Wednesday, January 23, 2013 0 comments

Kumbalgahr



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Driving in Rajasthan


On my last full day in Udaipur, I decided to get out of town.  According to the guidebook, there are several sights worth seeing within driving distance of Udaipur, so I asked the guy who ran the hostel about how to get out there.  And that's how I found myself bumping along the backroads in a little white car with a driver/guide named Jebbar.  My destinations for the day were Kumbalgarh and Ranakpur, but the drive itself was well worth the trip.  We drove through villages, along rivers, up and down switchbacks over a mountain, through desert areas and farmland.  Several times he pulled over to point out old men perched on the back of cattle, hitched to a huge stone disc; as they circled the disk, a waterwheel pumped water up into the irrigation ditches of the adjacent wheat field.  The winter here is the growing season--the highs are in the 70s, while in the summer, the highs of over 100 and monsoon rains make growing things less convenient.

The villages we passed through could have been any time in history; the only thing that showed that the 21st century had arrived were the advertisements painted onto the sides of various buildings.  Cows and goats wandered the streets, and I saw many women carrying huge baskets on their heads.  The women were the bright spots in the rather drab colors of the landscape and dusty roads; poverty is no reason here not to dress in the brightest colors of saris.

Jebbar was a good talker; he explained the farming methods as went along, and the names of the villages, and pointed out all the best views.  He told me a bit about himself, too: he is one of six children; four brothers and two sisters.  The oldest brother and sister are married, but the rest live together in Udaipur.  He and his younger brother are both drivers.  His family is Muslim, although he says that being a Muslim in India is a bit different than being one in an Arabic country; according the the laws of Islam, men shouldn't see women who are not in their family, but there's no way to avoid it in India, where many neighbors are not Muslim and don't  wear headscarves.  Besides, he works with tourists.  His family is from a small village in the countryside, but his father moved the family to Udaipur when he was a child; there's no work in the village.  Every summer, he goes back to the village; for many years, he would stay a month with his grandparents, living without electricity or running water, but loving every minute of it; now that they are gone, he still goes, and visits cousins.

I'm glad I got the chance to take this drive.  For several years, I've tried to make it a point when traveling to not only see the cities and their famous sights, but also to see something of nature.  I'm glad I got the chance to see the countryside of India, away from the tourist crowds.  
Monday, January 21, 2013 0 comments

Udaipur


I have so much to write about...but I am so tired.  But I really need to get caught up, at least a little bit:

I arrived in Udaipur on the sleeper train at about nine in the morning.  Next time I have the energy, I'll write more about that experience.  [Edit: post added] Anyhow, I got a tuktuk to my hostel, which turned out to be wonderful.  I have my own little room off of a sunny courtyard; the doors are a light turquoise.  There is a little restaurant on the roof, with a view out over the city.

I'll write more about my experiences later, but here are a couple of pictures:  the first is of the palace at sunset, as seen from a boat out on the lake.  The second is the sunset over the lake.  Udaipur is a beautiful place...

And now, it's later. Okay...I was quite frozen and a bit hazy from a night of uncomfortable sleep.  So, after I checked in and unloaded all my stuff, I headed up to the rooftop restaurant.  I sat in the sun, ordered tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich (the soup was wonderful, some of the best tomato soup I've ever had, but the sandwich was dry and tasteless), and read while I thawed.  I enjoyed the view out over the city from up there.

Finally, in the afternoon I got up the energy to head out into the town.  One of the hostel owners gave me a map and directions with how to get to the major things, but I apparently didn't listen too well.  That, and things didn't look like I expected them to look, so I missed the landmarks I was supposed to be watching for.  I was wanting to go down to the lake and walk along the shore, but it turns out that there are buildings down to the shore, and it's not the kind of lake front you walk along.  Not knowing that, I figured walking downhill would lead me to it (Udaipur is built on hills; it seems everywhere I went was uphill both ways).  No matter, though, the walk through streets lined with shops of every sort was interested in itself.

Most of the shops were designed in a very different way than I'm used to:  a ditch runs alongside the road, and there is a step over it into the shops, which are set up a step from the road.  The shop fronts are completely open across the front, and the floor is completely covered with a huge mattress-like pillow.  Everyone leaves their shoes at the entrance, and the shopkeeper sits cross-legged on the pillow behind or next to his (low) counter.  The customers also sit down to examine the wares.  Some of the more touristy shops do not follow the pattern, and are arranged just as a western shop, but the local shops all seemed to be that way.

Anyhow, I finally turned back, and after asking a few shopkeepers (more than one, because the first one looked confused and I could tell he was just pointing a random direction because he understood I was asking for directions, but couldn't understand where I wanted to go), I made it to the city palace.  Before going in, I walked down a little side road to a small opening onto the lake, and I realized the layout of the city; there was no walk along the lake, just different points to come out to it.

The city palace is the most popular sight in Udaipur; I had planned to wait to go there the next day, but it was still only about 1:30, so I had plenty of time.  Udaipur was the capital of the kingdom of Mewar, before India was united.  The palace was built by the Maharana Udai Singh II in 1559, and used by the ruling family for the next three hundred years.  

After I finished touring the palace, I bought a ticket for a sunset boatride on the lake.  The tickets for the boats are quite cheap during the day, but they double for the four and five o clock boats; however, sunset is really the time for the best views, so they know what they're doing.  The boat ride turned out to be wonderful; the city palace and the city behind it were golden in the sunset light.  The boat went out to a small island, entirely covered by a very elegant hotel and gardens, and then back to the palace. The top picture was taken from the boat, and the bottom one looking back over the lake just after I got off the boat.  What a beautiful day...

I went back to the hostel, and went up to the little rooftop restaurant.  At this point, I still hadn't had any actual Indian food, so I ordered some Chicken curry, which didn't turn out exactly as I expected, but tasted good.  I also ordered dessert...how could I resist when I saw nutella pancakes on the menu?



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The Indian Railway System

Part of traveling in a new country, especially a large and complicated one with its own way of organization like India, is learning a new transportation system.  Fortunately, the India railway system is pretty well organized, and you can register to buy tickets online.  However, I needed a copy of my passport to register, and my passport was at the embassy until the day before I left.  (Only afterwards did I find a copy in the bottom of my bag that I'd forgotten about)  So, I wasn't able to register until the day before my flight to India.  I bought my first train ticket immediately, from Mumbai to Udaipur--but I was number 73 on the waiting list.  Apparently, in India, since the train tickets are cheap and easily refunded, people just buy several tickets ahead of time, decide later which they actually wish to use, and then just cancel the rest at the last minute.  But still...70-something?  It seemed like a long shot I'd make that train. 

However, I checked the status online the morning after I arrived in Mumbai, and I was already to 34, which was better than I expected.  I went by the train station, though, to train to buy a tourist-quota ticket to be sure, but there weren't even any of those left.  The guy at the ticket window told me there was no way, with 34 people ahead, that I'd make the list for that train; my best shot was to come back first thing Monday morning and try to buy one of the higher-priced last minute tickets for that day's train.  

But, Sunday morning, with the original train supposed to leave that afternoon at 2:45, I checked again.  Number 12!  I decided that it was worth the bother to go to the train station (to add to it, not the one near the hostel, but one in a suburb) to just see what would happen.  The website said that the final update would be at noon, so I stayed at the cyber cafe until then, to see if the status had changed any...and lo and behold, I  had made the train!  There it was, my carriage and seat number.  Carriage 9, seat 71.  It was even a lower bunk!  

So, I headed to the train station in plenty of time, just to be sure.  I had nearly two hours to wait once I got there; I hung out with a couple from New Zealand while we waiting; they were somewhere on the same carriage, but several bunks down.  

My ticket was on a sleeper train, which is a much more basic carriage than the sleeper trains I'm used to in China or Europe.  In China, you have sheets, comforters, pillows, heat or AC, etc...Here there were open windows, and vinyl-covered pads on the bunks.  Fortunately, I always travel with my fleece blanket, and the warm air coming in the windows felt good.  At least until about eight o' clock.  Then it began to feel a bit cool...everyone shut the windows.   By ten it was downright cold air coming in around the leaky windows.  I got my fleece jackets out of my backpack.  Unfortunately, my bunk was closest to the end of the car, right next to the bathrooms.  The area between carriages had a large opening, and a strong blast of cold air was coming in.  By midnight, I got up and put on also a sweater, and a scarf, and still shivered and froze through the night.  The Indian people around me were cold, too.  It took me until about one in the afternoon the next day to thaw enough to take the fleece jacket off.  
Sunday, January 20, 2013 0 comments

Mumbai continued


Mumbai continued...

I wandered along until I got to the Gateway of India, a huge arch right by the water, which was built in honor of the last time the King of England made an official visit during the early 1900s.  The idea was that it would be a fitting place to welcome the monarch on future occasions, but then India  got its independence, and so now it's more a symbol of the period of time when they were struggling for independence.  It was nice enough as memorial arches go, but nothing really spectacular.  I guess I had expected something just a bit more...colorful.  

Anyhow, I took a rest sitting, along with many other people on a ledge in a shady area near the arch.  This was probably my favorite part of the day, just people watching.  I wish I could wear a sari...it seemed every woman who walked by had an even more beautiful one, in every color, turquoise and pink and yellow and purple and orange.  The outfits with the pants and the long shirts and scarf look like they would be cool and comfortable. Most of the passers-by were Indian, but there were also some western travelers; I would try to guess where they might be from.  Men tried to peddle the hugest balloons I've ever seen, and the men with postcards and maps were quite persistent.  I did buy a few postcards, but it didn't seem to deter others from trying to convince me theirs were better, even when I told them repeatedly that I already had some.  

After that, I got a taxi to another part of town--and the taxi rides themselves are some of the best sight-seeing--to find the Hard Rock.  I really wouldn't have chosen my first day to eat American food, but I wanted to go there, and I don't know that I'll get another chance.  It was pretty good, but not as good as it usually seems to me, but that's probably because I just had plenty of western food in Beijing.  Oh well, another to add to my little mental collection of tacky travel souvenirs.  Another Hard Rock, another country.  

I went back by the Victoria Terminus train station, which isn't too far from where I'm staying, to take pictures of it lit up at night.  It is a quite fancy train station--that's a picture of it in the last post.  Victoria Terminus is its old name; it has an Indian one that is the official name now but I can't remember it at the moment much less spell it.  

I spent the rest of the evening booking future train tickets and hostels at the cyber cafe, and then headed back to the hostel.  Before going to sleep, I talked for a while with two of my roommates, a teacher from Finland and a recent college graduate from Denmark, and the Danish boy played his guitar.  

One last thing:  all of the trucks around here have "Horn OK Please" painted on the back.  I love it. 
Anybody know the origins of that phrasing?  



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Exploring Mumbai

Mumbai.  Well, here I am at last...I woke up to sunshine streaming in the window, and a warm breeze blowing.  I could hear a bit of traffic down below, but not too bad since the hostel is on a smaller side street. Someone on a balcony somewhere was practicing some kind of flute or pipe, in just the melody you'd expect  to hear in India.  I got a "shower", considering the water was cool, all I had was face soap (I have to buy some shampoo), and I forgot to take my towel in there.  Anyhow, I felt better.  It's amazing how much easier it is to get up and get moving in the morning when there is sunshine and warmth.  In Beijing, there was no window in the room, and I knew I would be leaving the warm hostel room to thirty-degree weather, so there wasn't much incentive to get moving.

I first stopped by an cyber cafe (the same one I've returned to now), and then went by the train station to see about buying a different ticket to Udaipur; I bought one online, but it's a wait list ticket, and as of this morning I was still number thirty on the list (down from seventy-two when I started, though!); however, the guy there said there weren't any others available, so I'd have to come Monday morning and buy a more expensive last-minute ticket.  I'm still watching the original one, though--as of tonight, I'm up to twelve.  I just might make it.  I'll come back down here in the morning and see how it stands; if not, I'll do the Monday morning thing.

I then took a few hours to wander around.  There was a map of a 'walking tour' in my Lonely Planet book; I don't always mess with those, but I realized I was right at the end of it, so I could follow it backwards and pass most of the stuff I wanted to see anyhow.  I saw the sights: the university, the guys playing cricket in the park, the Gateway of India, the famous Taj Mahal Palace hotel.  They were all nice, but nothing that would take your breath away; the real Mumbai isn't the sights, though.  All day I was taking pictures, but not feeling like I was capturing much at all of the feeling of Mumbai.  The pictures show buildings and roads, but they can't capture the warm breeze, the honking of the taxis, the variety of people passing by.

More tomorrow--the internet cafe guy wants to close and go home.


Saturday, January 19, 2013 0 comments

Sunrise to Sunset and Then Some


I couldn't post while on the plane, obviously, so I'll revisit that experience just a moment here, before I dive into India.  

I've always enjoyed flying, but instead of getting more and more comfortable with it, it seems like I get more and more nervous these days...oh, not about flying itself, or crashes or that sort of thing, but about lost luggage and delays and bureaucratic issues.  Maybe it's just having more luggage, a tighter schedule, and more expensive tickets the older I get...I mean, it's hard to get worked up about a Ryanair flight that just cost three euro, carry on luggage only, and if it all goes wrong, you can always just take the train...

Anyways, I guess it was left over nerves from waiting until the last minute for my visa, but I kept expecting something to go wrong; some missed connection, something...but everything went like clockwork.  The only minor annoyance was that they charge 8 yuan for a bottle of tea in the Chengdu airport, which is highway robbery.  Oh, well.  I'd sure pay 8 yuan for one now; why isn't bottled iced tea available everywhere?  It always makes me appreciate China to travel elsewhere, and that's the thing I often miss the most--the bottled drinks are better in China than anywhere else (yes, including the U.S.).  Mango juice, peach juice, various teas, other fruit juices, plus all the normal stuff like Coke and Sprite. I've had a heart burn all day from drinking Pepsi.  I finally found a bottle of apple juice just now...I hope I can find more.  

Anyways, whining digression aside, the flight:  I flew out of Beijing at 8 AM, changed planes in Shanghai with an almost seven hour layover (but I much prefer long layovers to short ones; I hate being rushed)...another digression--I'd rather have spent the layover in the Beijing airport than the Shanghai one; the Shanghai one mostly has overpriced, overly fancy food, when I really just wanted something normal...okay, where was I?  Oh, yes.  Flight out of Shanghai at 4:55 PM, to Chengdu.  Now, it was the same plane from Shanghai to Mumbai, but even if we were going on, we still had to get off at Chengdu and walk through the customs thing and then get back on.  Anyhow, left Chengdu at some time or other (I'd lost track by then, and it's not on the  ticket since, officially, we were just "continuing" the flight) and arrived in Mumbai at 1 AM.  Despite the late hour, the airport was hopping; this is one of those cities that never sleeps.  

I found an ATM, and the taxi stand, and made my way to the Windsor Hotel (hostel).  The pillow is ridiculously small, and the showers are cold, but I'm overjoyed to have a mattress that doesn't feel like a piece of wood with a sheet on it (which is how the Chinese like it).  I might have mentioned all that in my last post, but I'm too lazy to go look right now.  Anyways, Mumbai.  I like it.  

As for the photos:  the first is the sunrise over a neighboring airplane as we boarded in Beijing; the second is the sunset as we took off from Chengdu.  


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Hello from Mumbai!

Hello everyone!  After all the crazy, I actually made it to India, so the real crazy can begin.  All I've done so far is walk down the street from my hostel (comfortable bed--but then, anything is comfortable after the hard Chinese beds; cold showers) to the cyber cafe, but I like what I've seen so far.  The weather is amazing--70s and sunny right now.  Being warm is such a wonderful feeling after wearing five layers all the time in Beijing (and in Wuhan before that, too, for that matter). 

Actually, it was a little weird--I just wore jeans for the flight yesterday, without any other layer underneath--and it was pretty uncomfortable.  They felt scratchy.  I hadn't thought about it, but I've always had on either pajama pants or cuddle duds (long-underwear type things) under my jeans for weeks. 

Well, now I'm off to the train station to see about buying a ticket to go to Udaipur in a day or two; I bought a ticket online, but I was on a pretty long waitlist.  But, there might be more options at the station.  Then I'm going to go explore a bit, and hopefully find a Hard Rock to add to my cheesy, touristy mental collection. 
Friday, January 18, 2013 0 comments

Got my Indian Visa!

FINALLY, I GOT MY VISA! I was really getting nervous...my flight is tomorrow morning.  If the visa wasn't ready on time--and we're talking about dealing simultaneously with both Chinese AND Indian bureaucracy--then it would have been a huge headache trying to change my flight and all.  But it was ready! On time!  

So, I should not be on here typing this, as I have to get up in four hours to leave for the airport, but, you know.  It'll be too early to take the airport subway line thing, and it's hit or miss as far as getting a taxi, so I, along with an English grandmother, mother, and daughter (who also teaches in Wuhan) who I met at the hostel here have a hired car to take us, for less money than it would have taken for us to take taxis separately.  We leave at five.  

So...I need to go sleep a bit.  My next post will be from India (assuming everything goes according to plan)!  

One more picture from Beijing...the weather was absolutely perfect today (no smog!), so I walked around a bit after I picked up my visa.  I went by St. Joseph's, a catholic church here; touring a church made me feel like I was back in Europe just for a moment there.  
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Beihei Park

Beihei Park is just to the northeast of the Forbidden City.  Most of the park is taken up by North Lake; frozen over this time of year, of course. Different sections of the lake were marked off for ice-skating and ice-sledding; I watched the skaters for a while, but my real goal was the island in the middle of the lake.  

The island is a tall hill, nearly as tall as the one in Jinshang Park next door; it also has great views over the city.  Jinshang Park is more famous for its views, as it looks directly over the Forbidden City, while Beihei gives you the view from the corner.  My pictures were actually better from Beihei, though that was mostly because I was there later in the day and the light was better.  

Anyhow, on the top of the hill on the island in the park, there is a huge white stupa, a type of Tibetan temple.  I'm not sure how to describe the shape, but you can see for yourself in the picture.  The contrast of the bright white made the sky look a deeper blue than I'd seen for a while; it reminded me of the white and blue of Greece.  

After I left the park, I headed back to the neighborhood I've been staying in, and munched on nachos at Helen's (restaurant) until Kelley arrived; she had just returned that morning from Harbin, where several of my friends  had gone to see the ice festival.  As we ate, she told me about their stay there--Beijing, in the 30s, seemed warm to her now, as it was -22 when she left Harbin.  She said that their eyelashes would get icy, and their cameras would freeze up and stop working.  I later saw pictures of some of the guys with beards--their beards were coated in ice.  So I guess I won't complain too much about being cold...
Thursday, January 17, 2013 0 comments

Forbidden City From Above

By Wednesday, the smog was finally clearing.  It was finally at what we would have called in Milan "really smoggy", which here, was "Oh, look how clean and clear it is!"  Context is everything, I guess.  

One of the things I definitely wanted to do this time in Beijing was go to Jingshan park, behind the Forbidden City.  If you climb to the top of the hill (which was created with the earth dug out to make the moat around the Forbidden City), you have the best view in Beijing--360 degrees, but most importantly, over the palace itself.  I wanted to get that view last time I was in Beijing, but I was rushed for time then, and after plodding through the unendingly vast Forbidden City in 97 degree heat, I looked at the stairs up the hill and gave up.  

This time, though, I waited for a good day; I was afraid the smog would never clear.  Truthfully, it would have been a bit better a little later in the afternoon; the sun was really too high for good-quality pictures.  I'll remember that if I'm ever in Beijing again.  

After enjoying the view from Jinshang park, I went down the hill, crossed the road, and entered another park, Beihai.  Which I will tell you all about in my next post.  
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Architecture of Beijing

While I'm waiting on something else, I'll post another picture...this one is of one of the interesting examples of Beijing architecture. I like it.  
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Summer Palace in Winter

I went to the Summer Palace, the lakeside vacation residence of the imperial family for many years, on a hazy hot Sunday afternoon the last time I was in Beijing; I figured I wouldn't do it again.  Tuesday morning, I planned to go out to an art district that all the guidebooks and all keep going on about, but once I actually got out I just wasn't in the mood for modern art.  I was in the mood to be outdoors, to see trees.  

So, I made my way out to the Summer Palace.  The huge lake was frozen over this time, and many people were out walking on the lake or sliding around on it on sleds.  There were several people walking along the lake, although it was by no means crowded, and I had the paths through the wooded part of the park almost to my self.  It felt peaceful after several days on city streets.  I walked along the frozen lake, down to the seventeen arches bridge, and watched everyone playing on the ice.  

Something just a bit odd happened as I heading back towards the exit to leave; I wanted to leave by the north exit, since that one is most convenient for the subway.  To get there, I needed to back through the woods over the hill from the lake.  It's a bit of a maze, but I have a good sense of direction.  As I was going over the hill, I came across a Chinese girl who looked about college age.  She met my eye as I passed, so I said ni hao (hello), which she returned.  She then started following me.  She had looked a little confused when I passed, so I assumed she didn't know how to get back to the gate.  She and I walked along as if we were together all the way back through the winding paths to the gate, never saying a word.  I thought when we got to the gate, we would part ways, but she continued following me down the street and around the corner to the subway station.  I lost her momentarily in the crush of people getting on and off the train, but once I found a seat I glanced up and saw she'd found a seat one section over.  She saw me, her eyes lit up, and she moved to sit by me.  I was a bit bemused by this point; I tried to start a conversation with her, but it was obvious that she didn't really understand anything I said; she managed, with obvious effort, to come out with "I go to my friends!"  She didn't make any other effort to speak, so we rode along in companionable silence.  Finally, we both got off at the same stop; I turned to change to another subway line, and I never saw her again.  
Wednesday, January 16, 2013 0 comments

Artistic, or a Pimple to Pop?

Monday morning; I'm going to be productive.  No sleeping in, I'm going out to check some things off my list of things to do in Beijing.  First, I'll go to the Captial Museum, and then I go to a temple reached from the same subway stop, so it must be near.  

Well, I had good intentions, anyhow.  I found the museum without too much trouble; it was a huge piece of modern art in itself, so it would be hard to miss.  Unfortunately, finding out how to enter it was nowhere near as straight-forward.  After wandering around three sides of the massive place and having a confusing conversation with someone who spoke no English at all, and with whom what Chinese I speak wasn't useful, I finally came to the conclusion that it must be closed on Mondays.  Oh well. 

However, I was now cold and my mood of exploration was waning fast.  So, across the street to McDonalds, for some chicken nuggets that tasted of cardboard; well, wet cardboard since I did at least manage to procure sufficient ketchup, and a pineapple pie, which was surprisingly good.  No apple pies here--they have pineapple and taro. I ate slowly and finished my book.  

So that I could say the day wasn't a total waste, sight-seeing wise, I planned a route to walk by the new performing arts center--it is called "the egg", and it's a vast glass dome, surrounded by a moat.  According to Lonely Planet, some view it as a ground-breaking triumph of modern art, while others see it as the definitive blot on the landscape.  To tell the truth, it didn't really seem to be the shape of an egg to me, or at least not more than half of one; it certainly is very modern.  In all the postcards, it beautifully reflects the colors of the sunset; but on a smoggy day like this, it was just reflecting a grayish-pink glow.  

Most things are better from a distance than close up, but this was the opposite.  Up close, it's a symbol of the future, bold and adventurous.  However, later in the week I saw it from a distance, as part of a skyline including the Forbidden City and the north lake, and it looked like a bubble-wrap bubble than I wanted to pop.  It might have been better out alongside skyscrapers in a business district, but as a next-door neighbor to Tiananmen Square, it just looked completely out of place.  
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Ghastly Faces from Taoist Hell

It's been a bit different, this time in Beijing, than most of my time traveling; I'm here for so long that I don't have to rush to fit everything in.  Of course, in a city with the size and history of Beijing, there's more than enough to see that I could stay busy rushing around--but I'm glad I don't have to.  

After a morning spent reading, I wandered out into the filtered light of a smoggy afternoon.   My destination was Dongyue Temple; I'd read about it in an article I saw online about the ten creepiest temples in the world.  It was the same subway station as where I went to apply for my visa, but going the other direction once exiting.  This way led into a part of Beijing that didn't seem too touristy; offices, shopping malls, a Starbucks and Costa Coffee right next door to each other (I've never understood quite why they do that).  I was beginning to wonder if this was the right way after all when I finally came to it: a rather run-down looking temple, across the street from an equally tatty looking Walmart.  

I paid the entrance fee and stepped into the courtyard.  It looked so far like a normal temple, like many I've seen, albeit a dusty and faded one.  I struck a line through the middle, visiting the main halls of the temple; nothing unusual there.  I made it all the way to the back and started forward again.  Just as I was beginning to think that the writer of the article must have gotten the wrong temple, I notices that the outside wall in the first courtyard was divided into small, cave-like rooms, dozens of them.  As I walked closer, I saw that each contained ten or twelve life-size statues; a row of five or six on each size, with a figure on a throne in the center.  Little plaques announced that this was the Department of Righteous Living, Department of Animals, Department of Hell, Department of Earth gods, Department of Demons and Monsters, and on and on.  Some were divisions of spirits or beings, some were virtues, some were sins.  About each, there is a Taoist teaching.  

The first few were virtues or fairly boring sins; the figures were ordinary people; being virtuous doesn't make you interesting to look at neccessarily.  However, after about the third one, I realized the fun of this temple.  The department of animals included figures with human bodies, but the heads of various animals: a terrifying red-eyed rabbit, a monkey, a pig, a fish, a goat...the various demons, sprirts, river gods all were garishly painted and cartoonishly expressive.  Some held weapons, or grimaced painfully.  Many would give small children nightmares.  

I took pictures of the more ghastly ones, and then headed over to Wal-mart to look for a card-reader.  It turned out to be the worst Walmart I've ever been in; it was crammed into the basement, the aisles writhing around the existing structure it had been mashed into.  It was mostly just a grocery store; no electronics, no housewares.  The walmart and the whole shopping center it was in seemed as dusty and run-down as the temple across the road. 
Monday, January 14, 2013 0 comments

Blanket of Smog

The smog continues...we had a little bit of smog in Jingzhou, and a little more in Wuhan, but it always seemed a little...higher up.  It made it seem a bit cloudy, or the sky hazy, but here it is almost a thick fog, like something you could reach out and touch.  Just to illustrate, here is a picture.  
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Lama Temple, and more eating

On Saturday, we had planned to all go out together, but both Rebecca
and I were pretty congested and miserable from the smog. She decided
to get some rest; they had a long trip later that night to Harbin. I
decided to brave the smog; the cold outside at least keeps my nose
running. Kelley and I went back to the Lama temple; finally, I got
inside--third times a charm, right?

It definitely was one of the more interesting temples I've visited;
it's a large complex with many golden Buddhist idols. The most
impressive one had this explanation on the sign:

Wanfuge
It was built in 1748-1750 AD.
The Matreya Buddha is standing inside. The statue (eighteen metres
above ground and eight metres below ground) was carved from a single
trunk of white sandalwood.

In August 1990 AD, this Buddha was in Guinness Book of records.

There were also two large rooms set up as museums, with a large
collection of Buddhist figurines of all types, Boddhisatvas and
Matreyas as such, mostly from the 1700s.

The temple was quite crowded, but then again, it was a Saturday
afternoon. The smoke of the incense was thick as many people were
doing the traditional bowing and kneeling before the various figures
of the Buddha. I've been to quite a few Buddhist temples over the
past few years, but this one inspired me to want to learn more about
Buddhism. Kelley said she was really interested in the significance
of the number three--the figures are often in groups of three, and the
worshippers always light three sticks of incense, and bow or kneel
three times...I have some books in my apartment that Carie left; I
really should do a little more research.

After we left the temple, we tried to figure out somewhere else to go;
I'd already been to the nearby Confucian temple, we didn't have time
to go to any of the places that closed at four, etc. We stopped for a
late lunch while we examined the map. We finally decided to try the
Poly Art Museum; the Lonely Planet didn't list the opening hours.

Apparently whoever runs this art museum isn't too interested in anyone
finding it. The directions lead to a large roundabout surrounded by
buildings; the address is on the opposite side of where it really is;
the museum is on the ninth floor of a huge building, with only a tiny
mention of it in a list of the multitude of things in that building;
there are no signs whatsoever inside as to how to find it; the people
who work at the information desk speak no English at all and
furthermore don't seem to be at all interested even if they did. We
finally did come out at a side entrance of it on the 9th floor, only
to find out that it closed in five minutes. Nevermind.

So, we went on back and met up with Rebecca and Jon at Helen's. They
and Kelley needed to leave for the train station to catch their night
trains to Harbin around eight, so we ate and talked until then.
Kelley will back in Beijing in a few days; Rebecca and Jon are going
on to Nanjing. However, I'm definitely going to find the time to
visit in Jingzhou this semester.
Sunday, January 13, 2013 0 comments

Another Great Wall picture...

Because I have a few minutes waiting for something else to upload,
here's another picture from the Great Wall...
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Food and Friends at Peter's

After staying out so late the night before, I didn't get moving any
earlier the next day. Oh well; I have plenty of time in Beijing, and
besides, the smog was just getting worse.

I met Rebecca, Jon, and Kelley for an early dinner at Peter's, the
Tex-Mex place Kelley and I had went to earlier in the week. We all
ordered burritos, and chips and salsa, and drinks...then later,
nachos, then chips and salsa again, and drinks again...we kept
munching and talking until we realized we'd been there for five hours,
and the waitresses were beginning to look like they wished we'd leave
so that they could start cleaning up. We didn't feel as bad about
eating so much once we realized how long we'd been there; we almost
had been there long enough for two meals, after all.
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Scorpions on a Stick

I was happy to see Rebecca; we had some good times my last semester in
Jingzhou; and I had never spent any time around her husband--they had
just begun dating when I left, so it was good to get to know him as
well. As it turned out, they were staying in the same neighborhood as
Kelley and I, so we met up by our mutual subway station. However, we
didn't get on it--instead we walked. It would have seemed like a
long, freezing slog if I'd been by myself, but it didn't seem too bad
at all laughing and talking with friends.

We headed to the Wanfujing Snack Street. We walked along Wanfujing
Dajie, a major, modern street, with upscale shopping malls and bright
lights; nothing out of the ordinary until we came to a decorative arch
leading into a narrow side alley. This little street is far from
ordinary. It's crammed with stalls selling...interesting...snacks.
As in grilled starfish, scorpions, some kind of large grubs, crabs,
whole little birds, snakes, sea horses, whole squids, and that was
just the stuff we could recognize.

Jon and Rebecca had tried stuff before, and I, while I have come a
long way from the picky child I once was, am still not that
adventurous. But I did get some good pictures of Kelley crunching
some scorpions on a stick.

After we gawked for a while at what all animals you can put on a stick
and fry, we headed back to Helen's, the restaurant attached to the
hostel where Kelley was staying, and stayed until two in the morning
catching up; it was one of the best parts of the trip yet. And for my
Mom: since it was so late, Jon and Rebecca walked me back to my hostel
so I wouldn't have to walk alone in the dark. Thought you'd
appreciate that.
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Old Sky, Old Temple, Old Friends

After a long day climbing around on the great wall, I took it easy on
Thursday. A little too easy, probably; I didn't get out of the hostel
until nearly three in the afternoon. However, I woke up congested and
with a headache; I blamed it initially on the heater in the room (my
roommates like to keep it nice and toasty), but once I did step
outside I realized it was probably also the smog. The first few days
in Beijing had clear, brilliantly blue skies--but Beijing's famous
smog was descending now. The sky was still blue and the sun was still
shining, but both looked dusty, dirty. The sun seemed weaker through
the haze.

I spent the morning reading (I'm in the middle of an obsession with
Madeleine L'Engle) and catching up on email. I bought lunch from the
little bar in the hotel--some cheesy rice that tasted pretty good, but
probably wouldn't have been quite as good if I could actually taste
it.

Once I finally drug myself out, I headed for the Lama Temple, which
was the major thing on my list from last time in Beijing that I didn't
get to see. However, by the time I got there, it was 3:40, and it
closed at 4:00, so I didn't bother. Another day. However, the
neighborhood across the street from it is the old hutongs (narrow
alleys through mazes of single-story courtyard homes); these have
mostly been repurposed as cafes, little shops, and art galleries; the
street I wandered down seemed to focus on pottery.

About halfway down that road, I came across the Beijing Confucian
Temple, and it was open until five. The temple was begun in 1302, and
it is next door to an ancient college. There were only a few visitors
on this chilly late afternoon, so I had the grounds almost to myself.
The temple and most of the other halls are the typical red buildings
with gold tile roofs and elaborate blue and green painted decoration,
a bit faded and peeling. What interested me most in the courtyard
were the dozens of ancient cypress trees; twisted and gnarled, they
looked to be nearly as old as the temple itself. One of the largest
and most twisted had a sign that confirmed this--it is known to be
seven hundred years old.

In one of the side buildings, a very nice museum detailing the life of
Confucious has been installed. I had never really bothered to learn
any biographical information about him, so I found it quite
interesting; however, I had to skip about twenty years or so in the
middle, as I was running out of time. I just had time to duck over to
the ancient college grounds for a quick pictures of the arched entry
and the main building before scooting out before I got locked in.

I kept walking along the hutong road until I got to another major
street; it was getting dark and cold, so after wandering around a bit
I settled into a restaurant; I had some good tie ban niu rou (slices
of beef and onions on a sizzling skillet). While I was eating, I got
a text from Kelley--Rebecca, one of the people I worked in with in
Jingzhou two years ago, but hadn't seen since, and her husband, Jon,
had arrived in Beijing, so I went to meet up with them, but I'll tell
you about that in the next post.
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Wonder if this'll work...

I'm posting on the blog by emailing in my posts right now, as it's
really hard to get blogger to work, even using my proxy, on the hostel
computer. However, that means no pictures. I wonder if I attach a
picture to the email, if it'll post it? Worth a shot, so here goes
nothing...if it shows up (probably won't), it's a picture of a
watchtower on the great wall, and you can see another section of the
wall on the ridge of the mountain in the distance, as well.
Friday, January 11, 2013 0 comments

Mutianyu

The alarm went off early on Wednesday. 5:30, to be exact, and I just
gave myself a ten-minute snooze twice. I had taken a shower the night
before, so all I had to do was get dressed, although that does take a
few minutes when you're wearing five layers. I quietly left the
hostel room and stepped out of the hostel into the still-dark early
morning. It's not too far to the hostel where Kelley is staying, and
I was to meet her there at seven. I made it a few minutes early, just
as it was starting to get light. From there, we joined a group from
her hostel to go to the Great Wall at Mutianyu.

I've been to the great wall before, two years ago, but to a different
section, Jinshanling. However, it was quite cloudy and foggy when I
went before, and while it was quite picturesque to see the wall
shrouded in fog, emerging from the mist, I also wanted to see it in
bright clear sunlight. For that, we picked the perfect day.

It took us awhile to get out of the city, as we fought morning traffic
and picked up other people from different hostels. Once we got on the
road, the tour guide stood up and gave a long spiel, while most of us
tried to look politely interested. She asked for our forgiveness for
the time wasted getting out of Beijing so many times that actually her
references to it were far more annoying than any waiting time. Most
of us dozed off as soon as she turned her back, until she woke us for
a bathroom break when we were nearly there.

We had three hours to spend on the wall; we took a cable car up from
the area where we parked. The view was spectacular; I'll add pictures
to this post when I can, but it'll probably be at least a week,
because the computer here in the hostel doesn't get along with my
camera. There was still a dusting of snow on the surrounding
mountains, so that they glittered in the light. The wall runs along
the ridges of the mountains, so you can see for miles from up there.
Our walk along the wall took us higher and higher, from guard house to
guard house, and the view just kept getting better as more and more
distant hills became visible the higher we went.

On a Wednesday in January, there were very few people up there other
than our group; we managed to get several pictures with no one at all
in them, or just a few people in the distance, which is always a bit
tricky in a country with 1.3 billion people. With that many people,
it always surprises you a bit to find yourself alone.

The most unusual part of the outing was getting down the mountain from
the wall. Of course, you can hike down the trail, or take the cable
car (ski lift type) back down, or you can take the slide. There is a
metal slide built down the side of the hill, below the cable cars.
It's not straight down, but rather winds its way down curving back and
forth, just as a road would do. You sit on a plastic sled with wheels
at the top; pull the central lever back to slow down or push it
forward to go faster. Altogether, it was over a kilometer in length,
with all the winding back and forth. It looked a bit scary at first,
but it didn't go that fast, and was a lot of fun.

Once we got down, we had an arranged lunch in a restaurant in the
village that obviously is used to such groups every day; they served
all the Chinese dishes that foreigners tend to like, except for the
dish of tofu, which was hardly touched. Most of the group were just
tourists in China, and used spoons to pile food on a plate in
helpings, instead of the normal Chinese way of taking a few bites at a
time with chopsticks; I ate the Chinese way, as did another man at the
table who has also taught in China for some time.

Kelley and I were the last to arrive, although we weren't late, so we
each took a place at a different table. The guy next to me turned out
to be from California originally, but he's lived in New Zealand for
the past two years, working with Peter Jackson's company doing
animating work for The Hobbit. I was impressed, anyhow. Now, he and
his friends were taking a vacation, taking the TransSiberian railway
from Moscow, all the way across Russia to Beijing.

After the big meal, everyone dozed again all the way back to Beijing.
Kelley and I went to our hostels to rest for a while, then met up
again to go eat at Peter's, a Tex-Mex restaurant she'd heard of. I
splurged on fajitas--Mexican food is a treat here in China. They
weren't any comparison to La Fuente, but they were pretty good.
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Subway and the Temple of Heaven

After I finally finished up at the visa application place, I wandered across the street to Subway.  Now, we have a Subway restaurant somewhere in Wuhan, but it's way over on the other side of the city somewhere inconvenient, so I've never been.  I got to really enjoying Subway last summer, so I was happy to have it again.  And Subway, fortunately, has not changed their menu to suit Chinese tastes (like KFC, which only has the vaguest resemblance to KFC in the states), and it was exactly as I remembered it.  I got my chicken terriyaki with bell peppers and pickles.  

After that, I decided I really ought to check some sight-seeing activity off my list, so I went to one of the major ones I missed the last time in Beijing, the Temple of Heaven.  During the last couple of dynasties or so (from what I remember, I'm too tired right now to go actually look it all up), the emperor and a sizable entourage would go to this place twice a year, on either the solstices or the equinoxes, I can't remember, to pray for the harvest, etc. etc. etc.  

It really was quite an interesting temple; it's built up on a platform, so there's a good view over the surrounding area--I could see mountains in the distance (made me think of being on Monte Stella in Milan, although these were further and not so big), a ferris wheel, several smokestacks, and kites flying in the nearby park.  The temple itself is unusual because it is round instead of the normal rectangle.  It's also the middle of a huge complex made up of the gardens, full of ancient cypress trees, various gates and temples along the procession route of the emperor (the  most important gate has three doors--the one in the middle is for God to enter; it's never opened or used by mere mortals, the one on the right is for the emperor, and the one on the left is for the high officials), and a huge round platform.  Supposedly, if you stand in the center of this platform, your voice will be especially sonorous.  Several Chinese people were squawking about on it, but didn't seem to think it was benefiting them much.  I was too cold to bother at that point; it was much colder that day than it had been the two days before.  Any icy wind was blowing, and the platform was both raised and unprotected, so there was no escaping it there.  

Thoroughly chilled, I decided that was enough sight-seeing for one day.  I headed back to the hostel to warm up for a while, and then went to a nearby restaurant for dinner.  I got grouchy with my roommates to turn off the TV (they often keep watching it until after one in the morning), because I knew had to get up at the crack of dawn the next day.  
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This Kind of Thing Makes Me Nervous

Monday morning bright and, well, reasonably early, I headed to the India Visa Application Center.  I thought they might actually employ Indian people, who most likely would speak English, but there were only Chinese people in sight.  Fortunately, the most critical ones spoke English.  The lady at the the copier and the guy you pay can deal pretty well with sign language.   

However, I did not accomplish what I went to do, that is, apply for an Indian visa.  Suffice it to say that when you get Indian and Chinese efficiency working together, it is optimistic to expect everything to go smoothly and efficiently.  Turns out that there are several needed documents that were not listed on the website.  When I complained about this, the girl said matter-of-factly, "Oh yeah, the website.  They never update that."  Apparently it's never occurred to any of them that someone might need a list of requirements ahead of time.  An additional thing is that the requirements are slightly different for someone who is just passing through China as opposed to someone who lives here.  

Anyhow, two of the things were things that I could easily print myself, but I did have to call the university in Wuhan and disturb more than one person's afternoon to write and stamp a letter proving my employment and fax it to me.  Fortunately, somebody came through for me.  However, it was too late in the day by that point to finish the paperwork on Monday.  

So, I met a friend, Kelley, who lives in Jingzhou but was traveling in Beijing, for dinner, got the paperwork together, and then gave it another shot on Tuesday.  The center was much less crowded on Tuesday morning, and this time everything went pretty smoothly.   Now just to wait...it's supposed to take seven business days, which will mean I will get it the day before my flight.  It just makes me extremely nervous to have used my grace day I built in at the beginning.  If I don't get it on time, it's going to be a huge hassle, and probably involve a fairly large fee, to change my flight.  The girl helping me actually asked, "Well, why did you book a flight already?  You should wait until you have the visa before booking it."  In the next breath, she told me that a copy of my flight booking information showing my dates of leaving and returning was required to GET the visa.  Sooo...she didn't get the irony, apparently.  

Anyhow, it's all applied for, and now I'm just praying it does come through in the typical seven days...oh please oh please oh please oh please...
Tuesday, January 8, 2013 0 comments

Day One in Beijing

I arrived in Beijing early in the day; by the time I navigated the
maze of the train station, it was nearly ten. After a short delay to
text directions to someone in Wuhan trying to find a meeting, I found
my way to the subway. I love subways--the most efficient and quick
way to get around in a big city. One of the things I'm most looking
forward to in the future is more and more cities buildling
comprehensive subway networks. Wuhan's new line that just opened has
already opened up a lot of new possibilities for me.

I first found my hotel and left my backpack; I was a bit sleepy after
the slightly interuppted sleep on the train--the bunk was so narrow, I
had to wake up to turn over. I thought about taking a nap, but it was
a beautiful sunny day out, and besides, my two roommates in the dorm
turned out to be quite chatty, so I headed out. I explored a bit of
the area around the hotel--a new shopping street--and then had a
leisurely lunch. I'm rereading the books of Madeleine L'Engle, so I
enjoyed sitting somewhere warm to lose myself in that world for a
while.

Next, I headed on the subway up to the Olympic village from the 2008
games; the Bird's Nest stadium, the glowing blue Acquatic Center, and
several other things are still there, and they still turn on the
lights at night, as tourists still come to take pictures. I hung
around until it got dark to see the lights come on. In the afternoon,
it hadn't felt too cold, since the sun was shining and there was no
wind, but as soon as the sun went down, the cold seemed to seep into
my bones. The river running behind the stadium was frozen solid. I
was glad to make it back to the warmth of the hostel.
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Rolling Through the Early Morning

I forgot to check exactly when the train was supposed to arrive; it
wasn't printed on the ticket. Probably hoping you won't remember, so
you won't be grumpy with them if it's not exactly on the dot...Anyhow,
I did remember it was nine-something.

About a quarter after eight, I crawled out of my bunk and managed to
arrive at the floor without injuring myself or anyone else. The
early-morning light was shifting from pink to gold; we were still out
in the countryside. We were passing slowly through snowy fields and
scattered wooded areas, so I knew we still had a while to go; we
couldn't be anywhere near the metropolis of Beijing yet.

As we ambled through the frosty rural area south of Beijing, I saw a
think path winding through the fields; an old man with his hands
behind his back was striding along, whether to check on something in
his fields or for his morning exercise, I don't know. A small dog
bounding happily a few yards behind him. Both were silhouetted
figures against the frosty field sparkling in the foggy light. Now
and then, I saw small flocks of sheep, staying close together for
warmth, being guided by shepherds to wherever there was little enough
snow to allow for some foraging. I even saw a few graveyards,
streched along the tracks in the gap before the fields began, or on a
step hillside overlooking road construction--with 1.3 billion people,
most Chinese are cremated these days, and the cemeteries there are
tend to be on land that is otherwise unusable.

The rural landscape was gradually broken by larger and larger
villages; we passed through small factory towns; men at one were
already hard at work--one, on the roof, was calling down instructions
to the other three pacing back and forth for warmth as they worked on
some problem or other. The factory towns had little alleys of houses
with the normal trash-piles at the ends of the rows, but then they
also had, either finished or under construction, high-rise apartments,
ten, twelve, fourteen stories high; from the higher floors you must be
able to see the entire town and a long ways around; nothing else came
close to that height. The high rises seemed incongruous with the
hard-working, ordinary little factory towns, as if they'd gotten
separated from the city they belonged to. But, even in small towns,
something must be done with the population, and this is the most
efficient way to provide housing. Sticking out from the edge of one,
though, was a reminder of the history of these ordinary little towns;
a weather-worn pagoda kept watch over the scatter of houses around it.

We began to see freeways, and each one was busier than the last. We
crossed a bridge over construction projects and a frozen-solid
river--I don't know that I've ever seen a river frozen over. I am a
true southerner. Built into the side of the hill near the tracks,
overlooking all of this, was what seemed to be a dug-out little cave,
with tarps attached to poles creating the front wall. The tarps were
rolled back, and the occupant, a man who looked to be maybe in his
fifties, was standing on a bit of astroturf in the doorway doing his
morning streches and exercises, bending and swinging his arms.

There was less snow as we got closer to Beijing, but more smokestacks,
pouring white billowing steam into the crisp morning air. They seemed
to be building a canal is one place we passed. Parking lots became
more frequent than sheep, and then I was catching glimpses of the
now-blindingly-bright sun through the gaps between high rises and
skyscrapers. We had arrived in Beijing.
Sunday, January 6, 2013 0 comments

Snow in Xin Yang/Lights Out

I'm taking the sleeper train up to Beijing; there are rows of bunk
beds, three high. I have the top bunk, unfortunately; the biggest
downside, to me, is that I can't see out the window from way up there.
Well, that and the acrobatics required to actually reach said bunk.
And the fact that you're too close to the ceiling to sit up once you
do get up there. Anyways, it's really not that bad.

Fortunately, there are pull-down benches along the opposite wall, so I
sat there, writing and playing games on my kindle until about nine,
when I decided to lay down and read for a while. I walked around a
bit before settling in; we stopped at a station while I was standing
near a window between the cars. That was the last point of the night
that I saw a sign and knew exactly where we were (well, knew the name,
anyhow, I don't actually know where the town is, so it's not really
useful knowledge or anything...): Xin Yang. And there was already
snow on the ground, four hours north of Wuhan.

At ten on the dot, the lights went out. And everyone immediately
hushed and went to sleep.

Chinese people take lights out seriously. On the sleeper trains I
took in Europe, there was a light switch and the six occupants of a
compartment had to come to an agreement on when to turn the light off.
And just because the lights were off didn't mean everyone was going
to sleep. People would keep talking or going in and out or whatever
they felt like doing. Not so here--people take the sleeper cars to
sleep. Not a sound--if it wasn't for the occasional person who had to
walk down the aisle to the bathroom, you wouldn't know you were on a
train car with sixty-six people plus a few random children. It just
surprises me a bit; a break in the normal screamed phone conversations
and grandmothers hollering at grandchildren. Lights out is serious.

I wish lights on weren't so serious, though. Six is a little early to
my liking.
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And so it begins...

And so it begins...on the road again. I'm standing at the boarding
gate for an overnight sleeper train that leaves for Beijing in fifteen
minutes. I won't be back here for a month and a half. I've been
daydreaming of this trip for over a year now--I can't believe it's
actually happening--or, I hope it is. I won't feel completely easy
until I actually have the visa.

...

I've been, for some unknown reason, listening to ABBA the past few
days. I constantly have on of the songs stuck in my head. While
waiting in line, one of the very silliest was on repeat in my
brain--the "King Kong Song." So, once on the train, that was the
first song I played on my mp3 player. The first song of the
journey--off to an interesting start.

We left the Wuchang station and headed across the river towards
Hankou--hold up. I just saw a guy wearing khaki shorts over red plaid
pants. And judging from his spiky hipster haircut, he thinks he looks
good.---okay, where was I? Oh yes...across the river towards Hankou.
As we approached the bridge over the Chiang Jiang (Yangtze), I saw the
big tower that looks a bit like Seattle's Space Needle, at least to
me, that is one of the most recognizable things on the Wuhan skyline.
It was lit up as it was getting dark fast. I tried to take a picture
of it out the window (didn't work), because it was the first time I'd
seen it. Weird. I'm seeing some of the major sights of Wuhan as I
leave it. I really have been a bit lazy about exploring this
semester. But, it was the same in Jingzhou--the first semester is
spent figuring out the grocery store, Walmart, and the buses to carry
on with every day life; the second semester I explored a lot,
though--it felt like we walked laps around the old city walls. I
think it will be the same here; now that regular life has settled into
a routine, I'll have the energy to wander.
 
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