Weekend in Xian

Well I managed to cross another one off of my tourist list with only two and half weeks left in China, the city of Xi’An and the terracotta warriors.

It was a trip planned by my study abroad university, Beijing Language and Culture University, and cost around 1700 RMB.  We took an overnight train to xian that left at 5:30 in the afternoon and arrived in the city at around 8 the next morning, due to unforeseen delays.  We started our day immediately after grabbing a quick breakfast at our hotel, the Xian Hotel, that consisted of a buffet of fried rice, egg rolls, and fresh fruit.  Our first stop was the terracotta warriors factory where they reproduced the soldiers for museums and collectibles. ImageThis was extremely interesting and I would suggest it if it was an option.  After going through the factory, we went to the actual pits.  ImageI will say the terracotta warriors were cool but I’ll talk more about them later on.  After the pits we went to see the Wild Goose Pagoda located in downtown Xian.ImageIt was also intriguing and easy to get to since it is close to the city wall but like I’ve said before, because of the time period in which these temples were built, they are all extremely similar and if you had to choose between something unique to Xian or the pagoda, I would go with the former.  However, considering its easy location I would recommend dropping by to see the temple built for the famous Chinese children’s’ tale, the Monkey King.

To end our first day in Xian, after seeing the Wild Goose Pagoda, we went to see a Tang Dynasty Show, the most prosperous dynasty in China’s history and the one Xian was most associated with, while enjoying a dumpling banquet.

ImageImageImageThe show was so fun to watch and the dumplings were delicious! I’ll have to get back to you on the name of the hotel where we ate and saw the show but I would definitely recommend it! It will bring out the oo-ing and aw-ing, camera-toting tourist in everyone!

After a goodnights sleep and a western shower (hallelujah), we started the next day with a trip to the Xian City Wall.  The city wall was actually my favorite part of my trip to Xian.  A new tourist attraction set up by the city of Xian is to rent bikes out to tourist for 40 RMB/100 min.  The wall is approximately 9 miles long and the best time I had on the whole trip was biking around the wall with everyone!ImageAfter biking the wall, and eating an NFL player-sized portion of chinese food, we went to visit the Shaanxi Provence history museum.  The museum was interesting but it did present a problem as all of the exhibits are in Chinese, which limits non-native/lower-level chinese speakers to simply gazing at the relics.ImageOverall, the museum was interesting but unfortunately not a must-see on the list of non-asian tourists.

So heres the summary of the trip and some tips for all of you who are interested in traveling to Xian:

1) the terracotta warriors are not as spectacular as you might have assumed so do not be disappointed.  I know, it sounds like blasphemy, but its true.  It is extremely hot in the pits, it is always packed, and the fact of the matter is that there are not that many uncovered warriors.  The ones that are uncovered are interesting, but it is hardly the hundreds of statues pictured by most tourists, including myself. So if you are going to go, take lots of water, wear something heat friendly, and consider the cultural significance over the sheer number of soldiers.

2) take the high speed train.  Spending the night on a train rumbling through picturesque chinese countryside sounds wonderful, but rumbling along with about 6 square inches of personal space and sleeping 8 feet off the ground in the clothes you wore all day long is not.  Spend the extra money for the high speed train ticket and get to Xian in 3 hours rather than 13.

3) go with a tour guide.  Xian is much harder to navigate than beijing and it has no logical public transportation.  Paying for a tour guide may be more expensive but it will save you time and money in the long run and will help you make the most of your time in the city.

4) don’t overstay your welcome in the city.  We were in Xian for a grand total of 40 hours and I still think we could have done it in less time.  If you had a guide, you could definitely get in most of the top tourist sights in one jam packed day, and thats what I would suggest doing.

Hope this helps anyone looking to travel through Xian! Happy Travels!

The Health Edition

Today I had a particularly random inspiration for a blog post: staying healthy while studying abroad.  In America, we are generally surrounded by people striving to be in shape, social pressures to do so, and have healthy food available pretty easily.  In China, not so much.  Here protein bars do not exist, meal replacements are unavailable, carbs abound at every meal and fresh/raw vegetables and fruit are not safe for foreigners to eat.  Even the protein sources here are either covered in a sugary sauce or cut without regards to lowering fat content.  It is certainly a challenge to be healthy while living in China, at least by American standards.

Now it isn’t impossible to stay healthy or eat by your dietary restrictions but it isn’t easy.  Vegetarians certainly have it the most easy, the abundance of cooked vegetables and tofu dishes found in the cafeteria is exponentially higher here than in most of the US.  Lactose Intolerants also don’t have much of a problem seeing as dairy isn’t used much in asian cooking.  The real problem comes with people who are gluten intolerant or have problems with wheat.  It is nearly impossible to eat a meal here without carbs.  I do know people that have made it here several months with these allergies but they were under specific medicinal regimens prescribed to them by their doctors at home.  So be under advisement that if you do suffer from conditions like these, you should definitely discuss your travel abroad with your doctor several months before leaving.

On another note, staying physically in shape while in China is not too easy, either, unless you are a runner.  The availability of gyms and the relative cheap price of joining of them back home are not found here, as I’m sure you can imagine.  In the States, almost every university has a gym available at no, or very low, cost to students.  Not the case at Beijing Language and Culture University.  While I have been told that it is a very nice facility, I was not willing to fork over 500 RMB/month to find out for myself.  $82/month seemed a little expensive to this broke college student.  So if you are interested in keeping up your athleticism but am plagued by frugality and/or an inability to run far enough to count as exercise, then I suggest you invest in some workout DVDs and a jump rope because you will be on your own!  

I can tell you the steps I took to help keep in shape while abroad and how they’ve worked and hopefully they’ll help you make your own plan of attack on how to continue your healthy lifestyle while abroad!

1) Since I was only going abroad for two months, I packed a large supply of protein and energy bars (especially because I wasn’t sure how I was going to get along with the food)

2) I brought several workout DVDs and took steps to make sure that I had something to workout on while in my room (it ended up being a pretty thick beach towell that could serve double duty when necessary)

3) I went in search of healthier alternatives around town and on campus (leaving the white rice off of the tray at lunch time, finding a favorite bean sprout dish, opting for the tofu over the sweet and sour chicken)

I hope you find this helpful and that you are successful in staying healthy and happy while abroad!

DING DING DING! Silk Market: Round 1

The blog post all the ladies have been looking forward to…THE SILK MARKET! Hopefully I’ll shed some light on what to look out for, what to avoid, another lesson on haggling, and even some examples of what you might pay for some most wanted items.

First off, if you choose to take a cab for the subway, either Google the Chinese name (秀水街; pinyin: Xiùshuǐjiē) for the Silk Market, or bring a map with it already on it.  Taxi drivers do not know the English name, trust me I tried it and got myself and 6 other friends stuck in two separate cabs with no idea how to say it and no internet connection to Google it.  I’m sure you can see how frustrating that was when every one of us had iPhones sitting by uselessly in our laps. The best in my opinion is to take the subway to the market, it is connected to the subway station so you can walk right into the market, and then take a cab back to your hotel or dorm with your purchases since the cab ride, at least from WuDaoKou, is around 70 RMB.  So remember to GO PREPARED.  It will start your journey into the silk market on a happy, unstressed note.

Secondly, do not use the ATMs in the Silk Market unless you are in an absolute bind.  Just Tuesday my friend was given a fake 100 RMB bill from one of the ATMs in the market.  Take cash with you and if you do pull from an ATM, try to use the ones that are associated with major banks, such as Agriculture Bank of China.  Also know that for large purchases many of the shops take credit cards, but you should obviously always keep an eye on your credit card statements for a while afterwards to make sure you don’t become a victim of fraud.

Thirdly, GO PREPARED.  It is extremely overwhelming to go with no list or no pictures of what specific items, such as purses, you may want.  They will try to sell you at every stall so go to see everything that interests you but also know what you want.  Also be aware that they will be forceful and often times physically aggressive.  Do not be afraid to walk away from their yelling and break away from their grip.  They will use your anxiety at their forceful pursuance and intimidation as a tool against you to get a better price.

Here are some pictures to put into perspective just how overwhelming the silk market can be.  It was redone just six months ago and is now a shiny, new, all glass 6 story shopping market that gives off the vibe of legitimacy over counterfeit and upperclass over city market.  But do not be fooled.  Image

ImageImage

ImageImageI paid 150 RMB for the pair of uggs (which I bought along with a second pair for another friend to get a better deal) and I paid 100 RMB for the pair of nikes.

ImageI ended up paying 500 RMB for this handbag and 50 RMB for the Cavalli scarf that I wrapped the handle with.  I will say that I bought another handbag along with this one for 500 RMB as well driving the price down some, but for the sake of the new owner I have to refrain from posting the picture. ImageThese were a particularly good find.  After a friend bought several pair of obviously fake Ray Ban Wayfarers, we decided to walk down and continue to look at another store just to see another selection.  My and another friend were looking at the fake pairs when my friend Sam yelled at us from across the stall.  She had a certain style of Ray Ban in mind and when she continued to ask the stop keeper for this particular pair he finally took her over to several drawers of what seemed, at least to me, to be almost identical to my real pair I left at home.  They were about 3-4 times heavier than the fake ones and featured the industrial hinges on the arms as well as the RB inscribed on the inside of the left lens.  Seeing those other pairs, we knew that they were extremely amazing fakes so we picked out five pairs between the 3 of us and paid 90 RMB a piece

The best ways to make the most of your trip to the Silk Market are to:

1) make a list of what you want including shoes, purses, electronics (although I wouldn’t suggest buying them there), and souvenirs.  I would say that it is fairly obvious that the reason I located so many different things is because I did not go in with a focused list of what I wanted so I found lots of things that I do love but I honestly didn’t need.

2) print off pictures of the designer items you want like purses and wallets.  The way to get the highest quality reproductions are to show them exactly what you want and let them make a phone call and have it brought to the stall.  You will pay a higher price but generally it’s worth it for the better quality.

3) look around before you commit.  Casually stroll through the stalls before you commit to one store to buy from.  I would also suggest buying multiple items at a time in one store if its convenient and they have what you want, they will always cut you a better deal when you buy more than one item at a time.

4) have a price and DO NOT BUDGE.  Don’t let them convince you to go above what you’re comfortable with, and when I say comfortable–I mean getting a great deal.  They’re all fake and if they turn out not to be then they were stolen and those people don’t deserve to make a profit off your purchase.  3 quick tips: barter ONLY in Yuan, don’t be afraid to walk away, and don’t be intimidated by aggressive shopkeepers.

So thats the end of Round 1, but I will be back with more tips, I’m sure, and a closer look at the Pearl Market after this weekend.  Hope it was helpful and happy shopping!

Taking Advantage of Every Minute Abroad

Well, today’s post will be very salty (credit to Sam Black) and will be geared specifically towards students about to start their study abroad experience rather than people traveling to China in general.

Today is the day that almost all of my University of North Carolina at Wilmington friends left Beijing to return home.  Their departure has put some very important things in perspective for me and given me some thoughts to share with students who are about to begin their travels. In fact, I’m going to just list them out.

1) travel alone-while it sounds wonderful to study abroad with your best friend and feels frightening to set off alone, nothing will give you a better experience than making new friends and being everything you can be without respect to what is the norm where you come from or what your friends back home would do.  You will discover a lot more about who you are and what you like when you make the conscious effort to be just you, not you +1.  Not that I think traveling with people from your university is a bad idea, it helps to have someone to contact once you get there, but studying abroad will make you grow as a person and a student and sometimes you have to grow without your best friend next to you.Image

2) be and do everything you ever wanted-this is a once in a lifetime opportunity and the worst thing that seemed to plague people I knew who were leaving was regret, regret over not going somewhere or not getting to know some classmates better or not spending more time here.  Rather to regret being homesick for a week than to regret leaving your country before you really had the opportunity to get to know and enjoy it.Image

3) spend as much time as feasibly possible-while I will admit that it seems extremely daunting to spend an extended period time in a foreign country, the longer you stay, the more you learn and the more you will feel at home.  I can assure you that a month long study abroad program is too short.  While, at the end of my stay, I may also feel that two months is too long, I stand firm by my assertion that one month is not long enough.  It takes two weeks to finally feel comfortable, three weeks to feel like you’re ahead of the curve, and that leaves you with only one week to enjoy all of the tips, tricks, and hole-in-the-wall places you will have found and come to love. So don’t be stingy with your time.  Go and do and experience this new culture with every ounce of energy you have and all the time you can spare.Image

4)stay connected-don’t forget the people you meet while you’re abroad.  Connections and networking are always in good fashion and can’t do anything but help you.  Not to mention reminiscing on your trip will only bring back good memories and provide you all with a good time.Image

I hope anyone who is planning their trip can take my advice and make the most out of their experience.  Studying abroad is the most amazing experience I have ever had and I hope that anyone interested takes the plunge and goes all in because I can assure you it will be worth it.

The Llama Temple and Summer Palace

Well last weekend I continued to check off my tourist list and went to see the Llama Temple and the Summer Palace.  Both were very cool but the Summer Palace was definitely the better of the two.

We took the subway to both and even though it took about 45 minutes to get to both it was worth it to save the money.  The Llama temple is near the silk market and the Summer Palace is on the Beijing Zoo side of town. 

 I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t impressed yet disappointed at the same time with the Llama temple.  It does house the world’s largest statue carved out of one piece of wood, which was incredible to see, but overall….the temples really all look the same. 

Now before you start tsk-ing me, you would agree if you saw them.  Yes, they are all beautiful and exquisitely intricate, but they lack a certain individualism that makes seeing everyone of them important.  The Llama temple is slightly different because it is dedicatedImage to Buddhism, but overall it was expensive to go at 25 RMB and didn’t feature anything particularly spectacular aside from the world record holding Buddha carving.  They are also particularly snarky about photography in the temples, which, on one hand, I have to respect because people will be actively burning incense and praying while you are walking through but, on the other hand, I find slightly irritating because it is a tourist destination and the things worth seeing are all in no-photography areas.  But no worries, we were sneaky college students and snagged a few good ones so you’ll at least get the flavor of this temple.

 

The truly impressive tourist site of the weekend was definitely the Summer Palace.  At first we couldn’t quite figure out why this one was so celebrated, but it only took about five minutes to figure it out.  It is absolutely amazing.  Warning-it has stairs very similar to the Great Wall.  Their aren’t as many but they are extremely steep so be prepared. Once we got to the top, not only were the individual buildings incredibly beautiful, but there were also this network of caves carved out of rocks at the top of the moment that you could wander through as well as many individual side temples you could explore.  ImageThere is one other thing that made the Summer Palace stand out, along with almost every other Chinese tourist site, the lack of boundaries.  Where most historical sites have roped off areas you are allowed to explore including walking trails, etc, Chinese tourist sites give you almost total freedom to walk around and sightsee (with the exception of entering many of the buildings, obviously).  So after we walked around the obvious walking trails, we left the beaten path and found a treasure trove of little resting areas along the river/lake that runs around the palace.  While I wouldn’t suggest for anyone who is under a time crunch or is frightened of being lost, if you’re up for a little adventure I would definitely tell you to leave the over-crowded areas and walk the grounds.  In general you more safe there than just around the city and the areas often feature little rest areas peppered throughout the grounds which provide a perfect spot to stop and eat any snacks you should bring (which I would suggest doing) and rest from your walk.

The Forbidden City

This week has certainly been a whirlwind!  Starting with last Saturday, I have been going nonstop to see everything I can before many of my new friends leave to go home.  At the beginning of my race to the tourist finish line, I spent the day at The Forbidden City and what a day! I will say that even with all the hype, it was amazing.Image

A student ticket was only 20 RMB and even if I did have to pay the 60 RMB for the regular priced ticket, it would be worth every yuan.  It was spectacularly beautiful and thoroughly interesting for the entire 3 hours I spent there.  While my favorite was the large garden, all of the buildings were fantastic and having all of the signs translated into english made the trip all the more enjoyable and even educational!ImageThis photo is just one view of the many exhibits in the garden within The Forbidden City.

 

I will warn you, however, that The Forbidden City will be crowded no matter when you go.  Think of this as the White House Tour of China.  It will always be packed so don’t make any excuses, get on the subway and go! From WuDaoKou, my subway station, it took me about an hour to get there.  A taxi would be much faster but would also costImage you a pretty penny so make sure you weigh your options.  If you have a lot of time and would rather save the money, take the subway.  It’s pretty tiring but it is incredibly cheap.  If you’re on a strict time table, though, and have the extra 50-60 RMB to spend, you will be more rested to walk the forbidden city (which is incredibly large). But I will warn you, it will be hot and you will sweat.  Like I said about the Great Wall, dress comfortably and take water!  There will a ton of people pushing and shoving so get ready.  I will say that it is definitely worth all of the pushing and shoving but don’t be under the impression that it will be a peaceful stroll.

 

PS-if you do take the afternoon be sure to stop in at BeiHai Park.  Its only 15 RMB and it is an absolutely beautiful place to rest after your long afternoon at The Forbidden City.

 

 

Cram Time on the Subway

This week has been quite an adventure. We all made it through the second full week of classes and managed to to have a lot of fun exploring the city using the most popular form of public transport here, the subway.  This particular trip was special not only because of what we found while we were out, but also because of the particular conditions of our trip.

While out we found yet another large market that was located across the street from the Beijing Zoo.  Inside you could find everything from perfume to men’s clothing on about 5 floors, even if you’re not looking for anything specific to buy you should definitely go just to experience this standard shopping system. And if you do happen to go out that  way make sure you attempt to go to the planetarium in that area.  We weren’t able to get tickets that day because it was sold out, but just looking at it from the outside made it obvious how spectacular it was. 

After the market we, being students with no homework, decided to stay on the subway and get off at a random station and explore a little bit.  it.  We got off at a station where there was a Chinese walmart, which I’ll touch on later, and had potentially the most stressful subway ride ever.

ImageWhile we are smiling in this picture, and laughing at the fact that we three people could squeeze into two square feet, it was a stressful experience getting shoved on and off each car.ImageThis was a picture of the line to get into the subway station at 6:00 PM at Wu Dao Kou, our local subway station.  After seeing this line you can only imagine how it felt to ride a subway with all of these people but needless to say it was an experience!

Cell Phones…and why they’re absolutely necessary

In China, cell phones are everywhere just like in the states and you, without a doubt, need one if you’re going to be in the country for more than a week.  As students, we all arrived separately (nerve wracking) and are in separate classes all day (inconvenient).  At first we only had wifi in our classrooms and in one cafe in our dorm, which meant that we could iMessage each other when both people had wifi and stood still enough to pick up the signal and knew how to wiggle your nose in just the right way to allow your iMessages to actually send.  This was the more inefficient than sending smoke signals, even with the Chinese smog factored in.   Consider if you were supposed to meet somewhere and there was a complication, one person showing up late,  for instance, or the other going to the wrong place.  That was it.  You had to go wait in a place that you were fairly positive they would return to and hope you waited long enough for them to stumble upon you.  Needless to say, my opinion on spending the 300 RMB it costs to get a phone is fairly obvious.

There are many options for having a phone while in china, you can bring an unlocked smart phone, like an iphone, and put a chinese sim card in it, buy a nice phone if you’re going to be here for a while, or invest 250 RMB in the same brick phone you had when you were in middle school (which is obviously what we all did since we’re only here between one and two months).  We bought ours as a package deal, phone, sim card, and some minutes, for 250 RMB.  It was a China Mobile store about 15 minutes away from my university campus where the manager came over and spoke enough english to know what we wanted and helped us set it up.

I will be honest and say that I have already run out of minutes and going to buy more was not near as easy as my first purchase, but it was doable.  Once you buy your phone, you can buy minutes (on a gift card) anywhere (literally at any convenience store) and all you have to do is call the number on the back and enter in the serial number on the card.  In fact, the sales person from whom I bought the minutes card did it for me.

So moral of the story is if you plan to be in China for an extended period of time and are not on a structured, scheduled tour where you will be with your friends all the time, invest in a cell phone.  It is worth it, without a doubt.  The phone will pay for itself with the time and frustration it will save you.

Shopping in Style

This is a high-end shopping market found in Beijing in the U-Center. Located in the heart of Wu Dao Kou, this is one of many “american-style” shopping centers you will find that feature everything from cleaning products to health care.

The Fourth of July On the Other Side of the World

As an american, I pride myself on being pretty patriotic and the fourth of July is one of my favorite holidays.  Needless to say I wasn’t sure how it was going to go in Beijing, China but I was wrong to expect anything aside from a great time and companionship with new people from all over the world.

I had become friends with a group of students from North Carolina and so we all planned to get together and celebrate the fourth.  Another group of students from the US had told us about a bar that was owned and operated by americans called Lush.  We had heard great things about their fourth of july celebration and so we walked down in our red, white, and blue and joined the festivities.  Complete with live music (all american, of course), 30 RMB burgers, and 10 RMB american beer, Lush was celebrating the fourth with force and between group singalongs of God Bless America and our national anthem we became friends with british kids at another table and some very nice irish people who went to college in the states.  Who would have thought that the American Independence Day Party at an american bar would be such an international melting pot!

 

Aside from that, if you are an american and feeling a little homesick for a good burger and someplace that accepts credit cards definitely check out Lush.  Its in the Wu Dao Kou area of Beijing, Wu Dao Kou is the subway station located in that area of town in case you decide to go looking for it, and is one of those places “where everyone knows your name,” so to speak.  I hope everyone enjoyed their independence day as much as we did in Beijing and felt as american as we did while still being on the other side of the world.

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