Sunday, September 26, 2010

Home again!

Safely home from school overnight trip to Qingdao, had a good time, kitten is fine, I'm fine. Tired, will write more later.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Mid-Autumn Festival

The Mid-Autumn Festival is a big holiday period in China. Today is the fall equinox. All evening I've been hearing firecrackers in the distance, and apparently people have moon-viewing parties on this night while munching a special treat called Mooncakes.

In the case of our school, it means some very odd and seemingly random schedule changes for two and a half weeks or so. For example, I will be teaching last Saturday's classes tomorrow, and next Sunday's classes on Friday. Next week on Monday through Thursday, I will teach my evening kindergarten classes but not the regular weekend classes.

This weekend they have announced that there will be a school trip to Qingdao, which will consist of rigorously planned group sightseeing and staying overnight in a hotel.

The following week I will have some promos to teach and then, if all goes well (or if I make travel plans fast enough), five whole days off in a row. This is my big chance to see the terracotta warriors in Xi'an, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

On October 16 regular classes will resume, and I will have two new weekend classes added, bringing my course load up to 22 hours per week: 6 weekday hours, 9 on Saturday and 7 on Sunday, NOT including the never-ending promos. It's not a lot of hours... but the way they are distributed is guaranteed to exhaust even the young and healthy!

I call the kitten "monster" and he is growing fast. I'll be sorry to leave him overnight, but he will be fine, if a bit lonesome, as I'll only be gone for 36 hours. (In order to go to Xi'an I'll have to make other arrangements.) He sleeps on my bed and sometimes on me, but doesn't snuggle, and only very occasionally does he let me pet him without taking it as a sign to attack my hand (play mode). He wants to play pretty much all of the time he is awake, I'm sorry he doesn't have any siblings to play with. Paperwads are keeping him very busy and he is getting plenty of exercise.

He looks to be the same color breed as my last cat, Dustbunny. The older he gets, the more he looks like her. I've never seen any other cat that had this white underfur with chocolate tips, either in life or in breed books.

My health continues to go up and down, finally someone is working on getting me an appointment with a Chinese medicine specialist. If there are some weird herbs that will strengthen my respiratory and immune systems I'm all for trying them.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Kunming - Shilin (Stone Forest)

My visit to Shilin (Stone Forest) was definitely the most awesome thing I've seen so far in China. Not only that, it gave me a much-needed shot of nature to tide me over for the next five months.

Just at the entrance to the park there is a small lake with some cool stone formations. Behind this you can see some houses, this park is quite large and supports some tourism industry.
Those stones in the pond were just a taste; they were quite small compared to these, the real thing. This is an area just inside the "Major Stone Forest" section of the park where there are words carved in the rock and everyone stops to have their photo taken. The big word is "Shilin" (Stone Forest).
Many of the tourists and local guides were wearing the traditional conical basket hats. I have seen some farmers wearing them in the countryside but you never see them in a city. All of the park tour guides were wearing the colorful garb of a local ethnic group called the Sani (?); you can see one in the picture below.
The first of many, many places where it was necessary to duck, squeeze or climb, and the first of at least a million stairs. There were stone pathways throughout the park; in fact I'm not sure I ever set foot on dirt. A tremendous amount of labor went into making this park and they made the pathways out of native stone, often carved right into the rock, so it doesn't seem intrusive but rather adds to the intrigue of the place.
This spot felt prehistoric and reminded me of "Land of the Lost". Although I was alone I could hear people nearby, sort of an odd feeling.
To give you an idea of the size of these things, at the lower left corner of the next pic you can see the top of a sign. These stones must have been four stories high or more.
This cracked me up: "Better to rest here for awhile." There were a number of these small stone tables and seats in a clearing and a lot of picknickers, but the sign is referring to what you will see in the following picture, a stone bed, complete with pillow. Comfy!
The little tables and chairs could be found here and there throughout the Major Stone Forest area, which I though was quite nice, because all those stairs were exhausting.
Lots of places like this where you can see a pathway off in the distance but you have to figure out how to get there, as in the Myst games.
Most of the tour groups didn't seem to get very far from the main point of the park, so by this point already there were only a few people, which was quite nice.
There was a man from Thailand who wanted to have his photo taken every few steps; he was certainly meeting a lot of people that way. I took his picture and he returned the favor.There were many different butterflies there, some of them quite spectacular.
"Peripheral Area" - aha, this is exactly what I wanted! Awayyyyy from the tourists!
I followed the Peripheral Area sign up a pathway to the top of the hill, where I was rewarded with fabulous views in all directions. In this picture, although not very clear, you can see the pagoda in the main area where ALL of the tour groups were waiting to climb some crowded stairs and pile into it. Neener, neener, I got a MUCH better view from here, and didn't even have to climb as many stairs!
I caught up with the Thai man again here so I got my photo taken again,
A cool looking rock right at the top, felt like a kind of marker. I thought I had hiked a lot by this point, but little did I know...
Coming down from that hill I came to the ring road, which tour trams drive around, and following a sign found what was possibly the fanciest rest room I've seen in China. This public toilet was brand new and wooden and beautiful, and the toilets had this weird plastic liner in them and instead of flushing the liner would just go down, kind of closing the waste in the plastic bag as it went down.
On the same little hill was a guard hut, but the guards preferred sitting in this gazebo, for obvious reasons! What a job!
View from next to the gazebo.
I crossed the Ring Road and went into the REAL "Peripheral Area"; this is the area where no tour groups went and besides myself, I saw only one group of four people there. The peripheral area is even larger than the main area and I hiked through there for at least two hours. Below is a picture looking back up some steps I had just come down.
There were security cameras high on poles and these emergency telephones dotted throughout the park so I felt all right about exploring alone despite all the stone stairs. many of the stone stairs were so well used that they were polished and slippery, not to mention steep and uneven, so the cameras and phones no doubt are used to find people from time to time.
Here I found the "Antique Cliffy Paintings". They didn't look like much, but the name gave me a giggle.

Here are the other four hikers... and you can get an idea of the size of these stones, since you can't even see the top in this picture.
By this point I was getting kind of tired and hot and hungry, and I kept putting my camera away thinking "I've got enough photos", but then I'd round another corner and just have to pull it out again. Shilin was like a land of wonders.
A sign announcing three directions: Major Stone Forest, Antique Cliffy Paintings, and Eternal Mushroom. Of course, I had to go off in search of the Eternal Mushroom!
The standing stone reminded me of the Bahro stones in the game URU.
The path toward Eternal Mushroom went on and on and on, until it passed between some farms...
Yes, those things in the far distance are the Eternal Mushrooms. I went two more hills nearer to them than this photo, but the distance was deceptive and the path just kept going on and on. Fearing to miss the bus back to Kunming and not certain how long it would take me to get back, I gave up on the Eternal Mushrooms, but another traveller in the hostel confirmed that I was right about them.
Re-entering the park proper, I sat down for a rest for a moment. Between the trees, in the distance you can see the pagoda where the guards were sitting. The deceptively small-looking stones all around are the ones I was hiking beneath recently and are actually set down in a depression, they are really quite massive and only the guard post location indicates how far I had come (I think I came in a big loop off to the right).
Having been hiking for several hours without food, I decided to take a shortcut back to the guard post, a road that skirted the area between the farms and the park. This was so quiet that I could hear nothing but birdsong and the wind in the trees, how wonderful.
Reconnected with the Ring Road and following the trams; many of the Chinese tourists wanted to have their photo taken with me as though I was part of the scenery which I found rather odd. I took a picture of this massive rock giant to make note of the TREE on top of it which shows its size!
Having had enough of being photographed and helloed, I took another path leading back into the Major Stone Forest area. This spot was not marked in any way, but I was amazed by the resemblance to a face in a Roman helmet with eye slits.
Tired, but not enough to dim my curiosity, I had to follow a sign marked "Deep and Narrow Valley". These stairs were so steep and small that I had to hold the chains and go down sideways. I thought I'd stop at the little table, but curiosity kept me going all the way to the bottom.
... and then I saw the steps going back UP...
Despite my exhaustion, I didn't stop there because the Deep and Narrow Valley was home to the park's mosquito population. Onward and upward... and upward... and upward... will these stairs never end? I think I'm lost... but this is a beautiful little spot with several paths crossing.
Following the sounds of people on my now-shaky legs, finally tired enough to put the camera away, I followed a maze of stairs and finally connected up with the million or so tourists climbing to the pagoda. Following them took me back to the main area, where there was an exhibition of folk dancing in progress, to my delight.
After that, I made my way out of the park, ate a delicious but overpriced lunch in a local restaurant, and got myself onto the long distance bus returning to Kunming.

A view of the countryside between Kunming and Shilin as seen by the bus. Lovely hills, not flat like the area I'm in.

All in all a wonderful day, and by far the coolest thing I've seen in China. This would rate very high on my list of natural wonders I've seen in the world.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Kitten is feeling better

The kitten seems to be adjusting well. He is still shy and hides, but I can lure him out with a string now, and he comes out to explore his surroundings when he thinks I'm not looking.

He climbed up onto the couch to sleep in the night instead of hiding under it, which is softer and warmer, because even though I put a towel under there for him to lay on he just lays on the hard floor.

He is eating soft cat food and a little dry food, but doesn't like milk. The milk from a box tastes strange, can't say I blame him. He is using the litterbox (wash basin with kitty litter in it, actually), although not always good at burying things really well.

It may be a while before I can get a decent picture of him, since he is so scaredy.

As for me, today I have a sore throat and other cold symptoms, no doubt due to meeting 150+ new students over the weekend and picking up something I didn't have an immunity to. Want to go out to get some vitamins and fruit, but having a hard time getting up the energy. I need to get well fast, no time to be sick!

Kunming - Exploring the City

Even after going through the pictures and deleting the bad ones, I still have 279 pictures of my trip to Kunming. Most of them are of Shilin (the Stone Forest), which was absolutely as wonderful as Owen posted in his blog. I am overwhelmed by the sheer number of photos I took and don't know where to begin; I guess I will begin at the airport!

I learned not to go to the airport too early in the morning because the taxi was sooooooooo much more expensive than the airport shuttle, but I was too early to catch the first shuttle so I had to pay 140 RMB for a taxi. Ouch.

A funny sign in the restroom at the Jinan airport: "Protect Environment Saving Bumf"
I found my flight successfully, and after arriving in Kunming, retrieved my bag and made my way to the bus stop. Following the directions provided by the hostel, I took the city bus for just 2 RMB. At first glance, Kunming looks rather like every other city I've seen in China, but with more trees, especially pines.
The sidewalks in Kunming seemed much cleaner and better maintained, and the buildings shinier... but maybe that was just because I was on vacation?
Between the bus stop and the youth hostel, about a 5 minute walk, was this lovely small park. The local elderly community seemed to use this park as their community center, as it was always full of people, playing cards or mahjong or having impromptu music sessions (more on that Kunming tradition later when I report on my trip to Green Lake Park).

I am ashamed of myself for going to a Wal-Mart in China, but it was where the hostel staff told me to go when I asked for a supermarket to get some basic travel items.
It was nothing like Wal-Mart in the USA, inside or out. Outside was a kind of outdoor market, not really visible off to the sides of this photo, with vendors selling everything from shoes to cross-stitch kits.

Inside, it was like any other Chinese department store: large and overcrowded. This was the view from just inside the entrance. There were four floors, you had to either take the stairs or push your cart up a concrete ramp between levels. It was a bit mazelike, so I got rather lost and frustrated trying to find the items I needed, and was very glad to get out of there.
This is the intersection I turned on to get to the Wal-Mart. The street was lined with small shops on either side, many of them food shops. Notice the old(er) buildings in the middle, complete with grass growing from the roof tiles.
In these food shops I found I could get a sit-down fast food meal, Chinese style, consisting of 10 small dumplings in a steamer basket with dipping sauce, for 4RMB - that is about USD $0.60. Yum.
The Kunming Cloudland Youth Hostel, where I stayed. It was clean and well maintained, and very busy, possibly because it was the last week of summer holiday here in China.
In the alley to the left of the hostel, just against the hostel wall and visible out the windows of the cafe/bar of the hostel, were a row of mahjong tables under an awning, apparently belonging to a business next door. These were always busy, even when it was raining!
A view of the central courtyard from the balcony outside my room. There were soft chairs and sofas covered in striped fabric on every balcony for lounging and the weather was just right for sitting outside and watching people play ping-pong. The pool table was just below me so I couldn't see it from where I sat.
I stayed in a 6 bed dorm room and all the beds were taken every night, with new arrivals and departures each day. Only one other person in the room stayed the entire time I was there.
An unattractive view out the window, just like in the hostel in Qingdao... but I stay in hostels for the price and convenience, not the view!
However, I did find some little differences about Kunming that were charming, such as this little side street.
Going a little up the street, I was rewarded with some lovely traditional architecture.

Another little side street had this lovely historical relic sitting amongst all the high rise buildings. I couldn't tell whether it was abandoned or not, but it was obviously old and had fascinating details such as the mud bricks
And on the side, grass growing out of the roof and one very cool dragon sitting on the wall!
Yunnan province is famous for tea (I think the local tea was Pu'Erh tea), so Kunming had many tea shops, with wares spread out for browsing, that were more interesting and approachable than the too-fancy ones in Jinan.
The medallions and bricks are made of tea leaves. The round things on the shelf at left are pancake shaped blocks of pressed tea leaves.

I will need to make more than one blog entry for my trip to Kunming, so stay tuned!