Beijing Breakfast

While Everyone that I know on the other side of the world is closing down the day, things are just getting started over here.  Let’s remember that the sun does rise in the East.  And because the sun has indeed risen to the first sunny day that I have seen since arriving, it was a great morning to head out and take a few pictures while getting a classic street breakfast.

I don’t remember the name of this particular specialty, but it is basically a Chinese version of your classic omelet.  This one starts with a pancake-like batter that is spread on a large hotplate (as seen above).  It is then coated with a thin layer of egg, covered in chives and a variety of strange spices.  The final touch is that a large, deep fried piece of bread of some sort is placed in the middle, at which point it is all folded on itself.  I hate eggs, but this thing is a decent option, and at about sixty cents a pop, you can’t go wrong.

The street food scene in China is a thriving one, and provides a great venue not only for cheap food, but also for a number of opportunities to interact with a local population.  Although many of the things purchased on the street are large enough to be considered a meal, they are, in many cases, referred to as snacks.  At some point, I will probably do a better series on the massive variety that exists within the street food world.  Until then-

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Traveling to the Beijing CUCAS Office

It was a productive day, and I tried to take some pictures, but it was raining for the whole of the day.  Here are just a few that I have taken since I’ve been here.  Not quality, but you get the idea.  It took almost half an hour to get these three to load, so I’ve got to figure out a better method, or time of day.   I would like everyone across the pond to know that you can travel 13 hours around the world, find yourself in a random hostel and still be plagued by stories of financial failings within the American government.  ‘Merika.

Today went very well, at least in comparison to yesterdays debilitation.  I started the day with the plan of heading to northwestern Beijing to the CUCAS headquarters to pick up the paperwork for my school program.  Now this seemed like a relatively easy trip, given that I would only have to take two subways, one that is right outside of the hostel door, and another that ends directly outside the CUCAS office building.  No problem, I’ve got this.

Feeling good and loaded with dumplings that I bought from a tiny restaurant, I hopped on to the first train and got to the right transfer station.  Step one, complete.  The CUCAS office is located within the Haidian district of Beijing, and for one reason or another, I opted to go to a station that had Haidian in the name, as opposed to taking a closer look at the map and seeing where I should really head.  This was well and good, but if I had looked the first time I would have seen that the offices are actually in Wudaokou, quite a distance away from the station that I chose.  But no, jetlag is still helping to make some of my decisions for me.

Now here is where things get kind of entertaining.  I looked around for the cross streets that I had for the address, but couldn’t see anything that quite resembled the exact character combinations.  Finding one that was close enough, I determined that the CUCAS office must have made a small mistake in their address listing.  One character wrong, I mean it could happen, couldn’t it?  I just wasn’t thinking all that clearly.

But in the truest of Chinese coincidence, it turns out that there was an office building that not only fit the description, but shared the exact address to a T (minus one character).  I took a moment to count my blessing, figuring that I had stumbled onto the correct building by chance, and congratulated myself on my infallible sense of direction.

Arriving at the 12th floor, I found a number of high end publishing companies, but nothing resembling an office for international students.  I decided that I would try giving them a call-

“Hey, I’m trying to get to your office, and I think I am here, but can’t find your door”

“Can you please repeat our address-”
(I rattle off the details of where I am, sure that I am in the right place)

“Oh yes, that’s us, just come in when you get here”
(End of Conversation)

At this point, I was worried that I had been truly taken by a classic Chinese scam, and decided that I would just ask someone on the floor if they had heard of the place.  Walking in to a random office, I asked the person closest to the door.  The man looked at the address on the paper, and began to laugh, pulling up a map on his computer, and explaining that I was very far away, at least five bus stops.  I was having a hard time keeping up, in part because he was talking so fast, but also because he and a random voice from the cubicle behind him were debating how I might best find my way.  In the end, they wrote down a bus number, and nothing more.  I got back on the subway.

I did eventually find the office, and they had a good laugh when I told them who I was

“Oh, William Spademan, I know you.  You have applied for China so many times”

Yes, yes, nine times through these folks, and several times on my own, but that’s all a thing of the past.  Having finally gotten the papers that I wanted, I head back to the train.  In China, when you purchase a fare to enter the subway you are required to hold your ticket and return it in order to exit the subway station.  I finally got back to the Guloudajie station and entered my ticket into the turnstile.  It gladly took the ticket, but a red light came on and it said ‘See Agent’.  I managed to get out without problem, but upon returning to the hostel, I realized that it had been my room key that I lost to that damn machine.  Goodbye, deposit.

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Culture Shock

The true terror of culture shock is that you never really see it coming.  You could be fine for weeks, and then, with little warning, suddenly be overwhelmed by the world around you.  Or, in my particular case, 24 hours and completely overwhelmed by my surroundings.  And I mean overwhelmed.

I have been to China before, and though I did get your standard culture shock experience, it was nowhere near the level that this is.  This is the kind of sick that you only get from bad dreams and too much to drink.  Something like the experience of all those who took the infamous ‘brown acid’.  Your okay, then your not okay, okay, not okay, trying to come back to reality, but never quite finding what you are looking for.

And how could I not be culture shocked?  I’m in an unfamiliar place completely on my own, trying to figure out what my next move might be.  I was feeling alright from the time I arrived all the way through this morning.  I managed to go out, get breakfast, walk around for a while, do some writing.  And then, right around lunch, I decided to head out for a walk toward Houhai, a Large lake in central Beijing famed for it’s bars.  About half way around the lake, I started to feel a sense of unease, one that I attributed to a lack of water.  As I walked, the feeling grew and grew, a nagging feeling of separation from my surroundings.  By the time I got back to the hostel, I had to get in to my bed and just go to sleep until this evening.  Sometimes it’s the best thing to do.

Bad culture shock can make you feel physically sick, can make you feel like you have lost your mind.  I’m doing much better now than I was this afternoon, but that sick feeling still lingers quite strong.  I miss my girlfriend immensely, but I called her and couldn’t even put words together.  I miss my family too, and though I didn’t need to call them, it’s strange knowing that they are sleeping when I am awake.  Jet lag, unfamiliar food, and the pure unadulterated roar that is a Chinese street were just too much for today, but I’ll try again tomorrow.  I’m guessing that this feeling will hang on for some time, but you have to take it day by day.  Freak out, stop, sip a soda, reboot.

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Jet Lag

I’m surprised that no one has had the wherewithal to turn an airport security check into a script for a porn film.  Enter one side and everyone keeps to themselves, looking clean cut and proper for their flight.   Come out the other side and everyone is trying to get their stuff back in order; Shoes are missing, men are all trying to get their belts back through the loops, and everyone is trying as hard as possible to get their shirts tucked back into their pants.  And just because we are all in such a hurry, it can’t look much short of people making a run for it following a one night stand.

I arrived in Beijing to the smell that greeted me the last time, a strange, acrid thickness that clings to the air.  It was a particularly smoggy arrival, and the horizon extended just to the edge of the tarmac and not much further.  Seems fitting for entry into one of the world’s more polluted cities.  Customs was uneventful, and with little fanfare, I set foot into China for the second time.

And now I find myself sitting in the Lobby of the Bell Tower Youth Hostel, writing this sorry entry post for all of you out there.  Arriving in any new country has always left me with a strange feeling of limbo;  I’m sure that I’m no longer at home, but I don’t quite feel that I have arrived at the place I was headed.  This is particularly so with China, where it can be quite difficult to label what makes this place so different from others.  It is a massive sensory experience, one in which everything matches the framework of your normal reality, except that you can’t really get things to line up just right.  There are cars here, but they neither look nor drive quite the same as those at home.  There are people here, and though I know what they are saying, I don’t completely understand them.  A combination of jet lag and noise can lead your bring to go off the deep end.

But these feelings do pass, and when they do, this place becomes something completely of it’s own.  It is certainly not the United States, and no other place, for that matter.  It is China, and it is huge.  It is full of new, but it is heavily directed by things of old.  I hope that this will be a chance for me to convey some of these dualities within the space of this site once more.  For now, I’m going to nurse this trans-polar/Siberian/Pacific hangover and try to get myself oriented once again.

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Back in Beijing

After much travel, several subways and a whole mess of Tech issues, I’m back online and back in Beijing.  My website has earned the great honor of being blocked within the PRC, and as such, it is far more difficult and time consuming for me to access than it is at home.  But Success!  By this evening, I hope to have something put together for you to read, something far more interesting than this.

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Travel Vaccines for China

If you are planning on traveling outside of North American, chances are fair that there is a vaccine or medication that your doctor will recommend you take prior to departure.  This is certainly the case for China, as there are several vaccines that are very important for anyone that intends to visit China for more than just a short stay.  Here is a list of the major vaccines that you can ask your doctor or travel doctor about prior to leaving.

Hepatitis A –  This disease has the potential for making you very sick, doing damage to your liver and kidneys.  Though not always fatal, it is certainly not something you want to get.  As it is most frequently transferred through contaminated food and water, it is strongly advised to have this prior to your trip to China.

Hepatitis B –  Once again, Potential for damage to your liver and kidneys.  These organs do very important things, my friends!  Do them a favor a get this vaccine series.  Hep B is spread through contact with bodily fluids, so any procedures that you would take to prevent HIV will go a long way in protecting yourself for Hep B.  Better yet, just get the vaccine and call it a day.  This one comes in a three-part series over the course of several months, so make sure that you have enough time prior to your departure, or that your return will not conflict with receiving the second and third shots.

Typhoid – Yet another disease spread through contaminated food and water, in this it is one where the water has been contaminated with feces from individuals who already have the disease.  The vaccine is a single series, so just one and you’re good to go.  I will note, however, that the vaccine is not 100% effective.  Fear not, a simple washing of the hands and basic hygiene go a long way with prevention.

Polio Booster –  Chances are fair that if you grew up in a ‘Developed’ nation, you received a Polio vaccine as a child.  Chances are also fair that if you are reading this you are no longer a Child and, as such, are in need of a Polio booster!  I have heard mixed thoughts on the length of effectiveness of the Polio vaccine, but as far as I can tell there is no reason not to get a booster shot just to make sure.  Although it has been all but eliminated in the United States, there are still a number of areas in other parts of the world that hold the virus.  China was, in the year 2000, declared to be Polio-free, but the travel clinic recommended the vaccine nonetheless.  I leave this one in your hands

Meningitis – Now here is one that might make some people shake their heads.  If you are headed to China for business purposes, this one probably doesn’t apply to you.  If you are going to be staying in dormitories in Chinese universities, or other locations where there are crowded rooms, this is a recommended vaccine.  Bacterial Meningitis attacks the spine and brain very quickly.  In severe cases, it can lead to death within a few days if it is not diagnosed.  And yes, it is found in China.  If you were a college student in the United States, there is a good chance that you have already received the vaccine, but the vaccine is only effective for five years, so it is advisable to check and see if you are still good to go.

Japanese Encephalitis – Carried by certain mosquitoes, this disease attacks the nervous system, causing loss of control of the muscles.  Pretty nasty stuff, but the risk of infection is relatively low, unless you plan on spending extended amounts of time in rural regions, particularly those with rice paddies and those that are located in the southern regions.  If this is the case, the vaccine is a two part series, with a price tag anywhere between $500 and $1000.

Malaria – Caused by the sting of a contaminated Mosquito, malaria is more prevalent in other parts of southern Asia, however there is still some risk of infection in parts of China.  The CDC shows that Henan, Hunan, Anhui and Yunnan are the highest risk.  There is no vaccine for protection for Malaria.  Instead, travelers are encouraged to arrange for a prescription of medication that will reduce the likelihood of infection.  Pills are typically taken two days prior to entry into a high-risk region, and for the duration of stay in the area.  You are also able to do quite a bit by wearing long sleeve clothing, using bugs repellent and sleeping with a net around your bed.

All of these vaccines and medications are available through a travel doctor, but in many cases they will not accept you insurance, so expect to be handed a hefty bill at the end of your visit.  I received Polio, Meningitis, Hep A and Typhoid, with the total cost coming out at $465 when added up with the consultation fee.  Expensive but worth the protection.

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The Valley seems particularly peaceful today, as I realize that I must be out of my mind.  I remember having this feeling before, once when I was packing my bag for the first two week trip that I had ever led into the backcountry of the Adirondack mountains.  Even if you know what you are doing (or, in some cases, think you know what you are doing), packing can really draw forth the reality of the mater;  you are headed out.

For better or for worse, this feeling is exciting.  The unknown, the new-found awareness of everything around you.  Fear of departure makes that world that you have grown accustomed to seem so much more enticing.  A part of your brain turns on and says “We could stay here just a bit longer”.  The place that was boring yesterday looks different today.

Was it boring yesterday?  Is it really different today?  Probably Yes and No on both counts.  I’ve read a few memoirs from soldiers and their time in Vietnam, and there seems to be a theme among them:  When you are anxious, particularly with anticipation, your mindset changes.  Bored, but not looking for anything to do.  Content, but with an itching sensation that something needs to happen or you might just explode.  That feeling that keeps you awake deep into the night when you have just too much caffeine and too many thoughts for your nerves to let go.  Anticipation of the unknown is a paradise of mixed emotions, crossbred in ways you didn’t think were possible.

I like to spend more time thinking about what I will bring for a trip than actually looking at physical items.  If I hold them for too long, they loose purpose, and I forget why I originally had the thing in mind.  As I sit here today trying to lay out things for a trip to China, my mind drifts back and forth between worlds.  All of my hard items are laid out on a table, stemming between the realities of the present and the realities of my mind.  The cables to the phone, chargers to a variety of items- I try to feel them as they feel now, get a sense of what they are in this place.  Maybe nine thousand miles and a world away, they will be a piece of the life I understand best.  On those days when things just don’t go right, the day when your mind says “We can still go home”, I can look at these items and know that at the bottom of it all, I’m still in control of everything.

If I’m really nervous, I tend to unpack and repack everything, in part to make sure that it is all still there, but also for the sensation of the process.  Each piece of the particular trip has a home in this bag.  Cables in the top, sharp crap on the outside,  electronics in secret places.  Things change over the course of the trip, but over the years I have developed a liking for certain methods of packing.  Things are where they have always been, and life is good.  Just remember that the rain jacket should always be on top everyone ends up miserable if they tie things on the outside.

These are the feelings I hold while putting on this pack for the first time in two years.  Already, there is a path underneath my feet.  Strange that I can choose to step on to such a path, but cannot determine its destination.  Sure, we can make some stops along the way, grab a snack and a beer here and there, but in the end, even if you know where the trail ends, it’s hard to say what it will look like.

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How to Make Cheap Phone Calls to China With Skype

Traveling abroad can be stressful for everyone at home that would like to stay in touch with you.  Depending on where you are headed, it can be difficult for your friends to get in touch, time consuming to enter all of those unfamiliar phone codes (don’t miss any numbers!), and more than anything, it has the potential to be shockingly expensive.  In the past,  I mentioned that using an American cell phone abroad can cost upwards of three dollars a minute.  Before you max out your credit card, however, there are some tricks that can save you a small fortune.  The most common of these is to purchase a cell phone within the region that you will be staying.  In China, an international call from a cell phone can cost between 50 cents and a dollar for every minute of talk time.  Not great.  Another  common option is to purchase an international calling card.  A good solution when in a pinch, but still not that cheap and incredibly irritating to dial such a long string of numbers every time you call home.

The method I will discuss in this post involves using Skype as a third-party service to connect a local number in one country (in this case, the United States) to any number in a large selection of other countries.  In the case of China, this method is incredibly cheap, relatively easy once it is set up, and allows you to call both land-lines and cell phones within the P.R.C.  Pretty cool.

Step 1.  Create Skype profile and account if you don’t already have one- It’s easy to do and completely free.

Step 2.  Purchase a ‘Skype to Go’ Number –  This is a local number that allows anyone to call you on Skype using a land-line or cell phone.  For example, if you were to purchase such a number, I could use my home phone to call you on your computer.  Better yet, I could call you on your cell phone if you have a smartphone that is Skype compatible.  I would suggest purchasing a number that is local to the area from which most people will be calling you, thus allowing your friends at home to pay the lowest amount.  You can buy a number in Three and Twelve month increments, though the twelve month is quite a bit cheaper.

Step 3.  Purchase Skype Credit/Subscribe to a calling plan – Although your friends at home will be the ones calling you, you will still be responsible for some of the charges associated with forwarding a call to your international phone number.  If you decide that you would like to pay as you go, it will cost you about two cents for every minute of call time.  If you decide that you would like to go with a monthly plan, you can get the cost as low as a penny a minute. Not too bad.

Step 4- Enter the number that you would like to have your calls forwarded to– Here it is! The final step in our quest for international calling victory!  Once logged in to your account page, you can see an option on the far right that says ‘Call Forwarding’  Simply select the country that you would like to call (China, of course), and enter the number that your calls will be forwarded to.  As an example, I have entered the number to the American Embassy in Beijing.  Once you hit save, everything is in place.  If I were now to dial my Skype-To-Go number (845-688-XXXX), it will forward my phone call to the American embassy in Beijing.  When I purchase a local cell phone number in China, all I will need to do is enter my China number as the call forwarding number, and voila!  Friends and family are now easily connected, no crazy country codes and phone bills required.  Just remember that by selecting the country that you want, Skype automatically adds a regional code (in this case, 86 for China).  Be not to add redundant numbers, or the call won’t go through!

Are there any disadvantages to this method? It depends on how you look at it.  You will have to find yourself a phone no matter how you work it out.  Whether it is cell phone of land-line doesn’t make a difference, but you must have one.  In addition, you are still required to pay for the cost of local conversation on whatever phone you use, and in the case of cell phones this can be quite expensive in some regions.  China is not one of them.  You are also limited to receiving phone calls using this method.  Should you dial out on you phone, you will still end up paying international charges.  If your friends and family are willing to do the dialing, this could be a great way to save money.  A year of unlimited call connection service through Skype will cost just over $200.  In other words, two months of your standard cell phone contract.

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Returning to China

It seems that it has been quite the substantial intro to my traveling back to China, but after much time I am finally headed back.  The intro is over, and in just about two weeks I will be returning to the place that has so caught my interest.

I will be landing in Beijing to start, but shortly thereafter will head down to Xi’an where I will attend a language program at Shaandong (Updated: not only did I spell it wrong, it’s the wrong university) Shaanxi Normal University.  I’m guessing I’ll be in Beijing between five and ten days, depending largely on how much time I will need to get the train ticket to Xi’an.  Having applied through CUCAS, I will also be stopping at their main office in Beijing so that I can pick up my acceptance packet.  Should be a bit of an adventure.  It seemed safer to wait to pick the things up while I’m in Beijing than to gamble on mailing them.  CUCAS says it only takes about 4 weeks, but in the past it has taken as long as two months.  In addition, I don’t have four weeks to wait, so the decision was really made by default.

I don’t know what to expect just yet.  I’ve been incredibly busy at work (Summer Camp is in session) and haven’t had as much time as I thought I would to get things in order and prep my mind for the journey ahead.  Should have seen that coming.  Take all of the emotions that you can possibly have, blend em’ all together and that’s about how I’m feeling at the moment.  Excited, yes, but there is a whole mess of feelings going on in the background.  How could anyone feel otherwise?  It’s China!  Nothing can be generalized.

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10 Things I’ll Miss While in China

I’m headed back to China in about a month to continue studying language and culture, and though I’m very excited to finally be headed out, I’ve started to realize how many things will suddenly become difficult to access and find.  It’s a very different place on the other side of the world, and despite having access to many of the things that we have in the United States, it doesn’t mean that they are easily accessible or cost effective to obtain.

Let me start by saying that people are the highest on this list; My family my friends- they will be more difficult to be in touch with.  My girlfriend- We’ve been together for a year and a half, and this will certainly be a challenge.  These connections are foremost in what I will miss, but as they are not things, let’s not make them a part of a shopping list.  That would just be wrong.

These items below are in no real order, and though my world will soon be without them (or at least without quick access), they are a small trade for the many things I am sure to discover in their stead.

1.  Coffee–  I have been told that you can get a good cup of coffee while you are in China, but I certainly did not find this to be the case the last time I was there.  Sure, I could head over to Starbucks and get a great cup, but when I was in Beijing it was a choice between a cup up coffee or a days’ worth of food.  Not the cheapest habit to maintain.  My addiction will now be fed by tea.

2.  Speedy (open) internet connections–  Most Americans are tremendously spoiled in terms of their internet connection.  We are well connected, and expect nothing less.  More than five seconds of load time and we tend to start swearing.  While I have spent the last two years living in a region that has no cell phone service and only the poorest of Internet connections (I have never had internet in my house), I suspect that that amount of censorship in the PRC will take time to get accustomed to.

3.  Easy Access to Books– I love to read, and from what I understand, it can take quite a bit more time and money to get certain books in China.  Oh well.  I’ve heard mixed things about being able to order kindle books in China.  Still debating whether or not I want to bring mine.

4.  Clean Water–  I’m a water Snob.  Having lived in the Catskill Mountains (one of only five Metropolitan Watersheds in the U.S. that is unfiltered), I’ve had access to some of the best tap water in the world.  The words Tap and Water don’t typically go well together in the Middle Kingdom

5.  The Forest–  I live in a 700,000 acre forest preserve.  I’ve spent time living in the city as well, but I will truly miss the mountains, trees and wildlife that I’ve come to love so much.

6.  Cheese– I’m not a massive cheese fanatic, but with very, very little access to said product, I’m sure that I will find many things I once took for granted are much harder to procure.

7.  Clean Air–  this one is self explanatory

8.  The Stars–  How someone can live in a place where they cannot see those beautiful cosmic lights, I do not know.  The clear, infinite black is something that I will truly miss.

9.  American Television?– Actually, no, I’m not going to miss this at all.

10.  Our cat, Bowser. He’s gotten Pretty adorable.  Perhaps I’ll hide him in my carry-on.

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