for official government business, or something. I wish I knew more to tell you, but I don’t. The reason however is probably linked to the fact that today is the anniversary of the Tian’anmen Square massacre. Contradictory, to this article, my internet is not acting up today….

However, yesterday was the deadline for our SOAS research project, and in true China style, our internet totally died on us on Saturday night! Since we had to renew our internet sometime in December, it’s been doing this occasionally, and each time we just unplug everything and restart the router. (We clearly know a lot about techie stuff…but to be fair, when it happened the first time, we called the internet company guy, he came round and did exactly that, which is where we learnt from..) Sometimes, it takes a few tries before we’re able to resurrect it, but this time, after multiple restarts (and multiple hours) and still no luck, we did what we could sans-Internet, hoping it’d be back Sunday morning. Of course not. Luckily, a few friends live really close by, the closest being across the road from me, so I went and camped out there to steal her internet, finish my project and send it off. Phew. Our internet really knows how to pick the perfect time to strike.
It’s all fixed now, obviously.

In yet other news, I had my last class at uni in Beijing EVER on Monday. It also so happened to be that annual day where you must add one to your age, which obviously called for… PARTY!!! Obviously. Naahhhh….. Bang in the middle of final exams, and essay deadlines, perfect timing! But soon to all be over! As much as I’m looking forward to finishing uni this year, being done with exams, and going back to enjoy the amazing place that London is, I’m starting to really notice the little things I’ll miss about Beijing. The pollution is definitely not one of them.

And oh my God, this time next week, I’ll be in Urumqi, Xinjiang!! Bring on the Summer holiday!

A special type of collector

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As I was walking to uni on Monday morning, I saw a man sitting by a whole load of little bird cages on the side of the pavement. I remember seeing him one morning last week (for the first time), but I didn’t stop, because I wanted to make it to class on time. I hoped I’d see him again. When I did see this sight again on Monday, I was actually running later to class than I probably was that day the previous week. But I realised that, with this being my last week of uni here, and the fact that I can’t really afford to say things like “I’ll do it next time”, because there probably won’t be a next time(!), I had to stop then and see what was going on.

I didn’t think this was the case, but not knowing how else to strike up a conversation, I asked him:

Ibby: Wow! So many birds..! Are they for sale, or?

Birdman: Haha, no, not for sale. For fun!

Ibby: For fun?

Birdman: Yeaahh 😀

I: You have so many, what do you do with them..?

B: I teach them to sing 🙂

I: Oh?

B: And I like to listen to them… and see which one is good… you see?

I: Ohh…so, which one is the best then?

B: Hm, what?

I check my Chinese.

I: Which one is good then?

Hmm, he thinks.

He points.

B: That one.

I: Is it alright if I take a picture?

B: Yeaah, go on!

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As I took a few pictures, he piped up.

B: You see, they’re afraid of humans. (He had to repeat this 2 or 3 times, cos I wasn’t sure what he was saying, it was a bit out of the blue)

I (finally): Ohhh, yeah! I understand, afraid of me, afraid of you…

B: Yes yes, exactly. Afraid of kids… *gestures to the street*

dsg

I didn’t count exactly, but there must have been at least 20 cages!

Inside each cage was a little container, similar in shape and size to that of a tealight. There was a piece of cucumber inside them, at which the birds had pecked away. Some cages had two containers, one with cucumber, and one with seeds.

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You can just about make out the cucumber in the cage furthest on the right

B: How did the sound come out? Can you hear them singing?

He was so smiley and proud of his birds and their ‘singing’, as he should be! It was really sweet 🙂

I: Oh I just took a picture, not a video..

B: Oh.

I considered.

I: Oh well if you don’t mind, let me try then…

He smiled.

As I started taking a video, he asked me if I could understand what he was saying. They really do like this question.

I stopped recording, all I could hear was a lot of cars on the road (although, thankfully, it hasn’t come through as loud in the actual video). I thanked him. He smiled again and asked me the inevitable question – Where are you from? As is also always the case, he repeated my answer (England) back to me as a question, for confirmation.

I: Yes, England.

B: Oh. (He was a man of few words)

I: Well, thank you 🙂 I should go now… I’m late for class.

B: 🙂 Ok.

I wasn’t exaggerating when I said he was a man of few words.
But he was a man of many birds!
It was a nice start to my day, I walked the rest of the way to class really happy 🙂

(I saw him again this morning: Wednesday! I didn’t stop though, I was running late (anyone see a pattern forming here?) and he was also talking to someone. I smiled and waved a little as I went by, and he just smiled and acknowledged in return. The birds sounded louder today, and dare I say, more sing-songy!)
Also, I want to share the video, even though it’s nothing special, but that’s gonna take a bit more time to sort out and get up, so hopefully after exams and everything is over.