July 2011


There’s nothing better than geographically appropriate reading (says the geography teacher). If I’m in northeastern Arizona, I’ll be reading  Tony Hillerman. I devoured the “Merchant of Venice” along with overpriced pasta while in the sinking city, and “Snow Falling on Cedars” will always be my favorite book set in the northwest coast of Washington state (sorry “Twilight“). Geographic reading even happened to me accidently as I was reading “Cry, the Beloved Country” in Norway. It turns out that author Alan Paton finished his manuscript while in Trondheim. The preface discusses the stained glass rose adorning the Nidaros cathedral – a church I walked past on my way to school each snowy morning.

My picks for China:

The must-read classic is, of course, “The Good Earth” by Pearl Buck. I read the book in high school and all I remembered is that there was a character that twirled the hairs coming out of his mole and that I hated it. I didn’t hate it quite as much this time around. I’ve been pulling the book out whenever I feel sorry for myself that I’m sleeping on wood planks and eating fish with their teeth still intact. Things don’t seem quite so bad after reading about how O-lan silently gives birth and then picks up a rake that afternoon, telling her husband about her labor and the birth of their baby girl:

 “It is over once more. It is only a slave this time – not worth mentioning.”

I how the end of the book foreshadows the beginning of China’s transformation:

 “It is the end of a family – when they begin to sell the land…out of the land we came and into it we must go – and if you will hold our land you can live – no one can rob you of your land.”

The NPR lover in me gravitated to Rob Gifford’s “China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power,” in which the author takes route 312 (“The Chinese Route 66”) from Shanghai to Kazakhstan. This book is awesome because of all the people Gifford meets along his journey – whether it’s AIDS patients, abortion-forcing nurses, Amway salesmen, or the Hermit of Hua Shan (you can reach him on his cell phone), it’s Gifford’s interviews with people that tell the story. Gifford goes back and forth on the topic of whether China will overtake the world or not, but I agree with Chinese artist Su Zhongqui:

 “We’re not producing any creative people. We are making only technicians…The government wants advanced education without encouraging people to think”

And Gifford’s thoughts on the matter:

“the government has bought off many people with economic development…but what happens if the anesthetic of prosperity wears off…how can you become a Great Power…if you don’t allow your people to think?”

The incredibly popular Lisa See is who I turned to get my historical novel, “Shanghai Girls.” It wasn’t as good as the three pages of accolades claim it to be, but I did enjoy the novel. The first few chapters (set in Shanghai on the eve of WWII) read like See is trying to prove that she did her homework. I like details and historical accuracy as much as the next teacher, but it read like she was trying a tad too hard. But by the middle of the book, once she got into the story, I was fully immersed. This is more a story on the  immigrant experience of Chinese Americans than Shanghai though. Still, I plan on picking up the sequel, “Dreams of Joy,” when I can find a bookstore. Which will hopefully be soon because I’m all out of reading material. Tragedy! Why oh why didn’t I buy a Kindle?

 

A couple other China related books worth noting are Peter Hessler’s “River Town” and J. Maarten Troost’s “Lost on Planet China.”

 

I read “River Town” last time I was in China. It’s an account of Hessler’s two year stint teaching in a town along the Yangtze that was slated to be flooded due to the Three Gorges Dam. I especially remember a scene in which he compliments one of his students on her cute freckles. Unfortunately for both Hessler and the student, this is culturally tantamount to complimenting someone on their zits. This helped me fully appreciate the labels on Chinese facial cream, some titled “Anti-Speckle Cream,” or “Anti-Freckle Cream.”

Troost is still very funny, but “Lost on Plant China” is the weakest of his three books. I’d pick up his Pacific Island tale “The Sex lives of Canibals” instead and get ready to enjoy the part wherein he buys a fish from the market only to use it as a weapon fending off the island’s rabid dog population. Hilarious.

Happy travel reading! I’m heading to Wisconsin and Florida next  – if you have any recommendations I’d be grateful.  

This post contains affiliate links to amazon.com. Purchasing these books by clicking on the links in this blog earns me a little bit of money. Thank you!

So if you decide to go to Inner Mongolia and run a marathon, my only piece of advice is to leave on Sunday morning with the rest of the crowd. I stayed a few extra days to explore the town, bond with noodle shop owners and take advantage of the hotel’s free Internet access.

The challenges arose when it was time to get back to the airport in Xilinhot. The day before I left I went to the non-English speaking front desk. They connected me to the Nordic way’s Chinese liaison (who was already back in Beijing). She assured me that a bus would pick me up the next at a five in the morning so I could catch my morning flight. Yeah right.

Bus-less at 5:30 the next morning I decided to take matters into my own hands. I knew there was a long-distance bus to the big city but odds were that it would not be leaving in the next twenty minutes. Not wanting to waste precious time on a bus that probably wasn’t going to work anyways; I threw some money at the problem and hailed a cab.

My conversation with the cabbie went like this:

Me: “Xilinhot”

Him: “Xilinhot?”

Me: “Xilinhot!”

Him: “Xilinhot?”  

After about five minutes of that we finally reached this:

Him: “Ahhh! Xilinhot!!! Okay.” He stretched his arms wide to indicate that it was far away. Yeah, thanks buddy. I know.

Then the negotiations started. We finally settled on 400 RMB ($60) for the three hour trip. It was a mild rip off as I’d been on a nine hour jaunt through the countryside the day before for the same price, but whatever. Desperation is a bad place to be bargaining from. And it was cheaper than missing both my flights. Luckily my cab driver was a good man and did not pull over in the middle of nowhere to demand more money.

Once in Xilinhot the cabbie had no idea where the airport was, a problem he solved by shouting direction requests at motorcycle riders while waiting at red lights. Good thing Mongolian men don’t have an aversion to asking for directions. We pulled up the airport thirty minutes before take-off, as the plane was boarding. Luckily this was more than enough time to navigate the airport which had all of three terminals.

My flights to Beijing and Hangzhou were blissfully uneventful. I was picked up by two Chinese student-teachers who would be working at the New Oriental School. They took me to the main offices where I was greeted by a frazzled man. I recognized the look in his eyes – it’s the same one my school office manager in Las Vegas got when six teachers called out sick and no subs were showing up. I brace myself.

“Hi. You are Jennifer? This will be your classroom. Just for tomorrow. You teach from 2:00 to 3:00, okay?” The guy says in lieu of an introduction.

“Okay,” I reply, trying not to roll my eyes as he explained that this was NOT summer camp I’d signed up to teach (“just a little extra”), he’d find a textbook for me, and I’d have to take a taxi from my residence. The next day I dutifully prepare my lesson (sans textbook), show up to my class, and teach for an hour. As I’m preparing to leave a Chinese teacher informs me that I actually have to teach these kids until 5:30. And I had to come back tomorrow at 1:30.  

Welcome to the New Oriental School.

Oh, and my residence? Here it is:

During the bus ride from Xilinhot to Xiwuqi I earnestly took pictures of all the yurts along the side of the road, thinking that they were rare sightings. Oh no. There are yurts all over Inner Mongolia. There are…

Tourist yurts


Luxury tourist yurts


Motorcycle storage yurts


Big yurts next to little yurts

Yurts for fancy restaurant dining


Yurts for simple restaurant cooking


Yurts for sheep herders


Yurts with plaster covering


Yurts sewn with sheep skin


Yurt-to-be

A phone conversation with my mom a few months ago:

Her: “Where did you find out about this race? Are you sure it’s legitimate?”  

Me: “Some website. And no, but I’m going anyways.”

Her: “O-kay-ee”

 A conversation with a bank manager soon afterwards:

 Her: “Are you sure about this company? Because once we transfer the money, it’s gone.”

Me : “Um, kinda. Transfer away.”

Jeez people, have a little faith!

The Genghis Khan Grasslands Extreme Marathon in Xiwuqi, Inner Mongolia, China is indeed legitimate. Not that this is the best word to describe it though. Adjectives like awesome, breath-taking, gorgeous, fascinating, well-marked, and fun come a little closer to describe the coolest thing I’ve done in China.

The excitement was palpable from the Friday morning flight from Beijing to Xilinhot, as a decidedly in-shape and western looking crowd boarded the flight. An hour later we were bumping along a dirt potholely road through the grasslands. Next to us was a brand-new almost-finished road, so the four-hour ride should be smoother and faster next year.

 After checking into the race motel we headed out to the main tourist attraction for some archery, Mongolian horse riding, yurt viewing, and a dinner banquet.

 

In addition to the marathon, half marathon and 10K race, the Genghis Khan event also includes a three day bike ride. The Day 1 finish and awards ceremony took place at this touristy yurt village as well.

 

Dinner was interesting. Most pre-race dinners feature plates of spaghetti, an inspirational talk, and everyone leaving by seven to rest up for the big race. Not here.

 

Despite the fact that I consumed more beer then water the night before, I woke up ready to run, figuring I was one step ahead of everyone that had shots of baijiu. Myself and about 50 or so other runners (half and full marathoners all started together) took off from the cultural square into the grasslands.  

Like Gengis Khan crushed China, the Mongolian landscape crushed my hopes for a sub two hour ½ marathon. The first 15K of green foothills was gorgeous, but tough. The real killer was the last 5K into the wind and through town. It was business as usual in the streets of Xiwuqi as runners shared the streets with cars, trucks, bikes and pedestrians. This type of finish kinda kills end-of-the-race adrenaline.  

Luckily (for me) no other female ½ marathoners finished in less than two hours either, which was how, despite my disappointing time of 2:20, I ended up here:

 

Race times aside, it was a great time. As usual, the event was made better by the people you meet. Congratulations on a successful race to…

  • Barbara, the New Yorker who has run a race on every continent (yes, Antarctica has a marathon).
  • The American-Chinese couple working on racing in every Chinese province.
  • Michele, an American student in Beijing, completing her first ½ marathon.
  • Aly, the gregarious 3rd place marathon runner and her entourage. And the other Allie who zoomed ahead of me at the 10K mark to win 2nd place in the ½.
  • Tina, who I followed for most of the race.  
  • The whole team of runners from Malaysia, some of whom have run 45+ marathons.
  • Florence from Singapore, my roommate.  
  • The other Jenn who won the full marathon (however her prize money was not equal to the winners of the male marathon…)
  • The always smiling FK (sorry I don’t know how to spell your name!) and his wife, the 2nd place marathon finisher.
  • Sue, who ran the full marathon and then commissioned a taxi to drive us around the countryside the next day. Thanks Sue!

Now…onto the next race. I’m going to break two hours this year! I’m thinking October 1st in Orlando, land of no hills. Anyone with me?

When I came to China six years ago I didn’t go to the Great Wall. Talk about a travel regret. I think part of why I came back to China was to see the Great Wall. According to Chinese custom, you aren’t “a man” until you’ve been on the wall. Not that I’m striving to be a man, but still. I needed to see that wall!

 So, one would think that, with a mere two days in Beijing, I would plan my travels ahead of time. Nope. I was finalizing my hostel arrangements via cell phone on my way to the airport and praying that there would be a spot open on a Great Wall tour when I arrived.

Procrastination paid off. When I arrived in Beijing I gladly forked over 280 RMB (a little under $50) and secured my spot on a group tour to hike a 7K (4 ½ mile) stretch of the Great Wall from Jinshanling to Simatai. I knew this would be the hike for me when the hostel guy told me to bring my own food and water – there would be no shopping available. He wasn’t entirely correct. Several entrepreneurial Chinese folks met us at the wall selling water, cold beer and T-shirts, but there were no theatres/museums/KFC’s like there apparently are at other sections of the Great Wall (Badaling, the site closest to Beijing is especially infamous for this).

 

Besides food and water, I also should have brought sunscreen. In Beijing there’s very little burning power left after the sun struggles through layers upon layers of Chinese smog, but as the bus took us up into the mountains and away from the city things got a little clearer. A nice thing about group tours is that there’s always someone around to help you out, and I borrowed (well, took) some sunscreen from a brother-sister traveling duo from Pennsylvania. Besides us, the rest of the mini bus was European, including a French Robert Pattinson look-alike who would stop and smoke on every watchtower.

 

It was the best kind of hike: Hot, challenging, gorgeous views, and serene. There were a few other tour groups on the wall, but there were also stretches of emptiness. Some sections of the wall required climbing – all hands and feet required – and some sections provided gentle downhill walks. The hike took us through 22 watchtowers with increasingly better views. It took me about three hours to complete the hike, and I was sore for the next two days, which was unfortunate because I ran a ½ marathon two days later. It was worth it though.

 

If you want to visit this section of the wall, I’d suggest signing up as I did through the Beijing Downtown Packers Hostel. You do not have to stay at the hostel to go on the tour. I’ve also heard of people hiring taxi’s to Jinshanling and pick arranging a pickup at Simatai. This requires a certain amount of trust in your taxi driver, as you are stuck in the middle of nowhere if he or she doesn’t show up at Simatai.

Sorry all of Europe, Beijing has you beat. If you don’t believe me, read the writing on the wall.  The Beijing Downtown Backpackers Hostel is the best hostel in China/Asia/the world/ever. The corridors and ceilings are covered with scrawls of grandiose praise and marriage proposals to the hostel staff. And it’s not unwarranted. The staff IS good.

 

When I rolled up at two in the morning a twentysomthing guy met me at the door, got me checked in, signed me up for a Great Wall hike, and showed me to my room with his flashlight; all in English and in under ten minutes. Efficiency is not exactly a hallmark of Chinese culture, but this hostel is bucking the trend. The next morning the whole staff seemed to know my name, leaving me thinking that I’d done something wrong, but I think that’s just how they roll. The staff was busy round the clock helping travelers understand their train tickets, writing down destinations in Chinese for taxi drivers, and organizing tours. The hostel offers discounted tickets to the Beijing opera, travel to the Great Wall (both the nearby touristy wall and the ‘wild’ Great Wall at Simatai, three hours away), and summertime overnight stays in the grasslands. Tickets to hike the Great Wall are 280 RMB (about $40).

 

Hostel amenities were also abundant. This place has 24hour hot water showers, western-style toilets, free WiFi, free western-style breakfast, a TV/reading common room, a rooftop area, and free easy-to-use lockers. Computers with Internet access are available for an hourly fee. Sheets and blankets are provided with the beds, but bring your own towel (or use a sweatshirt as I did). The also have bike rentals. I didn’t trust myself to bike around Beijing, but if you have serious defensive biking skills – go for it.

As with all hotel stays, location is key. This hostel doesn’t disappoint there either. Beihai Park, the Bell Tower, Jingshan Park, and the Forbidden City are all within walking distance. The Forbidden City is a little far. It took me about 30-45 minute to walk there. After exploring the city and Tian’an Men Square I took the blissfully easy subway back to the hostel. The nearest stop is a 5-10 minute walk away.

 

The hotel is on Nan Luo Gu road which looks like a pedestrian-only thoroughfare until a taxi nearly runs you over. It’s a cute road though, featuring several bars, noodle shops, clothing stores and tourist shops. Nan Luo Gu is quite the hang out spot at night, so don’t be expecting a quiet evening.

 

To book a room, contact the hostel via their website at least two days before you want to check in. Once you request a room someone will email you back with a confirmation. I stayed in a room with two other roommates for 75 RMB (a little over $10) a night. You can go a little cheaper in a 6-bed room. They also have private rooms available. While you are on the website, print out a map of the location, complete with Chinese characters. This is important if you’ll be arriving by taxi, as most drivers are monolinguistic. A taxi ride from the Beijing airport should be between 90-100 RMB (about $15).

 Oh, one last thing. Half the stuff related the the hostel says “Peking,” and the other half says “Beijing.” Don’t worry – it’s the same place.

Before heading off to China I was lucky enough to bask in a perfect (although cloudy) Seattle day: a run around Bellevue Park, brunch at Z’ Tejas, a jaunt through Pioneer Square, Pike Place Market, and a Mariners game. My friends had their cousin in town so I tagged along on the tourist trail.  

 My oh-so-eastside friend hadn’t even crossed the I-90 bridge before embarking on her usual diatribe about dirty, grungy, tree-hugging, Birkenstock-wearing Seattle and the “bus smell” that permeates Pike Place Market.

“Ugh! This is exactly what I’m talking about!” She exclaimed upon crossing Pioneer Square to discover what I’m going to call tree-sleeves.

Fiber artist Suzanne Tidwell was not wearing Birkenstocks as she sat on a bench weaving décor for her next tree. “I’m just trying to heightened awareness,” she commented. She’s not alone. Yarn bombing has exploded worldwide from Bali to Paris to Denver. TIME Magazine even reported that firefighters in Vancouver were adding knit blossoms to cherry trees.   

 We soldiered on past the Harbor Steps to Pike Place Market wherein we joined the masses to watch people catching fish (“Good enough to wear, good enough to eat,” chanted the rubber-overall-wearing salesmen when a flying fish smacked a young tourist in her face.) before heading to Le Panier for a quick French pastry.

Heading back to Safeco Field we participated in pre-game festivities (i.e. eating clam chowder and drinking beer) at Pyramid Alehouse. Right across the street from the field, this is the hangout spot for Mariner fans before and after home games.

Safeco Field added a patio dining area (The Bullpen Market) this spring to the space behind left-center field and Le Creperie has been getting rave reviews. Seeing as I’d already consumed food for three days I just said hi to my favorite bartender (Jay, my hirsute brother) and then hightailed it back to my seat before I missed any more action. Dustin Ackley had hit a triple while I was wandering around and I needed to make sure my stand-in scorekeeper was doing his job right.

 He did just fine, as did the Mariners that night who won in extra innings. A perfect send off as I prepare to head off to a country that has (…dum, dum, dum…) no baseball.

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