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Adventures in Inner Mongolia July 31, 2013

Posted by samrwor in Travel Log.
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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

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The Northern Capital July 16, 2013

Posted by samrwor in Travel Log.
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I was sitting on the runway at Hong Kong International airport. As we waited for our turn to take off, I sat silently observing the plane and its passengers. the plane itself was older. the fabric on the seats were worn, and the flight attendants talked through the safety procedures themselves as opposed to showing a video, despite the fact that we were on a 747. Only 2/3rds of the seats were filled, however I happened to be surrounded by a group of very loud and rambunctious adults. The woman next to me was middle age and slightly overweight. She kept fidgeting in her seat, moving from side to side so drastically that she kept running into me. Occasionally, she would lean forward and bang her head and hands against the seat in front of her while shouting lightheartedly in what I assume was Mandarin at the girl in front of her.

As we took off, and as the woman began to lean against me, only one thought was going through my head: “Oh my goodness, I’m going to China.”

Now, I’ve been in the capital city for three weeks. Every day, I manage to discover or observe something unexpected. Due to the sheer number of cultural shocks, I decided to compile a list of some of the more interesting and prominent observations for you. Hopefully, based on these, you’ll be able to better picture the culture in the Northern Capital.

Forbidden City from Coal Park Hill

  • Unsurprisingly, the city is dirty. Trash litters the sidewalks, and people regularly spit on the ground. Occasionally, children will pee in the middle of squares and parents will hold their infants over trashcans when the infants do their business.
  • Bikes are a very frequently used mode of transportation. I easily see over 1000 bikes a day, even when going to class. It is common to see a second person riding on the back of the bikes, often sitting side saddle over the back wheel. I have tried this, and even though it is more of a core workout, its very convenient.
  • People don’t seem to believe in lines. Masses that can loosely be defined as lines will form, however your spot is never guaranteed and cutting and pushing is common.
  • The native food is very oily and salty, and their drinks are extremely sweet. Portion sizes are also huge (bigger than America). I always thought America was the worst place for unhealthy food, but China is a very strong contender.
  • There is a surprisingly vibrant ex-pat scene near the University. As a result, its very easy to find safe, western food. There is a restaurant called La Bamba that is very popular, and they serve 18 RMB burritos and burgers on certain days of the week.
  • For the first week or so, the smog was very bad. I desperately wished for rain to come and wash the smog away. When the rain did come, however, we found that it was acidic. Sometimes, you just can’t win.

AQI of over 450 and an AQI of under 75

  • Men and boys, if you thought American women took a long time in the bathroom, then you should visit a Chinese bathroom. Oh, and on a related note, most places only have squatters.
  • When its hot outside, men will pull their shirts up over their stomachs and walk around.
  • While subway traffic during rush hour can be bad, its certainly not the worst I’ve seen. Naples wins that round.
  • Homeless men keep very young puppies with them on the street. While I’m not sure of their primary purpose, I have heard that they are for sale. I do know that you never see a puppy older than about 15 weeks.
  • Tsinghua, our host university, is the MIT of China. When you say you are studying there, people noticeably change the way they behave around you, and tend to look at you with much more respect. (I should note that the acceptance rate is 0.03%).

Well that concludes one round of observations from Beijing. Its been very interesting to see first hand how people live and do business in a country as large and as ambitious as China. I’ve come to realize that, in many ways, they are not so different from Americans, and I’m curious to see how they will grow in the next 50 years.

Adventures in Thailand June 16, 2013

Posted by samrwor in Travel Log.
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Once I decided to go on the Beijing-Singapore trip, I knew I had to visit Thailand. Everything I had learned about the country through pop culture (think The King and I and Hangover 2)  indicated that the country would be a great place for an adventure. So, when Mariya and I finally found decently priced flights to Bangkok, we jumped on the opportunity.

Street food in Bangkok

We arrived in the city around 11 pm Thursday night. Even though it was late, the city was alive and bustling with locals and tourists. Our hostel was conveniently located in Sukhumvit, one of the more popular night districts in the city, so we spent the evening just walking around the area. As we began walking, we were able to witness the streets transform from a giant outdoor market to a giant outdoor bar. All the vendors on the left and right of the side walk packed up their goods, and as they rolled their giant carts away, other, smaller carts and sometimes vans took their place. From these, you could buy a wide variety of cheap mixed drinks and beer, and then sit down on at any of the numerous folding chairs and tables set up around the mobile bars. Some of the trucks even included disco lights and speakers, from which they would blast American top 40 songs. Between the bars would be different food vendors, where you could buy anything from freshly cooked full meals to freshly prepared fruit. That evening, we decided to snack on rambutans, mangos, and mangosteens, all of which were sweet and refreshing.

The Floating Market

The next morning, Mariya and I woke up early to go on a tour out of the city. We had reserved a tour to the Kanchanaburi region, where we could visit the floating market, elephants, and the Tiger Temple. The whole thing cost about 175 USD, which was a little out of budget, but we figured being able to pet tigers would be worth it. As it turns out, we were right. At 7am, we were met by our driver in the lobby of our hotel, where we soon discovered that we had actually purchased a private tour. We were led to a nice car, where two cold bottles of water were waiting for us. We then began our drive into the country side.

About an hour and a half outside the city, we stopped at the Floating Market. Here, vendors line a small canal, and you can go between each one via a traditional boat. The sellers here were definitely more aggressive than the ones on land, which is saying a lot. They all had poles on hooks and would grab your boat and pull you in. Afterwards, if you showed even mild interest in a product, you would enter into a bargaining contest of sorts. Now, being the American I am (particularly, the Southerner that I am), I am a terrible bargainer. Every time I try to go lower in price, I feel really guilty that I’m actively trying to reduce the seller’s income. However, after going through a few sales, I finally got the hang of it. After that, I mostly stayed quiet with a pensive yet unsatisfied look on my face, which most of the time caused the seller to start bargaining against his or herself. At one point, I wanted to buy a carving of an elephant. The base price was 400 baht. After a while, we reduced it to 300, and she then offered me two for 500. Being the thoughtful buyer that I am, I started to consider my options. Without me saying a word, she ended up giving me 3 elephants for 500 baht. Needless to say, I was very proud of myself.

After the Floating Market, we went on to the city of Kanchanaburi, where we met our guide, Nat. Nat was a very outgoing young woman who had been leading tours like ours for 5 years or so. It was obvious that she enjoyed her job, and she ended up being a superb tour guide. In Kanchanaburi, we visited the famous Bridge over the River Kwai. The scenery was gorgeous, and we ended up eating at a restaurant on the river looking at the bridge. Lunch was an all you could eat Thai buffet, which was included in the price of the tour. Mariya and I stuffed ourselves with spicy pork, papaya salad, sticky rice, and noodles. For dessert, we had plates full of fresh fruit along with fruit smoothies.

Elephant Bathing in the River Kwai

Our next stop was the elephant farm, where we bathed and rode an elephant in and around the River Kwai. Bathing the elephant was the best part. To begin, we climbed onto the elephant bare backed, and rode it down to the river. This whole process was absolutely terrifying. Mariya was in the front around the elephants neck, while I rode behind her holding onto the only rope around the elephants belly. With every step, we would be jerked violently in the same direction. We were able to compensate for this for most of the ride, but when the elephant started going downhill, all our balance went through the window. I have no clue how Mariya was able to stay on with nothing to hold onto, because I was practically being thrown off while holding onto the rope. Fortunately, we made it down to the river, where we proceeded to get blasted with water from the elephants trunk. After maybe 20 minutes of scrubbing him down and playing, we returned to the main building to change for the Tiger Temple. On the drive over, we were presented with another set of cold water bottles and cold towelettes to wash our faces and hands with.

Tiger Temple

The finale of our tour was the part that Mariya and I had both been waiting for. The Tiger Temple is famous for its tigers (of course), and each of the 117 of them have been raised by the monks in the temple. The temple took in its first tiger cub after its mother was killed by poachers. Today, it has turned into a full on conservation project as well as a popular tourist destination. Every afternoon, about 20 tigers or so are brought down to a canyon area after their lunch. There, they get to nap in the shade while tourists, in a very controlled fashion, are allowed to pet them. (The other tigers are allowed to nap somewhere else without tourists.) In order to enter the area, you have to hold hands with one of the volunteers the whole time as a safety precaution. They bring you to about 10 tigers in the enclosure, sit you down in a specified spot, and allow you to pet them with a firm hand. During this time, you can let the volunteer hold your camera, and he or she will take pictures of you free of charge. In addition to doing this, we were also fortunate enough to hold one of the adolescent tiger’s head. Generally, this costs about 30 USD, however, because of our guide’s connections, we were able to do it for three. As a side note, there is much speculation as to whether the temple drugs the tigers in order to do this. Based on my experience, I would say that they don’t. Some were rolling around on their backs, one was ‘cuddling’ with one of the monks, and some of them would raise their heads and yawn on occasion. After all the tigers were pet, our day had officially ended, and our driver took us back to Bangkok. Overall, the tour was incredibly worth it. Even though the Tiger Temple was pretty touristy, it was still a once in a life time experience.

Statue at the Grand Palace

The morning of our departure, we woke up early in order to explore as much of Bangkok as possible. Unfortunately for us, though, the weather had changed from overcast and pleasant to sunny and scorching. So, we ended up being able to see only the Grand Palace before giving up and retreating to air conditioning. (To put things in perspective, after having spend an hour in blasting A/C, my shirt was still wet enough to be wrung out.) The Grand Palace was an impressive site, despite the heat. For those of you who have been taught that Versailles is the epitome of extravagant, I regret to inform you that you have been misled. In the temple section, all the buildings were decorated floor to roof in colored glass and mirror mosaics both inside and out. The whole place literally sparked. There were golden statues of blinged out statues of mythological creatures guarding each doorway and set of stairs. Finally, inside the temple sat the Emerald Buddha, which sits about half a meter high and is made purely of jade and clothed in gold.

After the Grand Palace, we walked around for a bit before heading back home to good ol’ Singapore. I do regret not staying longer, and I feel like in order to fully ‘do’ Bangkok, I would need to be there for at least a week. The two days that we spent there simply served as a taste, and hopefully one day I’ll be able to go back and fully experience the city.

Kuala Lumpur June 3, 2013

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The city from the Batu Caves

This past weekend started off with more adrenaline than anyone could have hoped for. Immediately after taking the final for our first class, 5 other students and myself embarked on a trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Our chosen mode of transportation was an overnight train, which turned out to be a more adventurous choice. Firstly, the train station we needed was at the very northern tip of the city, and it was not easily accessible by the MRT trains. So, for the first time, we decided to test Singapore’s bus system. As a note to all future travelers, buses (while cheap) are very difficult to figure out. Our group ended up getting off the bus about 5 km too early. Three of us were able to snag a taxi, however Mariya and myself found ourselves back on another bus. Naturally, we got off the wrong stop again, and by this time, we had 17 minutes to walk about 1.5 km, clear customs, and board the train. After sprinting with our luggage through the streets of suburban Singapore, we were able to make our 11:30 train with five minutes to spare. Fifteen minutes later, we were crossing the border, out of breath and sweating profusely.

The National Mosque

After a 12 hour train ride (the train broke down for 5 hours), we finally arrived in the city. The first thing I noticed after stepping into the train station was the number of hijabs. Before going to the country, I had done some research about proper attire, and most travel sites suggested that as long as your skirt or shorts reached mid-thigh, you would attract little unwanted attention in this predominantly Muslim country. Upon entering the station, however, it was obvious that we were the only women around with our knees showing.

Inside the National Mosque

Fortunately, no one else seemed to care, and as we ventured around town, we began seeing more and more women wearing knee length shorts and mid-thigh length shorts. Still, I would estimate that approximately 80% of the women that I saw during the day were wearing hijabs with either pants or floor length skirts coupled with long sleeve shirts. The nightlife, however, was an entirely different story. After about 9pm, the ratio seemed to switch, and probably 80% of the women I saw wore clothing that most western women would wear in 90 degree weather. Short shorts, tank tops, and short skirts were everywhere. Oddly enough, I even saw women dressed in outfits that rivaled the worst I’ve seen in the Dirty South. It left me wondering where all these people were hiding during the day.

The Batu Caves

During our days there, we spent time sight seeing, shopping, and wandering around the city center. My two favorite sites were the National Mosque and the Batu Caves. The Mosque was a beautifully designed modern building, with many fountains and open air spaces. The Batu Caves, while a tad touristy, were impressive in size. Inside the main cave was a Hindu Temple, and while climbing the 274 steps to get there, we ran into monkeys for the first time.

Of course, after seeing the sights, we decided to hit the markets. The two main ones we visited were Chinatown and Central Market. Both offered very different environments and goods. In Chinatown, there were tons of knock off items available, from Prada to Ray Bans to Beats headphones. The area was always incredibly crowded, and vendors moved in and out of the crowds heckling their goods and services. My favorite phrase I heard came from a man trying to sell foot massages. In an attempt to get one of my friends attention, he shouted “You are really, really white!”.

Hindu temple at the bottom of the cave

Central Market was a different story. There, the vendors were less aggressive, and the goods were primarily authentic and regional products. This was the place  to find inexpensive yet relatively high quality items, such as pashmina scarves, wood carvings from Borneo, and vibrant clothing stores.

At the end of a relaxing weekend, we all headed home on the overnight train once more. By the time we got to the University, we had about 30 minutes to shower before rushing off to the first class of our next module. Such is life during study abroad; lots of hard work filled with amazing adventures!

Hello Singapore! May 24, 2013

Posted by samrwor in Travel Log.
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If you’re an engineer ex-patriot looking for a home, look no further than Singapore. After only having been in this beautifully modern city for a week, I’m nearly ready to move halfway around the world. The mixing of cultures make Singapore a place that’s ripe for exploring.

Sri Mariamman Temple

The first thing I noticed when I got here was how clean and orderly everything and everyone was. The highways were beautifully landscaped with the guard rails hiding in flowering bushes and tall, tropical trees arching over the roads. A few hours later, while on the metro on the way into the city, I was shocked at how pristine the stations and streets were. Not only was there no litter to be seen, but even the dirt and grime that would be expected on the floors of a heavily traversed area were completely cleaned away. The walls and seats literally glimmered in the light. As if to compliment their environment, the people were quite orderly: never pushing their way onto the trains and standing in away from the doors as others disembarked.

The second aspect I noticed was the blend of cultures. Ethnically, 75% of Singaporeans are Chinese. The remaining percentage is split among the Malays and the Indians, and there is a small yet significant number of Europeans and Arabs. This means that you can find just about any cuisine you desire (with the unfortunate exception of Mexican). Probably one of the tastiest foods I’ve found here is juice. The juice here is super fresh and unlike anything I’ve seen in the states. All around the city, from China town to the University, there are juice stalls, where you choose a fruit and the employee throws it in a blender with some water and purees it for you. The options range from banana to dragon fruit to sugar cane.

Laksa

A day after our arrival, we began our classes, which are unlike anything any Tech student is used to. The way the program is set up, we go through one semester’s worth of material for one class every 2.5 weeks. This means that during our time here, we will be able to focus entirely on one class at a time. While the timing can be stressful grade wise, I’ve found that it makes it easier to understand the material when you aren’t distracted by other classes. It also helps that because our classes are small (around 40 students), the professor is able to interact with the students through out the lecture. The professors themselves are also fantastic. The two I’ve met so far, Drs. Lee and Chew, are both excited about teaching and genuinely care about student success.

So, for now, I’m super excited to spend the next 4.5 weeks in this beautiful country!