A Travellerspoint blog

One year later

sunny 37 °C

Well, I can't really seem to get the hang of this blogging thing, at least not doing it regularly. I can't believe it has been over a month since I wrote last, time really does pass by too quickly! We are in the full swing of Shanghai Summer these days. It's hot and humid and we are really starting to like it. It isn't as debilitating as it was last summer, we can actually go out during the day without dying of the heat! We have been having a really fun summer! Alot has happened but I will stick with the highlights.

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In Early July we had some friends come into town which we always enjoy. It always gives us a chance to reflect on China and see the things that once were interesting but are now just normal everyday things. One thing in particular is the language. Although I would never claim to be able to speak any Chinese, my understanding of the language has improved significantly in the last year, I at least can understand what people are saying to me in day to day interactions (I can't respond to these people but I at least know what they are saying). See people fresh off the plane reminds us both of how overwhelming the language thing can be! New people also remind us of how cheap things are even here in Shanghai. After spending and earning in RMB for the past year, we have completely stopped converting things into dollars, but new people always want to know "how much would that be in USD?". It's a nice reminder when we realize that our dinner only cost $4! Having people in town also gives us an excuse to do some touristy things and get together with all our friends, which is one of our favorite things to do in Shanghai.

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We took a short trip to Hangzhou with our friend Mark and his girlfriend in the middle of July. It is supposed to be the "Most beautiful place in China" (or so Marco Polo supposedly said). It's a smaller town just a 2 hour train ride from Shanghai. The West Lake is the main attraction of the city and we spend 2 days bicycling and walking around it. It is surrounded by parks and there are many tea places and restaurants surrounding it. We took a leisurely tour around it, stopping frequently because of the heat, and had a really nice time. It was a bit disappointing that we couldn't go swimming, its hard to be surrounded by water on a hot day and not be able to dive in! But! We went to the beach this week! I have missed that SO much. We found a beach just 1 hour south of shanghai and it was wonderful. We laid out and went swimming, it's something I never would have imagined us doing in Shanghai. We hope to go back soon!

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And now, the Olympics have arrived! The city seems very strange! There are hardly any foreigners in town, ussually in the summer, there are swarms of tour groups downtown, but the city has been strangely quiet. This is partly because visas are hard to get these days and also because everyone in Beijing! There has also been a big initiative to clean up the city for the few tourists who do make it into town. Some of our favorite DVD shops have been shut down, there are no more people selling "watches, bags and DVDs" and the street vendors have disappeared! We hope that after the Olympics, that things turn back to normal, those street vendors are part of the charm of this city!

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We watched the opening ceremonies on Friday night (Yao Yao and Xiang Zhenyu above). This was a HUGE deal in China, shops closed down and every restaurant in town had a TV broadcasting the event live (even McDonalds!). We managed to get reservations at Mexico Lindo, and watched the ceremony with about 12 of our friends. The excitement in the restaurant was contagious and you could tell that the Chinese people were especially proud of the ceremony. It was an experience I will not forget!
We will probably watch the games quite a bit this week. We have to go to a restaurant or bar since we don't have cable but we are pretty excited about that too. It's fun to go out and have people from several different countries watching the games with you. There is a different feeling of national pride and community with fellow Americans and at the same time, there is a connection with international friends as we watch the games and eat and drink together. It should be a good couple of weeks!

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Finally, our contracts at our jobs are coming to an end in two weeks (hurray!!). We have spent the last month or so trying to plan what we will do in the immediate future and have finally decided to extend our stay in China for a bit longer (6 more months at least). We just don't feel that is time to come back yet, there are still opportunities and adventures to be had and since we probably won't live in China again, we thought we better pursue those things now. Nate plans to continue studying Chinese and I plan to start taking classes. We are also hoping to find jobs that are better suited to our skills and interests. And of course, we hope to do more traveling. This also gives all of you who haven't come to visit an extra few months to make the trip!
We love and miss all of you guys! Hope to hear from you soon!

Nate & Heidi

Posted by heidigras 06:42 Archived in China Comments (0)

Same old, Same ole

sunny 30 °C

Well, its been about a month since our last big adventure and life has been pretty ordinary during that time. As some of you may have noticed, we got back from our Sichuan vacation only days before the big earthquake hit, we were pretty fortunate that we got home when we did. The devastation of the earthquake was pretty hard to fathom, 70,000 people died, that is more people than there are in Holland, hard to imagine... It has been a pretty tough year for China so far, the major snow storms, the Tibet problems, the earthquake and flooding. Certainly not the wonderful year of the Olympics that China had been hoping for, hopefully that is the end of it, the Olympics are only 2 months away now and the country is really gearing up for it! Even though most of the events will be in Beijing, the whole country has embraced it as a point of national pride, they are really excited to show the rest of the world what China really is. We plan to avoid Beijing during the events, we have been there plenty of times and in general I can't imagine how crazy and swamped the place is going to be. There are some preliminary soccer matches scheduled to be held in Shanghai and we are hoping to get a chance to see some of those, but that will be the extent of our Olympic participation!
We have basically just been hanging out for the past few weeks, we've been going out with friends more now that the weather is nice and been having alot of fun. Last weekend was (yet another) holiday weekend, so we spent our time going out to dinner and parties with friends. We have been playing our Wii alot. We just had a party yesterday with Nate's coworkers, an all day event which was quite fun. Besides playing Wii, we also cooked them some typical food from back home, a hodge podge of BBQ, spaghetti, fajitas, and cold pasta salad. I'm not sure all the flavors were suited to the Chinese palate but they seemed to enjoy it anyway. We also had our first KTV experience last week with some people from work. Karaoke is so weird here, you rent a small room and just sing to your friends, completely sober! Us foreigners thought that was too much to handle and did end up getting some beers (liquid courage) before singing. The English song selection was pretty limited and our Chinese friends seemed to think that if a song was in English, we would just know it, so we tackled some Backstreet Boys and Janet Jackson, all of which we performed terribly. But all in all it was a good experience and we will most likely do it again soon!
Work has been good although we are counting down the days until we are finished (11 more weekends!). The teaching continues to go well and we both have kind of found our niches which makes the experience easier. The management at our company is still going through some changes and as the staff continues to change, our frustration has grown, always having to deal with new people and new ideas and new policies can get pretty tiring. We both love the people we work with and that has been the only thing that has kept us sane!
In other news, it looks as if we may be moving soon. We signed a 1 year lease last July and that is set to expire soon. We had planned on just extending out lease for a couple months but it looks as if the landlord is selling the place and an extension may not be an option. We are working with our property manager to see if something can be worked out but as of now, things are pretty uncertain. Although it would be a hassle to move at this point, it wouldn't be the end of the world, as long as we can find a place that is convenient and reasonably cheap. We'll keep you all updated on that situation!
As for the upcoming weeks, we don't have anything major planned. We have been throwing around the idea of going to Wuyishan (a mountain just south of Shanghai, very tropical) with some friends but haven't worked out the details yet. We also have a friend getting married at the end of the month, a Chinese girl that Nate met in 2005 is marrying a guy from Canada. We will be going to their reception on June 27 and are really excited about that. Otherwise, we will continue the day to day stuff, some work with alot of play!
We hope everything is going well in Michigan, we are already missing the beaches! Love and miss you all, drop us an email if you get the time!

Nate & Heidi

Posted by heidigras 00:23 Archived in China Comments (0)

Yangtze River Cruise

sunny 30 °C
View Sichuan on heidigras's travel map.

Hello! Sorry we weren't able to keep you updated for the last portion of our trip, we were on a ship and the internet cost $6 for 30 minutes! We had a wonderful last couple days in Chengdu, we ate at Pete's Tex-Mex and they had marvelous food for not too expensive, that kind of food is so hard to find in China, it was still missing the much craved cheese but, it satisfied our cravings for now ;)
We left Chengdu early Sunday morning to catch a bus to Chongqing, we didn't have to be on our cruise until 7pm but with the holiday and all we were a little worried about being able to get a bus. That turned out to be no problem and were on our way by 8:30 and arrived in Chongqing around noon. We had been hoping that we could drop off our luggage somewhere and spend some time sightseeing until we needed to board our ship, we were wrong on both accounts! When we finally found our ship after an hour or so of being confused, we were told to "wait a moment" until we could check in. Two hours later, we were finally allowed onto the ship to get our room and drop off the luggage. We then decided to go see the sights of the city for a few remaining hours. Chongqing is a sprawling, gloomy, dirty city with very few points of interest.
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We stumbled across a mall/tourist trap that was had really beautiful Chinese architecture but was filled with pirated goods and souvenier shops. The directory said that there was a large food court on levels 5-7 but the elevators were confusing and the stairs led no where and we left without getting any food. Luckily it was time to go back to the ship.
The ship "the President 4" was a really nice, small river cruise ship, it had 5 inner decks and one sun deck on the 6th level. Our room was a standard room on the 5th level. The first night we spent most of the evening on the sun deck taking in the sights and having a few drinks, it was very relaxing after alot of traveling and running around in the past few days!
The next morning we were woken up at 6:30 (yikes!) for breakfast and then our first excursion. We visited a "Ghost City" that Chinese people believe is haunted. We had a tour guide and were supposed to follow her and her flag around for the day, but Nate & I slipped away to look at the sights at our own pace. The buildings and statues were all pretty creepy and cool, we had a lot of fun taking silly pictures and taking our time wandering around,
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it was a nice excursion and we were finished with it by 11 am and were back on the ship in time for lunch (this is the first time EVER that we have been finished with an excursion before lunch time, that is usually when we are starting!) The rest of the afternoon was lazy, we sat on the sun deck and got some sun (too much I later discovered, sunburn and blisters). It was a nice change of pace after the busyness of the previous days, we both got some reading in.
Day 2 we entered the first of the three gorges, the weather was uncharacteristically clear and we had a gorgeous view of the towering cliffs above us. The pictures can do much of the talking for this experience, we visited 2 gorges that day each were magnificent.
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For those of you who don't know, China has been working on The Three Gorges Dam project since 1993, when finished it will be the largest hydro electric power generator in the world. This has all come a quite a cost, financially as well as culturally. The level Yangtze River has increased more that 150 meters in that time, forever flooding hundreds of villages that used to reside on its banks. Some of the people in these villages moved up the mountain others have been displaced to nearby cities. The water will rise another 25 meters by the time the project is finished. As we cruised down the river, our guides were frequently pointing out historical sights and villages that will be under water in a years time. It was strange the way they talked so casually about people loosing their homes, homes that are hundreds of years old. But, unfortunately, it seems the glory of the dam project has taken precedence over the lives and culture of the Three Gorges People. Below is a small village that will soon be under water.
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We had another excursion on day 2, one that I was really looking forward too but ended up really disappointed about. We had taken so many pictures in the morning that our camera battery died about 3 pictures into our afternoon excursion so I'll have to explain our experience. We took a small tour boat through a narrow and shallow river that feeds into the Yangtze, it was very beautiful and scenic, filled with quaint farming villages that will be flooded later this year. They told us about how the stream gets very shallow and back in the day, men would have to pull boats upstream to reach their destination. Sure enough when we got to the shallow part of the stream, they put us all on small river canoes and farmers in way-too-short shorts paddled us upstream until it got too shallow and then they hopped out and began pulling our boats, filled with chubby Americans. This was all entertaining and fun until we got to deep water again and we just turned around and went back. We had thought that this was all necessary to get us somewhere cool, but nope, the "attraction" was small Chinese men pulling chubby tourists just for their amusement, it was really cheesy and gimmicky, we really just felt bad, so not having a camera didn't turn out so bad after all.
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Our last night on the cruise we went through the locks at the Three Gorges Dam, there are 5 stages and it takes over 3 hours to complete. It was quite an operation and so we stayed up late as we continued down through the locks. Early the next day we were able to go on a a bus and see the dam itself. It is still under construction and we couldn't actually see much of it, it was actually smaller than we expected, not very high. Although we have never seen the Hoover Dam, we've seen pictures and expected this one to be monstrous compared to that, it wasn't and dams are really our thing so we took some pictures and walked through the shops (funny how that's always the first part of the project thats done). We were back on our ship for lunch and had time to say goodbye to all the people we met (more than half the trip was western people). And it was off to the bus station, a bus to Wuhan, a train to Shanghai and a taxi home.
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That completes the events portion of our blogging, those are the things we did. There were some things we learned and cultural contrasts we saw but we will talk about those later, now we just wanna share some pictures and let you all know what a great time we had and that we will now return to normal ole' life. Have a good weekend and hope to hear from some of you soon!

Posted by heidigras 21:53 Archived in China Comments (0)

Mountain Adventures

30 °C
View Sichuan on heidigras's travel map.

Hi guys! Our adventures in Sichuan have been great! We just got back to Chengdu from a 3 day trip to the south to see various mountains. Our original plan was to go to one mountain, come back then go to another the mountain the next day. As we looked at this plan, we realized that we would be spending some unnecessary time on buses so we decided to change things up a bit as you will see.
On Wednesday we got up early and caught a bus to Leshan. This is a mountain about 2 hours (by bus) south of Chengdu, it is the home of the famous "Giant Buddha". We got sandwiched on a full bus on the way there and unfortunately didn't get seats together. Luckily, Nate got a seat by some really friendly and cool Chinese people who happened to be from Shanghai! They quickly became friends and became our hiking partners for the day. When we got to the mountain, we got some over priced lunch and then entered the park. The gate that we got dropped off at offered really expensive tickets that included a bunch of side stuff that we weren't interested in so we talked to some locals and then took a rickshaw to a different entrance that had tickets for half price! The catch, we discovered, was that this entrance was REALLY far away from the Giant Buddha that we had come to see! Luckily the hike was pretty, the landscape here is unbelievable, and not too difficult. So after a couple hours we finally arrived at the famed Buddha and it was definitely worth the effort to get there.
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You start out by the head of the Buddha, his ear alone is 7 meters long, it is quite amazing, all carved into the rock. So walked to the bottom and stood by his big toe which towered above us, it was amazing. This Buddha took 100 years to build and was built on the river to look over sailors through treacherous waters. This affect was achieved although more because of all the rock that fell into the river slowing the current! Luckily we were able to exit right near the Buddha and didn't have to back track, from there. Instead of going home, we decided to just hop on a bus to our next destination, Emei Shan.
Emei is only 1 hour away from Leshan and we arrived just in time for dinner. We didn't book a place in advance and really had no idea where to stay (this is quite an uncharacteristic way for us to travel!). Our Lonely Planet was helpful as was Chinese person at the bus station who directed us to a hostel that was cheap and comfortable. We planned out a route over dinner and figured out how to see the whole mountain in one day!

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The next day we were up at 6am and on a bus at 6:30 (yes AM!). We took a bus to the summit, a two hour drive and were hiking by 8:30! The scenery at Jinding Peak is unexplainable! We were above the clouds, couldn't see anything below us, like we were in an airplane! At the top of the mountain is a huge golden statue of some sorts which looked amazing against the blue sky and clouds! The air was pretty thin and so we didn't do much hiking but just sat and took in the sights, I'll post pictures later but I'm sure it won't do it justice! We spent about an hour there just looking around and enjoying the amazing experience and then headed back down.
We hopped on a bus to our next destination, Wannian cable car station. It was at this point in the day that Nate and I realized that we had not planned that well for the day. First, we had left most of our money in Chengdu, not wanting to hike with it. Also, as we looked around and at maps of the mountain, we realized that we did not have enough time to do everything we wanted. We decided to push along, eating a light lunch in hoping to save money, but after the cable car, we realized that we really didn't have ANY money left! We hiked a bit further but as we were passing things and having to skip them because of 5 RMB entrance fees, we decided it was just ridiculous. To make matters more stressful, our memory card on our camera was acting up and instead of 1 GB of pictures, we could only take about 50 pics, luckily we had some small cards in our pack, but it was disappointing none the less. After much pondering, we decided to head back to town, get more money and find a place to stay on the mountain. We did this, which was a 2 hour excursion and were back on the mountain at 5pm (quite exhausted and ready to start relaxing!).

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We walked to an area of the mountain that was by far my favorite, it was called Quingyin Pavilion. This area was surrounded by lakes of clear blue spring water, water falls, Indian Jones type bridges and pagodas. It was awesome! We found a Buddhist Temple right on a waterfall and asked if they had any accommodations, they did and for the low price of 30 RMB/person!!! And this brought on one of those moments that makes you think "could you ever have imagined spending the night at a Buddhist Temple on Emei Shan in Sichuan, China??!!?" But we did(see below)!

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We had some daylight left after we arranged the room and hiked to a bathing pool (we didn't go in, too many people and too cold!). We continued on and walked through a narrow pass in the mountain, tall moss covered rock walls towered over us as we walked on narrow bridges. We waded through a stream for a while and then made it to a monkey area. The monkeys would crawl on you if you let them (which we did NOT). Around dusk, we headed back to the temple and ate a delicious vegetarian dinner and then headed to our room. We slept like babies as the temple bell was rang and wished us sweet dreams!
This morning we woke up early again, feeling well rested but pretty gross, although we had had a chance to shower, we had been wearing the same clothes for 3 days now! We plotted our path, a 12 km hike back to town, much to our delight, most of it was down hill. The trails were through dense forest and sometimes jungle like conditions, there weren't many people and we took our time enjoying the nature and animals we heard around us.
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It was a relaxing a peaceful day and we were really glad we had decided to stay the extra night! We got back to town around noon, had some lunch and took our last picture as our memory and battery ran out and decided that is was time to back!
So now we are in Chengdu, showered with clean clothes, drinking a beer and eating a cheesecake brownie that rivals Grandma Naber's and we are getting ready to eat some dinner. It was an awesome trip! We are half done with this vacation and have so much more to see but I have a hard time imagining anything topping our past 3 days! I wish you were all here with us! Until next time...

Posted by heidigras 02:41 Archived in China Comments (0)

Hello from Chengdu

sunny 26 °C

Hello Everyone! Nate and I are in Chengdu, Sichuan right now for an extended holiday, we will be back in Shanghai on May 7 or 8. I will keep you all updated about our adventures while we are here, no pictures for now but I will add those when we get back.

So we arrived in Chengdu yesterday evening. The trip was quite uneventful and we arranged airport pick up with the hostel that we are staying at so that was really nice to not have any hassel when we got here. For those of you who don't know, Sichuan is a province west of Shanghai, by plane it takes 3 hours to get here. Sichuan is known for its "spicy food and spicy girls" (as the saying goes). So far this seems to be true, the girls are beautiful and the food is really spicy, Nate has really enjoyed it!
Last night we didn't do much of anything, we were pretty beat after a busy weekend and were just glad to have finally arrived! We decided to stay in a hostel for this trip, its much cheaper than a hotel and we found some in Lonely Planet that got really good reviews so we thought we would give it a shot. So far we have been overly impressed and really happy with our decision. Not only is it really cheap, but its also really traveler friendly. The hostel provides help with tickets and is a great resource for what stuff is worth seeing and how to go about doing it. The rooms are decent, really basic with a bed, tv and bathroom but we never spend much time in our room anyway so it doesn't really matter.

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This morning we decided to get aquainted with the city and so we rented bicycles from the hostel (only $1.40 for the day!). First we headed to a "temple area". It was really fun, it was more of a bazaar type setting with lots of shops and even more snack shops. Nate was in heaven and tried something from almost every booth. There was also a monastary that we went through that had a gorgeous park in it, lots of bamboo and large trees, it was very different from Shanghai parks, which usually have lots of small new trees in lines, this park seemed much more natural.

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Next we headed for People's Park (every Chinese city has one!). This park wasn't really interesting scenery wise but it was just jam packed with old people singing karaoke, doing exercises, and playing traditional music. The culture here seemed much more music oreinted than other places we have been, it was really fun to see people singing and dancing every where, the energy was really contagious!

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Finally, we took our bikes to the River Viewing Pavilion in the south of town, again, the park was amazing, there were over 150 different types of bamboo and there there people singing, dancing, playing games and doing tai chi. We sat and enjoyed the music for a while and also took a walk down the river (which, unsurprisingly, was really dirty and smelly). We spent a few hours here just relaxing and enjoying the atmosphere, which over all seems more relaxed and friendly than Shanghai.

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Finally it was time to head back, 9 hours of sightseeing and we were pooped. Unfortunately, we were REALLY far away from our hostel and we had to bike back (the ride there didn't seem so bad, but we stopped 3 times so...) So about 1 hour later, we were back, tired and hungry! Luckily our hostel has a great little restaurant that has burger and beer which was just what we needed! Now we are going to head back to the room and plan our day tomorrow, we are going to visit a mountain and maybe stay there the night, it should be pretty fun!
Anyway, sorry there weren't any pictures but I fill them in when we get back. Until next time...

Posted by heidigras 04:21 Archived in China Comments (0)

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