China, Travel

The Further Adventures of Hainan

The highlights of Hainan, after the beach and the warm weather (flips flops and short-sleeves all day) included two day trips. The first was a visit to the hot springs where we moved from pool to pool, trying different temperatures and different additions to the water (Chinese medicinal herbs, coconut milk, multiple types of tea, etc.) The highlight of that day—beyond fingers and toes so wrinkled they almost hurt—was two pools where little fishes come and nibble dead skin off your bod. It seemed very circle of life-ish. In the first of these pools the fish were really quite small and the sensation was of being nibbled. In the second one the fish were almost alarmingly bigger and there was much more of a sense of them taking a bite out of you. Whoa. I did think my feet, especially my heels, seemed much smoother after the experience.

The other memorable trip was to Monkey Island, an island that features around 1800 endangered Macaque monkeys. These monkeys roam the island freely. Yes, you read correctly. They roam freely. All I can say is this would never—and I mean NEVER—last in American. Like, two minutes maybe. This was, of course, too good of a commercial opportunity to pass up, so it has been made into a park. And as it’s a commercial venture, it carries, of course, a fairly substantial entrance fee. C’est la vie. Of a tourist, that is. Anyways, we coughed up the dough and proceeded to take a gondola ride from the peninsula to the island. It was a rather zippy ride, soaring over the coastline, over a few forested hills, into the heart of— (ominous music plays) Monkey Island.

Now, as the monkeys are free to range the island there is, of course, the possibility of monkey-human interaction. In general I supposed the monkeys would be rather scared of humans. But these are monkeys that have been dealing with humans for awhile and they’ve learned a few tricks. We’d heard that the monkeys could be “playful” and that you shouldn’t antagonize them—a good rule of thumb with any wild animal. Okay, shouldn’t be a problem; we’d be on our best behavior. No monkey taunting. However, we saw a possible interpretation of “playful” when a monkey went a bit postal on a man, biting and scratching at him while pulling on his clothing shortly after we arrived in the park. This was as they say, foreshadowing, if I may be a bit dramatic.

A few minutes later we were walking down a lane when I felt a large-ish something jump on my back. It happened very suddenly. One minute, nothing. The next, monkey. A literal monkey on my back. He was on my shoulder trying to paw through my bag, which contained nothing of interest, and then moved on to my camera case where he was actually attempting to operate the zipper. Sarah thought I remained very calm through this whole affair. I didn’t really know what to do or how long he would stay. Didn’t seem like a good idea to scream or jump or do anything wild. I asked her if she could get him off, which seemed like a good request at this time. She said no, but that she could take pictures! Good one. Yes, document this experience. After what seemed like a while, but was probably like a minute. I sort of reached back, thinking I could “shoo him off”. Bad call. Seemingly irritated, he turned and bit me of the shoulder where my hand had just been. Good lord. Images of the medical station at the front the park danced in my mind. After that I just stayed still and let the man, er, monkey, work. He fiddled with the camera bag zipper some more, hung out on my shoulder for a bit longer and then leapt off.

My new friend contemplates his next move.

The monkey and a crony then went for Sarah, but she was smart and just lowered her bag down to the ground. They lifted a 6-pack of cereal bars, several mandarin oranges, and an apple off of her, immediately tearing into their “hot goods”. We made sure that we didn’t have anything else edible on us and then hurried down the lane towards a large tour group.

Sarah checked on my monkey bite. She reported that there were clear teeth indentations, but no broken skin. Whew! I think I would’ve been in for a shot if that’d been the case. Interestingly enough, in Chinese the expression “monkey bite” does not, in fact, refer to a real bite, but rather a hickey. I, on the other hand, had a real monkey bite and not a “monkey bite.”

Monkey Island. An experience guaranteed to never happen in America.


The Great Chinese Firewall

Is incredibly annoying. It’s also another thing I’ve never talked about.

Yes, the Great Chinese Firewall exists. No, you cannot access Facebook, YouTube, or most western blogging sites. Including the one that hosts my own blog: WordPress. There are a whole hosts of other sites that work sporadically, like Google, Yahoo, Wikipedia, and Twitter. And the thing that is genius is that you’re not really aware that you’re being blocked. If you try to access Facebook you don’t get a big notice that says ‘forbidden’ or ‘prohibited’. Instead you get an innocuous ‘Internet Explorer cannot display this webpage’. Which can make you sort of scratch your head and check your internet connection. Then you might try to reload the page a few times. Then you exhale loudly and go get on your VPN.

A VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. It’s like a backdoor, accessing the internet through another network. Don’t look to me for details beyond that. It’s essential for any foreigner in China. I lasted less than a week without one. My VPN was recommended to me by someone else who was already in China. I checked it out, had a free trial and then just bought a year’s subscription for $54. This is quite cheap, really. I’ve seen ads for ones that are $12-15 per month. Having not used another VPN I don’t know if they work any better than mine does. On many occasion I have been tempted to try as mine does not always provide very satisfactory service. Especially lately, which was the impetus for a rant on the Great Chinese Firewall which necessitates the use of a VPN.

In particular, WordPress, the website that hosts my blog, does not work well with my VPN. Some of you might wonder why I don’t add photos to my blog posts. Photos would, of course, make a lot of sense, especially for posts about traveling. Unfortunately loading pictures on the blog has become almost impossible. It just doesn’t work through the VPN. Which is why I usually just post a ton of photos on Facebook and post the link.

If I get an email from WordPress, a blocked site, and I accidentally open it in my email without being on the VPN I usually then cannot return to my email. Suddenly Internet Explorer cannot access that page. Reload, reload, reload. Same. I’ll have to close the browser and start over. Maybe more than once. Imagine yourself in a similar situation. Want to bang your head on the table? Throw your laptop out the window? Scream with agony? All the above.

Google, which butted heads with the Chinese over free access to information, also does not work well here. Fortunately it is not completely blocked. Often I can use Google Hong Kong, but it works slowly with lots of pages not loading or pages timing out. Apparently the innocuousness of it all (no clear indications of a firewall at work) and the extreme irritation it engenders is supposed to send you running into the waiting arms of the Chinese search engines which are nicely programmed to allow you access to the information you are supposed to find. Or that’s the scuttlebutt, anyways. I, of course, have no problem with Chinese search engines other than the fact that they are in CHINESE.

A round of applause for the Great Chinese Firewall.

China, Cultural Differences, Transportation, Travel, Weather

Chinese Snowbirds

Wanting to escape the chilly temperatures of Zhuhai, while not leaving China, we decided to spend the first week or so of our vacation on the island of Hainan. As Hawaii and Florida are to the United States, so Hainan is to China. Snowbirds from all over China flock to Hainan in the wintertime. While Sarah and I can’t really consider ourselves “snowbirds” as there is no snow in Zhuhai, we are nevertheless refugees from our cold, damp, unheated apartments.

As my earlier comparison would suggest, Hainan is being billed as the “Hawaii” of China, a way to lure tourists and investors south. To be honest, the scheme seems to be working, though of course not without some kinks.

Hainan is lovely in a rugged, dirty sort of way. It’s still China. You can’t escape that. I suppose I was somewhat disappointed at first. The streets are terrible. The public transportation is worse. It certainly smells like China, a weird mixture of gasoline, cigarettes, and the smell that I am never really sure whether its sewage or stinky tofu. Disturbing, nonetheless.

With any tropical island, the beaches are, of course, of primary importance. They’re the main reason I came to Hainan. On the plus side, the beach is all of 2 blocks away from our hostel. It’s sandy and clean, lined with restaurants and palm trees. The water temperature is pleasant, not as cold as home, but nowhere near as warm as Hawaii. On the down side, the beach is relatively crowded. This is high season, as we knew coming in, so this should not surprise us, but it does make things much less enjoyable. Especially when you have children running inches from your head or sand being thrown onto your dozing person.

But what disappointed me the most was the complete absence of any waves! The Hainan beach features only ankles waves, sufficient for the amusement of shrieking children, but not so much for me. I’d imagined great waves when I thought of Hainan, of boogie-boarding or at least diving through them. Hainan is also supposed to have some good surfing which also presupposes the availability of good waves. Dismay was my first emotion when I saw the beach. “Where are the waves?!” I cried to Sarah. As a result, I haven’t actually spent that much time in the water. I usually paddle around in the still still water and then get out after a few minutes. So the beach is being used mostly for sunbathing, reading, and studying Chinese.

As a small aside of interest to the linguistically inclined, the area Sarah and I are staying in is called Dadonghai. The island itself is called Hainan. “Hai” is the same character as the “hai” in Zhuhai—“hai” means sea. Dadonghai means “big east sea” and Hainan means “south sea”. I get little shivers of happiness when I figure out those sorts of things. Don’t you?

What is interesting about Dadonghai is that it is an area that caters primarily to Russian tourists. That’s right—Russian tourists. Now, we’d read about this before coming, but didn’t quite realize how accurate this was. The majority of the signs in Dadonghai are in Russian and Chinese. The menus are in Russian and Chinese. Salespeople on the street talk to Sarah and I in Russian.

We’re not really sure how long this has been going on. Obviously for awhile when you see all the things that have been done to make it convenient for them to come here. We wondered about the political angle. Former USSR and current People’s Republic? When we finally met some Russians at our hostel we had to ask. The curiosity was killing me.

The answer was not what I was hoping for. Apparently for this family, who lives in eastern Russian, near the Sea of Japan, Hainan is quite close. Yes, but what about people from Moscow and St. Petersburg? They still didn’t seem to think it was that far to come. Isn’t Spain and the Mediterranean much closer and more convenient? Eh. Shoulder shrug from the Russians. I was nonplussed to say the least. Who on earth was the first Russian to discover Hainan and start this migratory pattern? We haven’t gotten to the bottom of this yet!

Nevertheless the image that stays with me, that makes me ponder the tourism industry and the lengths people will go to attract customers was the sight of Chinese people speaking Russian. One of those take-your-world-ideas-and-gently-shake-them moments.

China, Transportation, Travel

Traveling Regrets and Traveling Mercies

So on second thought the decision to leave for 3 weeks of traveling the day after the semester ended was probably not the best idea. Like, not at all.

When we booked the tickets we gave no thought to how tired we would be or how much we would have to have organized to leave on time. In addition to that Friday being the end of the semester, it was also my 27th birthday. Happy Birthday to me. I finished my last class at 3:15, tiredly waved goodbye to my students, and went to the department office to turn in the last of my grades. I then went back to my apartment to begin packing and cleaning.

The token birthday dinner plans were upset by the unanticipated remodeling of the restaurant I’d chosen. We stood in the rain outside the restaurant as I struggled to decide on a backup plan. I’m not gonna lie. There was definite tearing going on. It’d taken a lot just to think up ANY birthday plans that had sounded good. I wished it wasn’t my birthday. With the time constraints on the evening, there weren’t a lot of other options close by. So off we went to The Old Chinese Junk, a “British pub” in the sense that it is actually owned and operated by a Brit, but really more of just a restaurant. We usually just refer to as The Junk. We found a number of other teachers from our university there having a bon voyage celebration for a teacher who isn’t returning next semester. We joined them and the birthday-ness of the evening was thankfully somewhat obscured.

We got back to the university somewhere around 11 and I had to go into high gear packing mode. Packing is an activity that I find extremely difficult. It never gets easier. At least for me. Especially as we were going to two completely different climates and needed appropriate clothing for both. The clothes that I’d washed earlier in the day were nowhere near dry yet so I began attempting to dry them with my space heater. I was also downloading books and music to occupy me during the travels, charging all electronic devices, organizing travel papers and cleaning out my fridge and cupboards. I went to bed at 2 and got about 6 hours of sleep.

In the morning breakfast consisted of the remaining contents of my fridge. I was trying to simultaneously clean and pack. My clothes were not all dry, my room was not entirely clean, my luggage seemed too big, etc, etc, etc. But somehow by noon, Sarah and I were heading off to the train station. The horror stories about traveling during Chinese New Year had caused us to buy our train tickets well ahead of time. I felt a little sheepish at the emptiness of the train when we boarded in Zhuhai, but as we stopped at other towns, the train filled up and it seemed that it had been a worthwhile precaution.

The first part of our trip was a week on the island of Hainan, the “Chinese Hawaii”. Our flight left from Guangzhou at 8 PM. So though we had HOURS in the airport, things did not go according to plan. Let me provide you with the email that I sent my mother upon arriving in Hainan:

We made it safe and sound, not without some frazzled nerves though and profanity by yours truly. I think we really did have some angels courtesy of your prayers. We had major communication problems with where to check our luggage and I lost my temper a bit, but then someone helped us and it got resolved. Later we got stuck in a security line with only ten minutes before our flight left and I was panicking. Suddenly they opened another security line next to us and Sarah and I were numbers 3 and 4 in line instead of like 20. Then we were RUNNING through the airport to our gate which was MILES away and I desperately flagged a little airport cart who stopped for us. He drove us to our gate (of course we paid for it, but that’s okay). When we got there they were still boarding. SO it was a very exciting day and Sarah commented that we arrived here through none of our own merit.

Yes, we really were running through the airport a la “Home Alone” or any other desperate dash to the boarding gate movie scene. And yes, the gate was like the last possible gate in the airport. We never would’ve made it. It was the closest call I’ve ever had for a flight. Sarah and I were baffled at what we’d done wrong. (Just not left enough time for everything, obviously).

There’re so many things I wish I could’ve done differently that day. I wish I could’ve kept my cool. I wish we’d not traveled that day. I wish I’d remembered to print all my travel documents ahead of time. I wish we’d left MUCH more time to get to our gate. Yet somehow we made it to Hainan, had the pleasure of being fleeced by the taxi driver and got checked into our hostel. We slept very well that first night and awoke to seven days of exploring a beautiful tropical island.

China, Cultural Differences, Food, Uncategorized

Food, Glorious Food!

I haven’t really talked about food at all since I’ve been here other than maybe things I’ve cooked for myself. But I haven’t really talked about local cuisine and what I do when I am not eating my own cooking. I was jotting down notes to myself about things that are blog-worthy and found that I apparently have a lot I would like to share with you about food here!

Before diving in, as it were, I must provide a disclaimer. I feel it is my duty to remind you that I am talking about food in my city, which is in one province, and at my university, as universities can be not entirely representative of the true local culture and customs. I don’t want you to think of this as CHINA: THE COMPLETE GASTRONIMICAL EXPERIENCE. China is huge, in case that fact hasn’t quite truly registered. I am constantly astounded at how little I knew about China before coming here. And how little I still know. Again, China is huge and the food can vary a great deal depending on where you are. My experiences are very limited. So take it all with a grain of salt. Okay? Okay. Mostly I don’t want some outraged local coming down on me for misrepresenting their cuisine. Food is very important here. It’s traditional; it’s mythic. Don’t mess with the food. And don’t challenge the sanctity of each province’s food fame.

Where to begin? I will start off by declaring simply that I really like the food. I am completely satisfied at a gastronomical level, generally speaking.

What I most enjoy is the vegetables. Vegetables, vegetables, vegetables. Especially eggplant. Eggplant is a staple here. It is generally either stewed or stir-fried and it is delicious either way. I eat eggplant as often as I can. I frequent a school cafeteria just because I can generally depend on them for eggplant.

Eggplant is new in my life. Prior to Georgia eggplant was only ever seen on menus, followed immediately after by ‘parmigiana’ or possibly in combination with lasagna. A mysterious vegetable with a luridly purple pelt, it rarely impinged on my consciousness. Now it is on the forefront of my mind. At all times. Eggplant, eggplant, aubergine.

The other strangely marvelous thing in China is the deliciousness of cabbage and lettuce. Raw vegetables are a no-no in China, or at least that is what everyone tells us. I’ve eaten plenty of raw vegetables here and not had any problems, but to the Chinese the only safe way to eat vegetables is to cook them. So green salads are non-existent here, except in places that cater to foreigners. Instead, anything you think should be eaten raw is cooked. Lettuce, tomato, carrots, celery, even cucumber. And it’s really good. The cooked lettuce and cabbage doesn’t really have a strong flavor. It’s cooked simply with some oil and salt, I believe, and it’s amazing. Thinking about cooked lettuce is one of those “why don’t we do this?” moments. I’ve never even conceived of cooking lettuce. We cook spinach. We cook cabbage. But we don’t cook lettuce.

On cabbage, it is equally delicious as cooked lettuce. The Chinese ask about cabbage in America and I sort confusedly through my memories. We use red cabbage in salads as an essentially edible decoration. There’s cabbage in Chinese chicken salad. There’s cabbage and corned beef if you’re Irish. But at least in my family it is not a widely used vegetable. It’s so interesting to me to think about the different ways that different cultures use the same ingredients and have never even conceived of using them any differently.

Rice is, of course, a very important part of Chinese food and I am learning to be a rice connoisseur. I have rice preferences. Shocking. And of course this is steamed rice, not fried rice. Yes, you can order fried rice off menus, but it’s not like Panda Express where your side entrée items are fried rice or chow mien. The Chinese are very curious about whether Westerners eat rice. Do you eat rice every day? Do you have a rice cooker? Do you eat rice in America? No, no, sometimes.

As you might expect, there are also a lot of noodles in China, land of the Cup-o-Noodles. The on campus market features like 3-4 aisles of different varieties and brands of instant noodles. Of course, the average student does not have a kitchen so instant noodles are a cornerstone of their diet. In the canteen you can get noodles in broth with your choice of sauces and added veggies or dumplings. I personally despise noodles. They are very difficult and messy to eat with chopsticks and generally it’s hot enough without leaning over a bowl of steaming noodles. The steam inevitably makes my nose run and then I’m just a soggy, sniffly mess. And of course if you didn’t bring your own pocket tissues you are S.O.L., my friend. Plus they just don’t have that much flavor in my opinion. End of story.

Let’s talk breakfast. I’m not an expert here as I’ve never entered the canteen in the morning, but I’ll tell you what I do know. Milk is big here. Very big. And milk is an essential part of breakfast. There are all kinds of milk: red bean milk, strawberry milk, green tea milk, chocolate milk, soy milk, sweet milk, etc. And all this milk is in little juice box-type containers with straws. Students buy big sets of milk and haul them away to their dormitories. And this is the milk that doesn’t need to be refrigerated, like I encountered in the Dominican Republic. So mysterious. I had to go research that when I got here as I cannot wrap my mind around unrefrigerated milk products. It’s like that synthetic dairy creamer used in diners. So, so wrong!

And with that milk goes bread. Western civilization has seemingly infected the Chinese with a lust for sweet bread products. All manner of sweetened rolls, buns and little loaves of bread are stacked in the market and in the evening the students come and buy milk and bread for their breakfast the next morning. They also will buy sliced bread and eat it just as it is, sitting in class, eating a plain slice of bread or maybe one with raisins. And to be clear it is not good bread. It’s not even like bad American breakfast pastries, like Swiss Danishes, it is far inferior. I’m mystified.

Of course there are traditional Chinese breakfast foods. One thing that can be eaten for breakfast, though it is not eaten exclusively at breakfast, is a rice porridge called either congee or zhou, pronounced “joe”. It is rice cooked for a long time in broth until it turns soft and soupy. Things can be added to the zhou, mostly meat or veggies. So in that way it’s not like oatmeal which we usually sweeten. I personally don’t care for zhou, to the distress of a Chinese teacher I know. “It’s not delicious for you? Oh no!” No “oh no” needed. I’m fine without it.

As I’m writing this post I’m noticing that I am frequently complaining about food being bland. In some ways that is very characteristic of the food in my region. Cantonese food is considered to be one of the blandest cuisines in China. Although bland is not really a good thing, I might be safer off here than in Sichuan province which has the hottest food in China. It’s not unknown for long-term visitors like Peace Corps volunteers to develop stomach ulcers from the food. Yikes.

I’m over 2 pages now, so I think I’m going to have to make my thoughts on food a multiple-parter. But I will leave you with one more thing I love in China to balance out some of the things I’ve said I don’t like.

Another highly delicious cuisine in China is the street barbeque. Before coming to China I had never heard of Chinese barbeque. Korean barbeque, yes. Chinese barbeque no. Well. In China there is fabulous street barbeque. This is how it works. There is a big stand with loads of veggies and meats on skewers. You walk up and they give you a basket. You load up the basket with everything you want. We’re talking squid, fish, beef, pork, chicken, sausage, onions, potatoes, greens of all varieties, eggplant, tomato, peppers, bean sprouts, I can’t think of what else. They take it away and tally up your order. They cook it and bring things to you as they finish. And it’s delicious. It’s coated in some sort of special spicy sauce and grilled. Did I say it’s delicious? It’s delicious. And it’s cheap. And it’s fun. You sit at crappy little plastic and/or cardboard tables. There will probably be a roll of toilet paper on the table for hand and face wiping. You drink beer out of the thinnest plastic cups known to mankind, cups that require constant refilling as the slightest breeze will blow them away. The barbeque stands are very territorial; you must patronize whichever stand you sit in front of. Not that there are any major differences between stands as far as I can tell. They all generally are selling much the same things.

Of course street food is not technically legal. There are no permits of licenses. So one day when we’d gone to have barbeque we found the area mysteriously empty and quiet. Our students informed us that the police shut it down as they do every so often. We bemoaned the absence of our street barbeque and went elsewhere. Fortunately the barbeque returned within a few weeks. Business as usual.

Stay tuned for more food, glorious food!