I <3 Beijing

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As my time in Beijing is approaching its end (I now have less than a month left) I’m realizing each day what little things I’ll miss when I return to the U.S. Of course there are things that have bothered me immensely. My close friends and family members are fully aware of these irritations and on bad days, they’ve have heard about them in detail and on repeat. Bless their hearts. Despite the craziness that often seems to occur simply to irk me in this smelly and smoggy city, there are things I absolutely love about it.

The high likelihood that I’ll hear a mixture of English, Hindi, Chinese, French, German, and Spanish during any given stroll down the sidewalk in Sanlitun. The ability to get street food for about ¥6 or less than $1. And then, on the other end of the spectrum, my ability to get amazing Japanese, Indian, or Thai cuisine for a lot more. The subway system that costs $0.32 per trip that will take me to almost any part of the city that my heart desires. My friends I have made here who are always willing to go out and enjoy a drink no matter what their status; single, in a relationship, it’s complicated, whatever. The cozy rooftop seating available in most coffee shops and restaurants. My potential to learn endless lessons from the abundant amount of cultures clustered together in this bustling place. Oh, and of course those T-shirts that declare your love for the crazy city.

It’s a weird mix of excitement and sadness to be thinking about my quickly approaching departure from a place I’ve called home for the past nine months. I fully intend to take delight in the little joys in each day during the rest of my time here.

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Beauty Is Only Skin Deep

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During a recent Chinese lesson, my teacher began explaining the sentence structure to describe going to a local theme park. My teacher, Amy, enthusiastically interrupted her own lesson to digress into a story, as often happens during her lessons. She asked me and my co-worker who is learning Chinese with me to guess how she gains free admittance into a local theme park. My colleague and I shrugged prompting her to explain further. She giggled and exclaimed, “It’s not just because I’m pretty! Well, I could get in for free because of that. But I also work as a tour guide and my tour guide license gets me in for free!”

I obligingly laughed along with my co-worker, but her point was pretty much lost on me after she declared she was beautiful enough to gain free admittance to a park. Amy is strikingly beautiful. She’s extremely petite with enviable cheek bones and a great sense of style. Her beauty is something that everyone in a room undoubtedly notices instantly. Although her blatant remark about attractiveness is common among Beijingers, it remains a cultural characteristic that still makes me uncomfortable.

Within just a month of living in Beijing, the standard of beauty was very apparent. Chinese people are, in general, naturally petite. If someone is overweight, they stick out like a sore thumb. There is an obvious admiration for people who are tall. I’ve been told that there are height requirements for men entering the military and that taller men generally are the most successful in business in China. There is also a general desire for an job that allows the comforts of the indoors. Farmers that work in fields and develop golden-brown tans are stereotyped as lower-class citizens.

Therefore, if you are thin, tall, and pale, you are automatically considered beautiful. This standard of beauty is as rigid as a Chinese gymnastic coach. There is no variety (as far as I can tell) in what the majority advertises as beautiful.

While I can see why they consider women to be attractive who are statuesque and slender with creamy white skin, it makes me wonder why they don’t seek diversity in beauty standards. Sure, the U.S. still has a long way to go as far as equality racial and size equality, but it’s refreshing that North American media praises women across a variety of racial entities like Sophia Vergara, Gabrielle Union and Reese Witherspoon. Not to mention the praise that women like Mother Theresa and Princess Diana received for holding such inner beauty that provided for the less fortunate. I don’t believe there’s one way to be beautiful and I’m happy to be from a country that doesn’t think so either.

So maybe I’ll spend the rest of my time here scratching my head at why everyone is seeking to attain the same look. Maybe I’ll continue to squirm uncomfortably at immodest statements about one’s own beauty. But I’ll know that my country understands me and my zany idea that beauty is not a cookie-cutter definition.

Toto, I Don’t Think We’re In Kansas Anymore

The Silk Road Adventure, Part IV

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April 30-May 2, 2013

Turpan–I abruptly learned how distinct Cantonese is from Mandarin after a slew of Cantonese-speaking women stampeded through our train to Turpan at 3 a.m. and woke me and my friends from our sleep. If anything, I could say that this rude awakening was a foreshadowing of how different I would find Turpan, and the Xinjiang Province in general.

After a rough night of sleep post-Cantonese squawking, we arrived in Turpan early Tuesday morning and found the little town to be much more dingy than all the quaint cities we had previously visited. At one point, Erdem declared that the area looked as though “God had forgotten about it.” A depressing statement, but not entirely inaccurate. There were also glaringly obvious physical differences about the local people themselves; the majority of them were taller, had darker, olive skin, women wore head scarves, and a lot of the men had mustaches. The people are known as Uyghur, which is a completely different race from Han Chinese people in Beijing and they all spoke Uyghur (this is also the name of the language). It may have been because many are originally from Kazakhstan  but the whole area had a faint middle-eastern vibe.

The bus system wasn’t especially organized, but we lucked out with a bus that happened to be going toward the city center. While we were being jostled around a bus of strangers, Ivy, being the bubbly extrovert that she is, sparked a conversation with a woman wearing a head scarf and bouncing a baby on her lap. After speaking to her in Mandarin (all Uyghur people are required to learn Mandarin in school), we discovered that she can speak English, Mandarin, and Uyghur and she attended a university in Shanghai. Our conversation was interrupted by two police officers who suddenly stalked up the steps of the bus. I soon realized they were demanding identification from all passengers. The gun slung over the officer’s arm was intimidating, especially when he demanded identification from Bow, who was sitting beside me. He didn’t request my I.D. and we concluded that he asked her because he, like most other people, thought she was Chinese. It was a scene that felt as though it were taken straight from a movie, but the Uyghur woman assured us it happens all the time and everyone in Turpan is required to carry identification at all times.

Once we arrived in the city center, we bargained with a cab driver and a tour bus driver. After comparing the two against each other, we realized the men knew each other and quickly agreed to the cab’s fare and promises to take us around before they could devise a plan to hustle us.

We clunked through town in the man’s rickety old VW while, much to Erdem’s delight, our eardrums were blasted with Turkish music. Turpan is best known for producing excellent grapes and we stopped by a vineyard with rows and rows of grape-less vines. Apparently we were four months early for grape season. There wasn’t much to see in the fields, but we wandered into someone’s backyard courtyard and became fascinated with the beautiful patio, fenced in goats, and two little kids

As the mid-afternoon sun blazed to an almost intolerable level, we paid an entrance fee to tour an “ancient city,” which turned out to be a bunch of rocks with no shade to be found. After falling victim to a bird poop attack, I decided I had my fill of tourism in Turpan and we headed back to the city center to wander around the local markets while our hands became sticky from juices of the fruit we bought. Eventually we bid Bow farewell since she was heading north and as Erdem and Ivy and I were waiting for our train to Urumqi, a crazy old man began to converse with Erdem. Since Erdem speaks almost no Chinese, Ivy had to translate and she concluded that he was asking where we were all from and declaring that people are all the same no matter where they’re from. It was a pleasant thought that turned awkward as we realized that the old geezer who was missing a few teeth had also lost his marbles. He began ranting loudly and we received uncomfortable glances from the employees of the restaurants as he grabbed his walking stick and stalked off down the road.

Our train ride to Urumqi lasted only two hours but felt like 20 because of the extremely sketchy characters staring at me like I was a juicy piece of steak and they were lions who hadn’t seen food in days. It didn’t help that Erdem’s seat had been taken purposefully and rather rudely by a local guy which, evidently, angered him. For the rest of the ride, Erdem began making generalizations criticizing the local people which began to mess with my head. Naturally, his paranoia rubbed off onto me. I began to fear that Urumqi would be similarly grim, but when we arrived, it was just as developed as the first few cities we visited.

Instead of the intense touring I had done with Bow, Ivy and Erdem in the previous week, I wandered around the city aimlessly during my last day of travel, which I spent alone. It was a great change of pace and a relaxing way to end my trip along the Silk Road. Overall, it was a crazy trip full of new experiences and lots of staring, but, in the end, I was glad to be going back to Beijing.

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Jolly Jiayuguan

The Silk Road Adventure, Part IV

Erdem competing with the locals at their chess-like game

Erdem competing with the locals at their chess-like game

April 29, 2013

Jiayuguan–Waking up without consuming anything but sand since the night before was slightly unpleasant so, Ivy, Erdem, Bow, and I wandered around the town looking to consume something healthy. We came across a little noodle shop which was very common in the area and ordered some breakfast. The woman who owned the shop could only be described as the jolliest Chinese woman I have ever seen. I had never witnessed a woman so full of character–and all of this animation was displayed while simply discussing noodles! After graciously thanking her for what turned out to be an unparalleled bowl of noodles and snapping a photo with my new favorite cook, we headed toward the Jiayu Pass.

This is a part of the Great Wall that the town is best known for, but its dull exterior and high entrance fee pushed us to detour toward a gorge that is popular with tourists. We had fun goofing off with giant statues and walking across a rickety bridge. After chatting with the cab driver who informed us that Americans (along with French and Germans) are the most “civilized” of all the nationalities he has met, he dropped us off at the town center to lounge around one of the many huge, luscious parks.

On our way around the city, I noticed a common sense of calm among commuters. It may have been the fact that we were in the city during a national holiday, lending a relaxed vibe to the locals, but everyone seemed less rushed than Beijingers. Even when our bus puttered to a stop and broke down in the middle of the route, people seemed to quietly observe the scenario, shrug their shoulders and then meander toward the bus that arrived a minute later to gather the passengers. I just imagined the mass chaos that would’ve erupted in Beijing if that had happened. It was a wonderful change of pace.

We dined in the middle a huge market with restaurants offering lamb kebabs and nan bread at every single corner and karaoke bars spotted in between. After dinner, we were off to board our train that would head to an entirely different province; Xinjiang. I had repeatedly been told by colleagues of the province’s great contrast from other parts of China, but I had no idea how much of a surprise I was in for the following day.

The jolliest cook in China

The jolliest cook in China

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Surviving Dunhuang Sandstorms

The Silk Road Adventure, Part III

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April 27-28

Dunhuang–As soon as we stepped off our overnight train, we were accosted with cab drivers and hostel employees promising transportation and accommodation. We climbed aboard a van with other Chinese tourists and soon we arrived at a hostel. Although we entertained ourselves by reading advice describing how to sneak into the Dunhuang Desert written in the hostel’s journal, we soon realized how inattentive the hostel was (we waited a half an hour before they even greeted us) and we wandered down the road poking our heads into several other boarding options.

Several of the other alternatives were unofficial lodging and appeared to be large apartments that the renters opened to the public to generate revenue. One woman had a bakery (that smelled amazing) in the front entrance of her “hotel,” which I though was a wonderful enticement tactic. We found her undergarments that were hanging haphazardly around the common areas and the dingy bathroom a bit unwelcoming and continued on to finally settled on a place that was shiny and new during its very first week open to the public. After negotiating a price (¥40/$6.50 USD a night) we took much needed showers and headed off to the desert.

Many attractions in the cities along the Silk Road have been modified into tourist sites and require travelers to purchase an expensive ticket for admittance. We saw the steep fee for entering the desert (yes, they charged to enter a desert) and opted to be adventurous and thrifty by sneaking in according to the instructions we saw read the hostel. After passing camels, barking dogs, and a few employees on four-wheelers, who we were sure would yell at us, we arrived at a fence. We then did what the instructions indicated: we crawled under the fence. We popped into the desert, covered in sand and lacking the neon orange shoe covers that most paying customers opted to buy, but ready to trek across the vast desert sands to reach the main concession area.

After about an hour of stumbling clumsily through the sand, we reached shelter from the mid-afternoon sun. A couple employees made snide comments in Chinese hinting at our sneaking in, but nothing more. Success for some broke, young traveling kids! We did, however, pay to slide down the sand hills and ride camels, which was definitely worth the money.

After waiting near the oasis of the desert till the stars sprinkled the blackened sky, we went to a lively night market to chow on what the northwest of China is best known for; lamb kebabs.

An employee giving Ivy a hand with her scarf

An employee giving Ivy a hand with her scarf

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The sunset over the oasis

The sunset over the oasis

We woke up the next day to see the Mogao Caves, which contain some of most detailed Buddhist art spanning a period of 1,000 years. It was interesting to see the elaborate depictions and learn how thousands of artists labored over the restoration of the caves, but the site was overall a bit museum-y. As we were leaving the city and onto the next, we scurried into our cab after realizing a sandstorm had begun. This was something that is common in Dunhuang, but none of us had ever experienced before. Our shock and awe (and snapping toursit-y pictures) continued from our cab and onto our train. Little did we know, the air in our train would be filled with sand leaking through the windows. Everyone around us, even the locals were coughing and covering their faces with masks. We began worrying about breathing in so much sand, but we calmed our concerns with card games and several rounds of beer to make the most what could’ve been an agonizing five hours.

After hours of loud, inappropriate comments (part of the card game rules, I swear) the girl next to us revealed she could speak English and we realized we had just perpetuated the stereotype of loud, annoying foreigners. We ashamedly began to speak with her and after revealing that we didn’t know where we were staying once we arrived in Jiayuguan, she and her boyfriend suggested a great hotel for us to stay in. They even escorted us to the hotel once we exited the train which was so thoughtful, especially considering our previous crass behavior. After a day of breathing in sand, I was exhausted and crashed immediately upon hitting my hard hotel mattress.

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Zhangye’s Warm Welcomes and Striped Mountains

The Silk Road Adventure, Part II

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My traveling companions and I shared sleeping quarters on our train to Zhangye with an adorable, young Chinese couple and an old woman. The elderly woman repeatedly informed us that she and her husband were 86 years old and insisted on revealing her identification to prove it. Ivy shared conversation about the area with these new roommates who were native to Zhangye. We gained useful insight on the town and once we were off the train, the young couple was offering us space in their little shop to store our heavy backpacks and phone numbers to use if ever we needed a cab. It was heartwarming to see such generosity from people who were strangers to us just hours before.

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Zhangye served as an important location in the Silk Road during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) and is now known for a series of mountains laced with layers of reddish sandstone called the China Danxia. I scrolled through jaw-dropping photos online that served as a huge reason I chose to take the whole trip so my expectations were high.

Although the tour within the mountains was set up with transportation, there was plenty of walking involved. It was difficult to mask my astonishment at the two giggly Chinese women who decided it was a good idea to wear their highest heels and shortest skirts to tour wobble through the landscape while clutching their boyfriends for stability.

After unsuccessfully attempting to catch the sunset against the crimson mountains, we scarfed dumplings and street food at what seemed to be a nightly community gathering in the city center. As we wandered past squealing kids and I fell victim to obvious stares, Ivy declared that she would begin charging people for gawking at me. We ourselves did some people watching that resulted in a man approaching me with a loud, “HELLO!” and taking my hand to declare that he loved me. It was definitely the only English phrase he knew, but amused me to see how a city like this was so fascinated by foreigners.

Sadly I had to part from the local man who had fallen for my charm as we headed to the train station to continue along the Silk Road to Dunhuang.

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Claw machine containing an eclectic mix of teddy bears, chewing gum and cigarettes

Claw machine containing an eclectic mix of teddy bears, chewing gum and cigarettes

The Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi’an

The Silk Road Adventure Part I

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April 25, 2013

A friend I met in Beijing introduced me to his friend, Bow, who is working in Shanghai and was planning an ambitious trip to travel various places along The Silk Road of China. I had never met Bow, but her plan included impressively scenic locations that I would probably never get a chance to see if I weren’t already in China. Last week, I ventured nervously onto this very trip, unsure of the overnight trains and arduous hiking that lay ahead of me with people who would turn out to become three awesome friends. One of them, Ivy, is a friend who I already knew from living in Beijing, while the two others are expats in Shanghai.

Throughout the entire trip the Chinese people local to each area often asked Ivy where we were all from (Ivy was the only member of our group who was fluent in Chinese). This is how almost every conversation went:

Ivy: “Erdem is from Turkey”
Reaction: “Turkey? Turkey, huh? Turkey (repeated several times in Chinese).”

Ivy: “Bow is from Thailand.”
Reaction: “No, no she’s Chinese! She looks Chinese!”
Bow: *Responds in broken Chinese*
Reaction: “Oh, I guess you’re really from Thailand…”

Ivy: “Melanie is from the U.S.”
Reaction: “You’re not from Russia? You look Russian!”

Ivy: “I’m from Guanzhou, China”
Reaction: “Are you their tour guide?”

Xi’an was our first stop after a 12-hour, overnight train from Beijing. The six bunk beds crammed into one tiny sleeping quarter offered minimal privacy from the aisle of the train and left me without much rest the next day. The bathrooms were severely less glamourous than what I had already experienced in China. We arrived early that morning to a city similar in appearance to Beijing and brimming with other backpackers wandering about. Ivy and I met Bow at her hostel and filled our breakfast cravings with fresh mango smoothies on our way to meet Erdem. We all wandered onto the first of what would be many bus rides to venture toward the Terra Cotta Warriors. The steep entrance price simply to see the soldiers was a little surprising, but ultimately worth the opportunity to see the statues.

The Terra Cotta Warriors were discovered just in 1974, by a local farmer and workers were still unearthing statues as we visited. It was interesting to learn each soldier is unique in its appearance and life-sized, but other than that, they were rather lifeless.

After wandering a local street market and bargaining a bit, we broke our attempt to only eat local food and had Dico’s (Chinese fast food) for dinner on our way to board the next overnight train for Zhangye.

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Ivy, Erdem, and Bow