Monday, July 18, 2011

The life goals, the long journeys, and the homesickness

One of my life goals was to travel alone. I thought it would be so cool. I’d get to explore a city on my own, do whatever I want, not have to be on anyone else’s time table. Just me.

Traveling alone was going to prove that I was capable, that I was strong, that I was  Grown Ass Woman.

It was and did all those things. For a while.

But there comes a time when you’re traveling alone that you just want to be home. It doesn’t matter if it means going back to a town where you don’t fit in, or a roommate you don’t like, or a job that makes you die inside. You want those things because they’re familiar, because they’re easy; they don’t come out of a suitcase and they smell the way you remember.

My parents just spent a week in Shanghai with me. It seemed like perfect timing: I was eight weeks into my sojourn in China, I was starting to feel like I gelled with the country, and even though I was almost as new to Shanghai as they, I could act like a guide to some extent. We had a lot of fun.

Just a little while ago, we got in taxis. Me back to my dorm, them back to the US. And I started bawling. Seeing them leave made me realize how much I wanted to go back with them. It took all my self-restraint to not say “Take me with you! I’ll sleep on the floor in economy class, I don’t care!”

Somehow, I didn’t. I held my ground. I knew I needed to stay in China a while longer. Alone.

But I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried the whole cab ride back.

I say all this because it made me have an epiphany: The journey to becoming a Grown Ass Woman is like a really long trip you make alone in a foreign country. There are other girls out there on the same journey I am and our paths will cross occasionally, like my path occasionally crosses with other travelers through China, but this is something we most have to figure out on our own. All we have to guide us are some obscure tips written in the margins of a Lonely Planet guidebook from a generation ago.

Some days, the journey is thrilling: exciting people to meet, places to go, things to learn about yourself. Hopefully this is most days. Some days, it sucks: You have to pack or spend a day on the train or you just feel stuck and bored.

Then, there are the todays. The days where you’re frustrated with yourself and this journey and your internal monologue is screaming “Why couldn’t you have just been content at home? We were okay there.  It was comfortable, it was easy, why did you have to leave? Why couldn’t you have just been happy where you were? Let’s go back. NOW.”

It’s a valid question. The answer? Because you just weren’t happy there and then. That’s all. There’s no way around that.

And so you pick yourself up and you keep going. You stand your ground. You willingly go through a bit of discomfort so you can experience some joy for once. Because even though today you just want to hide in your old life, tomorrow might be a wonderful day in your new life, and you can’t deny yourself that.

I threw out a lot of my old clothes in the past two weeks. I was always a t-shirt and jeans kind of girl, a tomboy. I rarely wore pink.

Today, I’m wearing a light pink top that I wouldn’t have been caught dead in just this past May. I bought a girly hat that I would have never picked out for myself six months ago.

It’s not comfortable, but it’s not uncomfortable either. It’s just new, it’s different. Even though I will probably always pick mudding with the boys over shopping with the girls, becoming a Grown Ass Woman has included an evolution in the way I dress, and I’m learning to be okay with that. It’s new, it’s different, but frankly, it’s a little like China.

Not every day is easy or comfortable or happy. Some days, I’m going to want to put on a tshirt and jeans, just like some days I’m going to want to go home. But the important thing is that I don’t – that I stick with the journey, that I embrace the discomfort, that I allow myself this time to travel alone because what comes out of this trip is going to make me so much happier than what I had before I started out.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

21 Ways to Travel China Cheaply (And Still Have Fun)

I turned 21 yesterday. It's supposed to be a big deal, right? I mean, I'm an American and I'm finally 21. Right?

Too bad I turned 21 in a country where the drinking age (17) was only established in like 2006 and no one obeys it.

But, that's okay. I've had my birthday abroad before and I'm sure I'll do it again. And that made me realize - in these eight weeks abroad (I KNOW, RIGHT?) I've probably learned about 21 things I can share to help others come to China.

And so, I present:
21 Ways to Travel China (and maybe other places too) Cheaply (and Still Have Fun)
(Maybe next I should write a post on how to use too many parentheses. ALL THE TIME.)

1. Stay in hostels. 
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Hostels are of course way cheaper (think $15 USD a night) and there's normally a fun crowd at them, people definitely worth meeting. In China, $15-25 USD will also get you a damn nice place, too.

2. Plan ahead. 
I know I'm an advocate of wherever your whimsy dictates travel, but places to stay are cheaper if booked in advance, travel tickets are cheaper if bought in advance, and if you research your location, you'll find the cheap places to eat. Which brings me to...

3. Yes, definitely eat at the street vendors.
 I know it looks iffy and you're never quite sure what you're eating (unless you speak fluent Mandarin), but they don't actually eat dog in China, and they cook the food at such high temperatures that you should be fine. The food is also cheap too, and often just as delicious as something you'd get in a restaurant. (I had lunch today - four skewers of chicken and an ice cream - for less than $1.60 USD) Also, this is definitely where you experience the real culture. 

4. Pack lightly, even if you're not backpacking.
A lot of hostels will hold your bags for you after you check out, but for a fee. The fee is often per bag per day or hour, so the less you have, the less you pay. 

5. Look for the free drink nights.
Example: I was at a bar last night. I paid a 20 yuan cover (which was actually a 40 yuan cover, split between two people because it was buy one, get one free) and drinks were free all night. So, for basically $3.12 USD I had drinks all night, got to dance on stage, and watch crazy people dressed as clowns lead some bizarre group Communism dance. (No, of course I didn't have my camera.) (The bar is The Paramount Club, look it up if you're ever in Shanghai.) My point is, places offer this frequently in China, you just have to look for them. 

6. Don't take tours. 
No, seriously. Don't. Buy yourself a visual Chinese-English dictionary so you can get around, find a map in English and Chinese, and just go. Buy train tickets to the Great Wall on your own for example (I paid $20 USD that whole day, including transport, entrance, and food). You'll have more fun, have a more authentic experience, you'll meet people, and you won't be ripped off (my parents paid $100 for a less exciting experience). 

7. Bargain for everything. 
Technically, you're not supposed to in nice stores, but a good phrase to use is to ask if they have any specials that day. Shows your interested, but you're not interested in being ripped off. About 50% of the time, they'll cut about 10 USD off. And in places where you're supposed to bargain, always expect to play about 10% of the original asking price. Yes, 10%. Maybe 15%. 

8. Be ready to walk away.
You can't fall in love with anything at these markets. Sometimes, you will get someone intent on ripping you off. That said, often when you walk away they'll lower the price. I've had people go down to below what I was originally asking, just by walking away. 

9. Make "to-see" lists.
You're never going to see everything if you don't prioritize. Mark everything you want to see on a map so you don't have to pay for a lot of transportation going across town over and over. 

10. Get up early.
The more you see every day, the fewer days you'll need to stay, and the less you'll pay for hotels. It's all about the math. Also, you'll get to see more at all the sites without a million other people driving you crazy.

11. Stay up late.
I do recommend taking advantage of the Chinese custom of midday siestas (they don't call it that). Take a nap after your lunch and then hit the sites some more. Wherever you are, there's a lot to see and the nightlife is great.

12. Go to sites on their free days.
Most sites have at least one day of the week that's free. Find it out, and go that day. It probably won't be any more crowded because people rarely take the time to figure this out, but it adds up. 

13. Pregame.
The most college term ever, I know. But definitely have a few drinks at home. A good local beer at the local corner store will run you probably less than 10 kuai (less than $2USD), which, except for on free nights, is definitely going to be cheaper than any club.

14. Don't fly, take the train.
Especially when you're traveling long distances, this is a double whammy for saving money. Take a sleeper train. It'll be cheaper than flying, by a lot, and you won't be paying for a hotel that night. Also, a good opportunity to meet people. 

15. Be practical.
I know your little clutch purse it suuuuper cute, but take the across-the-body bag that is harder to steal. If you run the risk of losing your purse, that's also all your cards, your money, possibly your passport and your identity. In China it's hard to get police reports, and therefore it'll also be hard to get that all replaced. :) 

16. Know your bank's ATM rules.
My bank, for instance, charges me $5 USD every time I withdraw money internationally. Not only is that just kind of insulting, but it's a waste! Every time you go to an ATM, just get the largest amount of the local currency you can and worry about hiding it in your bags, throughout your room, and etc, later. This way you can withdraw less often and deal with less fees.

I've never tried CouchSurfing myself, but I've heard great reviews from friends who have. It's definitely worth a try. I would recommend doing it with a friend though, just in case. 

18. Don't take taxis.
Even splitting the cabs, they're way more expensive than taking the local buses or subway. In Beijing, the bus is 40 Chinese fen (cents; that's roughly six cents US) and the subway is 2 yuan wherever you go (or 31 cents USD). Shanghai's subway is 2-4 yuan depending on where you end up, and the buses are 1 yuan. It'll take a few minutes to orient yourself at first, but, really, which are you going to take?

19. Learn the best place to convert money.
Fees suck. The cheapest place to convert is definitely not your hotel. It might be the bank, or it might be at the airport. Research rates before you leave your home country. In fact, converting money may even be cheaper in your home country. You just have to know.

20. Eat family style.
This is a Chinese custom, and a wonderful one at that. Ordering just a few dishes for the table and eating whatever you want not only affords you way more variety and let's you be adventurous with your food: Want to try eel but don't want to order it for yourself in case you don't like it? Order for the table - everyone will try it and you'll split the damage if it's bad. And when the cheque comes, you'll look at the empty plates and say, "I participated in this feast for 30 yuan?"

21. Give up your internet addiction.
This one has (obviously) been the hardest for me. But, most hotels will charge you for internet. Internet cafes are cheap, but unnecessary. Regular cafes (think Starbucks) are expensive as hell. And frankly, the internet in China isn't that great. Restrain yourself. If you need, find the cheapest, most sketchy internet cafe near you and stay there as little as possible (you'll need 3 yuan/hour and your passport). 

Does anyone else have any good cheap travel tips? :) 

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Travel Tuesday: The Great Wall Adventure

Recently, I left my apartment in Beijing at about 11 am to pick up my ticket to Badaling, the closest train station to one of the Great Wall entrances (the closest to Beijing and therefore one of the most touristy). Since I had some extra time to kill, I had some lunch with my friend Rachel (best noodles ever, picked up from a little roadside noodlestand for less than a dollar for two bowls) before getting on the 2 pm train. I should add here that I did the whole trip alone, and that I'm also very glad I did.

The train ride to Badaling was nice, very beautiful- as soon as you leave the city, you're surrounded by mountains and greenery and its so calming, especially after weeks of city life. The first time I saw the wall was from the train, and, I immediately started smiling pretty wide - I just couldn't help it. I've heard about The Great Wall so often since I was a kid that it was pretty intense to finally be within its presence. It looked so beautiful - everything around it was so green and the way the sunlight struck it made it shine like gold.

Once I got to Badaling, I started the hike up to the Great Wall from the train station. Its high in the mountains, so the hike starts practically the second you get out of the train. The air is much cleaner up there, but of course its so thin its really not that different from breathing in Beijing. Unfortunately, it was about 4 by the time we got there and my train back to Beijing left at 6:30, so I didn't actually have that much time up there.

The place itself is amazing. It kind of sucks at first because there's just so many people, but once I hiked about twenty minutes the crowd really thinned out. Unfortunately, Badaling is a restored section of the wall (the last unrestored section was put under construction a few months ago), so it wasn't completely "authentic" but the restoration stuck pretty close to original specifications from what I can tell. At least, sections of the wall are so incredibly steep that I had to pause to rest as I scaled them. I climbed pretty far along and made it to the top of Hero's Peak, which is either the tallest point on the wall or just near Badaling, I'm not entirely sure. Judging by how rough the hike was though, I'd totally believe the first one.

Before I got to Hero's Peak, I met two people here, a guy who moved here 19 years ago after falling in love with China during a study abroad trip, and his uncle who teaches at Purdue. They were the first people on this trip that recognized my Texas Aggie tshirt (other than my friend Dan, who has a longhorn father).

After I got to the top of Hero's Peak, I turned off my camera and sat down in some shade, trying to meditate on the fact that I was there, that I was at *The Great Wall.* I tried to memorize the way the breeze felt and the cool, solid stones behind my back; I wanted to focus on the living part of it. Especially now that I'm so focused on making it as a photographer, I so often feel like I get stuck behind the camera, seeing everything but not really witnessing it, and I wanted to be a witness to that moment. It was one of the rare ones where there was no one within sight or hearing distance and I almost felt like I had the wall all to myself. I leaned back and stared at the sky, the first time I'd seen it truly blue in over a month, and with my eyes I followed the snaking progression the wall made in either direction from the point where I sat, the tan stone battlements and watch towers one with the mountains and nature they curled through.

The whole scene had a pure earthly quality about it. I almost wrote "otherwordly," but that's entirely false -it was perfectly earthly. The whole place seemed like it belonged, like it had sprung up straight from nature, like it had always been there and always would be. The place was stoic - it had seen attacks waged, battles won. It had been forgotten, allowed to fall apart, and rediscovered, rebuilt. Over and over again it has been rebuilt by men, and still it is something beyond man, something ancient, wise, that can never be reckoned with. It will watch the sun set tonight, the sun rise tomorrow, and the same will go on beyond us, beyond our children, and beyond their children.

Of course, the moment there couldn't last forever. More hikers arrived, and I realized I had reached the time when I needed to turn back in order to make the last train back to Beijing.

I found my way off the wall and hiked in the actual woods to the side of the wall on my way back down, which I definitely recommend trying if/when you make it out there. There are sections of the wall, especially in Badaling, where people are allowedto sell things, but if you hike in the woods you can escape them. That walk gave me views of the wall I would have never seen otherwise, and it was very peaceful (not to mention cool in the shade). The hike down was also a little easier, which my body seriously appreciated.

After such a nice time hiking (though I'll admit it was insanely hot, and it definitely showed me that I'm not in the best shape of my life), I was reluctant to return to the city. In fact, when I noticed I could actually see the brown cloud of pollution hanging over the city from pretty far out, I momentarily wanted to turn back. But I knew a bed and a job and friends awaited me, so I didn't.

On the train ride back I was already thinking I'd like to go back to the Great Wall someday. If its ever done being under construction and the Chinese government allows it, I think it would be cool to hike the whole length of it, and to sleep on it at night. Apprently you can get special dispensations to camp there overnight now, so I assume it wouldn't be terribly hard to wrangle a week or two long hike (I have no idea how long a hike of that length would take).

[Blogger is really having problems with photos today, so I'll have to upload more photos another day. Hope you enjoyed this!]

Friday, July 1, 2011

July Goals

1. Take my camera out with me every day. I was deplorably bad about this the whole month of June, and consequently I feel like I got hardly any of Beijing on film (figuratively).

2. Leave some of my stuff behind when I move to Shanghai on July 8th. I feel like I have so much crap, way more than I need, so some of the clothes and general junk that I just don't need are staying in Beijing. I'm planning on giving away my books to friends I've made here, at least. But yeah, this needs to happen.

3. Remember that it's better to learn behind the camera than in front of the computer screen. The more I recognize that someday I want to make a living off photography, the more I realize that being entirely self-taught is a problem. (When I say entirely self-taught, I mean it -- I never read books on photography, not even really camera manuals, nor took classes but instead opted for just playing with settings on my camera until things worked out. Frankly, I couldn't have even defined 'f stop' or 'ISO' for you until about a week ago.)  But now I'm spending so much time reading about photography that I'm not actually photographing anyone. I need to find a balance.

4. Explore Shanghai. This was actually on my May goals until I found out that I would be interning in Beijing, not Shanghai. I am taking a six-week class in Shanghai though, so I'm still getting to go. There's so much I want to see!

5. Travel within China a little. I hardly left Beijing at all the six weeks I was here other than to go to the Great Wall. I already know who my room mate in Shanghai will be though (she's a friend of mine from TAMU), so we've already decided we'll be traveling a lot next month. I'm dying to go to Hong Kong and the beach in Qingdao!

6. Keep up with my friends back home more. I miss them all. A lot. I feel like I haven't kept up with them as well as I can (other than Boyfriend Man), so I will be working harder at that this month. :)

What are your goals for July?