Monday, October 20, 2008

More gymnastics

As I had previously mentioned my new goal for the duration of the Olympics was to somehow score tickets to see Shawn Johnson compete. As luck would have it I met two Americans at our hostel who had two extra tickets to every event they were going to and were looking to swap them for other tickets since they didn't have too many events to go to. I asked them right away if they had any gymnastics tickets and they did and they were willing to trade me for my judo tickets. Score! I was happy to get to see any events during the Olympics, but if I could see gymnastics instead of judo I was definitely going to trade.

So Kim and I gave them our judo tickets for their gymnastics tickets and that night we made our way to the National Indoor Stadium for the women's gymnastics preliminaries. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that that the countries were broken down into different groups and that America wasn't competing at the time we had tickets for :( It was still fun to watch, but I obviously hadn't met my goal of seeing Shawn perform at the Olympics.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

How is it that you are louder than all of France?

This question was posed to me while we were sitting around watching fencing on day two of the Olympics. It was our third event of the Games and the first time we got to see an American compete. Of course I was beyond excited to finally cheer for the red, white and blue. Our seats were on the opposite side of where the American was sitting but after sneaking past some volunteers we ended up getting some great seats. In fact, we were now located right behind the designated athletes seating area. Score!

Anyway, some Frenchies had made the same tricky maneuvering as us and were sitting in the same section now and as luck would have it the U.S. and France were about to face off. Obviously fencing isn't exactly a mainstream event in America, but it definitely is one of those that they love in Europe apparently.

So our American friend took the stage (I don't know what to call the competition area in fencing) and we just started going nuts. We had absolutely no idea who this guy was and we cheered for him like he was Michael Jordan back in the glory days of Chicago basketball. We were greatly outnumbered by French fans but we didn't care. We cheered louder, harder and longer than they did and even though our guy lost it was still totally worth it.

After the match (I have no idea what a round of fencing is called) this French guy turned to me and said, "How is it that you are louder than all of France?" I told him it was because we didn't smoke and gave him a smile. He just laughed and then we showed them how to really yell later when we cheered for the French guy who beat our American friend.

As it turns out fencing was a rather intense sport. The athletes were always jumping around and as soon as they scored a point they would rip off their masks and throw a fit.

OK, so fencing was far more fun than I thought it would be and afterwards we were leaving the venue and we met the family of the American who we had been cheering so feverishly for and they thanked us and told us we rocked for all of our enthusiasm :)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Olympics Day 1 (sleep deprivation and sun burn)

As previously mentioned we did not have a place to sleep the night of Opening Ceremonies and so when we checked into our hostel (which from here on out will be referred to as the room that mold built) we only had time to shower and change before we needed to head out for the day.

I can't express how much Beijing has changed in the year since I've been here, and even since I was last in Beijing at the beginning of July. The city was much cleaner and everyone seemed to have their welcome mat out for the Games.

Anyway, onto the Games. Our first event of the Olympics was beach volleyball. The venue was pretty small (especially compared to most of the other venues) and was relatively empty considering the Games were boasted as being the first ever to sell-out. But these factors certainly did not stop us from having fun.

The sun was shining, the music was blaring and we were cheering loud even though the U.S. wasn't playing. We talked to some other folks from the states and Germany who we would eventually hang out with several times later in the week.

Beach volleyball was really fun and much more intense than I had expected.

Jenna and I sat with Jon, Tim and Tony (our gang for the next two weeks) for about four hours before we realized we weren't going to make it through the rest of the day, yet alone the rest of the Olympics, if we didn't get some sleep. We made our way back to the hostel and napped for about two hours before it was time to roll out again.

That evening we had tickets to the men's gymnastics preliminaries and, once again, America wasn't competing. We had a good time watching the Games in general, but of course we wanted to cheer for the U.S. At any rate I was super excited to be at gymnastics, because it is always my favorite sport during the Olympics.

As you may or may not know I met Shawn Johnson during my junior year at Drake when I was working for The Times-Delphic. She was only 14 at the time and we ran a story in the Relays issue about her that my friend Jennifer wrote, I tagged along to take the photos. She's from Des Moines and her gym is only a few miles from campus so we got to watch her warm up with the other girls at her gym one day and meet with her and her coach. It was a pretty cool experience and one that I kept bragging about as soon as she made the U.S. team. I was hoping to get to see her compete while we were in Beijing but once I picked up our tickets for the week, which I had ordered more than a year in advance, I realized that just wasn't part of the plan. I made seeing Shawn compete my personal goal for the week.

Back to the events of the evening. Thankfully Jenna and I were wide awake after our two hour naps and decided to celebrate this with a beer as we watched the incredibly buff men frolic around the National Indoor Stadium. The guys were not in such high spirits since they stayed at beach volleyball and didn't have a nap. They ended up leaving halfway through gymnastics to go back to the hostel.

The gymnasts were incredible and a good indication of what we were going to get to see throughout the coming days.

After the event was over Jenna and I were pretty high on the excitement of being at the Olympics and so we decided to walk around for a while, see the grounds and chat before heading back to the hostel. Here are some shots of the green that first night.

We finally got back to the room that mold built at around 1 a.m. and immediately crashed.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Olympics begin

I know you've all been patiently waiting for me to finally start blogging about the Olympics. Also known as the highlight of my already fabulous life. So without hesitation I present to you, in blog form, my trip to the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics.

10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 ...

Now, I might be a lucky duck, but I wasn't lucky enough to score tickets to the Opening Ceremonies. Instead I was able to find a sweet spot that was about as close to the Bird's Nest as a person could be without having tickets. The area was packed full of people from all around the world and we arrived just in time to get a spot before they blocked it all off. From this vantage point we were able to see all of the fireworks go off and I have to tell you it was fantastic.

We were standing close to an Olympic countdown sign and everyone was yelling like it was the New Year as we get ready to start the summer Olympics. I was jumping around, screaming and dancing in the street with new friends from around the world and everyone just went nuts when the counter finally said zero and the sky filled with color as the Chinese reminded everyone just who invented fireworks in the first place.

Since we were outside watching the fireworks and having our own party it meant that we didn't get to watch the actual ceremony on TV, but hey I've already got a bootleg DVD of the whole thing to watch whenever I want. We spent most of the rest of the evening cheering with people from around the world. We sang with our amigos from Mexico and danced with our sisters from another mister, the Canadians. We were interviewed by reporters from Italy, France, Australia and China. I was later overwhelmed by e-mails, text messages and phone calls from people in China telling me they had seen me on the Chinese news that night.

After a while we found a tea shop that had opened it's doors for people to come in and watch the opening ceremonies on TV. We bought some of the beer they were selling, made a toast to the games and waited patiently for the American athletes to make their way into the Nest. When they finally showed our team on TV our little group went absolutely nuts and once they flashed Kobe's face on TV the whole place went nuts. One of the reporters we had made friends with earlier in the night was still hanging out with us and we were on his radio station in Italy live, then he bought us a round of beers and we all talked about how excited we were for things to really get started.

We were sitting in the tea shop watching the ceremony as the torch was being lit. Once the flame was ablaze it finally hit me that if we simply peeked outside we would definitely be able to see the torch, so we made a beeline for the door and caught our first glimpse of the flame.

As the hoopla was winding down we realized it was already past midnight and we still needed to meet up with Jon. By the time we were all reunited it was about 2:30 a.m. and none of us had eaten for the whole day so we went to McDonald's and hung out with journalists and fans from around the world, talking about the events of the evening and what we expected to happen over the next few weeks. After a while we headed outside and found some seats to crash in for a while (did I mention we didn't have anywhere to sleep this night?) before getting on the subway at about 4:30 a.m. We made it to our hostel around 5:30, showered, met our new friends who were joining us for the Games and got ready to depart for our first event.

Everyone knows how much I like to party, be loud and cause a scene. You probably also know that I love meeting new people, want to be an awesome journalist and love to travel. All of these elements were melded into one big love blob in Beijing. The Olympics were essentially designed for me. This was only day one and I knew we'd get the party going for real from here on out.

Torch relay

Since Tibet had turned out to be a dead end we were homeward bound, but as I was browsing the Internet in Chengdu one night I discovered the Olympic torch would be passing through Shijiazhuang the day after we were scheduled to arrive in the city. I sent a quick e-mail to Jenna to see if she'd be around and wanted to go to the relay together - of course she was in!

When I arrived in Shijiazhuang I made my way to Jenna's place, dropped off my stuff and took a nice shower before going off in search of food. Jon decided to head back to Handan since he had already seen the torch, but I got to meet Jenna's friend Kim and the three of us spent the next few days hanging out.

I didn't really have anything to do in Handan so I decided to just hang out in the Shiz, lay low for a few days and have a good time. Of course we also had to go check out the torch. We were told that foreigners weren't being allowed to watch the torch, but I don't believe in hearsay so I said we should check it out for ourselves. We left really early in the morning all decked out in our Olympics garb and we were allowed into the viewing area without any problems.

I bought about 100 Olympics stickers from some guy on the street and just started handing them out to people who didn't look particularly excited to be at the relay. This seemed to perk them up and soon there were crowds of people following us, laughing with us and admiring us for attempting to speak and sing in Chinese. I even had one little boy give me an Olympic phone charm for my mobile. :)

Of course we were basically the only foreigners there and we had some great outfits so essentially everyone wanted to take a picture with us.

We posed for pictures, led the Chinese people in cheers, got the crowd pretty rowdy and caused a giant scene for a few hours before the torch finally came through. There was a huge surge toward the front of the line and I got lost in the shuffle, which means after hours of waiting and being patient I didn't see a damn thing. Suddenly the crowd parted ways and the torch was gone.

I looked at Jenna and Kim, "That was it?!?!" we said in unison. Kim's also from Chicago and we talked about how if this was happening at home there would have been a parade and music and dancing and candy being thrown out and everyone would have been going nuts on the street with the torch and on the sidewalk watching. But we had to shrug and decided that even though we didn't really see anything we still had a lot of fun being crazy with the Chinese people.

She took the midnight train going anywhere

Well, not really. The train left during the day and was actually headed to Shijiazhuang. The train also marked the end of my ridiculous summer travels, but not the end of my summer fun. Since Tibet had been ruled out Jon and I decided to head home, but there aren't any trains back to Handan from Chengdu so we had to ride to the Shiz and then make the trip from the Shiz to Handan.

For 22 hours I watched China fly by my train window, listened to my summer mix on my mp3 player, read "Eat, Pray, Love" and reminisced about all the things I had experienced during the month of July.

I learned how much it can suck to burn the tops of your knees while riding a camel through the desert.

I learned that you should never say you are an experienced rider when you've never really been on a horse before.

I learned Mongolian cheese is awful and tastes nothing like cheese.

I learned that apparently there is some sort of radar on me that makes people think it would be fun to steal my things.

I learned that it really is a beautiful world that we are living in and occasionally we need to slow down long enough to soak it all in and appreciate it.

I learned that it is much easier to climb up steep rocks than it is to climb down and I should probably just avoid both in the future.

I learned that people are weird, crazy and fantastic all at once and I love meeting new ones.

I learned that I love old cities just as much as modern ones, but for very different reasons and that I can only visit old cities and need to actually live in those modern ones.

I learned that pandas are more fantastic in person than in movies and that holding them is really like cuddling a teddy bear.

I learned that everything in life is what you make of it and you have to create your own adventures from time to time.

I learned that you have to go with the flow and not be afraid to change your plans, that life comes at you fast and you can't set everything in stone because you never know what can come your way.

I learned that those unexpected changes can bring great new things your way and that I will always be up to the adventure.

All in all it was fantastic and for those of you who weren't counting I spent a grand total of 160 hours on trains, planes, vans and buses during my travels.

Big Boy Buddha

Chengdu is only about a three hour bus ride from Leshan, which is home to the largest Buddha in China (and I think the whole world). After walking through a park for a while we finally got our first view of the giant Buddha. I've seen tons of pictures of this bad boy, but I swear I didn't realize how big it was until I was actually standing there trying to soak in the magnitude of it all.

The Buddha is so big that an adult could fit inside his ear canal. That's pretty damn big! Anyway the park dumps you at the top of the Buddha and then you have to walk down to get the full view and then back up again to get out of the park. Freakin' China ... always making you go up to go down, right to go left, etc. And the weather here was not nearly as welcoming as it had been in Kunming so of course I was dripping with sweat by the end, but it was totally worth it.

I can't help but thinking that the Buddha looks super smug, as if he knows he is the biggest Buddha and that he knows that must be an intimidating fact for all of these people. It was pretty awesome, the statue looks out onto the river and is tucked away in this peaceful area. It was a nice side trip to make and another great China sight to cross off the to-do list.

Monday, September 22, 2008

What's black and white and surrounded by curly blond hair?

That would be me hugging a panda.

Chengdu is the headquarters of breeding Giant Pandas, basically if you've ever seen a panda in your life chances are good it's originally from Chengdu. I've been anxiously awaiting my trip to the pandas since before I even got on a plane to China and so by the time the morning of the visit actually rolled around my excitement was unimaginable. I was awake early, jumping around, dancing and singing about the pandas.

When we arrived I was equally excited, dancing like a goon and clapping my hands every five seconds. Jon kept trying to explain to our driver that I was probably crazy but also very excited to see the pandas.

Anyway, here are some shots of the cute little fur balls.

Eventually I caved and decided I had to pay to play with the pandas and have my photo taken with them. I dug into my pockets, found the money that had been earmarked for Tibet and used a bit of it to spend some time hanging out with the old black and white. It was fantastic.

After my encounter with the pandas and some more time trotting around the grounds and me continuing to clap and dance it was finally time to go. We hung out around town during the afternoon and then it was time to make our way to the Sichuan opera performance that we had tickets to for the evening.

The show was all over the place and kind of talent show-esque, but it was fantastic.

What to do in Chengdu?

I wish someone would Internet slap me for all of my poorly titled blog entries. My corniness/intense nerd habits seem to prevail here in China. At any rate, you can deal with my corniness or stalk someone else.

With all the updates I fear you might be lost as far as time frames go again, so to put you all back on track the events of this post took place on July 24, 2008. And yes, that date is almost two months ago. I'm trying here people ...

We arrived in Chengdu around 9 a.m. on the 24 and the whole first day I basically just walked through town and poked my head around. It wasn't anything too exciting - pretty much a typical city in China. It started to rain while I was out walking so after a few hours in the rain I treated myself to a little Starbucks and then met up with Jon at a park in town, which again wasn't anything too spectacular.

The big thing we did try to do on day one was get our permits lined up to go to Tibet. I'm sure I don't need to tell any of you about all of the circumstances surrounding the China/Tibet relationship and what that meant as far as visiting the region. I've really been looking forward to seeing Tibet and even making a trip to the Everest base camp and so when the area was reopened to foreigners early in the summer Jon and I decided to make that the grand finale to our travels. After talking to different people at our hostel and at nearby travel agencies we soon learned that Tibet was only "open" and not really as open as we had been expecting.

Of course this will set me on a whole other rant about the relations between China and Tibet, which then inevitably turns into a conversation about minorities in general, which eventually leads me to talking about China's relationships with Taiwan and Hong Kong. All of which is long and best done in discussion form so if you care to talk about these topics give me a shout out and we can talk when there aren't so many watchful eyes.

So the "open" Tibet meant that in order to go to the area we would have to go through a travel agency/tour group. Have I mentioned before how much I hate tour groups? I detest more than I detest most things on this earth. In fact my list would probably go something like: war, global warming, inconsiderate people, illiteracy, poverty, starvation, tour groups. With tour groups there's no room to do the things you want to do, you are merely shuttled through, told what to take a picture of and then ushered off to another site. I have a tendency to linger around, poke my head places I shouldn't poke my head, wander off the beaten bath and take too long to soak things in. These are not traits that are welcomed by a tour group.

So that was strike one against going to Tibet. Next up these folks tell us it would be a five day trip and give us a list of things we are allowed to see. Most of the big sites are on there but there were still other things we had hoped to see and do, namely the Everest base camp. Strike two.

We decide to put all of this aside and ask the big question, "How much is all of this going to cost us?" I mean Tibet was part of the plan and now that it was "open" we wanted to go. The travel agencies all had a different answer for us. They hemmed and hawed a lot and eventually we got numbers that ranged from 8,000 to 12,000 RMB. To put this in USD that would be about $1,200- 1,800. That might not sound terrible, but it should be mentioned that that was how much money Jon and I had set aside for the whole summer - all of our travels and adventures, plus the Olympics. We just couldn't blow it all on five days in Tibet. Both of us had enough money saved up to pull it off, but it wasn't how we imagined spending that money.

We decided to mill it over for a bit, debate if we wanted to still do Tibet or not and then come back to the travel agents if we decided we did want to go. After a day or two of thinking it over we ultimately decided not to go. Yes, the money was a big deal but it wasn't the deciding factor for me. I really couldn't justify going to Tibet and not getting to do it my way. My deep hatred for tour groups couldn't be dismissed and I had to admit that spending a few extra days in Handan seemed like the better option.

So with that decision made we decided to enjoy the rest of our time in Chengdu and prepare for our earlier-than-planned return to Handan.

Pause from the updates

I need to take a brief hiatus from all the updates to give a quick shout out to my parents and my good friend Jennifer Ripslinger for making my day with packages from home! Thanks :)

Dali (also known as five hours)

About 24 hours after arriving in Lijiang it was already time to say goodbye and so Jon and I jumped onto a bus and made the four hour trip to Dali where we hoped to spend the day and take a bus back to Kunming late that night. We arrived in Dali around noon and went to buy bus tickets but as luck would have it the only thing available was in just a few hours. We didn't really have a choice because we were flying from Kunming to Chengdu the next morning and so obviously we needed to get back. We bought the bus tickets rented some bicycles and headed out to see as much as possible as fast as possible.

As you should know I have a bicycle here in Handan that I ride everywhere. It is by far my main means of transportation and I love it. The bike has helped me to get in better shape and makes everything so convenient, plus it is way better for the earth than a car. When we rented bicycles in Dali I figured it would make getting around the city as easy as it makes things in Handan ... what I didn't account for was the fact that these were real bicycles with gears and everything and there were hills all over the city that made things more of a challenge. My out-of-shape butt was complaining after about thirty seconds, but I digress.

Jon and I made our way to the famous three pagodas of Dali, which were really beautiful with the mountains in the background, but when we saw the admission price of 121 kuai we decided to take a pass on actually going onto the grounds. Instead we ended up sneaking into the tourist center and taking a picture out the window.

After that Jon and I split up to do our own exploring around town. I cruised through the streets of the village, past all the local shops and just had a look around before it was time to meet up, give the bikes back and get ready to leave. We grabbed dinner at an awesome cafe that was run by the hearing impaired, jumped in a van that took us to the bus station and then boarded the bus for the four hour trip back to Kunming.

All in all Dali was cool, but I liked Lijiang better.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The old city of Lijiang

A lot of my travels in China have taken me to modern cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Other travels have taken me to see something very specific like the Snow and Ice Festival, Naadam Festival or the Great Wall. Lijiang was a destination to just go and absorb.

This side trip to Lijiang was not included in our original travel plans but on one of our long train rides Jon and I were perusing Lonely Planet and Discovery Channel guides when we stumbled across info about the cities of Dali and Lijiang, both of which are still old, well-preserved cities in the south of China.

Jon and I decided that we wanted to veer off of our originally planned trip slightly and make a side trip to a smaller town outside of Kunming. He wanted to go to Dali, which is four hours from Kunming and I wanted to go to Lijiang, which is eight hours from Kunming. We had to be back in time to catch our flights from Kunming to Chengdu so time was of the essence. After looking at the bus/train schedules and talking things over we decided that we would head to Lijiang at night after we left the stone forest and we would stay there for one day before going to Dali for a few hours on the way back and then finally getting back to Kunming.

So after frolicking at the stone forest we went back to the hostel packed our things and boarded a sleeper bus bound for Lijiang. This was my first experience on a sleeper bus and I have to say it was absolutely awful. It looked like something out of a bad horror movie, I didn't get a good night's sleep and by the time we rolled into town I just felt miserable.

Since the trip was last minute we didn't have a place to stay lined up and spent the first hour of our time wandering to hostels and hotels trying to find a good deal at a place that was relatively clean. We ended up finding a hotel where we got our own room for 80 kuai per person for the night. By American standards obviously this is ridiculously cheap, but it was quite a bit more than we had been paying. In the end we decided the place was nice and worth the extra cash.

Because Jon is a nice guy he offered to go and buy our bus tickets for the next day that would take us to Dali so that I could take a nap for an hour or so and try to feel a little bit better. After some rest, medicine and a shower I was feeling better but still pretty bad. At any rate, I wanted to get out there and see the city so we took off exploring.

We went and wandered around a park with the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in the background. Our book claimed it was the most picturesque place in Yunnan province and it did not disappoint.

The park was also beautiful and we had a good time walking around. There was a big hill (I believe it was called elephant hill) that we started to climb, but I still wasn't feeling very good so I turned back about halfway up and let Jon do the rest on his own. I got a beautiful view from my spot as well though.

After walking around the park for a while we continued into the old part of the city where we were staying and spent the whole day just getting lost, admiring the architecture and having fun.