Friday, February 29, 2008

Last Shower, Last Laundry, Last Post

So here it is, the 29th of February, our last full day in Hohhot. At the risk of sounding totally cliche, it’s hard to believe we’re leaving tomorrow. Everything we’ve done this past week has in one way or another completed a full circle back to the first week spent here. We had lunch at the home of our friends’ relatives, where we first went to dinner so many months ago—and felt “at home” in a way we never could have imagined during that first horribly jet-lagged and dislocated week. We rode our bikes up to Manduhai Park, that oasis of trees and lakes that so soothed our culturally shocked selves in the first week. Now we have given our bikes away. Dave is having his “foreign expert” card punched even as I write so he can keep it as a souvenir and so we can remember that really weird experience at the Public Security Bureau. We’ve given up our lovely skates because there just isn’t one ounce of space left in our 8 check-in bags and 7 carry-ons (Ack). It’s all okay though, because if there is one thing we’ve learned here, it’s that you don’t need all the stuff in order to be happy. We thought we already knew that lesson before we came here; now we understand it on a deeper level, I hope. Of course, instead of a bag full of medicine we are bringing back bags full of presents, so we can burden all our friends and family with stuff. Lucky folks.

We’ve also eaten our last meng mian, our last hot pot, our last meal at “Happy Man”. I’ve just hung up my last load of laundry and the kids and I took our last showers, mashed between the radiator, washing machine, and sink (not all of us at once, of course, but just as crowded). True to form, I’m baking cookies this morning because I am sure that we will starve in the airports if we don’t have something on hand. And it’s a convenient way of using up the last of the vanilla, butter, raisins, dried cranberries, and brown sugar. The school kids next door are visiting the school with their parents, presumably taking part in some kind of registration or orientation for the start of the next semester on Monday. It was good to see that traffic jam one last time. And yesterday Dave mentioned that he was sorry that he wouldn’t have a chance to smell Hohhot again in the way it smelled when we first got here. The cold weather has had a wonderful way of neutralizing the smells. Of course, once he said that, all the old familiar smells came back with a vengeance, accompanied this time by our first taste of what the spring winds/dust storms might feel like. We’re glad to miss them—chunks of dirt and dust flung mercilessly into your eyes doesn’t bode well for being out in the warming spring weather.

I have really appreciated having the chance to write regularly about our experiences. It has been a terrific way to make sense of it all; at other times it has been good to give vent to fears, frustrations, and just plain old confusion. Your comments have helped me to feel connected to home at times when I have simply wanted to crawl right through the cords and back to my house. I am also glad to have this record to look back on and realize just how much fun we have had, how much we have all learned and evolved and hopefully grown. It is a good thing to shake life up when you are 40. I think Dave and I will plan something equally adventurous for 50, for despite the homesickness and the clinging to the safe and known that haunted us at first, we now feel at home here, too. So thank you for your support, your love, and for just plain being there.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Hooray for "Happy Man"!

Oh Joy!! "Happy Man"--as we call it, for the owner is such a nice smiley man--is open again! We had lunch there today: pork with garlic shoots, mushu pork (pork, wood-ear mushrooms, cucumber, scrambled egg), homestyle tofu (tofu with carrots and green peppers), and baby bok choy with mushrooms (not the wimpy mushrooms from home--these are meaty). We're back in business with yummy food.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Musings On The 200th Day

Hohhot is finally coming back to life after the New Year’s holiday. Over half of the little shops that line every street are still closed—big grey shutters surrounded by the red banners wishing New Year’s good luck and prosperity—and all of the restaurants on Mongolia Street (our “go to” place when we don’t feel like cooking) are still closed, resulting in serious Chinese food withdrawal. What are we going to do when we’re on the other side of the world, out of reach of the “Happy Man” or the “Blue Chair” restaurant?

For days following the New Year we had to scrounge for vegetables and fruit since the meat and vegetable ladies were closed and the little store behind us had replaced all of the vegetables with fancy boxes full of flavored yogurt, bai jiu (the alcohol of preference for all toasting—and strong enough to peel paint, not to mention put hair on your chest), “classic” milk boxes, and other such offerings when going to someone’s house for a meal. Our busy street out front—the same one I wrote about way back in early August that absolutely terrified us every time we tried to cross—was so devoid of traffic that you could almost cross the road without looking both ways. Believe it or not, I actually started to miss all the traffic. It was so quiet, so lonely, so empty. And it has been so cold (highs in single digits, lows in negative teens), and we were still cycling through that Shanghai illness, that we hardly even left the apartment.

Then it all turned around, seemingly overnight. The American teachers started coming back so our building no longer echoes with only our own footsteps (the students will probably return in another week); the meat and vegetable ladies re-opened and the gift boxes have been relegated to a corner of the grocery store, allowing the vegetables to take up their usual place; the post office branch across the street re-opened, one day after I had to make a giant trek around town trying to find a place to put money on my phone (normally we can amble across the street to do this); there are more taxis, buses, and pedestrians than I’ve seen in weeks; the sweet potato guys are back on the street (hooray!!); and most unbelievably, we are undergoing a bit of a warm spell, with temps up in the 20s, causing people to break out their lighter coats and stroll through the streets with giddy looks that are generally reserved for the first appearance of green buds and crocuses.

Yesterday we took the kids to Da Zhao, the Tibetan Buddhist temple we visited back in August and again in October. The kids have been begging us to return to the gift shop—ack—and we finally gave in, even though we dreaded having to pay the fairly steep entry fee just so they could shop. Just as we pulled up in front, Dave remarked that he had forgotten the camera, to which I replied that we don’t need any more pictures of Da Zhao, especially if we’re just visiting the gift shop. Okay, so maybe Dave was right, we should have had the camera. The taxi dropped us off and our fears that perhaps the temple might be closed vanished as we waded into a throng of people where normally there is just a wide open square. Not being able to read the banners floating overhead we never did figure out exactly what was going on, but it was some kind of carnival/antique market/cultural expo. Mongolian men and women dressed in traditional clothing (the everyday kind for really cold weather) lined the square with blankets of wares spread out in front of them. There were the kinds of items the kids were looking for inside: bracelets, necklaces, trinkets, most of a Tibetan Buddhist nature; there were also blankets loaded with antiques. Interspersing these were vendors selling food, balloons, and drinks, making paintings, selling junk and non-junk.

Mostly, though, there were lots and lots of people. And at every place we stopped to look at a vendor’s wares we instantly attracted a crowd. They especially pressed in closer when either Dave or I started to bargain for something we wanted—what could be more interesting than seeing the only foreigners in the whole square attempt to bargain in a language they don’t speak? It was a little claustrophobic but everyone around us was in great spirits and we just figured we were bringing more business to whatever blanket we were patronizing at the moment. After a couple weeks of enforced solitude our shopping expedition catapulted us back into the usual crowded scenes of life in Hohhot. And it didn’t really feel so bad after all.

Now we have only 13 days left.

I think that statement deserves its own paragraph, don’t you? It’s really hard to believe that we have finally arrived at the proverbial home-stretch. I mean, I still vividly remember drawing a bell-curve for Samuel, the top being 106 days (this was before we realized that 2008 is a leap year), trying to illustrate for my very homesick boy that we were now on the down slope, sliding to the end of our stay here. And now we’re no longer sliding downhill, we’re coasting along the flat part where you hope your sled stops before you hit the street, but luckily you are losing momentum quickly so you’re pretty sure you won’t have to make a side dive to safety. Okay, maybe that’s stretching the metaphor a little too thin, but I do feel like we’re just coasting now. It’s an unbelievably weird feeling. We are eager to go home to friends and family but also already starting to miss our life here. The list of things we’ll miss is growing exponentially with each day. (The bathroom will never make that list, of that I am very certain.) At the same time, the prospect of re-entering our busy lives at home, with Little League, driving, gymnastics, driving, gigantic stores like Costco, driving, Dave’s work, and a big house waiting for us, all seems a little daunting.

And most importantly, if the restaurants on Mongolia Street don’t open soon I think I’m going to freak out.

Friday, February 8, 2008


Long before we started on our China odyssey I began clipping articles out of the Sunday New York Times Travel section. Two such articles: “Family Travel, Shanghai for Kids: Amid Wheeler-Dealers, an Urban Playground;” “Frugal Traveler, Shanghai: Balancing the Past, the Future and a Budget.” Snappy titles and glittering descriptions of places to see, to eat, to sleep. I rediscovered these articles one week after we returned from Shanghai. Oh well…the Shanghai-for-kids article assumed we would be traveling in the warmer months (most of the suggestions relied upon outdoor excursions) like most sensible people, and the Frugal Traveler article focused on all those hip and cool places one goes to without kids. Before going to Shanghai I don’t think I really knew what to expect—all the history lessons, movies, novels, and yes, even a Tintin story, didn’t give me much to go on after all. After going to Shanghai I feel just about as clueless, only this time I have a clearer mental picture of what it looks like.

I actually have much to say about what we did there but I feel ambivalent about Shanghai itself. It is China, of course, the “Real China” that Dave talks about, just like all the rest of China is the “RC”. But with its extensive history of a European presence and as a major port city, Shanghai feels much more like any other huge cosmopolitan city that I have been to. Not that my travels rank up there for being far-reaching—Paris, New York, Los Angeles—but in my little world of experience, Shanghai really felt like a place that belongs to the world as opposed to one country. As such, coming from Hohhot via Xi’an, I couldn’t have been more surprised.

We stayed at a very nice hotel in the French Concession called the Hengshan/Picardie Hotel. Built in the 1930s, it is a beautifully restored Art Deco building that overlooks a lovely park and the lower “European-style” buildings that are nestled between the many skyscrapers that make up most of Shanghai.

A snowy, foggy view from our window on the 12th floor of the Hengshan/Picardie Hotel.

We have lived so cheaply in Hohhot that we saved enough money aside to really stay in style—we planned on 7 days in Shanghai, with not much to do other than enjoy a high-style vacation that we will undoubtedly never be able to duplicate again in our lives—and thanks to the wise advice of Zach and Pan Yu, we found ourselves in the quiet neighborhoods of the French Concession rather than in the middle of the bustle of the Bund.

If you have read Dave’s post on our trip, you already know about Zach and Pan Yu. For those of you who haven’t, it is important that I introduce them now, for without them we would never had as nice an experience in Shanghai as we did. Dave “met” Zach through a mutual friend and has been in email correspondence with him since probably six months before we came to China. It wasn’t until we arrived in Shanghai that we finally had the pleasure of really meeting him. He has lived for many years in China and now makes his home in Shanghai with his wife Pan Yu. Before coming to China and since we’ve been here his advice and kind emails have helped us feel grounded and not so alone.

Zach met us at the airport when we arrived late at night and successfully got us to our hotel where we gratefully dropped off to sleep in our super cushy bed. (The only hitch in arriving in Shanghai was that that little red carry-on bag of Grace’s—remember, the one that went AWOL in the Xi’an airport?—got left on the bus we took from the airport. It was weird to stand there on the street at midnight, watching the bus drive off with Grace’s stuffed animals. We did get it back, thanks to Zach and Pan Yu’s kind efforts to track it down. We now obsessively count bags and bodies every time we move from place to place—ticket counter, waiting area, plane, bus, taxi, whatever.)

Roughing it in bed: Grace, Samuel, and Dave. The king-size bed was a pillowtop with an additional feather bed on top of the mattress. It sure beat the bean pillows we've been sleeping on for the past 6 months.

Over the course of the next week we ate a lot of wonderful food, both with Zach and Pan Yu and on our own, explored the French Concession (our first thoughts on our first morning out—before the snow kicked in—were “Wow! Look at how clean the streets are!”), found the nearest Starbucks (pitiful, I know), mastered the Shanghai metro system (marvelous except at rush hour, when we all learned the true meaning of being squashed like sardines), took in the culture at the Shanghai Museum, and bought both Harry Potter 3 and 4 because two days after buying the first it was clear that Samuel would finish it before we left for Hohhot. We also slogged through snow that fell so relentlessly that we could barely look up, much less see the top of some of the taller skyscrapers, slipped repeatedly in inches-deep slush, felt frozen to the bone on more than one occasion, watched “Dirty Jobs” on the Discovery channel (not having cable even in the US, it was like going to the movies to watch t.v. in the hotel room), and generally had a really great time.

One morning, so completely disgusted with the shaggy dog stage my hair has permanently moved into, I went to a hair salon where I innocently expected to be able to make my wishes known, by whatever rudimentary means possible. I mean, everywhere else we went people spoke to us in English before we could even whip out our few stock phrases. Why not in the hair salon too, where the name (2 Girls) and the sign on the door listing services and prices were in English? Ah, sweet innocence. Once in the seat (thereby committed to going the whole way) I soon realized that I was going to have to wing it. It turned out there was only one stylist on duty so while I waited I was treated to a 10-minute hair washing session, tea, and a 20-minute back massage. When the stylist finally was ready, we looked at a picture out of a magazine together, mimed how much I wanted cut, and he went to work. One hour later, I had as passable a hair cut as I could hope for having not had any of the obligatory chit chat about what I wanted, the weather, so and so’s unbearable fashion sense, the movies, or the latest scandal in People magazine. Fully expecting to pay an arm and a leg (20-minute massage?? One-hour haircut? French Concession in Shanghai??) I was shocked to find out the total cost was only 60 RMB. In other words, the whole experience cost about $9.00. Or on the other hand—to put it in the context of daily life in Hohhot—my haircut cost about 2 ½ dinners at our favorite restaurant on Mongolian Street just around the corner from our apartment. Cheap by American standards, astronomical by Chinese standards.

Rather than give a boring blow by blow of our week, here are some pictures that will give you a sense of our vacation, of Shanghai, and of how little we really did capture on film—the weather was so bad we feared taking the camera out and often we just did the same things every day: stroll around, drink coffee, eat a yummy dinner either alone (twice take out from Papa John’s pizza) or with Zach and Pan Yu (Indian, hot pot, Zhuang food), read books, or laze around our cozy hotel room.

We were among the few crazy people who went to the Shanghai Zoo when it was snowing. Most animals were in hiding, but we did see the pandas (sleeping).

A view of the Bund across the Huangpu river from the Pudong. The Bund is the stretch of old European buildings, most dating from the early 20th century.

Looking the other way across the river towards the super modernistic buildings of the Pudong. You can't even see the top of the skyscrapers for all the fog. It was pouring rain on this day.

While I got my hair cut, Dave and the kids hung out at the neighborhood Starbucks. They sipped hot chocolate (it was another cold rainy day) and read their books. We never imagined, way back when we were still doing night duty with babies, that there would come a day when we could hang out in coffee shops again. This is Samuel starting out on Harry Potter 3--we bought it the day before and it was finished 4 days later.

Grace is actually reading now, but not at the level of this book. We bought her a copy of Inkheart by Cornelia Funke which Dave read to her at Starbucks.

We normally don't get out too much after dark. We're too much creatures of routine--make dinner, read to the kids, go to bed. It was nice to hang out with Zach and Pan Yu and do the restaurant scene. This is on the way to the hot pot restaurant, near our hotel.

This is the flashiest of the shopping streets--Nanjing Lu. It stretches from People's Square to the Bund and rises many stories high, packed full with people. Our last night we ate with Zach and Pan Yu in a restaurant on the 7th floor of one of these glittery buildings.

Our last afternoon it finally dried up enough that we could wander around the French Concession. We found many many high-end shops catering presumably to the large expat community in Shanghai. Among other things, we found a "Zen" shop with "soothing" stuff for your home, a Williams-Sonoma type kitchen store, and this bakery, "Paul."

It is a really good thing we didn't find this place on the first day. As it was, we took some jambon-gruyere sandwiches (fancy name for ham and cheese on a baguette) and four big slices of rhubarb tart to the airport with us for our dinner.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Spring Festival with Bonnie and Clyde

Thursday, February 7 marks the beginning of the Year of the Rat in the Chinese lunar calendar. And much like at home where we gather to eat and make merry on December 31st, the Chinese get together with their families to celebrate on the eve of the New Year. Here they call it Spring Festival because the New Year coincides with the changing of the seasons—spring is supposedly on its way. Most of you have probably heard about the snow and ice storms here that stranded many of the 178 million people trying to make it home for Spring Festival. I am sure all of them will be very glad to see spring make its appearance. We returned home from our vacation happy to spend the New Year among familiar surroundings and in our own itty bitty home.

Clyde—Mr. Song—invited us to share in the festivities with his family. He and his wife Bonnie had hoped to be celebrating in their new apartment but with the approach of this largest of all Chinese holidays, he just couldn’t find the workers needed to finish outfitting his place (here, when you buy an apartment you are responsible for finishing it—bath fixtures, flooring, walls, kitchen fixtures, all must be put in by the buyer.) Because of course all the workers returned home to be with their families. Picture Spring Festival like our Christmas—everyone shopping, buying decorations and putting them up, planning traditional meals, making travel plans—but transposed onto a country the size of China. Everyone doing the same thing, all at the same time. The energy and obvious excitement over the coming holiday made even us, pitiful out-of-the-loop foreigners that we are, feel its importance in the lives of everyone around us. Red lanterns have been strung up in front of homes and businesses and across roads; vertical and horizontal red paper banners decorated with Chinese characters wishing good luck, health, and prosperity are pasted around every door front. And everywhere you look you can see vendors selling fireworks.

I know it's dark and fuzzy, but I just had to have Dave take a picture so you could get an idea of the lanterns and the paper banners on either side of the door as well as along the top. This is the front door of the IEC, where we had dinner.

Traditionally, families gather in the evening to share dinner and watch t.v., waiting for midnight. At midnight, after a spectacular fireworks display (more on this later), everyone eats jiaozi and then stays up all night. Staying up all night, along with the kinds of foods, the specials on t.v., the fireworks, everything is part of tradition and has special significance. And all of it is directed towards welcoming in good luck for the New Year and scaring away bad luck (this is where the fireworks come in).

The kids and I arrived at Clyde’s room (he and Bonnie live on the ground floor of the International Exchange College, a building that contains student “dorm” rooms along with administrative offices and classrooms) around 6:00—Dave had gone a little earlier to help out with the cooking. Clyde’s parents were there, as well as one of the IEC concierges and his wife, and also Rich, an American hailing from Vermont who recently arrived to teach second semester in the English Department at IMNU. Along with the four of us, we had a very nice gathering.

Clyde and Bonnie frying spring rolls.

Dave and Clyde's dad--Dave is stuffing slices of lotus root with jiaozi stuffing, ground pork and spices. Lao Song then fried the lotus root. Very tasty and salty.

You can tell by these pictures that the meal wasn't cooked in a traditional kitchen. These are two rooms that serve as a general cooking and laundry area to the students who live in the IEC building. When my washing machine broke, this is where I came to do my laundry. It is amazing that so much food could be prepared over just a couple of hotplates. Once the cooking was finished--and most of it was done by Clyde's dad, Clyde, and Bonnie--everyone gathered in a small dorm room to eat.

Lao Song (left), the concierge, Mrs. Song (right). In front of them from left to right: tomatoes with sugar sprinkled on top, chicken feet, nibbly dish--I don't know what, spring rolls, fried fat, noodles with wood-ear mushrooms and shredded cucumbers.

Me and Grace, Rich on the right. In front of us: meat balls, barbequed mutton, crunchy pink, white, and yellow things, a whole chicken.

Clyde explained to us that round foods represent family, the lotus root in a circular shape represents coins for prosperity. Not shown in the pictures were two different fish plates, one of fried mackerel pieces, the other a whole piece of freshwater fish. Fish represents abundance. I am sure that the other plates had meanings but I did not find them out. Clyde did say that pretty much everything they served is what his family eats every year for New Year's. Very much like our Thanksgiving dinner--you gotta have the same things every year. We ate a lot and there was much toasting going around, with Clyde translating back and forth.

After we ate, we went out front to let the kids set off some fireworks. Dave bought a behemoth (or so we thought at the time) box of fireworks that when set off shot balls of fire straight up in the air, where they burst open like the fireworks we only get to see set off by the city at home. Wonderful showers of color. The kids held firecracker whips and little torch things. I am not a fireworks fan, but with Clyde there supervising everything I figured we were safe.

Happy kids and their fire sticks. It was freezing outside, by the way. Not at all like the fourth of July in more ways than one.

Frozen to the core, we came back in where the kids promptly ran off to play video games on Clyde's computer (oh, I thought, this is how you get kids to stay up to midnight without complaining...) and I went into another room to help stuff jiaozi. I am so in love with the process of making jiaozi! Eating it is pretty nice, too.

Me, the concierge's wife, Mrs. Song, Bonnie. Apparently I passed the test and they were all pleased with my jiaozi stuffing technique. Phew!

Midnight came faster than I expected, thankfully, since I am normally not much of a night owl. We ran outside first to watch the fireworks go off. I can't even figure out how to find the words to most clearly describe what it felt like. It was like being in a Fourth of July fireworks show. Everywhere around us fireballs shot up into the sky to burst out in huge sprays of color. What I had originally thought was a huge box of fireworks (our contribution) became totally dwarfed in size by the gigantic boxes of fireworks set out in the parking lot in front of the IEC. Balls of fire shot straight up, burst into color, and rained back down just in front of us. All around us you could smell the sulfur and literally feel the booming of the firecrackers strung out on the pavement looking like ammunition belts. As an inveterate scrooge when it comes to fireworks, I have to admit it felt like Christmas morning when the real Scrooge realized he still had time to change the course of events in his life--I just couldn't stop smiling and laughing and saying "Wow!" It was really incredibly marvelous. The kids ran around (safely out of the way of the fireworks) howling like wolves and giggling, just plain delirious from the late hour and the raucous sense of controlled anarchy around us. The thought that all of China was doing exactly the same thing just really made the whole event even more incredible and immense.

We returned from this excitement to find jiaozi on the table. We happily gobbled it up, toasted the New Year and our friends, then scooted off for home, tired and serenaded by a constant chorus of booms, pops, and whistles.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Terracotta Warriors, Gift Shops, and Good Company

The most wonderful thing about going to Xi’an—besides just being grateful for making it out of Hohhot in the midst of what was to turn out to be a record-breaking, traffic-stopping, traveler-stranding, killer snowstorm—was the opportunity to be in the center of ancient Chinese history. It was in this area that the emperor Qin Shi Huang lived and ruled over China (the name of which comes from Qin). It is here that he conscripted thousands of artisans to build the enormous army of terracotta warriors which guards over his tomb. Xi’an was also the terminus of the Silk Road and as such it was a place of centuries-long cultural intermingling. Even today, Xi’an bustles with its large Muslim community, descendants of the cultural and physical exchanges of the past. At the same time Xi’an is clearly a modern city, making our “little” city of Hohhot seem quaint in comparison. We were absolutely thrilled, in other words, to be in Xi’an.

Food vendors in the Muslim quarter, gift shops in the background

Another food vendor in the Muslim quarter

With this great enthusiasm filling us to bursting, we naively signed on for a tour of the Terracotta Warriors, the Emperor’s Tomb, and the Banpo Neolithic Village. Our only other experience with a tour of this sort was in Datong—otherwise a memorably unpleasant trip—where we nevertheless enjoyed being on a tour of the Yungang Caves and the Hanging Temple. We did indeed get to see all three sites (photos will follow) although except for the warriors we wouldn’t have expressed any final regrets on our deathbeds about missing out on the latter two. And we hadn’t been exposed in Datong to the “tour of gift shops” which normally plagues travelers.

The best thing about the tour turned out to be meeting Robert and Ghislaine (Swedish and French), a couple of incredible world travelers in their sixties who were the only other clients. On the trip to the Banpo Neolithic Village (memorable for two things: it was a matriarchal society; the tour guide stressed the fact that because the villagers appeared to share their food storage their culture was the first example of a communist society) Ghislaine and I chatted in French about French literature and Dave and Robert chatted about everything else. It was really enjoyable and helped salvage the tour for us. For although we were very glad to see the Terracotta Warriors, the weather was bitterly cold, the Tomb is not excavated and because of snow we couldn’t even climb on top of it (it is a mound of grass-covered earth), and the Neolithic Village left us fairly cold (no pun intended). And on top of that, we visited more gift shops than we would ever want to in our entire lifetime. I am not exaggerating. We saw the gift shop at the BNV, then were taken on a tour of a government run factory that makes “authentic” terracotta warrior replicas (all sizes, can be shipped directly to your home), were barraged by peddlers at the Tomb, and then had to walk through what must be in warmer temperatures a shoppers’ paradise of mall-like gift shops—easily a half-mile of shops and peddlers. We were not impressed. I know, tour sites are also shopaholic havens, but we were cold, disappointed, cold and cold.

The park grounds around the site of the Terracotta Warriors.

Warriors and horses--the site is not completely excavated because once the statues are exposed they begin to lose their paint. They originally held wooden staffs or carried bows, and there were carriages pulled by the horses (you can see a horse over to the left and a blank spot behind it where the carriage stood).

Robert and Ghislaine

Every one of the 8,000 soldiers has a unique face--no two faces look alike, almost as though each soldier was modeled on a real person. I love the expression on this guy's face.

Freezing on the grounds of the Terracotta Warriors.

In the end, though, I will always be glad we went on the tour because we really enjoyed ourselves with Robert and Ghislaine. We met with them again the next day and took them to lunch at the same place we went with Howard and Thomas. It was terrific to hang out with them and hear about their travels. Robert has been traveling extensively since the early 60s and neither of them plan on stopping now. Prior to coming to Xi’an they had taken the Trans-Siberian Railway to Ulaanbaatur, Mongolia, then went on to Beijing and Xi’an. At the time we parted company, they were heading south (hopefully they got there—they had to fly since train travel was shut down) and then to India for a month before returning to their home in Arles, France.

Saying good-bye to Robert and Ghislaine in the square in front of the Bell Tower (and Starbucks). Grace performs an post-lunch/pre-hot chocolate dance in front.

That final night in Xi’an we headed for the airport with plenty of extra time padding us before take-off, in the event of bad roads or traffic. Our flight to Shanghai was not cancelled (miraculously) or even delayed and we had a fairly uneventful time other than the fact that we “lost” Grace’s small red carry-on for a while. When we discovered the bag was missing we were still waiting to check in. After the kids charged off looking for the would-be thief Dave reined them in and they went back to the check-out counter to see if we had left it there (when we first tried to check in). It was in fact there—we left it right in front of the counter, a sure sign of travel fatigue, and so soon into our vacation. Yipes. This red bag (contents: animal books, terracotta warriors—no, we didn’t entirely escape the peddlers, three stuffed animals, cherished trinkets) became a bit of problem for us once again, but I’ll leave that story for when we get to Shanghai, which will have to be the next post.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Non-Traveling, Traveling, and Day One in Xi'an

Outside our building--blanketed in snow!

We almost didn’t make it out of Hohhot on Monday, January 21. A snowstorm blanketed all of China and (according to Clyde) Hohhot got more snow that day than it has in years—it looked to have dumped only about 3 inches but it shut down the city. Just our luck, we were scheduled to leave Monday morning for Xi’an. Instead, we spent the entire day waiting: for the airport to open, for the flight to take off, for the agent to come bearing new tickets for a different airline. The kids bounced off the walls and Dave and I drifted around the house, in vacation mode but not yet on vacation. We were lucky—we could have been stuck in the airport all day. In the end, we managed to get new tickets for a different airline and to catch a cab outside our apartment (this was absolutely impossible when we tried it 5 hours previously—not a single cab would stop for anyone) for a 10:25 p.m. flight (12 hours later than originally planned).

Once at the airport we stood for about a half an hour in front of the reader board that lists flights and the counters at which you can check in. Two screens would come up in succession, each pasted with red “canceled” or “delayed” signs—an entire day’s worth of flights marked in red. On the third screen we could see our flight number but no counter listed. We waited and waited. And then inspiration struck Dave: we went and stood in line at a counter we thought likely to deal with our airline. Putting into use the lessons learned way back in Beijing in late July, Dave worked his way to the front of the line and, once he learned that we could check in, he threw our bags onto the conveyor belt before the tour lady next to us could start feeding her collection of 20-odd bags through. It worked! Our two bags checked, we marched through security (we could keep our shoes on and bottles greater than 3 ounces, but Grace had to give up her metal magnet balls) and found the gate marked on our boarding passes. We had been told that the flight was delayed a bit but that it had taken off from Xi’an, so we ate some Ritter Sport chocolate bars (fortification for the long night ahead) and settled in to wait for our flight.

Around 10:30 p.m. we saw a China Eastern plane come in (our airline) and head for one gate down from us. Hmm, interesting. And why, we wondered, did the gate we were sitting at list flight MU235T but flight MU2356 (ours) was nowhere to be seen? On a whim (honestly, I think Dave is starting to develop some kind of sixth sense when it comes to the vagaries, inconsistencies, and downright lack of knowledge involved in travel in China) Dave walked down to the other gate to look into things. Pretty soon Dave came jogging back from that gate—it was indeed our gate (although nowhere could we find notice of the gate change), a fact he found out from fellow passengers. We hauled up our stuff and by 11:00 we were on our way to Xi’an. The flight was uneventful and calm. We arrived around 1:30 a.m., easily got our bags and a taxi, and made it to our hotel in the center of Xi’an by 2:30. Samuel never fully woke up from the taxi ride so while Dave checked us in, Samuel walked back and forth in a daze, saying weird sleepwalker-type things. Thankfully, we were all asleep by 3:00.

We woke up at 8:00 Tuesday morning and upon opening up the curtains finally got our first view of Xi’an by light. What did we see? Our room looked right onto the Bell Tower (dating from the 14th century).

To the left: the Drum Tower and McDonald's

In the center: Starbucks

To the right: the Bell Tower, a shopping mall, and another McDonald's and Starbucks

The Bell Tower is in the center of the old city, which is still entirely surrounded by super-thick walls built during the time of the first emperor of the Ming dynasty. So, from our windows we could see the Bell Tower to the right, the Drum Tower to the left, two McDonald’s and two Starbucks. Crazy. It goes without saying that after we dragged our sorry selves out of bed the first place we went was the Starbucks across the street. Ah, coffee! and tea, and pain au chocolats, strawberry-rhubarb scones, and whole wheat carrot muffins. Not very Chinese, I know, but just what we needed.

Breakfast for the weary travelers--looks like Starbucks anywhere, doesn't it?

We spent all Tuesday with Howard and Thomas, two friends we met in Washington last year where they spent a year as visiting scholars at CWU. They took us to a wonderful lunch in the Muslim quarter where we got to try Xi’an’s most typical food: mutton broth poured over broken bits of bread. It’s really tasty—maybe because it takes so long to tear the bread up into tiny pieces, one is truly starving by the time it comes back—served with plenty of la jiao (hot sauce) and cilantro. The bread doesn’t disintegrate as you would imagine, but instead holds its own and becomes almost pasta-like in its chewiness.

Thomas, Dave, and Howard at the restaurant

We walked to the city walls after lunch—they are completely intact and surround the central, oldest part of Xi’an. Apparently you can walk around the entire central city (14 km around) but the snow and biting cold (it is much more humid in Xi’an and we stupidly left our warmest long underwear in Hohhot) and little kid legs kept us from trying it. Instead, our short walk was punctuated by one long snowball fight between the kids and Howard and Thomas. Very funny and a great way to experience the city.

We're in front of the Drum Tower, just after lunch. Although temperatures were warmer in Xi'an than Hohhot, it seemed bitterly cold because of the wetter climate.

Dave walking up the steps to the city walls.

Looking onto the outside of the walls--you can see the moat on the right and the guard towers around every 100 meters on the wall on the left.

All along the part of the wall we were walking on, workers pieced together these huge lanterns in preparation for Spring Festival. According to Howard, the entire wall will be lit up with lanterns for the New Year's and city folk will be able to stroll amongst them.

Howard and the kids taking a break from the snowfight to pose along the battlements.

Snowfight in action

The view down the wall with the newer city on the left, the old city on the right.

Samuel posing with a cannon and cannonballs.

Grace couldn't make it home on her own steam so Thomas helped her out.

As you can see, I'm about two weeks overdue on posting. Somehow it was really hard to post while on the trip. Anyway, we made it back and despite a couple of head colds and way too much laundry, we really enjoyed ourselves. I'll keep up everyday until you have the whole story.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

"I'm Lovin' It!": McDonald's, Indexing, and Homesickness

Dave has been madly indexing his book for the past couple of days. This entails using a program that pulls up a phenomenally huge amount of subjects and their corresponding pages. Once that is done, Dave has to go through all the entries, letter by letter, and decide which to keep, how to organize the subjects, what to cross-reference, etc. It is long and dirty work. He's doing remarkably well for having had very little sleep the last couple of nights. The only breaks he's taking are for meals and ice skating (the latter being the reason I'm making two posts right now--I don't get any exercise, but I get to write a little).

Last night Jed dropped by while Dave was up working late. (Dave is using Vanetta's apartment while she's gone so he has a modicum of peace and quiet in which to work. Jed's apartment is just across from Vanetta's.) Anyway, Jed brought Dave a "pie" from McDonald's. I just had to take a picture of it when I saw it:

I don't know if you can see what kind of pie it is: "Red Bean Pie". Not your usual McDo fare. The bag sports the "Beijing 2008" Olympics logo that you see everywhere here. And of course, the bag also shows lots of athletes, all of whom I am sure eat at McDonald's whenever they can.

I would have thought that with only six weeks to go I wouldn't have to deal with homesickness anymore. And frankly, it hasn't reared its ugly head for a long time now--maybe a month? That has to be a record. But today it came back with a vengeance and who did it hit? Me! Crazy. So I did what any sane person would do on a gray, cold day a bazillion miles away from friends and family: I baked a huge pile of oatmeal cookies. It's not even so much that I want to eat them--I just wanted the house to smell good and I love seeing the kids get excited about having a cookie treat in the afternoon. For the record, I also gave half of the total batch to Jed who is leaving tonight with a friend on an overnight train ride to Beijing. Cookies on the train, yum!

We are leaving for Xi'an and Shanghai next Monday, January 21. We'll probably take our computer along, if only to have someplace to load our pictures when the camera fills up. I don't know if we'll find internet access, though, so we may be silent until the end of the month. If this ends up happening, be assured that we will have plenty of stories and photos to share with you when we get back.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

From Cinnamon Rolls to Sticky Rice

The semester has finally come to an end here. Dave gave his final last Friday and submitted his grades on Sunday morning. This seems especially quick but he had two great incentives: he wanted to see the Seahawks/Packers game on Sunday morning without the specter of grading hanging over him, and he has a walloping amount of work ahead of him to get the index on his book done before we leave on the 21
st for Xi’an (we also have a language teacher in the family who was able to help him out quite a bit!). I figured I’d sweeten the whole deal by offering to bake cinnamon rolls for the game.

Dave and Tad got up before the crack of dawn to set up Tad’s computer. Tad figured out a way to actually stream the game, commercials and all. Tad, by the way, is an avid Packers fan. The kids defected to Tad’s side because it’s an awful lot of fun to annoy Dad by wearing green and yellow and chanting various poetic beauties made up on the spot (on the order of “How do you spell success? P-A-C-K-E-R-S!”). The whole streaming thing worked like a charm—the game, the snow, the commercials (my first taste of reverse culture shock), the agony of defeat—all came out crystal clear. Well, at any rate, as clear as a snowstorm in Wisconsin in January can look.

The whole set up couldn’t have been more surreal. I mean, we sat in front of a computer watching American football and American commercials (it was the abundance of commercials for debit cards and Visa cards that most surprised me, besides the requisite charmers touting the superiority of one weak, insipid beer over another weak, insipid beer. I had forgotten how much consumption rules the day over there, but of course it does here, too, only in hard cash and Chinese, so I have no idea what the commercials are saying.), with Hohhot just waking up outside, going about it’s normal early morning routine. By the time the game was over, we all felt strung out from the early wake-up, the Seahawk defeat, and the sugar.

Speaking of sugar, has anyone ever read the Little Pear books (other than the Stones, who introduced them to us)? They were written by Eleanor Frances Lattimore in the early part of the 20th century and they follow the exploits and daily life of a little boy. One thing that left an impression on us in those books was Little Pear’s favorite treat: candied crabapples lined up on a stick like a shish kabob. We’ve always wondered about those. Anyway, we’ve seen a lot of candied fruit on sticks but haven’t tried them yet—I am still a little gun-shy about street food, which I realize is ridiculous both because our stomachs have definitely adapted and also because I buy baked sweet potatoes off the street with nary a glance at the general cleanliness or lack thereof of the cooking barrel. On Tuesday Samuel, Grace, and I noticed a huge stand of these goodies on Mongolian Street and finally we just had to try them out.

Crabapple and banana on top right, orange slices on the bottom row.

The kids each got candied orange slices and I got crabapples split in half with a banana slice wedged in the middle of each apple. They are thick with a sticky syrup that stays hard in the cold. The vendor wrapped each stick in rice paper to keep it from sticking to the “to go” bag. The final verdict on these delicacies? Spectacular! The kids’ oranges were pretty juicy and Grace found it too sweet, but my crabapple stick was a terrific combination of sweet and tart, and Samuel wolfed down his stick (predictably, he also asked if he could keep the stick which has an extremely sharp point at one end—boys!). And yes, you can eat the rice paper, too. It just melts in your mouth and saves you the trouble of trying to peel it off of the syrup coating.

Some of my favorite things to complain about—at least in the privacy of our apartment, and in emails to some of you who are lucky enough to get to hear me gripe—have been the dust, the incessantly dirty floors, and the bathroom. I mean, I not only cannot seem to get a handle on any of the above, much less keep them under control to my satisfaction, I can’t even seem to find the inspiration to attempt to tackle them on anything other than a most superficial level. This has lead to a proliferation of dust bunnies everywhere I don’t feel like looking: mixed in with all the power-cords on either desk, under the beds, couch, and chairs, on the bookshelf. Basically, everywhere. This isn’t your garden variety dust, either. It sneaks in from somewhere (outside? inside? Mars?) and stays put. Our t.v. has had a healthy dust colony growing on its back since day 1. And even though we try to keep all street shoes out in the hall, gunk tracks in onto the tile floor and settles in. Dust and kid stuff and goop and who knows what else—it’s everywhere and I can’t seem to master it.

Where is all this leading, you ask? Ah, well, since the American teachers in the building are now all gone to Thailand and their various side trips for the next month, the lady who cleans their apartments is short on cash. This lead Dave to spearhead an effort to get her to come to our place Tuesday afternoon and kill two birds with one stone (or dust rag): help her out financially and get me to stop complaining. Li came over Tuesday and spent 2 ½ hours dusting and cleaning the floors. I have never had a cleaning lady before—nor will I ever again after this—but I have to say, I never felt so happy as I did when she started in on cleaning this place and I took off to go ice skating with the kids. It’s hard to explain, but it just felt good to not have to do it myself for once—or tell someone to do it and hope it gets done—and I got to go have fun. Needless to say, she will be coming twice a week now for the rest of our time here. Dust bunnies beware!

Wednesday afternoon we went to a Mongolian wedding! Ha Si (pronounced “Ha suh”) works at the International Exchange College where Dave taught. Although we can’t speak with each other without an interpreter, Dave and I have always felt very warm towards him. He’s a really nice guy. I understand that weddings themselves are usually a civil ceremony; what we were invited to was actually the reception at a large Mongolian restaurant in the north end of town. When we got to the restaurant, Ha Si and his wife greeted us and the other guests at the door, dressed in traditional ceremonial Mongolian clothing.

The happy couple at the door.

We were seated at the front of the room in a set-up similar to the other banquets we’ve attended—lots of round tables in a large room, with a stage at one end of the room. Our table was in front of the stage and we, along with Karen and Tyler, were the only foreigners there. Many of our friends and Dave’s colleagues from the IEC were there, along with, of course, friends and family of the bride and groom.

Athena (in black hat), Helen (middle), and Wu Yunna (on the right)

At our table--unfortunately Grace is washed out by the sun, but you get the idea.

The man on the right is a professor at IMNU--he served as master of ceremonies for the reception. The bride is a horse-head fiddle teacher; I heard some of the musicians are her students.

Another view of the stage and some more wonderful outfits.

The couple on stage.

Our table! Lots of vegetables, mutton, pork, rice, duck, and sweet sticky rice in the pumpkin in back--the latter is traditional wedding fare.

Like many wedding receptions, there was music, singing, speeches, and lots and lots of good food. The wonderful thing about this reception is that it was mostly Mongolian music, singing, and food. We really enjoyed ourselves immensely. And in a curious “closing of the loop”, when a sheep’s back was brought out to the front of the room for ceremonial purposes (similar to the sheep’s head way back in August that so completely undid Samuel) Samuel hardly even blinked. Granted, a cooked sheep’s back doesn’t quite compare to a head with empty sockets sitting right in front of you on the table, but still, neither Samuel nor Grace had any complaints about anything other than the volume of the music which made their chests thump from the reverberations out of the speakers. Dave and I loved it and I only wish I could share the music with you—the throat singing was absolutely phenomenal.

Our family, the bride and groom, Tyler and Malicha, and Karen. Notice the picture hanging on the curtains in back? Many people have their wedding pictures taken in traditional Western attire (tux and white gown). I have to admit I prefer the Mongolian clothing for beauty and character.