Saturday, November 29, 2008

Yangshuo & Guilin

The People’s Republic of China (PRC), or the ‘Mainland’ as we call it, is split into many provinces similar to America’s States. Hong Kong is different from these provinces, having recently been returned to the PRC from the British in 1997(HK was a British Colony for many years), and is considered a Special Administrative Region (SAR).

Last weekend, I left the safety of the SAR for the Guangxi Province where myself and five girls, my traveling companions comprised of three French, a German and an American, set out to explore the area surrounding a city called Guilin.

But my experience started much earlier than the day of our departure. After having decided to go on this trip to Guilin in the Guangxi Province, I still had to get my Chinese Tourist Visa, which in the past I had heard was a horrific trial. First, as an American, I have to pay HKD 1,020 where exchange students from other western countries might only have to pay HKD 240 (do remember, much of this cost is due to retaliation, as the US is not a cheap place to get into). I had also heard that a traveler needed to have a detailed itinerary of their travels if they wanted a visa, including purchased hotel rooms, something I wasn’t prepared to do at all.

It turned out that a detailed itinerary wasn’t necessary. In fact I found the security process quite laxest. The women at the window actually recommended to me a better visa, allowing me to visit the Mainland as many times as I would like in six months. Four days later, my passport was returned to me with no problem.

The border with the Mainland is only a forty-five-minute train ride from our school in Kowloon Tong. Upon Arrival, we quickly discovered an enormous difference: no one speaks English. It wouldn’t be so shocking if Hong Kong didn’t have such a large amount of English speakers. But in Shenzhen, the large city located just across the border from Hong Kong where our bus to Guilin would depart from, we found no one who could speak any English.

We arrived at our bus station in Shenzhen after several failed attempts at understanding the locals’ body language directions. The bus we would be taking over night was the nicest bus I had ever taken (in comparison with all the busses I had taken in South America). Instead of being seats, we actually laid down in beds and each person was separated by an aisle rather than having to sit next to someone. Some of the other Westerners traveling on the same bus complained a little about the lack of legroom. But I said nothing. I was in Heaven.

This is where the story takes a strange turn. Instead of the bus dropping us off at Guilin, the bus driver stopped at Yangshuo (about an hour short of Guilin) and kicked us off. When we pointed to the bus ticket that said Guilin (in Chinese characters) he said “Yup” and continued to point us off the bus. It turned out all right. The girls and I had planned on visiting Yangshuo, which is far more beautiful and cheaper than Guilin. A persistent Hostel owner named Mr. Li followed us around for about an hour before we gave in. We managed to get the price down to 10 Yuan a night (or USD 1.75). However we did commit ourselves in later negotiations to a three-day tour contract. Looking back, it was a great price, but I should have known never do tour packages as they always lead to very linear experiences.

For the next couple of days, the girls and I saw and did many things. A bike trip around Yangshuo and some surrounding areas gave us a great view of the stunning landscapes (Really, if you haven’t looked up Guilin or Yangshuo on Google images yet, you should do that now). For about USD 20 the girls and I visited a cave that took us about an hour and a half to get through. The cave had rooms that in some places were three stories high. I had never seen such a beautiful cave. At the bottom of the cave, before we began the climb back up, there was a large pool of mud that the girls and I were able to swim in.

Did I mention the food was spectacular? I have never had such good Chinese food. Really! I ate so much good food and for so cheap. The girls and I would order about eight plates of food, sharing them all with each other. The price per person would then be about Twenty-five Yuan (or USD 4).

On our last day before leaving for home, I began to get frustrated. Not at the trip so much but at trying to make decisions and negotiate with five girls. In comparison with how I am use to traveling, decisions took so long and we would spend much of our time waiting for members of our group (including me on occasion). It wasn’t there fault so much as it was my own. I should have realized that I needed some time alone and then took it.

But now it’s back to school. Finals begin in one week and many seem to be very difficult.

I hope everyone had an amazing Thanksgiving. I wish you all a Happy Holiday Season!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Much of my time

Group projects are an interesting thing. I used to think that the differences in writing styles were different among my classmates at my home university. But with my newfound perspective, homogeneous is how I would describe my home university. The combination of the cultural differences, geographically dispersed academic requirements and non-native English writers has turned the role of synthesizer into a full time position. I find this less annoying than I do interesting. However in the past couple weeks much of my time has been consumed by school and countless group projects. I have had time for little else.

My internship search has becoming dire. Looking back, there is much I would have done differently, but that is hardly the point now. So in short, I’m still vigorously searching. All help is welcome.

An interesting dynamic: I have changed my ticket from 20th January 2009(in order to match my student visa, so HK customs would let me in the country) to 20th August 2009. WOW. As of now, I have no place to stay (31 December they kick me out of the school dorms), no visa (I need a work visa to stay in HK), no money (or not enough to last me until August 09). Scared? Yeah, but also some excitement. What’s life without a bit of adversity?

A change of perspective

The US Presidential Election certainly didn’t disappoint. Regardless of our denomination, it’s hard to placate the significance. But more important to my writing, having been outside of the country during the election, I gained an interesting perspective that is difficult to put into words.

The day of the election I woke up and began watched Bloomberg TV (A business news channel and one of the few channels in English). They had dedicated a large amount of time to the reactions of different governments around the world and what the presidential election will mean to relations in the future.

I was shocked. I couldn’t remember the last time I had heard of or even cared about the election of officials of another country. Sure I know a couple political leaders, but I don’t remember watching their election process or counting the blue and red states in their country.

In the weeks prior I was asked many times by my fellow exchange students which candidate I would be voting for. A couple of my professors couldn’t resist the same question. And yet I couldn’t think of an international election I was interested in, much less having questions for my fellow exchange students and professors.

I attribute this dichotomy, not to my lack of interest in global politics, but rather to the sheer importance of US leadership around the globe. Certainly I have long known my countries importance to the world, but to the exacting degree – to a higher level of realization and consciousness – to which I know it now, I had not.

Again, when a perspective is gained, when the fog begins to lift and your horizon expands, even to the slightest degree, it is an astonishing experience, difficult to put into words.

My health and the Venetian

2 Ex-rays
1 Blood test
1 Gastroscopy
1 Tred-mill test
2 Sets of antibiotics
And yet, I’m still not exactly sure what’s wrong with me. The cardiologist and I concluded, based on my tests, there is nothing wrong with my esophagus, heart and lungs, which is enough to feel comfortably sure I’m not going to die (sarcasm). Amazing how the process of elimination can be so comforting. We agreed upon some skeletal/muscular problem. Although I’m not sure why it has persisted so long.

Regardless, much of the pain has dispersed. I’ve been feeling much better though not 100%. Many of my normal activities have resumed. Two weekends ago I had the chance to visit Macau (or Macao) with about twenty other HKBU students.

We stayed at The Venetian. Apparently Asia’s largest Hotel/Casino/Building, it truly was a beautiful place. The twenty of us rented a really nice room and because we split the price, it was only about HKD 175 (USD 22). But with twenty people in the room, my highly prized sleep suffered immensely.

Staying in Macau for a day was a refreshing experience. In comparison to Hong Kong, which has torn down most if their colonial buildings, Macau has retained most of theirs. The streets wind down from the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Small stores selling interesting snacks and trinkets occupy the first floor of Portuguese inspired building that line the sides of the narrow streets. We were hardly alone. Cramming the streets were endless swarms of Asian tourists. Who knows where from.

After visiting Macau tower and taking in the amazing view of the surrounding islands, my good friend Alexandra and I returned to the colonial district. Once there, we met with a friend of a friend, Patrick, who I had never met prior, but was recommended to by Starr Thibodo, another friend of mine who is currently studying in England. Patrick, who is originally from Southern California and is now working in Macau, treated Alexandra and I to an amazing Portuguese dinner. My mouth waters every time I think of the duck, beefsteak and seafood we were so graciously treated to. It didn’t help that our meal was set in a small quiet colonial style building – insuring I was on my best behavior and used my best manners. The food was great and our conversation interesting. It was a grand end to an exhausting and fun weekend.


The cages were empty when we first arrived at the restaurant. The sign out front, in big bold Chinese characters, looked something similar to the letters my roommate had written down on a small piece of paper for me. There were handwritten English words written just above the Chinese characters, no larger than a size twelve font. “Snake Soup” it read. We had found our whole-in-the-hall.

There were five of us; two French and three Americans, none of whom could speak Cantonese. But that didn’t stop the owners from knowing exactly what we wanted. Shortly after our arrival a box came from the back that emptied ten cobra snakes into the cage just in front of us. After all, our snake soup could have been chicken for all we knew.