Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Blog blahs

Despite the lack of blog entries lately, I'm still alive and more or less healthy. As usual, I'm behind on my uploading of photos and descriptions; sometimes I think about going back to a paper-and-ink journal, but then I'd NEVER get it uploaded!

Christmas is coming up - it seems totally unreal from here where Christmas is not celebrated at all, save for a few decorations on shop windows. The school will hold Christmas parties the next two weeks (four parties in all, to accommodate all the students), at which the other foreign teacher and I are expected to dress up as Santa and be pummeled by the kids... er, I mean, spread Christmas cheer.

We foreign teachers will have our own private party next Monday evening, which I'm looking forward to.

Ironically, I'm finally starting to get the hang of living and teaching here, as my contract nears its end. However, the language barrier has been extremely difficult for me; I've only managed to learn the most rudimentary Mandarin on my own. For my next assignment abroad, I'd like to choose a country where I have already studied the language or a related language.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Soup Day

It was cold today, the first snow, and I had some potatoes that needed to be used up, so I made soup. Yum!

* 2 links smoked sausage, cut in thin slices
* 4 medium potatoes, cubed
* 1 sweet potato, peeled and cubed
* 1 onion, diced
* 3 bay leaves
* 1 star anise pod
* pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
* salt to taste
* ground white pepper to taste
* water

Simmered for about 40 minutes until the potatoes fell apart. Turned out delicious.

Here are a couple photos of the snow and the cat watching it; it snowed again in the afternoon so in the end there was a bit more than is seen in the pics. Too bad the camera didn't pick up the swirling snowflakes. Since I'm on the 13th floor, the wind was blowing the snowflakes every which direction and the cat and I both enjoyed watching them fly past the window.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Taomu Hot Spring Resort

On Monday our school (just the branch school that I am in, not the whole company) took the staff and teachers on a company trip to Taomu Hot Spring in the town of Liaocheng, about an hour and a half drive from Jinan.

We went in a hired van, and I spent the entire trip there looking at the scenery, which has changed drastically now that the leaves have fallen. In summer (and all my prior trips), the trees near the road have leaves on them and it's hard to see much of what is beyond them because the terrain is flat. This trip I got a good view of nearby farms and so on, and some of what I saw was rather interesting.

There were still some farmhouses with ears of corn stacked on the roofs like there was when I went to Xi'an. I saw quite a few goatherds with half dozen to a dozen goats, and even once or twice a couple sheep with the goats. There don't seem to be any fences between property lines, so the goatherds must keep them out of each other's crops. There was a fence between the land and the highway. I asked one of the Chinese teachers whether anyone eats goat meat, and was told that Han Chinese don'tusually eat goat or mutton, only minority groups.

An interesting thing which I noticed on prior trips is that many fields contain graves, marked by large hummocks of earth which are not planted with grass or anything. Occasionally there is a headstone or a bunch of colored streamers, but most of them appear to be unmarked (at least from that distance). The hummocks are built up much larger than just the earth moved to dig the grave, so I guess the mound itself serves as the marker. What I found hard to understand was why the graves seemed to be placed randomly in the middle of the field somewhere, rather than near the edges or all together close so that it would be easy to work around them.

I had no idea what to expect of a hot spring in China, and was pleasantly surprised. Although the town was small and in the middle of nowhere, the hot spring turned out to be a large and elegant resort hotel. There was a huge indoor pool area, in which were many, many small hot pools, each with different herbal mixtures in them and signs describing what they are supposed to heal. Plants were everywhere around the pools, and there were attendants with extra towels and tea. In addition, there were various kinds of jet and waterfall type apparatus to play with, a cool pool for swimming, and a waterslide. The waterslide was only open for about half an hour but we made the most of it! I haven't been on one since I was in high school - it's still fun!

The group wanted everyone to stay together but they also wanted to explore, so we kept moving from pool to pool all day. There was a long narrow pool with river stones in it to walk in to stimulate the feet, and a pool with small fish that nibble away dead skin (we did not try this one as it costs extra - I don't think I would have lasted more than thirty seconds in it anyway).

There were even more pools outdoors, and a little faux-cave complex with pools inside it that was quite atmospheric. The grounds were lovely, and there were covered walkways around the outside area. There was a room called "Hot Stone" which had a floor made of granite slabs, heated from underneath. There were wooden Asian-style log "pillows" so that one can lie on the hot stone.

At lunchtime we all went inside and were given Chinese style pajamas (loungewear?) to wear to the restaurant.
The food was excellent, and lunch was lovely. After lunch I checked out the rest area, which is a big room upstairs full of giant white luxury armchairs with televisions between them. I sat down on one of them and covered up with some towels that were there, and was promptly brought slices of watermelon and a glass of water. I didn't stay there very long as the hot pools were calling my name.

At the end of the day we all piled into the van for the ride home. I wished I had brought my mp3 player or something because it was quite dark by then, and as usual I couldn't sleep while riding. I did notice something interesting; there are no streetlights in the countryside, smaller towns, or even the larger towns except for the main streets. Individual houses don't have porch lights or outdoor lights as we do back home. The only light was the soft light coming from windows to show where homes were. It was rather nice, I've grown so used to streetlights everywhere I had forgotten what darkness was like.

The hot spring was like heaven and I wished I could stay there for a week. My back, which had been hurting a lot after a recent bicycle crash (car turned suddenly in front of me), feels soooo much better.


Sadly, when I got home I checked my messages on the computer and there was some very terrible news waiting for me. A very dear longtime friend was killed in an accident; this came as a huge shock. It is strange and painful to grieve from such a distance, unable to share with mutual loved ones and friends as one normally would. I find myself on the edge of tears easily and sleep doesn't come easy. I hope it won't affect my teaching this week.