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Sunday, October 31, 2010

10 Things About China

While my friend Debra was here in China visiting & traveling around, a few things made quite an impression on her. Here's her list of 10 things about China:

1. Squatty potties
2. Spitting
3. Masses of people in the subway - fighting to get off
4. Available bike lanes everywhere in Beijing
5. Dog walking in pajamas
6. Feeling like a star chased by paparazzi - everyone taking our picture
7. Bargaining - it's normal to pay 25% of the asked price
8. Consistently fantastic architecture, even in a normal residential neighborhood
9. Government blocking of Facebook and Twitter
10.Delicious street food (excluding the fried scorpions & crickets on a stick)

Friday, October 29, 2010

Woman Wandering Solo: Linda Redman

Women Wandering Solo is a series of guest posts that inform & encourage women who don't have travel partners to take a solo trip instead. 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.

Another option for traveling solo
Linda Redman lives in Phoenix, Arizona. She has traveled all over the world - both solo & with friends - to places like Costa Rica, Morocco, & India. Here she recommends combining solo travel with an education.

As my friends well know, I am an avid traveler and am constantly exploring new corners of the world (although my real passion is exploring the countries of Latin America). I have been fortunate in being able to share my explorations of the world with my husband as well as with close female friends. As a result my solo traveling has been more limited.

There is one avenue, however, which I would encourage women wandering solo to consider if they are worried about striking out on their own in unknown territory for the first time: enroll in a language school or a volunteer program in a location you want to explore.

While I have opted to do this as part of my ongoing effort to learn Spanish, I have also found it to be a great way to strike out on my own in locales that I have never visited before. While the volunteering option would be more practical if one already had a basic knowledge of the native language, the language school option is viable for all levels (beginners to advanced students of the language).

What this approach to travel offers

• Provides an more secure context initially within which to begin your exploration of a new country

• Allows you the freedom to strike off on your own (when not in class and on the weekends)

• Provides you with an easy avenue for meeting other interesting people

• Increases your understanding and appreciation of the local culture, affording you a view of life beyond that of a tourist

• Provides you with a knowledgeable resource on local activities and sites as well as frequently offers you the opportunities to go on school-sponsored cultural excursions to places you may not go on your own (e.g., eating at the night market, visiting a woman’s weaving co-op, taking a cooking class)

Choosing a language school

While you want to pick an area which interests you, your options will be somewhat limited by the availability of a school. Generally, the larger cities or towns will offer several options to select from. However, in some cases I have found opportunities in smaller rural communities as well.

There are all types of language schools, and you will need to decide what type will best meet your needs. For example, there are large schools (75 to 100 students) and small schools (10 to 25 students). Some have structured classes in small groups, and others offer private lessons. Some schools cater more to college students (especially if located near a beach), while others (generally smaller-sized schools) seek out the independent travelers with a mix of ages.

The time of year can also change the nature of the schools. Schools tend to be full during the summer months. While this means there may be extra activities offered and a greater array of students with whom to form friendships, it can also mean a more chaotic environment and the use of second string teachers.

All the schools offer the opportunities for home stays and I would highly recommend this as another way to further get to know the local culture. However, this experience can also vary. I have had good and bad home stays – ones that have seen me as simply a paying boarder and others who have welcomed me into their home as a guest.

Other alternatives which I have also tried and would recommend include renting an apartment through the school (shopping for food in the local market and cooking it at home is fun), or staying in a hotel for a few days to get a better sense of your surroundings and then staying with a family.

My favorite language school by far has been the Querétaro Language School in Querétaro, Mexico. Not only is the school great (it’s run by a young couple who were involved with the Peace Corp in Mexico - he was a volunteer and his wife ran the Spanish program from the Peace Corp), but the city is wonderful as well.

Whatever you do, before signing up with the school, ask about former students who you can email to find out more about their experience at the school. Also, talk with the school director on the phone.

Volunteering abroad

For me, finding meaningful volunteer work has been more of a challenge and has taken a lot more work than finding a good language school. One easy and potentially good avenue can be through the language school, itself. But I have also found that while a school may say that they can offer you volunteer opportunities it does not exist in reality.

The other problem I have found is that organizations which specifically offer volunteer opportunities can expect you to pay a fair amount of money for this experience, along with the fact that the setting/experience may not be all it is said to be if you start reading the reviews. As with anything, upfront leg work is needed.

However, despite the challenges, I believe that this too can be a great way to experience a country when wandering solo. I have worked for a week on an organic farm in Costa Rica which was wonderful, and in January I plan to return to Querétaro, Mexico for a month to work in a school for indigenous children.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Return to Shanghai

After spending a great week in historic Beijing, Debra & I returned to bustling Shanghai. My total expenses for a week in Beijing, including round trip airfare from Shanghai & all the sights & attractions: 4348 RMB (about US $650).

Back in Shanghai, I went to work while Debra explored the city on her own. That woman is amazingly fearless. She bravely navigated the public transportation system, stood in line for five hours to see the Oriental Pearl Tower, & haggled like a local for some great souvenirs to take home.

She definitely made the most of her short time in Shanghai, & did it almost entirely on her own. She's a great example for the rest of us. She just grabs the tiger by the tail & hangs on!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Beijing: Summer Palace

Our last stop in Beijing before heading back to Shanghai was the Summer Palace. Everyone had the day off for National Day, so there were hordes of people there. Walking around the lake, we felt a bit... surrounded, but the beauty of the lake was unmarred by the crowds.

The Summer Palace reminded me a lot of West Lake in Hang Zhou, which is about an hour by train from Shanghai. The two places are 645 miles apart, but seem to have been designed by the same architect. I've included some photos below from both places. It's remarkable how similar they are.

West Lake, Hang Zhou

Summer Palace, Beijing

 West Lake, Hang Zhou

Summer Palace, Beijing

West Lake, Hang Zhou

Summer Palace, Beijing

Monday, October 25, 2010

Beijing: Lama Temple Photos

Blogger has graciously fixed the photo upload problem, so I'm backtracking to show you some photos of the gorgeous Lama Temple in Beijing.

The 26 meter (85 foot)-high Maitreya Buddha

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Beijing: Night Market Photos

A few posts ago, I wrote about the night market in Beijing, but I was having trouble uploading photos. It looks like Blogger has fixed the problem, so here's what you missed:

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Beijing: Olympic Park

We arrived at Beijing's Olympic Park right before sundown on National Day. There was still enough light to snap a few good shots of the famed bird's nest before the sky began to darken & the National Stadium was illuminated by a soft red glow, while the cool bubbles on the outside of the National Aquatics Center slowly changed color from blue to red to green.

The color show was impressive, as were the buildings themselves. The Olympic Park grounds were huge, & filled with masses of Chinese people enjoying the holiday. We passed several people selling kites, & a man who did an impromtu tai chi performance. Lots of people tried to discretely take pictures of us, the foreigners. By this time, Debra was getting used to the star status that comes with being a foreigner in China, & we both happily posed for the cameras.

It's such an interesting experience to finally see something in real life that you've only seen on TV or in pictures. Beforehand, you have an idea of what it looks like or what it is, but somehow it's not like it's a real thing. But when you are able to put that place in the context of its surroundings, with all the people, the sounds & smells, & the weather to go with it, it becomes more than real. It becomes a part of your past, forever linked to your memories of you.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Beijing: Lama Temple

One of the days that we were in Beijing, we rode the bikes that we rented at the Happy Dragon Hostel to the Yonghe Palace Lama Temple, the best-known Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet, according to Lonely Planet. Indeed, it is the most amazing temple that I've seen so far in China. There were several buildings ornately decorated in blue, red & gold spread out around the complex, prayer flags waving on cords strung between the curly roof tops.

The temple houses several beautiful statues of Buddha in various poses, but the one that really captured my attention was the Maitreya Buddha, a massive 26 meter (85 foot)-high statue carved out of one piece of sandalwood. The statue is inside one of the temple's buildings, & way too big to fit through the door. They must have placed the statue first, then built the structure around it.

Standing at his giant feet, I had to crane my neck to see the Buddha's face & even then I couldn't really get a good look. I was mesmerized. I wanted to go up to a higher floor to look the Buddha in the eye, but they weren't allowing visitors up there. I stood staring at the statue from below while Debra took clandestine photos - no flash. (I'd love to show them to you, but I'm still having problems uploading photos to Blogger.)

We walked around the rest of the complex, watching as the faithful burned incense & bowed three times offering prayers. There was even a small museum there displaying remarkable examples of Tibetan religious art, including small bronze statues, weavings, & colorfully painted mandalas.

Outside the temple complex, the streets were lined with tea houses & shops selling religious items, Tibetan textiles & jewelry. I love all the swirly Tibetan patterns & bright colors. They make me happy. We did a little shopping, then took a quick look at the nearby Confucius Temple before hopping back on the bikes & heading north toward the Olympic Park.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Beijing: Night Market

After our hike on the Great Wall, we needed to refuel, & what better place to find some grub than at the local night market?

This was no ordinary night market. There were no pirated DVDs or knock-off brands here. Instead, there was stall after stall of nothing but Stuff on Sticks. I was in heaven.

That is, untill I saw all the crazy stuff they actually put on those sticks. Unfortunately, I can't seem to be able to upload any more photos at the moment, so you won't be able to see the starfish the size of my hand on the end of a skewer like a magic wand. Or the slimy eels spiraled around a stick, the sharp end jutting through their eyeballs. Or the three-inch scorpions, black & shiny waiting for someone to chump into them. Nope. You won't see any of that. It sure was fun taking those photos though.

Luckily, we found lots of viable things to eat at the night market as well. Debra had chewy pumpkin cakes - on a stick. I had dumplings & a vegetable wrap - no stick. I also found what they said was banana somethings, but turned out to be fried dough balls sans banana. Yummy anyway.

The prices were ridiculously high. I paid 12 RMB (about US $1.80) for five dumplings. Back in Shanghai I can get ten dumplings for 3 RMB. Highway robbery. Or "tourist tax", one.

We ate & ate until we could eat no more. I felt like Templeton at the county fair. Afterwards we rolled back to the Happy Dragon Hostel, happy.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Beijing: The Great Wall

The next day in Beijing, the Happy Dragon Hostel took us & a van-load of other travelers to the Great Wall. For 260 RMB (about US $40) we got transport to & from the Wall & a yummy lunch.

The weather that day couldn't have been more perfect. The sun was shining & the temperature was just cool enough. We took a chair lift to the top of the wall, which snakes its way up & over the hills. I'd heard about the Great Wall all my life & could hardly believe that I was now actually standing on it. Incredible!

The views were absolutely amazing from the top. We walked along the wall for a little over an hour snapping photo after photo before heading back to the rendezvous point. I had no idea how many steps that thing had! We climbed & climbed, then descended the other side only to climb again. By the end of our trek, my legs were wobbly.

There are several different sections of the Wall that are open to visitors. I imagine all of the sights are equally spectacular with views of the Great Wall for miles & miles. The most popular sight is Badaling, probably because it's the most accessible, but we went to Mutianyu. Both are about an hour's drive from the center of Beijing.

The cool thing at Mutianyu was getting back down the mountain. Instead of taking the same chair lift down, we hopped on a super long, super fun slide! The ride was fast & thrilling & well worth the extra 60 RMB (about US $9). Wee!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Photo of the Week: National Pride

Debra took this awesome photo as we were riding our bikes around Tiananmen Square.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Beijing Opera

In Beijing, the Happy Dragon Hostel offered to take us to a Beijing opera for 130 RMB (about US $20). I was excited to finally see a theater production of traditional Chinese opera, which I had heard so much about.

We saw two stories. The first was about a woman who hires a boatman to take her to see her lover. It was a cute story, but the singing was a little unnerving. The female lead's shrill voice pierced the air so sharply that it hurt. I'm pretty sure they train for years to be able to do that.

The second story was about the famous Monkey King, & had less singing & more action since this particular selection was from the part of the story when the Monkey King fights off a whole band of warriors. Thank goodness.

The theater audience that night included mostly Western tourists. I wonder if Chinese people ever go to see Beijing opera, or if it's just something the tourists do.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Beijing: Tiananmen Square & Forbidden City

On our first full day in Beijing, we rode the bikes that we rented at the Happy Dragon Hostel to Tiananmen Square. As we got closer, I had the feeling that I had been there before - or at least somewhere very much like it. It took me a few minutes to figure it out, but then I realized that Tiananmen Square was a lot like the Zócalo in Mexico City. It's a huge square surrounded by stoutly imposing government buildings with lots of soldiers everywhere keeping the order, & a huge flag waving from the top of an enormous flagpole. It was awesome.

Across the street from Tiananmen Square, we saw the gate to the Forbidden City with the famous portrait of Mao Zedong overseeing life in the center of Beijing. We parked our bikes in the bike parking lot, paid the attendant 1 RMB (about US 15 cents), & went inside.

We passed through the gate & followed the crowd down a long pathway lined with souvenir vendors. After walking the distance of a couple of football fields, we finally arrived at the ticket booth where we paid 60 RMB (about US $9) to enter.

Once inside, we passed through one massive building after the next, all with curly rooftops & intimidating statues of lions in front. With all of our picture taking & gawking at the incredible details of each building, it took us a couple of hours to reach the final building at the back of the immense complex. This place is huge!

After a brief rest, we headed back to the front gate, going with the flow of the crowd. We were back at the bike parking lot in about 15 minutes, & we rode back to the hostel to get ready for a night at a Beijing opera.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Beijing: Happy Dragon Hostel

While in Beijing, we stayed at the Happy Dragon Hostel. It's a cute little place tucked down an alleyway surrounded by local shops & karaoke bars.

The taxi driver from the airport wasn't familiar with the hostel, so we had a tough time finding it at first. After that, we decided it would have been easier to use the subway from the airport, & then follow the map from the Happy Dragon website.

We paid 228 RMB (about US $32) per night for a small but clean private room with bath, complete with towels & shampoo. The staff at the hostel was friendly & took care of everything from laundry to booking a plane ticket with a gracious smile.

The hostel had its own restaurant serving a combination of Western and Chinese food where people staying at the hostel could hang out & use the wi-fi or chat with other travelers. Those that didn't bring their laptops could use the desktop computers in the lobby for 4 RMB (= about US 60 cents) an hour.

They offered several reasonably priced tourist activities at the hostel, including day trips to the Great Wall & an evening at a Beijing Opera. They also had bikes for us to rent, which we used almost every day to ride around the city.

The Happy Dragon Hostel turned out to be a great choice. It had everything that I like about staying in hostels. The next time I go to Beijing, I'll definitely stay there again.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


I'm back online at home. That didn't take long, did it?

I must not have explained what I needed to the guy at the internet service provider office very well. My Chinese is getting better, but it's not perfect.

So today, I decided to try using the Shanghai Call Center to help me. They have operators who can answer all kinds of questions for you, like "How do you get to the Shanghai Museum?" or "Where can I find good Mexican food?" They will also talk to the taxi driver while you're in the cab, or tell the doctor what's wrong with you. You just dial their number (962288), explain the problem, then hand the phone to the doctor, taxi driver, or internet service provider guy, & they'll tell them in Chinese what you need. They not only speak English, but a variety of other European languages, including French & German. & it's all free. Did I say free? Yep.

Thanks to the amazing Shanghai Call Center operator, I found out that I can pay monthly for internet access. Yippee! So I paid 300 RMB (about US $45) for two months & I'm back in action. Thanks, Shanghai Call Center!

Sunday, October 10, 2010


The internet in my apartment has been disconnected. I originally signed up for six months of internet service, & that expired while I was in Beijing. I only have three more months before my contract ends here in Shanghai, so I'm trying to decide if it's worth it to sign another six-month contract, even though I (may) only use it for another three months.

For now I'm using the wi-fi at Starbucks, so posting will probably be intermittant.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Back from Beyond

Whew! I just finished up a whirlwind vacation!

At the end of September, my parents came to Shanghai to visit for about a week. I already posted some photos of our exploits, but I'm sure I'll a few more comments about that over the next few weeks.

My parents left for home just before the whole country celebrated National Day, the anniversary of the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949. It's a national holiday, so I had a few days off from work. I decided to add some of my vacation days to the company holiday, & met my friend Debra in Beijing for a week of sightseeing. Stories & photos to come.

Then Debra & I returned to Shanghai together. She stayed with me here for another week, & we trapsed around town taking photos & buying lots of souvenirs. She left this morning for Arizona. It was so nice to be able to spend some quality time with one of my favorite people.

While I was taking photos of me & Mao, you've been participating in my poll, Where Should I Go Next?  There's still time to vote, so be sure to go to my home page & look on the right-hand sidebar where you can add your own two cents.

In the meantime, I got another article published. Yay! This one's on culture shock & how to deal with it. Check it out here.

The last few weeks have been a great break from the routine, but now it's time to get back to work. I'll be posting more details from my adventures to catch you up. Stay tuned...

Friday, October 1, 2010

Where Next?

My year in Shanghai is on the down swing. I have just three more months here before I head back home. It's been almost a year & a half since I was back in the States, & I'm really looking forward to seeing my friends & family again, using fast internet, driving...

But I won't be staying. There's still so much of the world I have yet to explore. There are so many places that I haven't been yet, & it's been a little difficult trying to choose my next destination, so I decided to ask *you* where I should go next.

Check out the poll on the right-hand sidebar (over there --->). I've listed five countries for possible next stops. You have until the end of October to cast your vote. Tell all your friends & have them vote too. When the votes are tallied, I'll start looking for a job in whatever country you choose.

For those of you who read these posts on Facebook or subscribe to the RSS feed, you'll need to click here to go to my home page where you'll see the poll on the right-hand sidebar.

Thanks for voting!