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Adventures in Inner Mongolia July 31, 2013

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Our trip to Inner Mongolia was something I had been looking forward to for weeks. It was the first time I was ever going on a guided tour, and even though I love planning my own travels and figuring out how to get places on my own, I was excited to be able to sit back, relax, and let the guide that I hired do everything for me. Unfortunately, as you might imagine, things didn’t exactly turn out as planned, and my four companions and I got to experience exactly what it is like to be with a Chinese tour guide.

On the plus side, it was a valuable cultural experience to observe how locals live.

Everything started out well. The tour service picked us up from our front door and took us to the train station, where we were escorted inside and left at the gate. The overnight train was uneventful and pretty comfortable as far as most couchettes go. Little did I know that within 24 hours, I would be wishing I could be back in that couchette, rocking gently back and forth with the train in my sleep.

In the morning, we were picked up by Yolanda, our tour guide for the next two days. She let us know that we were going out to the grasslands to our yurt camp as expected, and that the journey would take about an hour. Seeing as it was 7 in the morning, the 5 of us climbed into the van and drifted off as we drove out of the city of Hohhot.

When I awoke, we were still driving through the grassland. The scenery was beautiful; we passed through tree covered mountains and plains of yellow flowers. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder why we were still in the car. It had been nearly 2 hours, and there was no sign of yurt camps anywhere. I looked up at Yolanda, who was talking on the phone and holding a hand drawn map that consisted of a circle with four lines coming out of it. Now, I don’t claim to be an expert on directions or maps in Inner Mongolia, but something told me that one would need more than a drawing of a roundabout to navigate 2 hours worth of grassland. By the time we got to the Yurt camp around 10 am, we had turned around twice, stopped once, and got scammed once (the locals blocked the road and refused passage until the driver handed them some money).

The Grassland

We pulled up to the main Yurt, and suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw 3 or 4 colorfully clad Chinese cabin running out of a house. By the time we got out of the van, they were upon us, singing a ridiculously high pitched song and offering us cups of what seemed to be watered down Grappa. Then, almost as soon as they had started, they finished and left. At this point, my four companions and I were feeling a little weird-ed out.

Thus began our first day in Inner Mongolia, where we proceeded to get ripped off a handful of times. The worst part was our yurts. They were infested with spiders, and did not have running water. In fact, now that I think about it, there was no running water in the entire place. This wouldn’t have been too bad except for the fact that our only toilets were inside the yurt. The smell was as bad as you would expect from a festering toilet full of who-knows-what. When I sat my back pack down I lifted my pillows, immediately 3 sizable spiders went running. To complicate matters, the pillows were hiding a gigantic squished beetle that was positioned squarely in the top center of my bed. That night, I climbed into my handy-dandy mummy liner, sealed it from the inside, and slept in fetal position at the foot of my bed.

Making Lemonade

Before going to bed, however, the five of us had the opportunity to meet an entire Chinese tour group at our “bonfire” party. (Note, by bonfire, I mean a grill filled with dried horse poop that has been set on fire.) These people happened to be very riled up, and were very surprised to see 5 white females among them. The night started out with them taking pictures with us. At first, people would ask, and we would pose with them. But then they started getting rougher and rougher to the point where they would literally grab one of us and drag us to the camera to take a picture. By grab, I mean they were holding us as hard as they could. When they had had enough of pictures, they decided to dance with us, and soon we found ourselves dancing hand in hand with the Chinese tourists in a circle around a grill filled with flaming horse manure while half of them waved around toy light sabers. It truly was a sight to behold.

At one point during the party, we began to get overwhelmed. A handful of the Chinese tourists were becoming more and more aggressive, hitting other people hard with their light sabers and trying to physically drag us off the patio into the shadows. We decided as  a group to slip away before the situation got out of hand, and fortunately we were able to slink off to our yurt with little trouble.

Their English is better than my Chinese

The rest of the trip was relatively uneventful. The next morning we went back to Hohhot, got left by our tour guide, saw a few museums with interesting English translations, and ate at a few good Chinese restaurants. The highlight of the second day was when our tour guide left for good, and we were able to explore the old town area by ourselves. It was clear that this part of town was not touristy at all, and unlike in Beijing, all the vendors were nice and non-confrontational. For two hours, we wandered through street vendors, and ended at the town square, where we watched around one hundred women dance calmly and gracefully to choreographed songs. We had seen this occur before. It seems that throughout China, in the early morning and in the evening, women (and occasionally men) or all ages come out and do a choreographed dance for an hour or two as a sort of calisthenic exercise and social gathering. Meanwhile, during the dance, fireworks went off over the temple at dusk and throughout twilight. It was nice to end our adventurous trip on such a peaceful note, and it made me wish American communities would adopt this sort of healthy, neighborly routine.

So, overall, the trip was quite the unexpected adventure. Next time, though, I think I’ll stick with independent travelling.

Dancing under the Fireworks

Dreaming in Chinese August 5, 2011

Posted by Kate Bohlmann in Travel Log.
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This past year my mom gave me a charming little book named “Dreaming in Chinese”. The book follows the adventures of an American author and her husband as they lived and traveled around Shanghai and attempted to learn Chinese. Throughout the book, the author reflects on funny little experiences she had in learning Chinese and making mistakes, and how through learning the nuances of the language, she was able to learn small nuances of the culture of China as well. Now that I’m home in the United States, I’ve been able to reflect on what I’ve learned from my experiences in China. This is what I’ve learned about the culture:

Touring Shanghai Jiaotong University's second campus

Squatting toilets- they’re everywhere unless you go to expensive westernized businesses. And they’re actually not that bad or that difficult to use- once you get down the Asian squat. They’re even more sanitary than western toilets in a way, although they can stink up a bathroom a lot.

The Asian squat- it can be difficult for westerners, but it’s the key to be able to use squatting toilets. Asians plant their feet slightly wider than shoulder width, and then sit down on their feet, keeping their heels completely flat on the ground. It’s more stable and comfortable than how westerners squat since their heels are planted instead of raising their heels like westerners. In fact, Asians tend to squat like this everywhere to sit down or rest a little because it’s so comfortable for them.

Being goofy in front of the Shanghai Jiaotong sign :)

They have a unique pace to their life in Shanghai. Shanghai is a huge business center for China, and as such has a very fast-paced business feel to it in places. But the Chinese balance the business pace to their lives much better than I have seen in the western world. Once the Chinese are done with their workday, they slow down and enjoy a cup of tea, go for a walk, or even do tai chi- sometimes while still in their business clothes. It’s essentially a part of their culture. They have so much history and depth to their culture, and part of that is respecting people slowing down their lives and taking care of their health. It’s really interesting to observe.

Along with busy workdays, and resting and relaxing after work, there is a very active night-life in Shanghai as well. Between restaurants, clubs, and karaoke there’s always something to do at night in Shanghai. I had some of the most fun in China in the evenings going to sing karaoke with my friends. It’s inexpensive and also extremely entertaining.

Outside the 4th tallest building in the world

Unfortunately, China is pretty dirty. You can’t help but notice all of the grime as you’re walking down the street. And if you have to walk outside when it’s raining and you’re wearing long pants, you’ll probably want to cuff the bottoms to keep the rain from kicking up grime onto your pants. Also, the air in China is highly polluted. One of the things I missed the most while I was abroad was a full breath of clean, fresh air on a sunny day.

Occasionally the polluted air and dirty streets do make walking around China slightly smelly. But if you are walking down the street and it suddenly starts smelling really badly- like manure- it’s not actually manure, or even the dirt in the street. That smell is actually food. Stinky tofu to be exact. And Chinese people love it. Rest assured, it doesn’t taste like it smells- in fact I tried it myself and I have to admit it wasn’t bad.

Group picture on the stage at my favorite group dinner

All of these were just a few of the things that I noticed about China while I was there. It’s a beautiful country with a rich history and culture, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of my time there. I got to experience the daily life of people in China, eat tons of new foods (yum!), and my Chinese abilities increased dramatically. If you were wondering from the title of this post if I was really dreaming in Chinese, I can say that yes, sometimes I was. All in all it was an amazing experience, I can’t wait until the day that I’m able to go back.

Food! 很好吃! July 7, 2011

Posted by Kate Bohlmann in Travel Log.
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Group dinner the first week

Alright, I’m not going to lie. I love food. And I love to eat. Give me any sort of delicious food and I will be one happy camper. And here in china I’ve been able to experience some pretty delicious food.

Group dinner the first week

First of all, food is dirt-cheap here. I’m talking my breakfast is around 50 cents and my lunch is usually around a dollar (in US dollars). And it’s like that most places we go. I don’t think I’ve paid more than 10 dollars for a meal here in all of the places we’ve gone to eat on our own. And it’s generally pretty delicious food too- or as we would say in chinese- 很好吃- or very good to eat. I’m loving the food here, and I think that will be the thing I miss the most once I’m back in the States.

Me inside Sichuan Folk

But even better than the meals we have on our own, are the meals we have as a big group. We generally have around one to two of these “group dinners” a week, and they’ve been a ton of fun and we’ve tried some really great food. These first two pictures are from a group dinner our first week of the LBAT.

The cool stairway in Sichuan Folk

My favorite group dinner, however, was when we went to a restaurant named Sichuan Folk. We got to try some Sichuan-style food, which, in case you don’t know anything about the various regions of China, is famous for being incredibly spicy. And in case you don’t know much about me, I love spicy food. But this was a whole new level of spicy for me, and while I really enjoyed most all of it, I do have to admit one dish was the spiciest dish I’ve ever eaten. At one point it had me wondering for a few minutes whether I had accidentally crossed my personal line into the level of dangerously spicy. But after drinking a lot of tea and eating less spicy food, it subsided into a general burn in my mouth with a few parts of my mouth being numb.

The pretty table

Aside from that, the dinner was really fun, and I loved all of the food we tried. And I learned my lesson not to eat the peppers and their little black seeds that come with some of the spicy beef. ;) The restaurant we went to looked really cool inside, and so we all had a bunch of fun looking around and taking pictures at dinner. Here are a few of mine.

Our group on the stage

卡拉OK June 22, 2011

Posted by Kate Bohlmann in Travel Log.
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In Asia, karaoke is really a part of the culture. If you want to go out and have fun, you go sing karaoke. In China, there are a bunch of karaoke places around where you go and book a private room for you and your friends for a few hours. Here, we went to KTV. It’s relatively cheap, and incredibly fun.

Outside the karaoke rooms, my friend Sapphire is looking ready for some serious singing

Inside you can sit down on the comfortable leather couches that line the room, and start browsing through the enormous list of songs- which includes both songs in Chinese and English. Usually, we start off picking a few songs and a few different people will get up and sing them and take turns. Eventually though, we’ll end up picking some songs that have us all up and dancing through the room, and singing along at the top of our lungs to the songs. (Luckily the karaoke rooms are sound-proofed, otherwise I’m sure we might’ve had some noise complaints from other karaoke patrons ;) )

Inside the karaoke room, excited to start!

I personally love karaoke, or in Chinese 卡拉OK (kalaOK). It’s always entertaining, and you get to experience some pretty funny moments with your friends, like how I caught my friend Cristina making a cute, funny face while singing in this picture. It really never gets old, and I would highly recommend it to anyone wanting to have a fun night.

My friend Cristina making a funny face while singing ;)

Bao Steel June 12, 2011

Posted by Kate Bohlmann in Travel Log.
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Thinnning the steel
Cool picture of the steam rising

As part of the LBAT, our group gets to make a few visits to businesses in Shanghai. We recently visited bao steel; I would be making an understatement if I said that it was any less than incredibly interesting. When our bus arrived at Bao Steel they told us a little about the history of the company, including the fact that they are the second biggest steel producer in the world! Then as soon as we stepped off the bus we were each handed a hard hat, and walked into their factory to watch the process of producing steel.

Hot steel
Cooling the steel

Their factory appeared to be several massive warehouses. Once inside we went up a couple of flights of stairs to observe the steel production from a catwalk lining the buildings. The man giving us a tour of bao steel had said that it should be a relatively nice day to tour the factory because it wasn’t too hot and their steel production could get to be extremely hot. However, as we walked into the warehouse it was like walking into a wall of heat. And this was cool for them!

The finished steel roll

We watched the part of steel production where they took a huge, red-hot block of steel and thinned it out to be paper-thin, then cooled the steel, and finally bent it into giant rolls of steel. Seeing the red-hot steel pass us and go through various machines, giving off tremendous blasts of smoke, was pretty cool, to say the least. At one point, a really long thinned-out sheet of steel passed by us and you could feel the heat radiating off of it on our skin several seconds later!

Overall, the tour was extremely interesting, and I think we all got some pretty cool pictures of the steel being produced, including this group picture of us outside of the factory.

Group picture

Arrival in Shanghai May 26, 2011

Posted by Kate Bohlmann in Travel Log.
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To start off with- a word to the wise- don’t do what I did. ;)

My parents and I booked my flight to Shanghai for Friday, May 13th at 12:30 am. Unfortunately we each read my departure time as midnight Friday. If you’re seeing where this is heading, yep- you’re right, I missed my flight to Shanghai.

Waiting in the Atlanta airport in the middle of the night

I was driving home the evening before my flight and had a horrible thought- what if 12:30 am Friday meant that night and not the next night like we assumed? I ran inside and checked my itinerary, and sure enough, my flight was supposed to be half an hour from then. As soon as I saw that, I ran downstairs and woke up my mom. We spent the following hours discussing my situation with Korean Air and Expedia. We soon learned that we would have to go to the airport to work with Korean Air at their check-in desk. So I threw everything I was planning on bringing into my suitcase, took a quick shower, and we left for the airport- at 3:30 am.

Since it was the middle of the night we had to wait for the Korean Air desk to open up at 9:15 am.  After working with the Korean Air staff we decided I could try to fly standby to Shanghai. I got on a flight at 1 pm Saturday afternoon, and I arrived in Shanghai at 8 pm Sunday, May 15th. From there it was still sort of an adventure because my taxi driver didn’t speak English and he dropped me off at the front of Shanghai Jiaotong University’s campus. After walking all over campus with my luggage and asking several people in Chinese how to get to my dorm, I finally found it and went right to sleep.

Things are great now that I’m here- I’ve met some awesome people on the trip already, and our classes are really interesting. We even took a city tour and went up to the top of the 4th tallest building in the world, the Shanghai World Financial Center! My Chinese has already improved, too- I’m becoming pretty good at ordering my meals in Chinese. And I have to say I love the food here; I think I’ll really miss my morning baozi for breakfast once I’m back in the States. I’m so excited for everything I’m going to be experiencing here, and I can’t wait to see how much more my Chinese abilities expand. I’ll update on all of the great things we’re doing soon!

Finally arrived! On our city tour of Shanghai

Dragon Boat Festival & Xi’An August 10, 2010

Posted by manningdaniel in Travel Log.
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This week in China is a very special week not only for us but for all of our Chinese friends as well.  It is the Dragon Boat Festival – one of China’s three biggest holidays.  This holiday marks the remembrance of a famous poet and philosopher from Chinese history that drowned himself when he realized no one was listening to him about how to improve China.  The people were sad that he killed himself and didn’t want to fish to eat his body so they threw sticky rice into the water for them to eat instead.  This legend carries on today explaining how the traditional “sticky rice” began and why everyone eats it during the festival.

During this week long celebration, we had the opportunity to visit the home of a Tianjin University Student in order to experience these holiday celebrations in a very authentic fashion.  We traveled about thirty minutes by cab to arrive at her apartment where we were greeted by her mother, who has been teaching herself English in her spare time.  Both the mother and the TJU student were incredibly nice and showed us around their small apartment.  We brought gifts of fruit to thank the family for hosting us.  Then we were taught how to make the sticky rice in its traditional form by wrapping it in reed leaves and then adding sweet red beans and dates.  Later on, when we got to eat our creations, they turned out to be sweet, sticky and delicious.  After this experience, we were treated to a very traditional and complex meal that would be eaten to celebrate the festival.  It involved over twenty different dishes, both hot and cold, and many types of food – most notably including goose eggs, sweet potatoes, shrimp and seaweed.  Some of the dishes were quite delicious, many were rather strange but all of them were very much appreciated.   To wrap up our home visit, we made our own medicine bags.  These were supposed to be sweet smelling and used to warn away evil spirits.  I’m not really an arts and crafts person, but it was still really fun wrapping up paper and string into a traditional medicine bag.  As a parting gift, we were given real medicine bags that had been sewn and put together near Tianjin’s Ancient Culture Street (which looked much better than our simple ones).

The home visits concluded, we proceeded that next weekend to our longest trip away from Beijing of the summer to Xi’An.  This is the home of the “Eight Wonder of the World,” the Terracotta Soldiers.  We had quite the experience getting there too.  Of course, China decided that it would be a great idea to storm as hard as possible that Thursday afternoon as we were trying to catch cabs.  So, about an hour later than planned, we eventually arrived at the Tianjin train station.  We took the bullet train to Beijing and then another cab (as quickly as we could) to the Beijing West Train Station.  We arrived about thirty minutes before our train was supposed to leave and made it onto our overnight train just in time.  Then came an overnight train ride that was over eleven hours long and was definitely far from comfortable (we couldn’t get beds, just seats for the whole journey), but we finally arrived, and for that we were happy.

A quick breakfast of familiar food at McDonald’s energized us for the interesting weekend ahead.   We hired a really friendly, English-speaking tour guide named Rosa to take us around Xi’an for the entire day for only about $5 a person.  She showed us around the Banpo Village, an ancient Chinese village in the area that once was home to only women and was known for its clay works.  Then we arrived at what we had all been waiting for: the Terracotta Soldiers.

What we didn’t expect that once we got dropped off at the “entrance” to the soldiers, we had half a mountain to climb and hundreds of vendors to ward off as they tried to sell us miniature soldiers among cries of “Good Quality!” and “Cheap Price!”  I did eventually buy one for my little brother for $3 though, so I guess they win.  The soldiers themselves were really cool – an entire army made of clay and frozen in time – to protect an emperor in the afterlife as they had protected him in life.  There were also several other exhibits around the soldiers that went into the life of the emperor that commissioned the building of such an extravagant tomb.

Our final day in Xi’An was quite interesting as well.  Xi’An is one of the only cities that still has a complete wall around it from ancient times.  Although the city has now expanded well past the bounds of the wall, it is still maintained as a tourist attraction that you can walk on it and view the inner city.  We were able to rent bikes and explore the entirety of the wall during the morning.  It was really fun (and really bumpy) to go all the way around.  Last of all, we visited the Big Wild Goose Pagoda which boasts the largest choreographed music and fountain show in Asia.  The crowds of Chinese tourists around the fountains were incredible but we had a pretty good view since we got there fairly early (mainly due to miscommunication on when it started).

Overall, Xi’An was a really fun city with lots to do – and we definitely didn’t get to see everything.  I would definitely recommend making the trek out there to visit for anyone going in the future and I would certainly consider making a return trip my next time to China.  The distance of going there and back for the weekend is about the same as taking a weekend trip from Atlanta to Washington D.C. and back (by train) – a lot of travelling.

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Great Wall Adventure August 10, 2010

Posted by manningdaniel in Travel Log.
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Our first weekend in China – I’m both excited and a little anxious about how we’re going to communicate and travel efficiently (or at all).  Of course, our destination is the Great Wall of China.  One of the wonders of the world this is a must see for anyone coming to visit China.  There are three different sections of the wall that are fairly popular to visit (note that I’m just going to sound out Chinese in the future): Battaling (most touristy), Mutianyu (not as crowded but just as beautiful), and Simatie (less crowded, very steep and somewhat dangerous).

Of course we choose to attempt to to Simatie.  Rather than hire anyone or talk to anybody about how to travel there, we follow a guide book that involves almost every mass transit known to man: a taxi to the Tianjin train station, a bullet train to Beijing, a bus to the countryside and a minibus to the wall itself.  Our plans is successful all the way until the minibus portion of the trip where we fail to communicate with anyone what it is we actually need and ultimately fail to get  there (thank you China).

Instead, we spend the night at a hostel in Beijing which turns out to be really awesome.  Its about a five minute walk from Tiananmen square and has a lot of touristy shopping areas near it – where it is definitely fun to barter for things.  Side story: “How much are these sunglasses?” “Oh, they’re very good quality, but for you, I can give you a very good price – 60 yuan each.” Us: “Ummm. No. We’ll do 45 yuan for 3 pairs of sunglasses.” Shopkeeper: “[yelling in Chinese]” We start to walk away. Shopkeeper: “(whispered voice and tapping us on shoulders) Ok, ok.” One pair of sunglasses for $2.20 – check.

We wake up and attempt the Great Wall again, this time to Mutianyu.  After a long minibus ride that our hostel set up for us, we eventually arrive, and it is well worth our struggle to get there.

Walking along the wall for about twenty minutes brings us to large stretches where we are nearly the only ones there.  The wall is absolutely gorgeous and exactly like you would imagine.  It sprawls out in a slightly zigzag pattern out into the distance – over the tops of hills and through the wooded mountains.  We take our time exploring guard towers and signal beacons.  Finally, when it is time to go down we decide to take the toboggan slide rather than walk.

Of course, with China and its lack of real safety laws, this toboggan slide is actually a metal half-pipe that winds its way down the mountain side and we can control the speed of our toboggan with no actual track.  Although it would definitely be possible to slide right out of a turn, it was an incredibly fun way to get down and one I will not likely forget.

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