Ben in China

Ben is a junior from Dallas majoring in history, with minors in Chinese and business, who is spending Spring 2008 in Beijing at the Capital University of Economics and Business.

Home from Beijing

The Olympics are over, and America has turned its attention to the Democratic and Republican conventions as well as Hurricane Gustav. I am also now back in Dallas, and it is great to be home. Although, I still haven’t written about my last few weeks in Beijing. I definitely had a grand goodbye.

ben_2049-sm.jpgOpening ceremony excitement

I didn’t score tickets to the opening ceremony, but I had a memorable and very comfortable experience. It was incredibly humid that night, so instead of heading outdoors to one of the many viewing pavilions across the city or to the Bird Nest itself, I was in Beijing’s newest sports bar – in fact, it opened about thirty minutes before the opening ceremony started.

It was a great place to be because CCTV, China’s state-owned television company, was there filming the watching party; also in the venue that night were some NBA coaches watching the game. That just goes to show how hard it was to get tickets for the ceremony if there were NBA coaches at a bar and not on the Olympic Green itself.

Nonetheless the energy there was just as electric as at the Bird Nest, and it was an amazing feeling being only a few miles away from focal point of the world – an estimated 4 billion tuned in to watch the opening ceremony! When the parade of nations began, everyone in the bar cheered for every country. There were people from several different nations, so it was great to be surrounded by a diverse crowd.

I was afraid of what would happen when the American athletes came out, but everyone cheered just as loud for them as for any other country, except for China, who got a standing ovation. However, when the cameras panned to a picture of President Bush, the reception for him was not the same; regardless it was great to see other nations offering up their support for our athletes.

Beijing during the Olympics

The mood of the city constantly changes, and once the Olympics started there was a great energy everywhere. Beijing was at its best, and the city was flooded with athletes and spectators from around the world. For example, I went to the major knockoff market near school (it also happens to be the biggest one for tourists) and saw about 10 nations’ athletes wandering around the stalls looking for deals on everything from watches to cameras. That kind of encounter became commonplace over the next few weeks, and it was a great experience.

Another example of this global encounter happened on one of the major bar streets; there were a bunch of Brazilians outside one of the usual hangouts, and they had brought along their guitar and drums and started an impromptu party in the street. People from all different nations were joining in and just having a great time.

Besides the seemingly ubiquitous revelry, traffic and other aspects of Beijing life were admittedly different, but still as convenient as ever. Well, that’s if you stayed away from the major tourist sites and Tiananmen Square. I did not dare go to these usual places because they were swarmed with tourists. But since Beijing is a huge, huge city I managed to avoid most of the really congested areas. We also learned on weekends to head out a bit earlier before major night spots became really crowded.

What was also great about the Olympic period was that reporters were everywhere. I had several friends that got on NBC, CCTV, and other media outlets from France to Australia. There were 20,000 plus journalists who came to Beijing for the Olympics, and since we live in the downtown area, it was almost harder to not have someone snap your picture.

ben_2129-sm.jpgThe Olympic matches

I went to a few matches that included Boxing and Beach Volleyball, and for the most part the events themselves were great and had a really good production value to them. There were cheerleaders and music breaks perfectly placed between competitions. What was also interesting about the matches were the number of EMPTY seats – most of the events did sell out, but the problem was that the Chinese only wanted to see Chinese athletes compete.

Additionally, since an overwhelming majority of the tickets went to the Chinese, the flow of spectators at events was interesting to watch. For example, at the beginning of a set of beach volleyball matches, the arena was absolutely full, but after the Chinese team competed the stands cleared out even though there were two more matches left to go. I quickly learned that for the most part the Chinese did not really care about the sport they were seeing as much as they did about seeing their country’s athletes compete. (Except for diving and a few others, of course.)

That’s great and all for the patriotic side of things, but it’s definitely a shame that the seats went wasted for others that might have stayed the whole set to see other countries play.

The end of my time in Beijing

It was really hard to come home, but at the same time I was ready for it. My time at Associated Colleges in China (ACC) was great and so rewarding, but I definitely needed a break from the same intense schedule every day. Our graduation ceremony was fun, and we had a nice Beijing duck dinner with our teachers afterward. Although, I didn’t stay up all night like I did at the end of the first semester – I had too much to do that next day and then head back to Dallas the day after that.

In any case, my last night in Beijing was really sad because it finally sunk in that I was leaving. On my last night I came back from a night out with some of my classmates and realized that this was the last time I would be making this trek back to the dorm.

As I looked out the window I saw the CCTV tower looming in the distance and the lights from the Chaoyang district all around me. Despite school wearing me out, I definitely decided then and there that I would be coming back to Beijing. The city grew on me despite my initial apprehensions, and there are so many quirks to this city that make it special and characteristically different from any other place I have been.

I have seen Beijing go through a lot in the past eight months, and I have to say that I changed with it. I know that when I come back the city will have changed momentously from when I left, but that’s why I love it: Beijing and the rest of China are experiencing living history. It’s not as static as what you would see in Europe; there are so many changes occurring here at every level of society that are unheard of during any other period of history. What makes these changes even more amazing is China’s history and its turbulent experience stepping into modernity. They haven’t come full circle yet, and their future stability and success are far from guaranteed, but so far they have done a lot to prove they can adapt.

Lastly, my time in Beijing was a humbling one. I met so many amazing people that made me realize how much harder I can push myself. The Chinese have a work ethic and a sense of determination that is unseen in the West, and my teachers at ACC definitely gave us a huge dose of it.

Additionally, it was amazing to see into the lives of real Beijingers and talk to them about their experiences – they have seen so much change in the last thirty years, and to be with them and live with them as they experience the Olympics was unforgettable. I really had the opportunity to personally witness a great time in modern history.

It was great to live in Beijing while reading about how it was reported back home. For the most part the journalists did a great job of providing a snapshot of China, but I have to say that people shouldn’t accept that snapshot as the whole picture.

What I have come to learn about China is that there is always more than what meets the eye – it’s impossible to pigeonhole it. Additionally, those who try to pin China as one way or the other will face a harsh reality when their theory or perception crumbles before them. Between the sheer amount of people, the government, and its history, China is a complicated place. It’s great because that means there will always be more to learn and discover. It’s also bad because that means there are elements to China that are unthinkable by most.

Regardless, I urge everyone to see China for themselves; they will discover that some of the cliches are true and then they will discover their own China – for the good and the bad.

One thing that I hope everyone can discover is how warm the Chinese are – for the most part I had a really great time meeting new people. From my teachers to my friends I made in Beijing, they were really a hallmark to my experience and made it as great as it was.

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Photos from Beijing

Ben-IMG_2016-sm.jpgHere are some pictures from the Olympic Green – taken on Sunday, when the skies were blue. We’ll see how it goes come Friday for the big day!

Just as the reports say, security here is very tight. For example, the campus where I’m living is closed to all non-staffers and foreign students until after the Olympics. Also all the private residential compounds around school that are normally open to walk through are now closed to non-residents.

On Friday for the Opening Ceremony, some roads will be shut down as preventative measures. Also, most non-hospitality businesses are closing early so everyone can get home to watch the big event. There are lots of major parties planned that night, too.

Ben-IMG_2004-sm.jpg The photo at right is looking at the National Aquatic Center through one of the security checkpoints-the speed bumps are actually cameras that look under each car that enters the Olympic Green. Also, until after the Olympics only ticketed and accredited people can enter the park.

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Life update, pre-Olympics

Hi all! I hope you like the Gotham blog – I had been thinking about that one for a while so I spent some time working on it.

Life here is getting crazier and crazier by the day! Only two weeks until the Opening Ceremony. I have no idea what I will be doing for the ceremony; I may try to go to the Olympic Green to watch it because of recent reports I have seen. To draw up hype for the ceremony they have been doing firework rehearsals that look amazing. I am also excited for August 8 in general; there is so much riding on that day for the Chinese, so I’m sure the country will come to a standstill as everyone watches the ceremony.

Getting ready for the Games
Security in the city has also become more intense and sometimes a downright burden. They recently closed our campus to all non-students, faculty and staff – the same goes for all universities in Beijing. Also, the subways have screening just like in airports – but it’s a random sample since the subways carry thousands upon thousands of people per hour. Surprisingly people are really patient with the process and understand it’s for the sake of safety. Although, I have to say I’m a bit disappointed they closed a complex that is within an Olympic sports complex. It was a major hangout for me this year and has one of the best pizza places in the city. I guess they don’t want those venues open while competitions are going on next door.

Also, Beijing’s roads are a little bit emptier these days with the new traffic laws in place. Private cars can only be used every other day, depending on one’s plate number and whether it ends in an even or odd number. Unfortunately, the pollution levels here are still awful so I don’t know how it will be come time for the Olympics. Everything else seems to be falling into place well – it’s just the pollution that isn’t cooperating.

What is also great about being here right now is that all these new shopping and entertainment complexes are opening on a daily basis. One right near campus called the San Li Tun Village just opened about two weeks ago – it has the first Apple store in China as well as the world’s largest Adidas store. There is also another major complex near school that just opened, but I have not had the chance to go over there yet.

The other day I was on the subway and ran into two volunteers for the Olympic Press Center. They were decked head to toe in Olympic gear and had on their huge security cards. I managed to strike up a conversation with them for a bit, and they seemed to really like their jobs. They are college students from Beijing’s communications university, and they work as media liaisons in the Press Center. They told me they had spent the day checking in reporters and worked especially close with the staff from Sports Illustrated.

Tickets? Good luck
Today, Friday, the Beijing Olympic Committee released the last of the tickets for the Olympics, so I thought after my Chinese test I would head to Chaoyang Park, which is close to school, to try to buy tickets for sand volleyball. HA, what a joke that was. I got there late because I had to finish my test first. By the time I got there the front gates had been closed because they had over 3,000 people waiting in line to buy tickets. That isn’t even the worst of it. At the main box office on the Olympic Green there were nearly 40,000 people waiting for tickets such as basketball and swimming. If I had arrived at 6 am I would have had a chance to get tickets, but since I had my test no such luck. I can’t complain too much, though, since I still have my tickets to boxing.

Life at ACC is going well – I can tell I am still making large strides in my language development, and reading is becoming lots easier. I only have three weeks left here, and the feeling of leaving is bittersweet. One on hand I miss my friends and family, but now I am getting over the homesickness and am starting to think about what I can do to get back here after graduation in May. This city really draws you in – I never thought I would like it this much.

I’ll give a report once the Olympics are under way.

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Is Beijing the new Gotham City?

With the release of the Dark Knight (which isn’t being launched in Beijing, by the way), I thought about Gotham City and its interpretation of a futuristic metropolis. With each new Batman film, there is a new take on what a futuristic city should look like. Regardless of the style or direction taken by the director and production staff, Gotham always manages to awe us and keep our imaginations running on what New York, London, Tokyo and the like could transform into in the distant future. For our parents: what did you imagine the Manhattan skyline would look like in the year 2000?

I believe that Beijing could be the next Gotham: between its architecture and stark contradictions, there is so much to this city that makes it unique and modern. Its architecture and history have no rivals, and their co-existence yields a capital city unlike any other in the world.

Building boom
Living in the Central Business district, I get to look out my window at the harbingers of Beijing’s architectural future: the CCTV tower, Shin Kong Place and the Mandarin Oriental. Of these three, the CCTV tower, along with the National Theater for the Performing Arts and several of the Olympic venues, mark the start of a new era for China’s capital. No longer will it play the second city to Shanghai and Hong Kong’s dazzling skylines. Instead, Beijing is forging a name for itself by intertwining its historic architecture with modern icons that are only imaginable by some of today’s most prolific architects. With an excess of human labor and a seemingly limitless amount of funds, no project or idea is too outlandish for the Beijing government. Right now, Beijing is essentially the breeding ground for tomorrow’s architecture.

Take, for example, the CCTV Tower, the new T3 Terminal and the National Center for the Performing Arts. They all have astronomical budgets and incorporate technology that would make anyone’s head spin, but they are there to serve the public just as any other similar venue in the States. However, China pulls out all the stops, and each of Beijing’s new icons are full of symbolism that justifies investing in the largest pieces of public art in the world.

When Olympic spectators land in Beijing’s Terminal 3, they descend into the world’s largest terminal: When arriving off an international flight, it would take about half an hour to walk from the arrivals hall to the baggage claim. (Luckily it’s only a six-minute walk to a tram that takes you to the baggage hall.) The terminal itself is as long as downtown Manhattan is wide (about 2 miles).

700 years ago
On the other hand, what also makes Beijing unique is its unrivaled architectural history: from the Forbidden City to the Hutongs (alleyways), China’s capital is distinguished by its ancient layout that dates back to the 1300s. The city itself is set on a series of North/South/East/West meridians, and most major roadways radiate from the Forbidden City – the literal heart of Beijing. The very nature of this city carries imperial and celestial implications. Walking through the Hutongs or spending an afternoon at the Summer Palace, you are transported back to another world of emperors and eunuchs.

Although the major monuments have been preserved to their former glory, the Hutongs themselves are an endangered treasure. Hutongs are a complex system of alleyways and courtyard homes that surrounded the Forbidden City and radiate out around the rest of Beijing. The ones that still exist today are a confusing maze of alleys that are hard to navigate.

What makes them so special is that these alleys are where regular Beijingers used to live, and their way of life was unique and extremely communal because of the Hutong structure. One courtyard would house four familiy units that all looked out onto an outdoor area. Confines were, of course, very small and close, so people lived their lives outdoors and, more notably, together. Your neighbors were your family, and everyone knew what everyone else was doing.

Walking through what is left of the Hutongs, you feel that you are in the real Beijing. For the few remaining Beijingers left living in their courtyard homes, they’re the final Chinese holding onto to a way of life that dates back 700 plus years.

For expats and Chinese alike who know Beijing and appreciate it for its history, they despair at the way the government and developers have torn down these historical Hutongs to build modern complexes that will definitely fail the test of time and usual wear and tear. Beijing is a forerunner in modern architecture, but many of its new structures lack the quality of Western nations’. That’s not to say the buildings are one day going to collapse, but new buildings here age extremely quickly and will need to undergo refurbishment much more frequently than in the West.

Additionally, the remaining preserved courtyard homes are going to high bidders that renovate these units into luxury homes that only house one family versus four, and life has become quiet and private. This is not Chinese at all – instead they enjoy loud and energetic surroundings. (Go to any major restaurant here and you’ll understand.)

Others turn Hutong streets into shopping streets that look like old Hutongs, but have lost that true Beijing feeling that can only be brought about by close communal living. Some consider Hutong development the “Disneyfication” of historic Beijing, a watered-down version of the real thing.

Dark and light
Finally, Beijing is like Gotham in that there are clear forces of good and bad, rich and poor, the strong and the defenseless. This city is chock-full of contradictions that tourists can pick up on their first day in this city. They can see the wealth and glamour of the Chaoyang District, but drive 20 minutes out of the city center and you see that rundown apartment blocks grossly outnumber the master-planned compounds and dingy side streets that betray the glamour and modernity this city is striving to achieve. Or go to the 798 art district, where peasant workers renovate art galleries while wealthy clients drive past in Range Rovers. One could also go to any one of the bar streets and see beggars sitting outside new mega bars.

But unlike Gotham, there is no one to save the day. Instead, this city blazes forward trying to find its identity and solve economic, social and political problems on a truly grand scale. I do not envy the Beijing government – its job is not easy and its ambitions are out of this world.

After the Olympics, what Beijing will become is anyone’s guess, but for now it is the city of tomorrow. Beijing really does defy the conventions of a mega city, and with its debut to the world this year, it is not such a bad place to be. Many expats agree that after living here a while, Beijing imbues you with a strong sense of cynicism: life here is full of challenges that keep life interesting and frustrating. But this city grows on you, and finally seeing the product of years of headaches for everyone is a rewarding experience.

Olympics around the corner, a nice slideshow from the Boston Globe.

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Summertime in Beijing

Classes at ACC are back in full swing, and we’re about to dive into our 3rd week of lessons.

Life as an “old student”
I have to say that I’m now used to the class format here, and it was a fairly smooth transition into the usual weekly routine. Granted, it still takes a lot of time and energy to get through a week here, but at least it is nothing new now. The teachers have a higher demand for returning students, so we “old students” had to work harder than I first expected.

Also, what was interesting starting this semester was watching the new students acclimate to life here: from the language pledge to the large amounts of homework, I saw how they struggled just as I did my first few weeks here. It really gave me a sense of how far I have come since January. Being at ACC is like riding a bike just after having the training wheels taken off: at first it’s awkward and difficult and you’re going to fall sometimes, but give it time and you’re off without any troubles and it becomes fun. I also feel that I have really developed my own personality with the Chinese language, and I am having much more fun with the language than I did first semester.

Breaking in new teachers
Additionally, ACC hired on a bunch of new teachers for the summer, and it is also funny to see them acclimate to teaching foreigners. As in most Chinese organizations and companies, there is a distinct hierarchy that divides the teachers into different status levels depending on their tenure here at ACC.

There is the administrative head staff that runs the program and can teach at any level anytime and help out when other teachers are out. Then there are the directors for each grade level; these teachers also teach the first and second drill classes of the day. Next are the newest teachers who handle the 2-on-1 and 1-on-1 classes.

So on the first day of class I was paired with a new teacher for my 1-on-1 class, and it was an experience for both of us to struggle through the recitation drills required of a 1-on-1 class here. It’s great getting to know the new teachers, and they’re really curious about foreigners. One thing in particular that caught my attention was how a few of them were anxious to hear our views on Tibet and Taiwan; I think four teachers have already approached me or in class asked me about these issues, which happen to be the most sensitive political issues here.

Making SMU and ACC connections
One thing that has been fun about Beijing is networking – coming from ACC and having connections through SMU, it has been easy and fun meeting people who have amazing jobs and connections in this city.

What’s also great is that foreigners who already live here are eager to meet students such as myself and really talk about my future in China and what I want to do. I have some idea, but as with most students embarking on their senior year of college, it is daunting to think that I have to make that decision in the coming months ahead.

I think that’s what is great about being in Beijing now is that I have time to look around and meet people. As of now I do not have one goal or company in mind, so I just meet as many people as I can and try to build a better picture for myself of this dynamic city and what it has to offer.

I really want to try to put a law career and China together, so we will see what I come up with in the years ahead. I’m so used to planning what will happen next and knowing what’s around the corner, but for now it feels like one big wild card – we’ll see what happens next.

Missing Mi Cocina
Another new experience I’m going through now is homesickness. Last semester I felt as though I did not look back and just focused on being in Beijing, and it was fun. That’s not to say Beijing has lost its luster; life here throws new challenges and excitements at you from every angle and it is still fun. However, I know in the back of my head that I only have about seven weeks left and I guess I’m preparing for going home.

I’m missing things like Mi Cocina’s Ernie’s Chicken plate and Sonny Bryan’s BBQ, especially fried okra! I know when I go home though that I will miss the amazing experiences that I have every day here; there is so much to this city and living in China’s capital – there’s no other place like it in the world.

I also think I have forged some great friendships with my classmates that will last a lifetime, especially with the kids who were here last semester with me. Going through ACC is a challenging experience, and to share that with some of my classmates really establishes a common bond.

Celebrating the 4th
An experience that we all went through this past week was celebrating the 4th of July abroad. We all made the most of it by going out to a restaurant here that had an Independence Day party. It was really fun, but of course it doesn’t make up for not being at home for that holiday. Our teachers asked us what we do to celebrate the 4th, and we all said watch fireworks, eat hamburgers, hot dogs, and hang out outside with family and friends. It seems basic, but the act of that celebration at home with family and friends is a big deal, and being here made me realize how special that tradition is to us as Americans. I don’t think that we can replicate that experience abroad, but we had fun with it in China.

American-Chinese exchanges
This past week the president for Williams College spoke at ACC about the U.S. higher education system and its relationship with Asia and China. Williams College is a part of a consortium of small East Coast liberal arts schools that contribute to the financial management of ACC.

He had some shocking facts to share with us, such as the number of Americans studying in China and the Chinese in the States. Currently, there are 68,000+ Chinese from the Mainland and Taiwan studying in the United States. As far as Americans studying in China, that figure is dismal at a mere 8,000.

As far as careers go, that’s good for those of us already here since our numbers are quite limited. But that goes to show how many more Chinese are studying our culture and becoming familiar with the West versus the smaller number of Americans learning and understanding the Chinese culture. This definitely puts us at an intellectual disadvantage in the long-term dialogue between our country and China since there are fewer Americans cognizant of their world.

Getting ready for the Olympics
Finally, the Olympics are around the corner!! We’re about 5 weeks out, and the city is putting on the final touches before the legions of athletes and tourists descend on Beijing. Most teams arrive around August 4th – I know that part or all of the US team will acclimate to the time zone and do some training in Singapore before coming into Beijing. The air quality here still leaves lots to be desired, and I think some of the national teams don’t want to take chances before they compete here.

There is still construction everywhere, and sometimes it is hard to differentiate what is construction for the Olympics and what is just China’s development boom in general. To some extent these go hand in hand, but some of these projects are being put on hold during the Olympics only to be finished after the Paralympics conclude in September.

In any case the city becomes more and more spectacular every day. For example, I was walking to grab come coffee last night near school, and I noticed on the new Beijing World Trade Center tower that the north face of the building was one big screen. The Beijing WTC looks similar in style and height to the one that was in New York City, but with a modern twist and probably about 20 stories shorter, and only one tower. So needless to say, it was pretty cool to see this huge screen on the side of a skyscraper.

Also, the $700m CCTV tower is putting on its last sections of glass, and probably will be done externally in time for the Olympics. They just erected what looks like a helicopter pad on its roof to lift off the cranes that have been there since I arrived.

Another point of interest is that they just installed security stations at each of Beijing’s subway stations in preparations for the Olympics. Beijing’s subway system is already massive and carries unfathomable amounts of people, so they don’t want to take any chances with security. Additionally, even after the Olympics are over, Beijing will continue construction on its subway system to extend the lines even farther out into the suburbs – as of now it is slated to become the largest subway system in the world in ten years.

The scaffolding is also coming off the last of the major sights in Beijing, and the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, and Temple of Heaven are restored to their former glory of centuries past. These restoration projects have taken years: when I was here in 2005 about a quarter of the Forbidden City was shut down and the Summer Palace was essentially shut down except for its outer gardens. The 798 art district is also putting the final touches on new displays and will open its most famous gallery after massive renovations and will have an amazing new exhibition just in time for the Olympics. Additionally, Adidas is opening up a new flagship store right near school that is five stories tall – kind of like a Niketown in the States.

It’s also getting harder and harder to haggle the prices I was getting in January for different things at the famous knock-off market near school; it’s summer and there are plenty of tourists who will pay whatever they’re told. Who knows what their prices will be in August? Fortunately I speak Chinese so they won’t be able to pull one over on me like they can to the others.

I’ll keep you updated with Olympic happenings as the opening ceremony comes closer, but if you want to get an idea for yourself of life in Beijing, check out these sites for some insider information:

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Taking a break in Australia

China is a world unto itself. Its Chinese name, “Zhong Guo,” means the Middle Kingdom after the traditional belief that China was the center of civilization.

This belief is still a major pillar in what it means to be Chinese, and while most Chinese recognize there are other parts of the world, a Chinese tourist could be in Italy or Germany and refer to Italians or Germans as foreigners. This is because Westerners and all non-Chinese are foreign to the billion-plus population of China.

The population here is relatively homogenous, and while there are many minority populations, a blond-haired girl from Colorado or a 6’6″ guy from Texas will turn heads in even the most internationalized districts of Beijing or Shanghai. In essence the Chinese are accustomed to being around people like themselves, and since that vast expanse of homogeny makes up most of the Chinese population’s worldview, it seems instinctual to call everyone else different from them a foreigner.

And for me, while I love China, no matter how hard I try, I will never blend in. My friends who are in Europe studying abroad at least have a decent chance of mastering Spanish or French and will have the fortune of being mistaken as a local … I definitely don’t have that chance. Despite that, I definitely feel welcomed in Beijing, and coming back after graduation next May would excite me to no end. I feel attached to this city and have made lots of friends and memories here.

Time for a time-out
However, I have come to the realization that every once in a while, foreigners need a break from China. Life in most Chinese cities is busy and very fast, but it has to be: With the amount of growth and change happening at every level, the well-worn term “sink or swim” applies. Even when it comes down to daily life, this maxim is quite relevant.

For example, the subway and sidewalks at rush hour look like sheer chaos and unconquerable for a first-timer to China. To stand still amid the oncoming wave of people is even scarier than the thought of keeping pace. Yet after a while, the masses of people and cars honking past turn into patterns and you begin to find your way through it all. It definitely takes energy and effort, but to make your way home during the rush of the day with nerves intact definitely carries a sense of accomplishment. This seems really basic, but it really is one of the first levels in getting used to living here. Next comes the ability to haggle prices, and it goes on from there. (If you come here without knowing the language … there are a whole other series of steps that make the entire process a million times harder.)

Bottom line, between the long hours of school and the acclimatization to China, I welcomed the hop down to Australia. It was also great because I got to see some familiar faces from home. Granted, I have made lots of new friends in Beijing, but there is something to be said for seeing people who connect me to Dallas.

Family and friends in Australia
The flight was actually really easy, even though it was still ELEVEN hours. Australia is really off on its own, but the time change is only two hours, so that made the adjustment really quick. Once I landed, I realized I was yet again in a totally different world. I also had a great welcome because my mom, Heidi and Justin welcomed me at the airport. I should probably explain who these people are and why they were already at the airport waiting for me.

My mom, Arlene, has worked at SMU for over 25 years in Student Affairs, and Heidi was one of her close students about seven years ago. I also made buds with Heidi since I used to hang out around SMU before becoming a student there, and since then our family and Heidi’s have become close family friends. (Her family also lives in the Dallas area, and her younger brother went to my high school.)

Anyways, Heidi graduated SMU and went off to Harvard Business School and is now working for one of the world’s top consulting firms. Now she is living in Sydney and invited us out to visit her whenever we had a chance. She promised that she and her boyfriend, Justin, would be happy to play host to us. Since I am in China and my mom has always wanted to go to Australia, this seemed like a perfect time to head Down Under. I think the relationship my mom and Heidi have forged is definitely an indicator of the SMU community and how tight-knit it can be, even after Mustangs graduate!

But I digress … the minute we left the airport we headed to Heidi’s apartment to drop off my bags and run on over to Sydney’s most famous beach: Bondi. Yes the beach is cool and it’s huge and in Australia they have a TV show about the lifeguards at Bondi Beach (reality show), but what really got me were the cloudless blue skies. Those were a sight for sore eyes … living in Beijing doesn’t really afford its residents many clear days, so this alone left me in awe. The people who usually hang around Bondi are also really good looking and the laid-back attitude is contagious.

Sight-seeing in Australia
After that we got ready for dinner and headed out to one of Sydney’s touristy bars, an ice bar. I know they are in other cities, but it was my first time to go to one and it was really cool. The whole bar is made of ice and there are large ice sculptures everywhere. They put you in huge parkas and your drinks are served to you in glasses made from glacier ice in New Zealand. I have to admit it was really kitschy and you’re only allowed 30 minutes in the ice chamber to prevent frostbite and to keep the crowds moving through.

I arrived on a Saturday, and that Sunday we all headed out of Sydney and up to Hunter Valley, which is Australia’s oldest wine region. From what I have been told, Australia’s wine regions, specifically Hunter Valley and the Barossa in southern Australia, definitely give Napa a run for its money and are becoming quite popular around the world. (You can find major labels such as Penfold’s and Tyrrell in the States … both really good by the way.)

It was my first time to go wine tasting, and it was a great experience to learn how that whole process works and a bit about wine. Aussies know their wine and it has a serious following. Despite the fact it is wintertime down there, their winters are extremely moderate and the Hunter Valley was still really green and a great sight to see.

The Great Barrier Reef
Monday marked the start of our mini-trip in Australia. My mom and I headed north to the tropical North Queensland to visit the Great Barrier Reef and then on to Ayers Rock. After all, this was our first trip down under so we had to hit up the big stuff first.

In Tropical North Queensland we stayed outside of Cairns on an amazing beach called Palm Cove. Our hotel sat in the rainforest and on the beach, so we had great access to the water or walking around the forest. We had about five days there, so we took advantage of the Great Barrier Reef and the rainforest in our hotel’s back yard. The highlight of this leg was definitely the Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef was an amazing sight and really an escape to another world. After an hour-long boat ride straight out from the coast, we stopped at a mooring and jumped off the back to snorkel around one of the many reefs. (The Great Barrier Reef isn’t one continuous entity, but a chain of reefs spanning the northeast coast of Australia.)

I’m really glad we opted for snorkeling because we really got to see more than the scuba divers. The reefs are for the most part shallow, and you get some great views from overhead. And, if you ever want a closer look you can duck dive down closer, but the views are great either way. We saw two sea turtles and fish that I could not even imagine. The reefs looked just like the shows on the Discovery Channel, and they were massive. I did feel awfully large, though, compared to the reef; I guess it was because I was swimming among all these fish that were obviously much smaller than me.

The boat’s staff recommended we look for sharks, and they said it in a nonchalant way without caution or fear. I wasn’t too nervous, and they said that the sharks that hang out there aren’t dangerous. Luckily, though, we didn’t come across any.

Ayers Rock and big skies
Next on our itinerary was Ayers Rock, which was again another world unto itself. We flew direct from the Cairns in tropical North Queensland down to the Rock. The vast change that occurred as we flew from the rainforests of the northeast coast into Australia’s red center was amazing. The coastal rainforests quickly gave way to drier plains and then into a red desert with not a road or a house in sight. (Australia’s 20 million-plus population resides around the coast, especially in the southeast in Sydney and Melbourne.) So, when we landed at Ayers Rock I realized that there is next to nobody out there. The Ayers Rock Resort itself is a self-contained town that exists only because the Rock is there. The hotels and staff are all imported from other parts of the country and the world.

ben3.jpgAyers Rock was a really cool experience. Our first night there we went stargazing. The sights were incredible because there was no light pollution to speak of and the southern hemisphere enjoys the best views of the Milky Way. In comparison, the northern hemisphere can only see the tail end of the galaxy, so we miss the best part of the night sky. There was also a powerful telescope on hand and we could clearly see Saturn.

The next morning we got up at 5 am to catch the sunrise at Ayers Rock. It was amazing to see the dramatic changes that happen to the entire landscape as the sun comes up over the horizon. The centerpiece is obviously the rock itself as the sun causes it to change colors, but the sky and the red sand around the rock also change as the sun comes up. The landscape is simple, but its vast expanse and the stark contrasts between the red ground and the blue sky make for an amazing view that changes with the position of the sun.

After the sunrise we made our way over to the Ayers Rock/ Olgas Cultural Center. To clarify, the Olgas are another set of rocks that shoot out of the ground not far from Ayers Rock. The Olgas are a series of mini “Ayers Rocks” that comprise an area greater than Ayers itself. It is also interesting to note that Ayers Rock and The Olgas are the names the Westerners gave the rocks. The Aborigines call Ayers “Uluru” and the Olgas “Kata Tjuta.” And the staff at the resort calls the rocks by their native names instead of the Western ones out of respect for the Aborigines.

At the Cultural Center, we learned a lot about the Aboriginal history in the area and the relatively recent handover of Ayers Rock National Park back to the Aborigines from the Australian government. However, the Aborigines don’t have the know-how or capacity to manage the tourism that comes to the park so they lease the land back to the government – provided they still hold a majority vote in the area’s governance.

That same day, we also headed back to Ayers Rock for sunset, which was a lot more captivating than sunrise, and the changes in the sky and rock felt more pronounced and vivid. I had to stop for a minute and remind myself that there are hundreds of people hanging out staring at a rock, which seems kind of odd. I have to say, though, the view really is captivating and the simplicity of the environment only adds to that wonder.

As we left Ayers Rock the next day, I noticed how restrictive the regulations were around the rocks. There were signs everywhere saying “Don’t go off the road,” and some areas were off-limits to tourists and they asked that some areas not be photographed out of respect for the Aboriginal culture. I understand the rules, and most have logic, but there seemed to be more you could not do than could.

Also, Ayers Rock has a strong Aboriginal community, but we didn’t see a single one while we were out there. We even used the Aboriginal-owned tour company, but our Western tour guide and interpreter said he could not find anyone to help lead us on our tour. I do know that they like to keep to themselves, but it seems to me that in a place like Ayers Rock, which is so significant to their culture, they would want to be around to protect and educate others about the land. This was my first encounter with Aboriginal culture so I can’t say much more except for my own speculation. I am sure there are reasons for it all but they’re certainly unknown to me.

The view from Sydney Harbor Bridge
ben2.jpgAfter our mini-tour, we headed back to Heidi’s in Sydney and dove deeper into that city. The two big highlights were climbing the Sydney Harbor Bridge and going to a show at the Sydney Opera House. The bridge climb was really cool; we did a night tour that took us up around sunset and we came down in the darkness with the city’s skyline lighting in front of us. It was a great view up there of the Sydney Harbour and the Opera House. We also were lucky because it had been raining the whole day, so we were afraid that we would have to climb in the rain. (They go rain or shine, provided that there are no heavy winds or lightning.)

Ben1.jpgThe Opera House was also cool; my mom wanted to go to a show there and we saw lots of advertisements for Edward Scissorhands. We thought it was going to be a musical, which I can sit through, but when the show started we didn’t hear any words for a while – then I realized it was a dance performance. It was interesting how they could convey the story in dance, but I don’t think I would have gone if I had known that it was a dance performance. I overheard a lady behind us as we were leaving say, “That was weird.” Those weren’t my words, but I’m definitely not going to argue against them.

After that my mom headed back to the States so she could catch my brother’s high school graduation. It was sad to see her go, and it made me realize that I still have another two months before I actually head back to the States. But, that feeling didn’t last too long because I headed on with Heidi and Justin to Melbourne for a national holiday weekend. Australia is still a part of the commonwealth of the UK, so they celebrate the Queen’s birthday in June with a holiday on a Monday.

Aussie rules football in Melbourne
Melbourne is a very different city from Sydney but still well worth the visit. Sydney is defined by its harbour, vistas and icons while Melbourne is defined by its culture, sports and architecture. Bottom line, you go to Sydney for the sights and Melbourne for the culture. Melbourne sits on a harbour and river, but it doesn’t define the city. It is also a more industrial town that is not as glamorous as Sydney, but still just as interesting.

For example, in the downtown area there are these alleyways that seem to appear out of nowhere and they are filled with cafes and bars. Each venue’s tables pour out into the street and they are always packed with people. It’s a very communal experience and you see every walk of life hanging out sipping on a latte and engaged in conversation. I got lost for hours wandering around through these lanes – it was really cool.

The highlight of the Melbourne trip was The Queen’s Game: an Aussie rules football match honoring the Queen’s birthday. The two teams that head off in this game are always Melbourne FC and Collingwood. It’s a historic game that can only be compared to the Cowboys playing on Thanksgiving Day. It was also a major year because Melbourne FC was celebrating its 150th anniversary. Heidi has connections through work with a board member of the Melbourne team, and we were invited to the Chairman’s Luncheon before the game began.

Aussie Rules Football originated in Melbourne’s state, Victoria, and most of the teams come from Melbourne. Melbourne FC is one of, if not, the oldest and its devoted fans definitely have long family ties so this anniversary was definitely a landmark. The game itself was really fun to watch: it’s a blend of US football, rugby and soccer. It’s also a fast-paced game that rivals hockey in its speed. I have to say I think the Aussies made a fan out of me for this sport. A really big tradition of note is that each team has its own scarf, and fans faithfully sport theirs at the games; it reminded me of the house scarves warn by each house in Harry Potter.

Back to Beijing
After the Melbourne trip I headed back to Sydney and left for Beijing the next day. Writing this from Beijing, I really miss Australia; it’s a fantastic country for both its scenery and its people. Not only was the country breathtaking, but also the people were genuinely nice. The idea of “mateship” and camaraderie are really strong there and people look out for each other – even for the foreigners. I would be in line or waiting somewhere and Aussies would just strike up conversations with me. This took me aback at first, but then I got used to it and started to appreciate the concept.

Australia really is a laid-back country and the people seem happy and content with life – it was a great experience and a departure from the chaotic way of life in China. It was also great to see my mom, Heidi and Justin – they made the whole experience amazing.

But, I have to say I was really happy to get back to Beijing. Landing at the Capital airport, it was great to have that feeling that I was returning somewhere I know. It’s not home, but it will definitely do. I was happy to get in the cab and have a conversation with the driver in Chinese, and when I ran into teachers I felt excited about being back. Granted I do miss softer beds and cleaner air, but I like it here and I’m looking forward to the excitement of a Beijing summer. (The Olympics are around the corner!!)

I have about 10 days until school starts up again. Not too sure what I’ll be up to, but I’ll report back soon.

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The Middle Kingdom in Mourning

Today at 2:28 pm, China began its three-day mourning period for those who passed away in the Sichuan earthquake. As a foreigner in China, I found it chilling to be here for the moment of silence.

If you read any of the international reports from Reuters, The Wall Street Journal and the like, they describe my experience and those of more than a billion people across the country. Sirens wailed across Beijing, and cars stopped on the sides of the street with drivers honking their horns. Shops and restaurants closed for a few minutes, and everyone poured onto the streets to honor those who had died.

Mass media in the country have also come to a halt, and every television station focuses solely on the devastation of Sichuan and the nation’s mourning. Internet access has also significantly slowed down, and some sites have been restricted or truncated in order to contribute to the country’s austerity in its time of grieving.

For me, being here right now is truly an eye-opening experience. I am witnessing a part of China that not many see, and I hope no one will have to see again anytime soon: This is a China in the face of a major loss of life. And I think what is going on here, with the strong and painful reactions people are having, is the same that all nations facing this kind of loss go through.

People are identifying with their countrymen and are mourning the loss incurred as a nation, as a family and as friends. The solidarity of these people is iron-clad, and the most chilling example of this was the video feed I saw of the mourners at Tiananmen Square, about 15 minutes from where I live. There were thousands upon thousands of people chanting toward the national flag, fists pumping in the air, saying, “Jia you, Zhongg Guo,” which means good luck/cheer up/rebound China.

I have witnessed a national flag-raising before, where the crowd was much smaller than that of today’s, and that alone was amazing. Thus, I can’t even begin to imagine what today was like at Tiananmen Square. Overall, the reactions and ceremonies I have seen today remind me of what I have felt and experienced at home during moments of silence for 9/11 and the OKC bombing. That’s the closest kind of feeling I can relate it to.

As far as Sichuan and the devastation caused there – I can’t even begin to fathom its gravity, and it’s such a pity because the province is fairy-tale like in its beauty. The verdant valleys, mountains and lakes that surround the provincial seat of Chengdu are surreal as they climb up into the foothills of the Tibetan plateau.

I had a chance to visit some of these areas earlier this spring, and they were beautiful, and very isolated. For those who have been there, it is easy to understand the difficulty of the search-and-rescue teams trekking through valleys that are only connected by two-lane roads winding through the mountains. Between the rescue, recovery and reconstruction, Sichuan has a very long road ahead.

Many friends and family back home worried about my safety when news of the earthquake reached the US, but fortunately Beijing is hundreds of miles from Sichuan and the city experienced only a slight tremor. Life here is business as usual, but the air does hang heavy with the grief people are feeling for the earthquake victims.

This is definitely a trying moment for China, and from what I’m seeing, the people here are doing their best to pick up and move forward together.

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24 hours in Beijing

The spring semester is over!!

The ending comes with a bittersweet feeling because most of my classmates and friends I made this semester are leaving ACC for good. They say that every semester is a different creature with its own qualities: every semester’s group of students brings forth a new set of dynamics and relationships that make our experience different from any other term held here. So, while I may be staying on for the summer semester, this point definitely marks the closing of a chapter.

The spring semester has been an incredible experience, and I am so glad I had the opportunity to see Beijing at this time of year, especially before the city fills to capacity during the summer months with legions of tourists. It is not to say that city life in Beijing moves at a slower pace than during the spring or is not as fun, but living here out of the real tourist season has afforded me the opportunity to really see life in this city. From experiencing Chinese New Year with a Chinese family to wandering the Hutongs (Beijing’s historic alleys), I have gotten a real sense of this place.

But, I do not have a reason to dwell on this spring since there is so much excitement to come in the following months! First, the semester IS over, and we have already received my semester grades, and I’m extremely pleased with the results: it definitely reassured me that I am obtaining a good command of Chinese, and despite my doubts sometimes I am doing really well.

Final exam crunch
Additionally, I can finally rest after the close of the semester. It’s certainly been a busy few weeks since I last reported about my trip to Guilin. I gave three major presentations, prepared three oral tests and a written final – it’s been a lot. I first gave my presentation over my independent project researching the emergence of lawyers in China, and that was definitely a stressful situation. I had to give a thirty-minute presentation in front of five teachers and a peer audience. The most nerve-wracking factor was the teachers: having five of them dissect your presentation for grammar and pronunciation was not fun, but overall it went well and I was happy to have that over with.

The other major presentation was an extra credit assignment that I chose to prepare, and it had to be a thirty-minute presentation of our choosing, so I chose to talk a little bit about the history and culture of Texas. There only had to be two teachers to evaluate your presentation, but I had about nine teachers show up to my presentation to hear about Texas. It was definitely an experience lecturing to my Chinese teachers in Chinese and teaching them something about my home – the Lone Star State.

As for the oral and written tests, they were not bad but just required lots of time preparing old content – nothing above the usual stress here at ACC.

ben_1128-sm.jpgTalent show
Along with the hustle and bustle with the close of the semester, we had a fun night here called “Chinese Night,” when we as ACC students team up and prepare skits and songs in Chinese and do a little talent night for our teachers and our Chinese host families. It was a fun experience, and some of the acts were pretty good! Four students have been in tai chi classes all semester so they did a presentation for us, and another two students took U.S. songs and put in Chinese words and new content that was ingenious.

The night of our graduation was also a lot of fun because the language pledge was finally over! We could speak English with our classmates and our teachers. It was awkward because we had been so used to speaking Chinese, and we developed habits such as saying “Ni hao” instead of “hey,” and we still had this nagging fear of speaking English and getting in trouble.

What was also awkward was speaking English with most of the teachers. While most of them have had lots of experience with our native language, most of the students ended up reverting to Chinese because we felt we could have better conversations with them in Chinese instead of in English. I think a major factor behind this is that as students studying Chinese in China, we have started to develop our own personalities using the language. Speaking a foreign language is not easy, and at first it is hard and awkward, and conveying the simplest thoughts can be a challenge. But now, we are used to it, and we are able to move past simple thoughts and now can convey our personalities and our quirks with another language. Besides a few teachers, I don’t think most of them have had the same experience with English that we are having with Chinese, so it made more sense to use their language to have more meaningful discussions.

Ben_1166-sm.jpgWide awake in Houhai
What was also great about our last night with the teachers was that we had a great Beijing duck dinner – Beijing’s most famous dish, and then we all headed out to Houhai for a great evening of relaxation and one last hurrah before everyone parted ways. Houhai is an amazing area in Central Beijing steps from the Forbidden City, and is a restaurant and bar district that sits on a large lake and a series of canals that connect that lake to others around it. All the buildings are in the historic Chinese style, and most venues have expansive balconies and rooftop terraces that overlook the lake and canals. It was especially crowded when we went because it was a national holiday (May Day weekend) and a Friday night, so we weaved our way through the crowds and managed to take over a rooftop terrace at a restaurant for the whole group. It was a beautiful evening and just a fun night with everyone.

One of the goals of that evening was to stay up to see the flag-raising ceremony at Tiananmen Square at 5 am. Luckily, Beijing does not close like Dallas does at 2, so it is easier to stay out later.

Fortunately, I had the energy and made it to the flag-raising. It happens every day, but I thought with the closing of the semester it would add to the celebration. Unfortunately the ceremony was anticlimactic, but I think I was expecting a little too much – it’s just a flag being pulled up a pole. What is really amazing about the experience is that there are thousands upon thousands of people that come every day to see this; usually they are Chinese tourists from smaller cities or the countryside who come in to see their great capital. Also, on all the rooftops of the buildings surrounding the square there are hundreds of red flags – it’s amazing to see.

After that I caught the first subway of the morning back to campus and spent the day sleeping off a 24-hour stint that included my final written exam, a graduation ceremony, a night out with the teachers and classmates, and the flag-raising at Tiananmen. What a way to finish off the semester!

Off to Australia
I’m really going to enjoy the next few weeks because I have nothing to do except explore Beijing on my own schedule: no classes, no homework, and no presentations to present. I will also get to meet up with my Chinese professor from SMU who is actually from Beijing; she is coming home for a bit and she promised to take me to her favorite Sichuan Hot-Pot restaurant in the city. Also, in late May I will head to Australia for three weeks and hit all the major points of interest: Sydney, Great Barrier Reef, Ayers Rock and Melbourne. It will be great because I am meeting up with my mom and one of our family friends, a former Mustang student leader who is also now living in Sydney, so that will be awesome.

Until next time!

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Spring break in Guilin, China

Life in Beijing has been great! A lot has happened since I last posted.

Ben-river2.jpgFirst off, my Spring Break trip to Guilin was amazing. We were there for about four days, so we had to maximize our time, and I definitely felt that my friends and I did that.

Terminal T3
We first left Beijing early on a Wednesday morning for a 7 am flight down to Guilin. What was great about the flight was that we were on Air China, which meant that we would be flying out of Beijing Capital Airport’s newest terminal, T3.

Built to handle the influx of international travelers for the Olympics, T3 is the world’s single largest terminal and is literally as large as the original section of the Beijing airport. Air China is the official airline of the Olympics, so along with all international arrivals, T3 caters exclusively to this airline’s international and domestic flights. The terminal itself is amazing and at times intimidating. It was constructed to look like a huge dragon, and from the air it definitely looks as such. Additionally, it looks and feels Chinese; the structure itself mimics parts of the Forbidden City with ominous red columns and ceilings. Those arriving this summer for the Olympics will definitely have a dramatic greeting when landing into T3.

Beware cab drivers
When we landed in Guilin, we caught a cab to our hotel, and the cab ride itself was something of an experience. We had read before we left that tourism was the number one industry in Guilin and that we had to be wary of cab drivers and fake tour companies that try to rip off tourists. At the airport we followed the rules and found the official taxi stand, which is where licensed cab drivers queue for customers; this also reduces the chances of getting ripped off.

Once in the cab we started talking to the driver, and he asked us questions about our hotel and how much it costs. My friends and I got the sense that our driver was fishing for information, so we started to be vague with our answers just to be safe. If we gave off the impression that we were carrying a lot of cash or something, he might have tried to cheat us. Additionally, when we got into the city center, the cabbie asked us if we wanted to “look around Guilin, or go by a tourist office to book tours,” so we said that we had to meet our teacher’s friend at our hotel and had no time to do that kind of stuff. Apparently this is a ploy of cabbies there to increase cab fare, and it is usually at that point the cabbie will try to tack on fees for taking you other places.

Once we checked into our hotel, we took a few minutes just to soak in Guilin. The first thing I noticed was the clean, moist air. Guilin has no major pollution problems because it is not only a town of about 700,000, but it also lacks a major industrial base – no factories are nearby. This is because Guilin is fairly geographically isolated. The city is literally surrounded by a range of karsts, which are these oddly shaped limestone mountains that jet out of the ground hundreds if not thousands of feet into the air. So, it was a great relief to enjoy the amazing air. In addition, the view from our hotel room was amazing; our window looked out onto this beautiful park and in the distance we could see the karsts that surrounded the city.

Reed Flute Cave
On Wednesday afternoon we took in some of the major sights around Guilin. First we went to Reed Flute Cave, which is one of the largest tourist-accessible caves in the city. The karsts’ formations are usually hollow on the inside and give way to caves. Reed Flute Cave was really convenient and walker-friendly; it was also a light-show extravaganza. Every nook and cranny of the cave was well illuminated, and in the largest chamber they had a light show complete with cheesy techno music and bubble and fog machines. I definitely think this is a Chinese specialty; I can’t imagine any other country outfitting a cave with that kind of technology and kitsch.

Afterward we went over to one of the tallest karst peaks in Guilin. The peak is housed in a complex that was once a vacation compound for emperors. At the top of the peak is a small temple and great views of Guilin. The hike up the karst is dangerous because the sides to these peaks are nearly straight drops to the ground, so the stairs themselves weave up this steep edge.

Elephant Trunk hill
Our last activity of the day was a ride on a bamboo motorboat that took us around to Elephant Trunk hill. The hill comes to a point in the middle of a river and is hollowed out to look like a huge elephant with a trunk that shoots into the water. The bamboo boat took us into the arch of the hill, and we could get out and climb around the arch that made the trunk of the elephant.

Ben-river1.jpg The Li River
On Thursday, we took a cruise up the major river in Guilin, the Li River. It is about a four-hour boat ride that takes you up the river and has some of the best views of the karsts in the region. Despite the mist that plagues southern China in the spring, the views were amazing. The river and the conditions around it were also pristine, and it was a great relief to see that some parts of China were not being ruined by development.

At the end of the cruise, we ended up in a small town called Yangshuo. Despite its very small size, it has developed into a tourist colony and a starting-out point for backpackers who want to hike around the countryside and among the karsts. The whole town is literally five long streets that have nothing but hotels, cafes, and shops.

From the center of Yangshuo, we went around the outskirts of the town on another bamboo boat to take in some more sights of the karsts. We also went to a park called Shangri-La. It is a tourist site that gives a sample of the ethnic minority villages that used to exist in the province. (Guangxi, the province that entails Guilin, is 75 percent non-Han and is comprised of many minorities including the Zhuang and Hmong.)

At Shangri-La we hopped on another boat that took us on a tour around a series of canals and stopped at platforms on the banks of the water. On these platforms people from different ethnic minorities did short performances that reflected special traditions from their cultures. One of the performances did leave me wondering if this is the way things really were back in the day. At one platform were Polynesian-looking performers wrapped in loincloths who feigned throwing spears toward our boat. Also, they had cattle skulls on pikes in the ground. I guess maybe way back this could have been possible, but the whole performance looked like they had taken a page out of the Flintstones.

Ben-river3.jpg Mountain village
Friday was my favorite day of the trip because we ventured out north of Guilin into the town of Longshen. Longshen is a small sleepy village that sits atop a mountain in the middle of nowhere. It is a two-hour drive outside the city through verdant orange groves and a series of winding mountain roads. Once at Longshen, we hiked into this amazing little town that was cloaked in fog on the side of this mountain. The views were great and looked down into rich green valleys.

Longshen is especially known for its 800-year-old rice terraces that cascade down the mountainside. However, when we got there, there was a heavy fog so we had to wait around a bit for the fog to burn off. When it did, we had great views of these terraces that literally went on for miles in each direction. My friends and I went off the beaten path and hiked through the terraces and made our way to other small villages hidden in the terraced mountains.

What was also great about this experience was that we had come during China’s tomb-sweeping festival. It’s a time when families go to their deceased family’s tombs and clean up around the tomb and honor those who have gone before them. While hiking on the terraces, we came across several families that were at tomb sites on the terraces themselves honoring the dead.

Recovering in Beijing
After returning from Longshen that evening, the trip pretty much ended for me. That night I got really sick – I ended up with something similar to Montezuma’s Revenge; I think I got it from buying a bad bottle of water from a street vendor. The next day we were scheduled to fly home anyways, so I only missed one day of sightseeing, and we only had plans to go to a park in Guilin.

Once we arrived back in Beijing, I realized how dirty the air is here. After being spoiled with the air in Guilin, it definitely took me a few days to re-acclimate to Beijing’s air.

The week after Guilin was non-eventful. I spent a lot of time sleeping and generally just recovering from my bout of illness. My Chinese family also came by the dorm and gave me a care-package to speed along my recovery, which was really great of them.

As far as ACC goes, we are closing in on the last stretch – I can’t believe I have been here for so long! We are now prepping the last sections of our independent project, and we will have our oral presentations next week. I thought I would be more stressed about it, but so far I am approaching it with a pretty relaxed attitude.

That’s it for now! I will check in soon with more about life in Beijing.

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Spring in Beijing

The past two weeks consisted of less work than usual, and I definitely took advantage of this slow spell to enjoy Beijing’s beautiful spring weather.

ben-islet.jpgBeihai Park and the Jade Islet
The weekend before Easter boasted blue skies and 50-degree weather. A few friends and I headed over to one of Beijing’s best parks, Beihai. It sits on the north side of the Forbidden City and overlooks the chain of lakes that surrounds the National Theatre, among other major landmarks.

ben-jade.jpgIn the middle of this park is a lake with a large islet, the Jade Islet, which shoots up like a steep hill from the water. At the top of this hill is a marshmallow-shaped Buddhist temple with great views of the city. On the islet itself are several smaller pavilions and grottoes that dot the paths leading up to the peak.

ben-blooms.jpgBesides the islet, there are several other pavilions that surround the shore and make for a nice hour-long walk along the water. In fact, many have just been extensively renovated in time for the Olympics; this gives visitors a glimpse into what these structures actually looked like when they were first constructed centuries ago.

The Great Wall at Simatai
The Saturday before Easter, ACC had a day trip to one of the most remote but intact sections of the Great Wall. I have been to other sections that are closer to the city, but they were crowded and not as rigorous. Additionally, I hoped I would get a second chance to have a better look of the wall without a dense blanket of pollution covering everything.

Ben%20hike.jpgAlas, there was still pollution, but not as bad, and the vistas were breathtaking. The hike was also much more intense, but the cool weather made it bearable.

This section of the wall climbed up the spine of a moderate mountain range that looked down over valleys and a major reservoir. Other than that, there is not much to say about the Great Wall other than that it truly is a sight to see and a feat to conquer.

Another object of note is that on the way back down, there was a zip-line that traversed the reservoir from the mountainside down to the entrance of the wall. Needless to say I tried not to think twice, paid my 5 dollars, and strapped myself in for a great ride. It was quick and uneventful, except for the whole flying down a mountain over water.

Easter in Beijing
This was my first major holiday to celebrate away from home, and I made sure to find something that would make it bearable. I think I did just that and then some.

There was an advertisement in Beijing’s equivalent to D Magazine (but I think it is much better; it caters to more demographics than D), for the Westin Beijing’s “F’easter Easter.” It was a brunch that was kind of steep in price, about $50 US, which does not sound bad, but my classmates here have become accustomed to $2 lunches and cab rides.

I found two other buds to go with me, and when we arrived at the Westin, it was like we had entered the best candy store in the world. There were balloons, Easter egg painting, cotton candy machines, sushi bars, an omelet bar, oyster bar, vodka and caviar bar, and oh so, so much more.

We quickly realized our money was going a lot further than we had imagined. The food was incredible and was on par with any omelet in the West, and was a great break from the Chinese food I have come to love here. The event was also sold out, and pretty much everyone there was an expatriate or business traveler with their family.

For that afternoon it felt as though I was back in the US. It was a great break, and on the way home, we crossed over Tian’anmen Square and saw 30 or 40 people flying kites over the Square in the clear blue skies.

It was certainly a unique Easter, to say the least, but an incredibly memorable one that I won’t soon forget.

Next week is our Spring Break, and a few buds and I will be heading down to Guilin in the southernmost reaches of the country. Guilin’s province borders Vietnam to the south. I’m really looking forward to it because of images I have seen from The Painted Veil.

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