China, Cultural Differences, Transportation

Shuttle Buses and Differences in Etiqutte

Following up on my post about the taxis in Xi’an, I thought I’d discuss another transportation aspect of my life here: the shuttle bus. As mentioned before, the teachers’ shuttle bus provided by my college is the best and surest way or getting out to my campus, which is a 45-minute to 1-hour trip depending on traffic conditions.

Xi’an is a city with a huge number of universities. It is third in number of universities after Beijing and Shanghai. Most of the universities have an original campus and a “new” campus. “New” campuses have become necessary as universities have grown and unsurprisingly they are all located on the outskirts of the city. As faculty may potentially have classes on both campuses and public transportation may not be sufficient, many universities provide shuttle bus service from various central pick-up points out to these distant locales.*

The shuttle is different than other transportation I’ve taken in China. It is a private bus exclusively for faculty and staff of the college. Gloriously enough everyone has a seat. (It would be a whole separate blog post to talk about the pleasures of standing in crowded conditions for long, bumpy bus rides.) So fortunately there is no sardine factor. It’s also completely free, which means that there’s no fumbling for transportation cards or cash. I think it’s a wonderful service to offer to the faculty and staff and it seems very well used. Third there’s the bus itself, which is far more comfortable than city buses and has a number of features that will be discussed next.

Riding the shuttle bus has also been a great place for noticing some small cultural behaviors that may be slightly different from what one would expect in the States. It is very true that you learn a great deal about your own culture by spending time in a different one. I will attempt to summarize briefly:

1. In the States if you take a seat on the end of a row, it is more or less expected that you will scoot to the inside seat by the window if more people are boarding the bus. This does not appear to be an expectation in China as the person on the end will often merely move their knees to the side to allow someone to get to the window seat. They may stand up to allow them in if it’s absolutely necessary. Maybe the person prefers the aisle seat? Maybe they’ll be getting off soon? I can’t always know. It just seems to be the norm here.
2. On the shuttle bus, everyone knows the route of the shuttle and chooses their seat to avoid the sun. I’ve boarded the bus before and been briefly puzzled by one side is quite full and the other completely empty. This relates to the Chinese preference for pale skin—women in particular. In the same way that American women are vigorously applying tanning lotion, Chinese women are equally vigorously applying whitening lotions. So of course they don’t want to sit in the sun.
3. Along with #2 is #3—curtains. If the shady side of the bus is full and one must sit on the sunny side the curtains will be immediately closed. As I’m not as concerned about sun exposure, I sort of like having the curtains open.
4. My bus leaves at 1:10 which is smack-dab in the middle of naptime. Yes, sir, naptime is alive and well in China. Work/school will break around 11:30 or 12 and not start again until around 2. Most people here prefer to eat a very quick lunch and then grab some zzz’s until they have to head back. So this means that the bus ride is essentially nap time for most. People board the bus, put back their seat, and seem to instantly fall asleep. Man, I wish I could do that!
5. However, when the bus makes that right turn into the college campus, all the nappers seem to have this sixth sense. They immediately snap awake, put up their seats and are standing before the bus has even come to a complete stop. You’ve gotta be quick because the disembarking is very much first-come-first-served. If you’re not up and in the aisle, you’ll probably be waiting for almost the entire bus to get off before you get your chance. Whereas in the States I feel like we unload from the front to the back, here it’s more the opposite.

* Though car ownership is definitely on the rise, driving to work does not seem very common.

China, Transportation, Travel

Xi’an Taxis 101

My life in Xi’an is ruled by the teacher’s shuttle bus. Don’t get me wrong—I am very very grateful for the shuttle bus without which I could not live in my lovely neighborhood. However, it angers me that I am so dependent on the shuttle bus when there are seemingly other options that could get me where I’m going on time. Actually there are lots of them—yellow and green VW Jettas that make a mockery of the institution of taxicabs, destroying all of my naïve preconceptions and we’ll just throw in my hopes and dreams as well.

Let’s start with the naïve preconceptions. As a California suburbanite taxis were truly something seen only in the movies. Taxis—as I understood them—were very responsive to hand signals and whistles. One had to merely stand on a curb and throw up one’s arm or umbrella (1-2-3 Hail!*) and a taxicab would come racing to a halt with all the enthusiasm of a dog returning with its ball. Upon dropping off a fare, taxi drivers were already on the scent of the next, peeling away and weaving back into the flow of traffic. Fast, efficient, eager—that’s a taxi.

I rode in a taxi only once in my entire childhood. This solitary time came when our loyal Dodge Caravan, “Big Blue,” broke broke down in San Francisco during a family excursion. After getting our van to a garage, our family of five piled in a cab and continued with our plans for the day. In my memory it hasn’t seemed at all difficult to get a cab. It was as it had been shown to me in movies, you just stood on the curb for a few minutes and—voila! A taxicab!

This experience did not prepare me well for Xi’an. It allowed me to hold onto the obviously false belief that taxis serve at the passenger’s need. Though in Hangzhou there were signs of my future trouble. A short visit during Spring Festival introduced me to the disturbing phenomenon of taxis simply refusing to take you where you needed to go. The dismissive wave of the hand, that dreaded horizontal shake of the head. I was dumbfounded. Taxis turning down fares? What did they think they were?

Upon arriving in Xi’an I assumed that taxi drivers would be eager for my patronage, especially since I was a guaranteed 60 RMB fare. A creative driver could get that even higher (65! 70 RMB!) by taking me on the “scenic route.”** However, in fact, drivers recoiled from destination as I do from the scent of stinky tofu. I quickly learned that it is far more trouble than it is worth to deviate from the school’s spartan shuttle bus schedule.

However, this semester has thrown a hitch into my dutiful riding of the school shuttle by requiring me to miss the afternoon pick-up. I am now tossed into the wild seas of needing a taxi for a long fare at the worst possible time of day—the taxi change-over time. I smugly thought I had a solution to this problem—a private car. Through my work I thought I could arrange someone to pick me up and take me out to my college, thereby dusting my hands of that problem. My colleague though, in her most matter-of-fact text message to date, told me that no one would do that. No one? Did people stop needing money or gainful employment? What’s going on with the world?!?

On Monday I allowed myself a generous 2 ½ hours to get out to my college. I told myself it wouldn’t be so bad—think positive! You’ll get a taxi! I paced the street anxiously, checking the time often. Even when I could get an available taxi to talk to me they, of course, didn’t want to go out to my college. After 30 minutes, I decided I couldn’t wait much longer; I needed to make a decision: keep waiting or go catch a bus. I could take a city bus up to where it connected with one of the two subway lines in Xi’an and take the subway to the end of the line at the train station where their was a true taxi stand—dozens of taxis all lined up ready to go (in theory). Not feeling confident enough to risk it, I caught a bus and enjoyed a packed bus ride and packed subway ride.

At the train station, I was happy that there was a train disembarking and there was a line at the taxi stand. (If that doesn’t make any sense to you, that’s because you haven’t lived in Xi’an.) I’ll only say that a line of fares provides cover—the taxi pulls up, you get in, and it drives away. There’s much less chance of refusal.

However, even here I wasn’t safe. Upon telling the driver where I need to go—a destination only about 10 minutes away—he is extremely peeved, lots of grousing, eyebrows down, scowls abound. And why might he be so vexed? Oh, probably because he wanted a longer fare. And he would have had a longer fare if he would just come down to my neighborhood or had one of his cronies deign to pick me up. Oh, and did I mention that he immediately turned off the meter? Now I’m going to have to pay more because HE’S inconvenienced by my destination. If there’s going to be a contest for more aggrieved person in that car I’ll be DARNED if he’s going to win!

In summary: I can’t get a taxi from downtown because it’s too far away; I can’t get one from the train station because it’s too close. I clearly need a taxi pick-up that’s JUST RIGHT. And where, might I ask, would that be, oh tetchy taxi drivers of Xi’an?

* For The Avengers fans in my life—you know who you are! (No, not the comic book ones—the other, classier ones.)

**Little did they know that I tracked their routes on my phone and got smart to their tricky ways.

Transportation, Travel

Can you say “whoops”?

I think I was a little drunk on Auckland, almost giddy from the natural setting. This feeling of being surrounded on all sides by beautiful blue water, rolling green hills, and nothing but blue sky and perfect clouds above. And throw in the most perfect weather imaginable, too. All my photos seem to reflect this amazed, disbelieving quality. I took more and more photos and they just seemed to get better and better.

It was sad to contemplate leaving Auckland after having seen so little, but unfortunately we had a schedule we needed to stick to. So in the morning we packed up our bags and went to investigate rental cars.

Rental cars. Oh. My. God. What a disaster. Stephen and I had a long list of agencies and fliers and naively assumed that it would be easy-peazy. Drivers’ licenses: check. Credit card: check. Green light—go! Yes, theoretically that is how it works if the rental cars were not INSANELY EXPENSIVE* with all sorts of MADDENING small print involved. It didn’t help that we were going to a city that most agencies didn’t have a depot in. Nor did it help that we had thought to rent the car for only two or three days. And it positively, absolutely did not help that we only wanted a one-way rental. Uh-uh. Nope. Not good.

Stephen and I trundled up and down the avenue with our rolley suitcases bumping along behind us. We went to one agency. Sorry, no depot in that city. We trundled to the next agency: Sorry, minimum of 7 day rental. We jay-walked across the street to yet another agency: sorry, one-way rentals have a BILLION dollar non-negotiable fee. It was truly like one of those movie scenes. Up the street. Down the street. Heads getting lower with every failure. I see us through the eyes of the rental agency rep’s. Boy, those kids don’t understand a thing about renting a car, do they, Al? Yeah, kids these days, Bob.

This was the point where my mental didn’t-you-know-you’re-an-idiot voice kicked in—that helpful little voice that clearly highlights all your failures, even when they’ve already been brought to your attention. I heard several helpful messages from my little friend, such as “Well, Amy, EVERYbody knows that you have to reserve a rental car in advance.” And, “You should’ve thought about this a bit sooner.” Sigh. Yes, yes, I know. Colossal failure.

The situation looked rather bleak. If we couldn’t get a rental car we would be stuck in Auckland for another day because we’d already missed all the busses and there wasn’t a train where we were going. (This is something we will discuss later.)

After comparison pricing every agency up and down the street, Stephen and I realized we were going to have to get a 7 day rental, which would cancel out the one-way fee. By doing a 7-day rental we would have a car for all of our North Island adventures and would be able to get a fresh car when we arrived at the South Island to get us from Picton to Nelson. It was the best of a bad situation. Yes, yes, brought on by our own lack of planning. We were clear on that.

So we plunked down a credit card for a cool half grand and went to see our valiant steed, err, vehicle. Behold! A Sunny Nissan! Choice of all poor overseas English teachers traveling in expensive Western countries who after having lived in China for the last 6 months refuse to ride a bus around a prime road trip nation! Drive, Sunny, drive! Onwards to the horizon! Yee-haw!

. . . and though we were really not that pleased about the price involved, I think this is an accurate reflection of our feelings as we pulled out of Auckland, heading for State Highway 1.

*A somewhat subjective statement based on the then current contents of my bank account.

Transportation, Travel, Weather

Traveling Solo – Part II

So where were we? Ah, yes.

My first day consisted of moping around the hostel. I couldn’t check in until later. I couldn’t swim. This was not the vacation I had in mind. It’s all very nice if you’re staying at a resort and can turn on the AC and the TV, but I was at a no-frills hostel waiting out the rain with like 30 other people in a very small common area. I small talked with other travelers. Lots of other English teachers from China on holiday as well. Lots of oh-my-god-last-night-was-so-crazy stories being exchanged. When there was a break in the rain, I escaped down to the beach to have a look around. Everything pretty wild: waves, wind, and clouds. I was consoling myself at Starbucks when it started raining like crazy again. Sigh. The rest of the day was much like this.

I spent the first three days mostly walking up and down the windy beach, trying to take photos when possible, drinking lots of coffee, eating foods that I couldn’t get in China. I went shopping. At night I strolled the beach and listened to some of the live bands, one of which I really enjoyed. It was okay, but there was this strong sense that I was just killing time. I didn’t feel like I was really enjoying myself and was anxiously contemplating the hours until I could get on a plane outta there. It’s sad, but true. I didn’t make any strong connections with other travelers at the hostel initially.

On my third night, I met up with a Filipino girl who’d contacted me through Couch Surfing. I was thrilled at the prospect of not being alone for an evening. She and several of her friends were in Boracay for the weekend and we planned to spend the evening together. Finally, I had a satisfying evening with good conversation and great people. I woke up in the morning feeling much better about my trip.

My final day was sunny and beautiful. I spent the morning at the beach and in the afternoon went out on a catamaran with another girl from the hostel. I think boats are so invigorating. Love that whole wind-in-your-hair business. One of my life goals is to learn how to sail. Really. We snorkeled a bit. Getting back on the boat, I was taking down my hair, only to feel something sharp and moving in it. Somehow a little crab had gotten into my hair. The boat guy helped me get it out and then we raced back to the shore.

That evening I failed to connect up with the girl from the evening before and was feeling disappointed. I’d flopped on my bed in the hostel, trying to convince myself to go out again, when this fantastic Korean girl entered my evening. She’d come to Boracay with a guy who was interested in her, but she didn’t reciprocate his interest. Dreading another evening of just the two of them, she invited me along as a sort of buffer. I very quickly agreed. So we drank some strange Korean wine, talked, and passed the evening quite nicely.

In the morning, the three of us went and had a great breakfast at a local restaurant. Then the girl and I packed our bags and headed off. She helped me get onto the correct boat and heading the correct airport. She was so kind and I was so grateful. We exchanged contact info and said goodbye.

The rest of the trip was spent pacing airports, lolling in waiting areas, drinking coffee, and killing time. After a delayed flight back to Macau, I arrived back at the university sometime after midnight.

In retrospect, I am glad that I went. The weather was unfortunate, but normal for this time of year. Though the first few days were rather lousy, at least I had several good experiences to balance it out.

I had a classmate in grad school who loved to travel alone. She only traveled alone. I was astonished and could never imagine myself doing it. Well, I’ve done it and survived. Worst parts? Eating alone in restaurants, having no one to take photos of you, and no one to watch your stuff when you want to swim. Best parts? I suppose you are extremely grateful when you do make a connection with someone. My journal from the trip is a record of the emotional highs and lows of those 5 days.

As I tell my students, the most interesting trips are often the ones that don’t go according to plan. And they make great stories, too.

Transportation, Travel, Weather

Traveling Solo

I’d like to give a report on my first solo trip, as mentioned in a previous post. For the National Holiday week, I booked a 5 day trip to Boracay, an island in the Philippines which is famous for its White Beach. One of the top beach destinations in Asia, so I’m told. I’d really wanted to travel during this holiday for several reasons: (1) It’s a rather long holiday to stay home; (2) I wanted to see more of Asia; and (3) I promised myself last year that I’d travel this week. So though my funds were limited and I couldn’t find anyone to travel with, off I went.

My flight left from Macau. I chose Macau because I can take public transportation all the way from my university to the airport there. If I go to Hong Kong airport, the ferry ticket is a little steep; and if I go to Guangzhou, it would actually be a much longer trip, with changing between buses, trains, and subways. Since Macau is a Special Autonomous Region, that means you have to exit China and enter, uh, another part of China. So a stamp out of China and a stamp into Macau, with forms to be completed on each side. I’d feared the lines would be epic due to the holiday, but I actually made it through in good time and caught my airport bus with no problems. (Traveling alone, there’s so much mental checklisting going on: bus to Macau, check; immigration, check; money exchange, check; bus to airport, check; arrival at airport, first mission accomplished. Penguin high five to self.)

The Macau airport was compact, but stocked with all the essentials, like Gloria Jean’s Coffee. I had lots of time to kill due to excessive planning-for-the-worst-case-scenario. So I sat and sipped and read books on the Kindle. When I went through Security, my eyebrow tweezers pinged on the bag check and I apologized, expecting them to confiscate them (Rats, I thought, my favorite tweezers!), but surprisingly they said it was okay and sent me on my way. This trip also marked a landmark accomplishment for me. Not only did I travel solo, but I also brought only a carry-on. Gasp! First time in my life I’ve managed to do this.

Flight to Manila was fine. The layover was not so fine. I actually attempted sleeping across 3 chairs. It was horrible. I paid what seemed an excessive amount of money to be able to sit in another coffee shop with comfortable chairs. I was very grateful to board the flight to Boracay.

We landed in Boracay in a very jungle-ish environment. I’d asked my hostel to help me with transportation because it seemed a little complicated, so a nice young guy was waiting for me outside. We look a giant tricycle down to the ferry port, a boat across to Boracay island (impossible to land on the island itself), then another tricycle, and finally a brief walk down a very muddy lane to the hostel. The sky wasn’t looking so good and I’d only been in the hostel maybe 30 minutes before it started pouring. And I mean pouring.

Will the rain ruin her trip? Will she survive her first solo adventure? Stay tuned!

China, Transportation, Travel

Trying to Leave on a Jetplane

My first domestic flight in China was Beijing to Zhuhai on September 5, 2011. Though it was only 7 in the morning Beijing was uncomfortably hot. Navigating the completely unfamiliar layout of the airport, I found my way downstairs to my “gate,” which looked much like Greyhound Station. I confusedly boarded a shuttle that then took me out to my tiny commuter plane. Conscious of my gigantic backpack (never again!) I made it to my row only to find my seat already occupied. When I finally squeezed into my tiny seat, embarrassed and exhausted, all I wanted was for the trip to be over. Just a few hours and I’d be that much closer. Everyone was on board. The cabin doors were closed. Yet we weren’t going anywhere. I dozed uncomfortably, finding myself jerking awake every few minutes looking around for some indication that we were moving. After maybe 30 minutes, we finally slowly made our way down the runway and took off. I was just grateful to be moving.

Flight delays. They happen. Unfortunately in China they seem to be the norm. Every flight I’ve had in China to date has left late. A grand total of 4 flight, but I still feel that’s significant. Or maybe I just have bad luck.

So really, we shouldn’t rush to get to our gate. It’s not leaving on time anyways. Our desperate dash to make our Hainan flight? Yep. The plane left late.

On top of the late takeoffs, we’ve also had our flights rescheduled several times. Twice on our flight to Hainan and once on the way to Shanghai.

So this morning, as we went to the departures hall to fly back to Zhuhai, there was a gigantic banner that said “Relax!” in English and Chinese, hanging floor to ceiling as we rode the escalator. I laughed. Yes, seriously. Just relax.

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.