Wednesday, January 26, 2011


My friend, M. is compiling a lifetime collection of jumping pictures in every city that she visits and since I was traveling with her I got into the habit of taking photographs of jumping pictures and jumping as well.  While in Pingyao after an hours bike ride and arriving to a particularly uninteresting deserted temple except for the gatekeeper, I decided to have some fun and try to capture a jump using the self-timer; however, most of the pictures were badly timed.  Since I tend to travel alone, maybe I should compile a lifetime collection of about to jump pictures or already landed jumping pictures.   
In the previous post, "What is the man doing?"  he is popping popcorn.  Can you see in the back of the picture the cobs of corn?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What is the man doing?

The picture has several clues.  What is he selling?  I bought some.

Monday, January 24, 2011


If you have ever seen a Chinese Kung Fu movie, then you'll have an idea what this city is like.  It is a walled city with stone houses, stone walkways, and inner courtyards surrounded by different doorways into different buildings.  During my stay, it was a city empty of visitors, but had a tourist infrastructure where each guesthouse and hostel advertised using English.  Coffee with real coffee beans and names of local delicacies were painted on the windows.  Many of the houses were museums and there was an underground castle that you could visit.  Instead of paying $40 to visit the sites, I opted for the $1.50/day bike rentals. 
When I travel, I like to feel the climate, taste the air, feel the ground beneath me, and witness real life.  I biked 6 km to a nearby Taoist temple with an old farming village nearby.  The next day I biked 12 km to another Taoist temple.  The landscape was brown and flat with grey, bleak trees scattered amongst the fields.  The sky was white with fumes from rubber factories.  The weather was warmer than Harbin but still I couldn't feel my toes after biking for an hour.
I wasn't in some isolated little village, but in what felt like a pretty developed small Chinese town that had a train station. The day I arrived there was no water to take a shower.  The next night there was no electricity.  Maybe the city is just undergoing a lot of construction which causes water and electricity to be cut.
The street food was terrible, a type of thick rubbery noodle with soy sauce and vinegar as the flavoring.  The stir fried veggies from the hostel were mushy and bleh.  There has only been one other place in China that I wasn't too keen on the food.  In Western Sichuan in the Tibetan plateau where food was hard to grow and hard to transport in, the local delicacies were not especially tasty.  The only food that was good in Pingyao were the $0.30 BBQ meat sticks.  
Even though it may not sound like it, I actually enjoyed staying in Pingyao.  It was nice to have time to write letters, to walk around, to bike around, to have some time alone in the quiet of my thoughts.  It wasn't a crowded city so that was nice vacation from the huge population of China.  I also liked that I could walk 20 minutes from the hostel to the train station. 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Walking Around Beijing

Beijing felt like an international metropolitan city.  The people were fashionable.  The W.C.'s were clean, free, and had toilet paper.  The coffees and fruit smoothies were delicious.  There was a smorgasbord of international cuisine.  There were skateboarders and teenagers practicing hip hop dance in the park.  The subway was modern and there were electric buses.  With only a short glimpse, I felt there was a different feel to Beijing compared to other big Chinese cities I have visited.  It even crossed my mind that maybe finding a job in Beijing would be cool.  I probably should have stayed a few days to get a better feel for the city.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Beijing Brunch

After skiing, M. and I parted ways.  She flew back to her Gansu home via Beijing.  From Chung Chun to Beijing, I got a standing ticket for the twelve hour trip through the night.  I boarded the train and settled into a corner of the ice box with white metal frosted walls, sitting on my pack in the smoking area between train cars.  The conductor came through, yelled at me in incomprehensible Chinese, and pushed me into the heated train car with seats. 
There were many open seats.  Passengers were spread out sleeping on the three seat benches.  I found an empty seat, asked if I could sit down even though I only had a standing ticket then was bombarded with questions.  Where are you from?  Where are you going?  What are you doing in China?  How much money do you make?  It was 10 pm and I was tired, but by being polite, one woman who was getting off at the next stop gave me her three seats and motioned me to lie down, pretend to sleep and not let anyone take the seats.
If there were so many empty seats, why did the ticket office sell me a standing ticket?  Apparently the train sells seats only once between the starting destination and the final destination.  When people get off at stops between these two points, those seats become free for anyone.  I wonder how the train makes money this way.  Wouldn't it be more profitable to re-sell the seat once they become unoccupied?  I guess selling standing tickets is a way to re-sell the seat except standing tickets are cheaper.  It is kind of like a lottery.  Some trains are so full no seats ever open up and people are standing and sitting in the aisles, on the sinks, in the smoking sections, finding any empty space to occupy.  I was lucky.  My train had many passengers who had already disembarked and I could sleep soundly curled up on three seats.
I arrived in Beijing at 10 am and immediately went to the ticket hall.  Strangely the lines were short.  I handed the seller a piece of paper with three destinations:  Inner Mongolia, Xian, or Pingyao which is a stop between Xian and Beijing.  During high travel season, ie. the Chinese New Year, train tickets are hard to purchase.  I was going to let the fate of being able to buy a train ticket dictate where I would go next.  Pingyao won with a seat ticket for midnight.
I had twelve hours to chill in Beijing and decided to head to a hostel to see if I could get a cheap shower and a place to store my pack.  The outdoor single file lines to buy a subway ticket were LONG, but moved quickly since the fare was only 2 RMB ($0.30) to every destination.  Then I had to move to the entry way into the actual subway which was blocked by a mass of people all crowding to put their bags through the one security machine before entering the turnstiles to go underground.  My initial reaction to Beijing was, ugh... too many people, too many lines, not very convenient.
My second reaction was Wow!  The subway is amazing.  Once you get access to it, it is easy, fast, not crowded, a great way to travel.
The hostel wanted to charge me $10 to take a shower and to store my pack.  I was like no way!  Beds usually cost half that price and you stay the night.  I decided to hike around and just carry my backpack.
First stop, brunch, sweet snacks made out of dates, potatoes, sweet potates, figs, rice, wheat, peanuts...

Friday, January 21, 2011

Winter Sports

The last time I was in Harbin I remember unsuccessfully trying to ice skate using old worn out skates.  This time I worked up a sweat at the ice festival riding around on frozen water on a bicycle sled and a chair with bottom runners that by using wooden poles with a metal pick you can push yourself around on the ice.  I was much better moving fast on the chair using upper body strength compared to the bicycle sled losing a race to my speedy pedaling travel companion.
It took three hours by plane to get to Harbin from Xian, but instead of paying another $130 to return by plane, I decided to travel my way back via train and bus, 42 hours of being on a moving hostel, sleeping in seats, drinking hot water, using W.C.'s that spill out onto the tracks, and unable to see out the frosted windows.  For only a cheap $60 that included two nights in a hostel, I was able to return to site spending most nights on the train, only two nights in a hostel and stopped at three cities breaking up the long ride back.  It only took me 8 days to return home.
The first stop was Chang Bai Shan, a nature reserve with a snow covered inactive volcano.  We stayed with M.'s student's family whose hospitality was overly generous.  The father cooked us a 9 pm dinner of dumplings, fungus, and other small dishes with blueberry juice and every morning the father was in the kitchen cooking a six course breakfast.
The highlight of the whole trip was getting to go skiing for FREE!  The extended family work on the mountain and got us free tickets to access the volcano and free ski rentals and tickets.  I have only been skiing twice because it is an expensive sport in Washington, so I was somewhat excited about getting the chance to ski again.  I was a little afraid though that it wouldn't be fun because I felt that starting at square one is a cold place to begin.
It was FANTASTIC.  Muscle memory is an amazing thing.  Even though I hadn't been on skis since I was 24 or so, I was able to pizza wedge my way down, making comfortable turns on the long easy narrow slopes empty of people.  On a particularly narrow and steep part for this beginner, I wiped out four times into the sides of the run, unpacked snow, soft to fall into, difficult to climb out of.  I think playing rugby for a few years made me less afraid of falling compared to the first time I tried skiing.
It was a new ski resort and had no ski lifts, so we had to hike up the mountain carrying our skis and poles.  Just kidding... Actually we rode on speedy snowmobiles up the mountain to the start of the run, got wind burn, and had to rub snow on our faces until we could no longer feel our fingers.
After skiing, we ate a fifteen course banquet with about fifteen family members at a fantastic restaurant.  There were at least eight different dishes of mushrooms and fungus all picked from the mountain.
The last morning, we explored the small mountain town whose vendors set up outside boxes of frozen fish, dried tea, and hanging frozen skinned dogs.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


When I was twelve or thirteen, my family took a trip to Harbin.  I don't remember it very well except wanting to slide down the ice slides, enjoying frozen red fruit covered in caramelized sugar on a stick, and buying an imitation animal fur scarf where the fox's mouth opened to bite its tail enclosing one's neck in furry softness.
The only reason I returned to the frozen city of -30 degrees Celsius was to visit a student who was doing post graduate studies in Harbin; however, unfortunately the day I arrived she had a surprise interview in Beijing so we were unable to meet up.  I did have fun though and wasn't cold.  The indoor heating in Harbin is intense.  Plus I had plenty of knitted layers, excellent thermal shirts, and a borrowed heavy jacket.  Plus I wisely invested in the cheapest bulky long underwear pants that made me feel like a fat Chinese toddler who can't bend its knees and has to walk like a zombie.
The reasons I live in other countries are to experience a new culture, to explore human behavior, and to learn about myself.  The reasons I travel are to chill in a new place, to walk around, to eat food, and to escape from the monotonous habits of site.  I usually don't like to spend money to see things like museums, buildings, temples, etc, so Harbin was the first city where I felt like an actual money-paying tourist.  I visited the Disney themed ice sculptures, watched an acrobatic show on ice skates (my new dream is to be learn how to do aerial silk) and was driven around in a bus with bars on the windows in a Jurassic Park like compound that was a tiger reserve with many herds of 10-20 tigers. The tourists on the bus paid for frozen chickens and live birds to be thrown out of an SUV to feed the huge magnificent animals.  No one was willing to pay the $285 for a live cow.
What made Harbin awesome and easy to brave the cold was that my travel companion, M. knew people in the city.  This led to being driven around in a car and to eating amazing food!  We had homemade ice cream, a Chinese speciality in a Russian cafe.  We ate flat breads similar to tortillas stuffed with pork, eggs, garlic, and crunchy peppers.  I ate what I thought were frozen mini green crab apples covered with caramelized sugar on a stick which turned out to be green tomatoes.  We had Russian cream soup, pork covered with egg, and pirozhki.


I am home.  It is good to be back home, a place that is warm, quiet, that doesn't move and has great showers.  I have been on a lot of adventures and have a lot of blogs to write so stay tuned.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Rainbow Hat

I love this pattern called Wurm by katushika which is a free Ravelry download.  I have knitted this hat four times.  Many of the hats that I see being worn by people in my city are very similar to this pattern.
I wanted to write a blog post called The Zen of Grading after spending a day and a half finishing up 122 listening finals, but somehow after grading all of them I was no longer inspired especially after the first day when I ran out of red ink.

How did I feel after I submitted all my grades on Thursday?



Actually I felt drained and just needed a good chill day having a Miyazaki animated film fest watching the movies dubbed in Chinese with terrible English subtitles while knitting away on this hat.
Also, here are a few questions that have been plaguing my mind.  During my travels, maybe I will answer them while sitting in cafes drinking coffee and eating Russian caviar.
  1. Why don't I invest in my friendships such that I have long term friends compared to my typical habit of making friends where I am living, moving away, then losing touch?
  2. Am I really happy as a loner?
  3. Why am I afraid of people?
  4. Why in the movie Fight Club do the characters visit support groups?  Do I need a support group?

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Miss Meany

Why have I become a Miss Meany?  Why do I have a short fuse with a low tolerance for things?  Why do I feel stressed, angry, and just argh, frustrated?
It is the end of the semester.  I should be feeling light as a feather, at ease, relaxed, happy.  Instead I am feeling tense, angry, and just not very happy. 
Why?  Why?  What about? 
I don't know. 
Just in general, I am feeling strict and mean. 
I don't want to hear students' stories about why they didn't turn in their homework.  I don't want to hear why students missed the final exam.  I don't want to bicker over points so they can get a passing grade.  I don't want to argue about whether or not talking to your neighbor during an exam is cheating.  I don't want to grade exams.
I am not a perfect Peace Corps Volunteer to whom nothing bad ever happens, who always has a smile, who is always culturally appropriate, who is not critical nor stressed.  Many of us, even the oldest veterans get frustrated.
But as a veteran, I know that Miss Meany will pass. 
Like a stone that is thrown into a still pond, the waves will soon calm again.


Is being a Peace Corps volunteer lonely?
As a loner, being a Peace Corps volunteer is not lonely but overwhelmingly social.  There are so many social obligations.  People always want your time.  In West Africa, people would just show up at your doorstep and sit with you for hours.  Kids would squat at the gate into your compound and just stare.  In China, students want to be your friend and want to practice English.  Strangers want to make small talk and invite you to dinner because you are a foreigner.  Doing anything in the city, in the market, in public, you always feel like you are on a stage, surrounded by people, an audience, fans, the paparazzi.  It is hard to find alone time, to find a peaceful sanctuary away from people.
Is being a Peace Corps volunteer lonely?
As a loner who thrives on a few intimate friendships with whom I have shared interests, with whom I can have intriguing conversations about thought provoking questions, and with whom we share our passions, being a volunteer is lonely.  It is hard to find personal fulfilling connections in other countries where people are more traditional, where I can't be open about everything and where there are language barriers.  Having to censor myself, creates a strong sense of isolation.
This feeling of isolation is carried while being surrounded by people and social obligations, surrounded by a community who loves you and finds you super intriguing, who wants to get to know you better and be your best friend.  I smile.  I feed energy into the people I meet.  I exist happily in these social communities.
Yet I have experienced 4.5 years of living abroad and when I go back to the US how many true friends will I say I have made?

Last Days of the Term

For the past two weeks, I've been working full days- teaching in the mornings, holding 20 minute interviews with students from my English Short Stories class, listening to English songs final exam performances, and giving and grading written exams.
This week is my last week of finals.  I scheduled four listening exams for Monday and Tuesday of this week but then last week, the students told me that they were getting a three day holiday for the New Year.  I scrambled to reschedule the Monday exams for Tuesday, but then yesterday students called me and said, "Jennifer there are no buses from our hometown back to school because of the snow.  The roads are too bad."  Great... Now I have to schedule a makeup exam for the students who miss today's exam.
Wednesday will be a grading frenzy, 130 papers.
Tonight is the Tree House worker party, a thank you to this term's volunteers.
These last days of the term are dragging; however, I am luckier than the students.  Their final exams end January 16th.
Will Monday ever arrive, Monday, the day I take off for Harbin?

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Hat for Harbin

I finished knitting this hat for the freezing temperatures of Harbin, temperatures that create the tourist attraction of ice sculptures.  The hat is a Halloween mask called Jackyll and Hide by SAS Knits It Again (found at Knitty: Fall 2007), but I made some modifications to it by adding a hole for the mouth.  The reason I like this pattern is because the mask can be converted into a stylish hat.  It is a functional piece of clothing.  The only problem is the hat is a little small and tight.  Hopefully it will stretch out.
Notes for knitters:


By trying on the hat, I was able to estimate where my mouth was.

Row 1: K2, Bind off 11, knit around
Row 2: WS purl around
Row 3: RS, Knit around
Row 4: RS, k2, CO 11, knit around
Next rows: Stockinette until eye holes, about 17 more rows
  • Mask is too small. I was using a US needle 4 instead of a US 6 so if I was to make this mask again with a US 4, I would CO 112.
  • In my opinion for my face, the eye-holes are too big. I would make them smaller and would make the part that covers the bridge of the nose and that goes between the eyes more narrow.
  • I accidentally did not make the neck long enough, did not do the stockinette part long enough before adding the mouth. When converting the mask into a hat, the bottom part isn't long enough to cover the eye-holes.
Otherwise this is a really easy and great pattern! I think the hat looks good and the mask is extremely useful. I like clothing that is functional.