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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Flying to Beijing

I'll be in Beijing this week, being a tourist with my friend Debra. Not sure if I'll have internet access while I'm there. But I'll be back in Shanghai next week with lots of stories to tell!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Friday, September 24, 2010

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Mid-Autumn Festival

Today is Mid-Autumn Festival, the day of the harvest moon, the biggest brightest moon of the year. On this day in China, families get together to sip tea, eat mooncakes & look at the moon, possibly playing a bit of mahjong & lighting a lantern or two.

When I was a little girl looking at the moon, I remember thinking how strange it was that everyone kept saying there was a man in the moon. When I looked at the moon, I saw a woman with a flowing gown dancing across the surface. (Take a look for yourself. Can you see her?) It wasn't until I was maybe five or six years old that I could finally see that the "man in the moon" was a big round face looking down at us.

It turns out that there are millions of people in Asia who saw the same thing I did, & who now tell the story during Mid-Autumn Festival of the woman who lives on the moon. As always, there are several versions of the story. You can read a couple of them here & here.

In a nutshell, a man who wanted to be immortal got hold of a make-you-immortal potion, but his wife through a series of events (depends on the version you're reading) swallowed it instead. The man was angry & tried to grab her, but she was already a goddess, so she flew into the air. Somehow (again, it depends on the version) she landed on the moon, where she spends her days with a rabbit who grinds herbs for medicine (that's another story).

The most important thing on this day in modern China is to spend the day with your family. Although they weren't thinking of the moon festival when they made their plans, my parents are arriving in Shanghai today, so I can celebrate the day in true Chinese fashion. I have a couple of mooncakes to share & we'll probably take a gander at the moon later tonight. Maybe we'll even be able to see the woman dancing across the surface.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I'm So Excited!

Today is my last day of work before I take an almost two-week vacation. I've been looking forward to this break from the routine for a while now. It'll be nice to have a change of pace.

To start off my vacation, my parents are coming to Shanghai to visit. I haven't seen them in almost a year & a half, since I left the US for Vietnam, & I'm really looking forward to seeing them & to showing them around town.

Then next Monday, when my parents fly home to Tennessee, I'll fly to Beijing to meet up with my friend Debra. We'll be happy tourists for several days before coming back to Shanghai.

I'm so excited to be a traveler again, even if it's just for a few weeks. I've been dreaming of going to Beijing to see the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, & all the rest since I came to China. Now I finally get my chance.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Street Dancing

On a normal day in Shanghai, it's not uncommon for me to come across groups of people dancing. They gather in parks in the evenings or in front of shopping malls on the weekends to dance the waltz, the cha-cha, even the tango. I'm amazed at how many Chinese people can dance a decent mambo.

Usually there is a boom box or stereo set up outside, which plays a variety of music suitable for ballroom dancing, & anyone can join in - it's free to dance.

So far, I've just been a spectator at these events. I haven't figured out if you need to bring your own partner or if you just wait on the sidelines until someone asks you to dance, but I think it would be fun to participate in a public dance session like this. I don't know many moves, but it's just for fun anyway.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Local Tastes

It's interesting how companies change their products to appeal to different groups of people. Here in Shanghai, KFC includes stirfry with rice on their menu, McDonald's offers red bean sundaes, & Starbucks has green tea cake. All of these are understandable considering we're in China, & those are the kinds of things that Chinese people like to eat.

But I often see what I think are crazy flavors for food items: tomato flavored jelly beans, coffee flavored gum, & donuts with pork floss & seaweed.

The other day I was at the grocery store looking for a snack when I noticed some interesting potato chip flavors from Lays: blueberry, cucumber, & tea. They were only 3 RMB (about US 45 cents) each, so I figured what the hey.

The cucumber & tea ones weren't that bad. I probably won't have them again, but they weren't bad. However, one blueberry potato chip was enough for me. Now *that* was a bad idea.

What about you? Have you seen any wacky food flavors on your travels or back at home?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Women Wandering Solo

You may have noticed some pretty cool guest posts lately written by women with experience traveling solo. The posts are part of a new series called Women Wandering Solo, which I'm hoping will encourage women (maybe you) who don't have travel partners to take a solo trip instead. 

Do you have a story you'd like to share?

Women Wandering Solo is open to both men & women writers. The story should focus on women traveling solo, & have a positive vibe so that women who are considering solo travel will feel more confident about doing it. However, I also think it's important to be honest about what traveling alone is really like, so that women who are going to take their first solo trip won't go unprepared. Your story could be a travel narrative, or a reflection on how you feel about traveling solo, or a 10-Things list. The topic is pretty open. Just try to keep it under 1000 words.

Please spread the word

If you know any women with experience traveling solo, please let them know that I'm looking for them! I'd love to include their stories here as well.

Featured Women Wandering Solo

I am thrilled to be able to include these stories here on Wandering Solo. Reading them gives me inspiration, & I hope it does the same for you.

I Never Liked Solo Travel Until... by Pat Gulliford
La Princesa Gitana by Sunny Jo Gardner
Living in Abu Dhabi by Elena Sevastiani
Solo in the Arctic by Wendy Quast-Minkus

Thursday, September 16, 2010

My Chinese Name

Since all of the students at the school where I teach seem to have chosen English names, I thought I should follow suit & choose a Chinese name.

Many people just use the standard Chinese transcription of their English name as their Chinese name. For example, Michael is 迈克尔 (mai4 ke4 er3), & David is 戴维 (dai4 wei2). The name Nancy in Chinese is usually written as 南希 (nan2 xi1), which means "south hope". You can check out this website if you're curious what your own name would be.

Since this is one of the few opportunities I'll have in my life to choose my own name, I thought I might get a little creative & use the characters 西 instead (still pronounced nan2 xi1), meaning "south" & "west". Since I'm from the southwestern part of the US, I thought it would be appropriate.

My Chinese name doesn't technically mean "southwest", however. To say the word "southwest" in Chinese, you invert the directions, saying 西 (xi1 nan2) "west south". Northeast becomes "east north" in Chinese, & so on. So I was surprised to see this street sign with my name on it in Qi Bao, a little canal town on the outskirts of Shanghai.

It's a strange street sign because to say "Nanxi Street" in Chinese would be like saying "Westsouth Street" in English - it just sounds weird. I can only guess that this must be a deliberate choice for the name of this street. Maybe there is another 西 out there somewhere, a kindred soul.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Shanghai Sculpture Park

Last week EF held its annual summer party at Shanghai Sculpture Park, way out on the west side of town.

There were indeed lots of sculptures dotting the landscape throughout the park, including this one at the edge of the man-made lake. Can you tell which ones are the real people?

They also had a pretty cool treehouse there that looked like it could be Winnie the Pooh's house. We searched for jars of honey but didn't find any.

One of the coolest things at the park was what can only be called a jumpy dome. I had never seen anything like it before. It's like a trampoline, but it's all curvy & wavy & jumpy. I have no idea how it works, but it was so much fun! We spent most of the afternoon bouncing around on it, falling down, laughing hysterically, & bouncing some more. Wee!

Monday, September 13, 2010

(Probably) The Best Mandolin Player in China

This is Tom Pang of the local bluegrass duo Lan Cao (蓝草 lan2 cao3), which literally means "blue grass". His partner Jerry Liu also plays a pretty mean banjo. I love to listen to these guys play. They are both awesome musicians - & bluegrass music reminds me of home.

Tom & Jerry (they meant to do that) are from a small town in Inner Mongolia (think: Ghenghis Khan), where no one has ever heard of bluegrass. But a friend of theirs from the US gave them a copy of a Nickel Creek CD, & they fell in love with the sound. They decided to study the mandolin & the banjo, & now bring bluegrass to the masses in Shanghai.

I haven't heard them play any of their own songs yet. Most of their music is good old timey bluegrass, which would make my bluegrass pickin' friends back home happy. They do get creative with it, though. Last weekend I heard them do a rendition of Pink Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall. "Hey! Teachers!" (banjo riff). Fun!

Although Lan Cao has changed venues several times since I've been in Shanghai, I always make sure that I know where they're playing. I guess that makes me a groupie, but I don't mind. Bluegrass makes me happy.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Mail to Future

One of my favorite places to have a beer in Shanghai is Captain Bar, on the top floor of Captain Hostel. They have two-for-one happy hour Monday through Thursday, & a great view of the Pudong side of the Huangpu River.

The other day, I went there to meet some friends, & discovered that the hostel is offering a new mail service to travelers. For 2 RMB (about US 30 cents) a piece, they will mail letters & postcards for you on any day of the year.

One of the walls in the lobby is now covered in mail pockets labeled for each day of the year. You just choose which day you'd like your postcard mailed & they'll send it for you. If the date is more than a year in the future, they'll still mail it, but it's an extra 8 RMB. They even sell cool Shanghai postcards with images by local artists right there in the lobby.

It's a cool idea, but I find myself wondering why someone would want to wait to send a postcard. Maybe you could send a postcard to your future self, wishing yourself a happy birthday or something.

What about you? Would you leave a card on this wall to be mailed on a future date?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Woman Wandering Solo: Wendy Quast-Minkus

Women Wandering Solo is a series of guest posts that inform & encourage women who don't have travel partners to go ahead & take the trip anyway. There are so many amazing places to see in the world, & experiencing them solo could wind up being the best way to do it. To learn how you can share your own story with us, click here.

Solo in the Arctic

Wendy Quast lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her husband and two step children. She has taken several solo trips and highly recommends it to any woman who wants to travel.

Rainbows flitted across the frigid arctic sky; dancing curls of green, red, blue, pink, and purples. I sat on a snow mound outside the research center bundled up like an Inuit Indian in a Carabobo skin coat and hat, down leggings and rugged boots, sometimes hopping up and down to warm my tingling toes and fingers. This was, undoubtedly, the most amazing of my many solo experiences. The bitter taste of subzero temperatures touched my tongue with each breath. Frost covered my eyelashes and the fur surrounding my face. Tears streamed down my face – from the shear cold or from the complete and total peace, I do not know. Either way, I figured that this was as close as I suspect one can come to Heaven on Earth.

My solo start

Traveling to faraway places in search of the exotic and the nearly forgotten came rather unplanned after leaving a friend behind on what would be the first of two disastrous trips with two different companions. I discovered that perhaps I was either a difficult person to travel with or just very sure of myself and what I wanted to do – or not do.

Although I still enjoy vacations with certain select individuals, my solo trips have provided me with the richest travel experiences and best friends across the continents thus far. My first real solo trip was more like a sabbatical in that I took off to ski in Europe after being laid off. I learned my most valuable travel tips on that jaunt that have saved me ever since.

Travel tips

• Pack only what you can carry for long distances on your back. I sent a suitcase and box home full of stuff.

• Showering every day really is optional.

• Don’t laugh, but yes, even underwear, is optional – and throwing it out as you go is perfectly acceptable.

• Always buy and break in new hiking boots before every long trek. If you cannot afford to, there is always Super Glue, a miracle cure for sealing blisters. Just don’t use it if your socks are already a bright red from your bleeding heals.

• Although hostels can be a great place to meet like minded souls, if you are prone to catching bugs, be careful of hostels as they generally are giant Petri dishes (I ended up with a virus similar to pneumonia and in the hospital in Frankfurt).

• Tour groups can be fun too! Especially if you join one from the country you are visiting. There you will meet many people from all over the world.

• Expect the unexpected.

• Wake up every day excited for the next adventure. Laugh and smile as often as you can, even if you are stuck with Interpol screaming in your face with absolutely no idea what they are saying or what you could have possibly done wrong.

• And finally, get over it! Whatever “it” is, just get over it and go with the flow. Immerse yourself in the culture and experience all of its richness.

Some final advice

Once you have experienced solo travel, I am certain that you will find that it is exciting, stressful, enjoyable, scary, fulfilling, and rewarding all at the same time, but you will never want to stop doing it. It’s addictive. Happy traveling! Maybe I’ll meet you on my next trip to the Amazon!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Chinese Acrobats

My friend Zoe has finished her summer as a nanny to a well-off Chinese family, & is heading back to Switzerland to continue her university studies there. As a going away gift, I took her to see a Chinese acrobat show.

The entertainment included a variety of acts in addition to the amazing gymnasts. There was a plate spinner, a magician, a juggler, a knife thrower, a woman who balanced a tower of glasses on her chin, & a man who spun a huge porceline pot on his head.

We had a great view of the stage from the 7th row, where we were close enough to see the acrobats' muscles quiver.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

One Month Birthday

The other day, one of the receptionists at the school where I teach passed out little red bags tied with bright gold ribbon. Inside were two hard boiled eggs sealed in plastic. She was celebrating her baby's one-month birthday, the two eggs symbolizing a boy baby. Had her child been a girl, she would have included only one egg in each bag.

It's a tradition to celebrate a baby's first month, not only in China, but all over Asia. When I was in Vietnam, I attended a one-month birthday celebration, with lots of food & drink, the baby making only a brief appearance.

The one-month celebration goes back to a time when infant mortality was high, & it wasn't certain if a baby would survive. So families would wait a month to be sure that the child would live. Only then would the baby get a name, & only then did the family dare to celebrate the birth.

These days, especially in cities like Shanghai with easily accessible health care, parents don't worry so much over infant mortality, but the tradition lives on.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Jin Mao Tower

While my friend Juliana was in town, we went up to the observation deck on the 88th floor of the Jin Mao Tower (金茂大厦 jin1 mao4 da4 sha4), the second tallest building in Shanghai (the first tallest stands right next to it), & the fourth tallest building in the world.

The tower is designed to look like a Chinese-style pagoda, & it's construction is based heavily on the number 8, which is a prosperous number in Chinese culture. In keeping with the theme, the ticket to the observation deck costs 88 RMB (about US $13).

When I saw the interlacing structure of the outside of the building, I thought it would be a great structure for that crazy building climber to climb. It turns out he already had that idea, climbing the tower in 2007. He not only climbed up the outside of the building, but he also climbed back down, finishing in 90 minutes. He was promptly arrested by Chinese police officers when he got back to earth.
From the basement of the building, the elevator shot us up to the 88th floor in a mere 45 seconds - our ears popped as we reached the top. Wee!

It was a hazy day in Shanghai, so we couldn't see the outreaches of the city, but Juliana said that she could still feel the vastness of it. I guess Shanghai is still impressive even if you can't really see it.
The observation deck also offers a plummeting view inside the Shanghai Grand Hyatt hotel, which occupies the 53rd to the 87th floor of Jin Mao Tower. At 115 meters (about 377 feet), this is one of the tallest atriums in the world. Looking down was a bit scary as I felt a wave of vertigo.
There was supposed to be a post office on the observation level, but we only found some postal vending machines that were out of order. Too bad. It would have been interesting to send a postcard from the highest post office in the world.

I've been told that the restaurant on the 86th floor is a nice treat & doesn't cost the 88 RMB entrance fee - though I'm sure you'll spend more than that to eat at this fancy schmancy place. Perhaps I'll take my parents there for a drink & to enjoy the view when they come to Shanghai for a visit at the end of September.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Sign of the Times

I saw this interesting series of advertisements for Qing Dao beer at the subway station in an area of town that isn't close to any of the major tourist spots. It seems to be a reflection of the increasing international community in Shanghai.

So many Westerners live in Shanghai permanently or semi-permanently. I've met countless foreigners who have been here for five or ten years with no plans to return home except for a visit.

It's definitely easy to live in Shanghai as a foreigner. All of the comforts of home are available if you want them, although they generally come with a foreigner price tag. Western food, clothing, movies, books & newspapers, social clubs & more are easy to find, & many people live here for years without having to speak much Chinese. Life is pretty straightforward here.

That's not to say that life is easy. From morning till night this city buzzes with energy. The daily commute is jam-packed with people & the traffic is chaotic at best. The Chinese work hard every day, & foreigners working in Shanghai follow suit. Nevertheless, most foreigners wind up making tons of money here, which is just one of the many reasons that they stay.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Woman Wandering Solo: Elena Sevastiani

Women Wandering Solo is a series of guest posts that inform & encourage women who don't have travel partners to go ahead & take the trip anyway. There are so many amazing places to see in the world, & experiencing them solo could wind up being the best way to do it. To learn how you can share your own story with us, click here.

Living in Abu Dhabi

Elena Sevastiani is an interior designer living & working in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. You can learn more at her website

As I sit on the Boeing 777, bound to Abu Dhabi for the second time, I decide to take out my laptop and use the next seven hours to write about what it is like for me to work and live as a single female in the United Arab Emirates, next to Saudi Arabia in the Middle East.

My mother and sisters begged me not to go to the Middle East. They knew for sure that I was going to get killed in the most tragic way, of course. Come to think of it, they told me the same thing about going to Colombia - and going to the Kinkos in the evenings during college. Well, I went anyway and lived to talk about it.

Whoever wrote, “A ship is safe in the harbor, but that is not what ships are built for” knew something of the trials of traveling but also knew that he was prepared, ready, and equipped to meet the challenges. But, more importantly, he was ready for the thrill of adventure.

Perhaps, as a kid I watched too many episodes of Gilligan’s Island. Some of us have a strong urge to see and explore while others want the safety, familiarity and comforts of home. Get ready, get set and gooooooooo is my advice for single women who want to travel the world.


It is only prudent for one to assess the dangers involved in planning for any travel destination. I did my homework and determined that Abu Dhabi was safe enough for me. I can only comment on where I lived, Abu Dhabi, and not on the entire Middle East, but I felt very safe there.

The majority of people are expatriates from different parts of the world so the government is very eager to ensure the safety and security of people and assets. I saw no trace of terrorism, violence, war or persecution. I met enough American and British military personnel to convince me that it is at least not run over and controlled by guerillas, coups, boys with guns, and Taliban - or Los Angeles gangs.

The only time I was dreadfully fearful was riding or driving in a car every single, solitary day. No joking, it does have the highest number of auto fatalities in the world. Now I understand the humor in the TV show Taxi, to have casted a taxi driver who was from Abu Dhabi. It is the world capital for wild taxi drivers. No one could have prepared me for the speed and recklessness of all the drivers there. Pedestrians DO NOT have the right of way - even when they do! Also, prepare for all the loud, non-stop, honking.


Most of the food in Abu Dhabi is excellent, especially the buffet nights at all the hotels. Although, they don’t have good baked bread like we get back home in the States. I would have thought that I was closer to Challah bread heaven. Of course there’s plenty of pita bread and crusty rolls. One day, while walking past a tiny pita bakery, I watched a man kneading dough with his feet! I guess that breaks the monotony.

Restaurants always serve bottled water, never tap water, which means you have to pay for “just water, please”. Asking for a lemon with your water could also throw the waiters for a loop. I had to go into much explanation and detail for this request. The waiter returned with a glass of freshly squeezed lemon juice for me to pour into my water. Oh well, I guess we make too many assumptions.


Real estate prices and accommodations were outrageous, with few choices and far between. The first time I lived in Abu Dhabi, I got a studio apartment without a kitchen, closets, garage, lighting, window coverings, landscaped yards or shower rods for $3,000 per month. I also had to pay the full one year lease lump sum amount, plus a 10% commission fee plus a security deposit. The world expects Americans to be filthy rich and prices are set accordingly. This time, I will just move into a monthly, fully furnished hotel apartment and once I’m settled into work and culture, then do the decorating.


People do not observe standing in lines as customary in the States; they just pack in together in a mob formation, regardless of who is first, and sometimes get too close for my comfort.

The Grand Mosque is an architectural master piece and a must see. The calling for prayers from all the mosques is unique to their culture. (But do not use the neighborhood mosques has your driving landmarks because they are everywhere!) There are separate men and women prayer rooms in all buildings to accommodate those who can’t make it to the mosque at prayer time.

On the other hand, the inhuman treatment of the labor force from India, Pakistan and Philippines is sad to witness. Most live in labor camps, and it’s not uncommon for people to live ten to a room. Discrimination is normal, acceptable and within the law in Abu Dhabi.

Words can not begin to approximate what it is really like to be there. You must see it for yourself to really understand life in Abu Dhabi.

10 Things I must do this time around

1. Ride a camel
2. See the camel races
3. Go on the desert sand dune tours and overnight camping
4. Go to the beaches and get in the water, not just drive along the coast
5. Take the Shangri La Hotel sail boat ride to the Equator and have lunch
6. See Dubai from the top of the world’s tallest building
7. Go to more bazaars and souqs
8. Watch the belly dancers
9. Try driving like a wild taxi driver
10.Marry a rich Sheik

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Shanghai Museum Redux

I went back to the Shanghai Museum this past weekend with my friend Juliana, who is visiting from the US. This is such a great museum & it's all free!

The first time I was there, I spent four hours studying all of the exhibits on the four floors of this amazing museum. This time however, we made a shorter visit to the musuem, spending a couple of hours looking at the highlights.

We saw beautiful batiks from Guizhou, golden Buddhist statuettes from Western China, flowing calligraphy from the masters, & huge ornate Tibetan ceremonial masks. 


One of my favorite exhibits at the museum is the room that displays native costumes from the several minority tribes in China. There were dozens of mannequins dressed in colorful designs from centuries ago to modern times.

While we were taking photos of the displays, I was approached by a Chinese couple who wanted to take a photo of me. For them, my light hair & eyes were just as interesting as the museum exhibit itself.

This happens quite frequently here in Shanghai. Many people stop me on the street & ask if they can take a photo with me. They wrap their arms around my shoulder & we both smile broadly for the camera, making it look like we are old friends.

I've gotten so accustomed to people asking me for my photo that I've started turning the tables. I often take photos of Chinese daily life covertly & unabashedly. For the most part, people don't seem to mind - they just think I'm a crazy foreigner.

Sometimes I catch people off guard. A couple of months ago I confused a fellow subway rider when I asked him for his photo. He took it in stride though, & the rest of the commuters on the subway car got a kick out of it. When in Rome...