One word: Awesome
01.10.2011 - 07.10.2011
The mantra of our National Holiday trip was awesome. It had two very distinct for meanings for us. We applied it in the usual situations of wow, this is so cool. For example when we got to see baby pandas, Sarita’s response was this is awesome. We also used it, probably more frequently, in a very sarcastic sense, such as when our taxi drivers couldn’t get us back to the right hotel or when everything seemed to go awry (this happened with basically everything on this trip). However, despite the many, and I mean many, negative applications of awesome on our Golden Week trip, our trip really was an awesome (good application) experience and will likely be one of the high lights of my trip.
Our trip started bright and early on Saturday (Oct. 1) at 6:30 am. Actually it was not so bright, it was cold and rainy, and 6:30 was far too early for our tastes. Application of negative awesome #1. The plan was for everyone to meet at the lobby and at that time and catch a cab to Chongqing where the train station was. As expected, the boys were lagging. Sarita and I waited close to twenty minutes for them to finally show up. However they did bring us breakfast, so they were quickly forgiven. I should probably mention that the group of us who went together for National Holiday was Sarita, Luke, Dan, Guy, Bert, and I. We trekked through the rain to hail a taxi and after a moment of panic because the taxi driver seemed unsure of whether he knew where the train station was we were on our way. The ride to downtown Chongqing from BeiBei is about an hour. We had been warned by Guy’s language partner that the taxi drivers would try to rip us off because they turn off the meter for the trip because it is such a long trip. She told us not to pay more than 25-30 Yuan a person. With this in mind we negotiated a price of 20 Yuan for our car (Sarita, Guy, and I) and Bert, Dan, and Luke paid 100 for theirs. We got to the train station around 8. It was crazy. There were tons of people trying to get everywhere. Luckily we got through security with no issues and went to our train terminal. Turns out the train we were taking stops about a millions places between Chongqing and Chengdu and as such there were literally hundreds of people waiting. We found a place in line and began the wait. Our train was supposed to leave at 8:45. In typical Chinese fashion, this was definitely not the case. Awesome application #2. We finally boarded the train around 9:30. For a group of sleep deprived, slightly stressed college kids who were sick of getting stares due to being the only foreigners in the train station, the wait was not a lot of fun The one plus side of the long wait though we met a really nice girl in line named Tian. She had become friends with last year’s class and had spent the summer working in Rapid City, SD at a restaurant through a program Southwest University has for its food safety majors. This was the first of a handful of small world, right place, right time experiences that would happen throughout our week. She was very nice, her English was excellent, and she was a lot of help. We bored the train and found our compartments. We had been unable to get tickets on the bullet train to Chengdu. They were all sold out. So instead we were on the slow train, on the plus side though we had soft sleeper tickets for the trip. A quick note on how Chinese trains work. There are usually five categories, or what we would think of as classes. There is hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper, and soft sleeper, hard seat being the worst and soft sleeper being the best. During times of high demand a sixth class is added called standing room. Tickets for standing room only are very cheap. People who buy them are not given a seat assignment and just receive a car number. They simply try to find a place to stand somewhere in that car. Tian says this is the manner of ticket she almost always buys to get home on holidays. We felt quite bad for her since the train ride was supposed to last 4 hours and that seemed like a daunting amount of time to have to stand for. So it was with slight guilt that we crawled into our soft sleeper beds. This trains soft sleeper compartments were divided into six beds. Three bunks on each side. Bert and I were in one compartment and luckily had the bottom bunks. Sarita, Guy, and Luke were in the neighboring compartment and Dan was off by himself farther down the car. The early morning caught up with us and we all slept soundly for the first two to three hours of our trip. After that Bert and I were awoken by one of our cabin mates. She was ecstatic to meet foreigners. We were apparently the first Americans she had ever met in person and she was so excited she couldn’t help but talk to us. So much for sleeping. Awesome #3. She was very nice, but her English was poor so conversation quickly lagged. Soon though, we were joined by Sarita, Guy, Dan, and Luke. While we were all talking we realized that our train had been stopped for much longer than a regular stop would require. We asked our cabin mate what was happening. She responded that there was flooding on the tracks and as a result what was supposed to be a four hour train ride would now be close to six and half. Awesome #4. Poor Tian! We were annoyed that we would have to deal with lounging around for two and a half extra hours; she had to stand for it. The extra time actually turned out to be a good thing though. The six of us passed time reminiscing about how our China experience thus far, about campus life, stories from home, and future plans. It was a really good bonding experience for the six of us and made me excited to see how the rest of the trip would go for us. Our train eventually made it to Chengdu despite the flooding and happily disembarked. In another case of small world good fortune we had a contact in Chengdu waiting for us when we arrived, Anne. Her brother, Hao, goes to St. John’s and is a friend of Guy and Dan. He is from Chengdu. The boys told him that we would be spending one night in Chengdu before catching the bus to Jiuzhaigou and he put us in touch with Anne. She just graduated from one of Chengdu’s top universities with a hospitality management degree. She and her boyfriend Evan met us at the train station. We had been told to make sure we bought our train tickets home to Chongqing as soon as we could so before we left the train station we asked Anne to help us buy tickets home. She asked us when we wanted to go back and we said that our first choice was Friday because we had classes starting Saturday morning, but that if we couldn’t leave Friday we would deal with getting home on Saturday. Anne talked to the teller for us and bought us each a ticket home on the bullet train. The bullet train tickets costs us each 100 Yuan but we were excited because it would get us home in less than 2 hours and we had heard a lot about them. As we were leaving the train station Anne asked us what time our bus tickets were for Jiuzhaigou. We told her that we didn’t have the tickets yet. We couldn’t buy them online and had to buy them in persons and obviously since none of us had been to Chengdu before that had not happened yet. This turned out to be a seriously problem with our plan. Anne called all of the travel agents she knew in the city and none of them could get us bus tickets to Jiuzhaigou. They were all sold out for the entire week of National Holiday. Awesome #5. So with our entire plan for National Holiday having gone up in smoke we were kind of at a loss of how to proceed. Anne told us she would talk to some travel agents and see if they could come up with any other options for us. That sounded pretty good to us. We caught two taxis and headed to the hotel Anne had gotten for us. Evan and Anne both had to attend family dinners since it was National Holiday but we made plans to meet with them later in the evening. The hotel was very nice. Everything was clean and fresh and very modern. We were super happy with it, especially the fact that it had clean towels and 24 hour hot water; two things are SWU dorms are definitely lacking. The one glitch in the hotel though was that the bathrooms were all glass. Anyone in the room could see in. Our original plan had been to split up in the rooms 3 and 3, however with the bathroom hitch the boys graciously agreed to give Sarita and me our own room. After showering off the train germs we headed out to dinner. For weeks Bert had been craving pizza and, sadly, BeiBei has nowhere to get a pizza. Chengdu however has a Papa John’s so we decided to go there for dinner. We were pretty excited because it had been close to 2 months since any of us had had pizza. It turns out that pizza is a big deal in China and pizza restaurants are quite fancy. They are also very expensive, prices started at 127 Yuan for a pizza. We ordered three though and it was so worth it! It was so nice to have a taste of home and a change from our usual diet of noodles and rice. After dinner we walked around the mall where the restaurant was located and tried to find a video camera for Guy. His camera broke a few weeks ago and his parents told him to get a video camera over here to replace it and that would be his birthday present. Unfortunately, Guy had no luck. We caught taxis to downtown Chengdu and met up with Evan and Anne. They showed us the historic river section. It had some really cool temples and old style buildings. After that we went to one of their usual hang out places and chilled there for a few hours. We headed back to the hotel and I fell asleep instantly.
Sunday (October 2) started out a little frantically. Sarita and I woke up at 11 to the sound of pounding on our door. It was housekeeping. We were supposed to have checked out half an hour previously. Awesome #6. We had planned on leaving for Jiuzhaigou on Sunday so Anne had only booked us the rooms for one night. We quickly called Anne and had her talk to the front desk and she secured us another night in the hotel. Anne also gave us some ideas of places to go other. She suggested we go to Uhmai Mountain (no idea how to spell that) or a set of hot springs nearby. We were open to anything since we didn’t have plan so asked her to look into getting us tickets for either. She told us she would get back to us later in the day. We went to wake up the boys and get breakfast. We aimlessly wandered around looking for food for about a half an hour. It turns out the reason we had such a hard time finding a place was because we had wandered into a primary and middle school complex. Eventually we found our way out and found somewhere to eat. The food was quite good, but different from what we were used to. In BeiBei we eat noodles for basically every meal (When I get home I don’t want noodles for a very very long time). In Chengdu we found more rice dishes, which were a nice change. After lunch we decided that it would be a good day to go shopping. Sarita and I are really tired of the like five outfits we brought with us. And yes I know Tim Gun would just tell me to make it work, but after two and a half months all options begin to expire. Guy still wanted to find a video camera. Anne told us of a good shopping area and the group headed there. When we arrived we decided the best use of time would be to split up. Bert volunteered to help Guy haggle for a video camera, while Luke and Dan agreed to go shopping for clothes with the girls. Yeah, we were as shocked as all of you reading this that they would willingly go dress shopping with us without us even having to ask more than once. We tried a number of stores, both boutiques and department stores, with no luck. Chinese women’s fashion is not my taste. It consists of a lot of ruffles, puffy sleeves, sparkles on everything, and basically trying to look as much like a five year as possible. The boys graciously put up with us dragging them through each store. As we were going through all these stores I kept seeing people holding H&M bags and figured that since we were having no luck with Chinese stores we should give H&M a try. Their clothes are cute back home; they should be in China too, right? Actually this did turn out to be pretty true. We finally found the H&M and Sarita and I were super excited. The clothes were reasonably priced and we found some cute stuff. However the course of finding this stuff took close to an hour. The boys tried to entertain themselves by looking at the guys’ clothes, but eventually they couldn’t do it anymore. They agreed to meet us in the Nike store next door. Sarita and I thought that was more than fair. After an absurdly long wait at the dressing room, Sarita and I both found some stuff. Sarita got a dress and a skirt and I got a dress. After paying we met the boys at the Nike store. They asked us if we were done with our shopping and would be okay with going to the sporting apparel stores with them. We agreed. That seemed more than fair. We spent a few more hours wondering around the shopping area and people watching. In our quest for clothes we had wondered pretty far from Guy and Bert so we all just agreed to meet back at the hotel. That night we went out for dinner in the area around where we had found lunch, luckily we managed to stay out of the school campus and found dinner much more quickly. We choose a hole in the wall looking restaurant that probably would fail US health codes, but the food was excellent. They had really good jaozi with a spicy laja that tasted almost more Mexican than Chinese and the noodles (yep, back to our usual cuisine) were pretty tasty. That night we went back to the river section. We walked around some more and found a cute British pub and bar. We spent a few hours talking with the bartender who is from Manchester and has been in China for two years. He was also the owner of the bar. He was really friendly and it was nice to be able to talk to someone we met in English for a change. After that we saw some more of the famous Chengdu night spots and headed home.
Monday (Oct. 3) was a pretty chill day for the group. We got some disappointing news from Anne that there were no tickets available to anywhere. It looked like we were stuck in Chengdu for the week. Oh well, we all agreed it was nice to simply get away from campus regardless of where it was. Everyone did his/her own thing for the day. Sarita and I decided to go explore the areas around our hotel some more. We just walked around for a few hours; window shopped, and watched people go about their daily lives. We also spent a while in one of the city parks taking pictures and practicing our Kung Fu. We got some funny looks from the guards, but it was still a good time. We headed back to the hotel and met up with the boys. We realized while we were out by ourselves that we were really happy to have the boys with us on this trip. Without the boys present, people were much more comfortable staring at us and just being awkward. The boys’ presence seemed to intimidate people from staring for too long and just provided a reassuring sense of safety. That night we decided to visit Jin Li. It’s a famous section of Chengdu that is centuries old. The original structures remain but it’s been converted to a touristy destination with lots of shops and restaurants. We went with the intention of walking around for a bit and eating dinner there. Upon arrival though, our minds quickly changed. Jin Li was packed with people, literally thousands. There was no room anywhere. We decided that since we were there we might at least walk around it a little a bit, but we ended up getting lost inside. The whole area is surrounded by an old city wall and is like a labyrinth inside. After about an hour of wandering we were beginning to consider scaling the 20 foots walls just to get out. Awesome #7. Just then amidst the sea of Asian faces, we see three familiar faces looking about as lost as we were (This was another one of our small world, right places right time moments). We saw three of the other international students from SWU, Larry, Otto, and Nik. We all laughing approached each other in shock that in a country of 1.3 billion people, out of all the cities and places one could go, we just happened to run into each other. They told us about how their time over National Holiday had been going. They had definitely had it rougher than us. They had been unable to find a hotel. China has let’s just call it a situation because I can’t come up with a better word in which they have hotels for Chinese people and hotels for westerners in some areas. The Western hotels are way more expensive but the Chinese hotels won’t rent rooms to Westerners. The western hotel was completely booked so they had thought they were going to have to sleep in a KTV for the night. At the last minute they had a met a German guy on the street who was couch surfing his way across China and he offered to let them sleep on the floor of his room for the night. After hearing their experience we were pretty darn happy to have Anne. With the combined efforts of all of us we eventually found our way out of Jin Li. The nine of us found another hole in the wall restaurant that was pretty good. We spent a lot of time just hanging out and talking. We went back down to the river district and explored some more. We invited Larry, Otto, and Nik to hang out with us the next day, but they said they had given up on Chengdu and had bought tickets back to BeiBei for the next day. We said good bye and that we’d see them back at campus.
Tuesday (Oct. 4) was one of the nicest weather days we had had in China. The sun was shining and it was actually possible to see blue skies. This might not seem like a big deal but considering the fact that I can count on my fingers the number of times we’ve seen the sky, we were pretty excited. We spent the day enjoying the weather. We walked around the park for a while and then hung out on the rooftop of our hotel. It had a bunch of lounge chairs set up and offered a nice view of the city. It was a pretty chill day. That night we met up with Evan and Anne for hot pot at one of Evan’s favorite restaurants. The taxi ride there was a nightmare. Dan, Bert, and I shared a taxi cab. Unbeknownst to the three of us, our taxi driver had no idea where this restaurant was even though we gave him the address. He ended up dropping us off about a mile away from the restaurant (Awesome #8) and we had to wander around using the translator app on Bert’s asking people where to go for about 45 minutes before Anne and Evan were able to locate us. Needless to say, by the time we reached the restaurant we were more than ready for some hot food. The hot pot was super good. We got a lot of different dishes, such as lotus root (my personal favorite), various types of mushrooms, different meats, potatoes, radish, cucumbers, and a ton of other stuff. Evan and Anne were shocked that we could handle the spicy food. We actually did even better with it then them. We ended the meal with each taking the pepper corn challenge. What the challenge consists of is eating at least six pepper corns at one time without water. The peppercorns are Sichuan’s specialty spice. They have a very bitter acidic flavor and their trademark is that they make your tongue turn numb. It’s a weird feeling but kind of cool. I personally have really grown to like the peppercorns and am sad that the US doesn’t have them. After dinner Evan and Anne took us to another one of their favorite spots. We really enjoyed getting to see the local side of Chengdu instead of just all the tourist destinations.
Wednesday was probably my favorite day in Chengdu. We decided to go to the Panda Reserve with Evan and Anne. The reserve was about an hour bus ride from our hotel, and the drive was iffy. Evan ended up getting car sick from all of the bumps. The panda reserve was awesome though (definitely good application)!! Unlike zoos which always make me feel guilty because all the animals looks to depressed, the reserve was built into the panda’s natural settings. Side note that I found interesting, Pandas are not found all over China, as many people believe, they are only found in Sichuan Province. This is because out of the 100 varieties of bamboo that grow in China Pandas only eat one kind and it is only found in Sichuan. We got to see baby giant panda cubs which were adorable. We also saw a bunch of red pandas as well as grown Giant Pandas. The highlight of the visit though was at the end. The park was supposed to close at 6 but at 5:45 we decided that we wanted to quickly see the Giant Pandas one last time. We headed back to one of the enclosures and got to see 4 teenage pandas play fighting with each other and just goofing off. It was just us and about 10 other people which was super nice because the rest of the day there had been huge masses of people and we could never really get good viewing spots. The park officials let us stay for about half an hour after the park closed to watch the pandas so it was like our own private viewing. Dan got an adorable video of them playing that I will try to upload at some point. We all left the reserve quite happy with the visit. Bert even bought a panda hat and spent the rest of the day saying “wo ai shong mao” which means I love pandas to everyone we encountered. That night we went to a small undergroundish music scene. We heard about it from a group of kids we met from Canada that were going to college in Chengdu. It was pretty cool. The band was a group of college kids from all over Europe that would meet up once a week and put on improvised shows. They never practiced and they didn’t play actual songs. One member would just start playing some progression and everyone else would improvise around it. They were really good and a lot of fun to talk to about what it was like to go to school in Chengdu.
Thursday was our last full day in Chengdu. We didn’t do much in the morning, just lounged around the hotel. That night we were invited over to Evan’s apartment to have a family dinner with him, his mom, and Anne. We were quite excited but also a little nervous. We didn’t want to do something unknowingly that would offend his mom. We knew that being invited to a Chinese person’s home is a really big deal and they often times don’t even invite close friends over. Hence we wanted to make a good impression. We knew socially we were supposed to bring a gift. We decided to bring some baked goods, such as crème puffs, fruit filled waffles and such, that we thought would make a nice dessert. We bought them at a stand by our hotel but quickly realized that we needed to wrap them in a more presentable fashion. After a frantic search to find gift wrap (we once again relied on Bert’s IPhone) we found some pink and red wrap which are considered good colors in China. With our gift in tow we headed to Evan’s apartment. When we arrived Evan’s mom was so excited. We were the first Westerners she had ever met and was so hospitable to us. She knew almost no English and our Chinese is still very rough so we communicated mainly through hand gestures and smiles, but it was still really nice. She prepared so much food for us, it was crazy. It was all very good though. Evan even mentioned to her that I really liked lotus root so she made sure to have some for me. It was delicious. We spent close to five hours eating, talking and just enjoying each other’s company. It was the first time we had had a home cooked, family meal since being in China and I don’t think any of us had realized just how much we missed that aspect of home. After a few hours, we went outside and, like little kids, played on the apartment’s playground equipment for a while. We also tried to star gaze, but of course the China haze made it impossible to see anything aside from a few planes. It was a great night though.
Friday we woke up, packed up all of our stuff, and checked out of the hotel. We went to lunch one last time at the Jaozi restaurant (we had actually eaten at least one meal there every day, the owners loved us) and then headed to the train station. We were all pretty excited to take the bullet train and looked forward to being home in time for dinner in BeiBei and with enough time to finish the mountain of Chinese homework we had been assigned over holiday that we had certainly not brought with us on the trip. The Chengdu train station was much less crowded than Chongqing had been and we easily got to our terminal. Bert and I were the first ones in line for our group to try to scan our tickets to board the train. We both tried our tickets but it just kept blinking red at us. We asked the lady what was wrong because we couldn’t figure out what we were doing wrong. She took my ticket, stared at it for about 30 seconds, and then responded that our tickets were for the train that had left the day before. Awesome application #9. The tickets were all written in Chinese so none of us could read them, we had simply trusted Anne when she told us she had bought us tickets for Friday. We definitely had a problem, we were stuck in Chengdu with worthless tickets and it was the last day of National Holiday. That meant that everyone was trying to get home that day and all other train tickets were sold out. Just awesome. Lucky for us Evan had come to the train station to see us off. We called him and caught him before he took a taxi home. We explained the situation and he came back to try to help us out. He talked to the ticket teller for us and was able to secure us 6 tickets on the slow train that was supposed to leave in 4 hours. One small hitch though, all of the seats had already been sold. We were going to have to stand for the entire trip home. Awesome #10. We all agreed it was worth it though if it meant getting home that night. We sat around the train station for the next few hours and eventually got to board our train. We were completely unsure of what standing ticket holders were supposed to do. We didn’t know if there was a certain area in the car we were supposed to stand in or if it was just wherever. Eventually we looked helpless enough that one passenger explained to us that we could stand anywhere on the train. We all stowed our backpacks and prepared for a long ride. Just as the train was about to leave we had one last small world moment. On to the train walked another one of the international students from SWU that we had gotten to know, Ronnie. She had the seat right where we were all standing around. It was nice to see a familiar face after such a stressful few hours. There’s not really much to say about the train ride. It was long (there was flooding again so we were delayed, only 1 extra hour though instead of 2), it was tiring, we were all kind of crabby, the other passengers were very nice to us though and allowed us to share their seats for stretches of time so at least we didn’t have to stand the entire time. We talked with Ronnie a bunch about how her Golden Week had been (she had gone to Jiuzhaigou so we were excited to hear how it had been) Once we finally reached Chongqing, we wanted nothing more than to get back to our dorms. We caught taxis and were home in about an hour. Before we even made it to the dorms though, we stopped at one of our favorite street vendors for some noodles. It tasted amazing after hours of standing. We then headed back to our dorms to start our piles of homework.
Overall, National Holiday was a great adventure. It showed us that we could somewhat take care of ourselves in China and it was our first time truly being on our own and having to provide everything for ourselves without the help of our program. It is definitely a memory of China that I will cherish.
Love and miss you all,