Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

1. He’s black.

2. His half-brother lives in Shenzhen. (This was major news in the national press here)

3. He just won the presidential election in America.

4. He beat Hillary Clinton.

Almost no one at the school has heard of John McCain, but there are quite a few students here who are still bummed out about Hillary losing in the primaries.

5. This means Bush isn’t the president of America anymore.

Most people are too polite to say it directly, but the students I’ve talked to seem pretty excited about this.

The students here seem pretty pleased that Obama was elected. One student, who knew I had planned to vote for Obama, came up to me the day after the election with a big smile and yelled, “Obama won the game!”

But there was some confusion about the historical significance of the Obama victory. There is general agreement among the students that Obama is black, and that it’s pretty rare for a black man to be elected president of the United States. But they aren’t quite sure if this is the first time it has happened.

One student asked me if Obama was, in fact, the first black man to be elected president in America. I told him he was, but the student wasn’t quite convinced.

“What about Lincoln?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “Lincoln was white.”



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Yellow Mountain

HUANGSHAN – I’ve had some time off while my students practice their marching and chanting on the school’s football field during mandatory pre-college military training, so I decided to head to Anhui Province for a few days and climb a mountain.

I hopped on the overnight train in Nanjing, where my inability to speak Mandarin landed me in a hard-sleeper cabin instead of the soft-sleeper I enjoyed on the way to Beijing (learn how to say “soft-sleeper” in Mandarin, kids, it’s just a few kuai extra and you’ll actually get some sleep).

However many hours and almost no sleep later, it was 5:30 a.m. and I had reached a town called Tunxi. Fifty kuai got me to a much smaller town called Tankou, and forty more convinced the driver to take me from the hotel and restaurant he dropped us all off at, to the Bank of China in what some might call the center of town.

I had no real interest in visiting the Bank of China at 6:30 in the morning, especially after hearing that it didn’t open until 8:00, but Lonely Planet told me there was a place across the road called Mr. Hu’s Restaurant and that the owner, Mr. Hu, speaks English and is a good source of information.

Mr. Hu’s Restaurant, of course, was not across from the Bank of China, or at least not the Bank of China that I was driven to. But after just a few minutes of aimless wandering in the adorably small downtown business area of Tankou, a woman approached me speaking very good English and offering coffee and breakfast and hotel information.

She led me to a small restaurant with a sign above the door that read, “English service. Free Information.” An overpriced bowl of noodles and some pretty decent coffee later, she emerged from the kitchen with a map and an armload of Huangshan area travel guides. And in no time, I had a hotel reservation at 100 RMB/night and a route planned out for the next day’s climb.

(I would meet Mr. Hu the next day, actually, when he drove me to the bus station in Tankou, after first showing me the actual location of his restaurant and promising to give me information about the area if I decided to eat there).

Huangshan, or Yellow Mountain for those of you who speak even less Mandarin than I do, is a very touristy mountain to climb. There are paved stairs all the way to the top, and you can hike for hours at the top without ever reaching a trail that isn’t paved. There’s even a cable car to take you up there if you aren’t into climbing stairs for three and a half hours.

But China’s tallest staircase is still a hell of a walk. Especially if you’re carrying a load of food up to the hotels at the summit, like these guys were.

I passed dozens of these guys on the way up, and couldn’t help wondering why they couldn’t use the cable car to carry all that stuff to the summit.

Either way, the mountain was incredibly beautiful. I, of course, picked a day that was both rainy and remarkably foggy, which led to that wonderful moment when you get to the peak after three hours of climbing in the rain and see… fog. Lots and lots of fog. You can clearly tell that what you are looking at would be unspeakably beautiful on a clearer day. But all you see is fog. So you take a picture of it.

I took plenty of pictures, and some of them even came out. Here’s a few of the better ones:

You can almost tell there’s a mountain there, behind the fog.

At the top of the mountain, and at many points on the way up, couples have chained padlocks along the guardrails. The army of padlocks is evidence of just how many Chinese couples have made this climb.

The valley at the base of the mountain is also worth a visit.

So is the waterfall, even if it was more like a very large and impressive trickle during my early-Autumn visit.

There are some really great signs in the Huangshan area. During one stretch of the hike, there were repeated warnings of “Wet Floor.” A sign at the waterfall explains that a famous movie called “lie the tiger to hide the dragon” was filmed there (you might know it better as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Another sign,  asking tourists not to walk down a certain stretch of path, reads, “Visitor Halt.”

But this one (above) is my favorite. Hanging from a metal chain that clearly marks off a certain area that tourists are not meant to cross, the sign asks visitors not to jump over that chain. Complete with a picture of a stick figure doing his best Liu Xiang impression, the sign reads, “Please do not jumps a hurdle.”

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Military training

YANGZHOU – Sometimes, it really pays to work for a technical college.

Take this morning, for example. If I had been a regular American citizen passing through Yangzhou on holiday, perhaps on my way to Slim West Lake or maybe a bit of shopping on Wenchang Road, I might have been a bit confused (and perhaps, terrified) as I watched a few thousand soldiers march down the street in front of Yangzhou University in full combat fatigues at 10:00 on a Saturday morning.

It wouldn’t have helped that the driver of the bus I was riding was screaming at a traffic cop, and threatening to run him over, as the soldiers marched past. Or that the drivers of all of the other cars on the road were honking their horns, cursing, and generally acting like their lives might be in danger if they didn’t get off the road in the next 12 seconds.

To anyone who didn’t know what was going on, it must have looked like the city was under martial law. Or perhaps we were going to war.

But, having worked at Yangzhou Tech for the past few months, I was aware of the fact that all of the colleges and universities in town are holding military training exercises for all of their incoming freshmen this month.

I was also aware of the fact that people in Yangzhou, especially cab drivers and bus drivers, are just about always screaming, cursing and honking their horns, and generally giving the impression that something terrible will happen if they don’t reach their destination in the next 10-15 seconds.

So my only thought, as a few thousand soldiers crossed the street in front of me, was, “That would make a really great picture for the blog.”

The list of strange and interesting things that have led to my not having to teach my English class for a while, continues to grow.

In Thailand, my class was regularly canceled for Buddhist holidays, and to celebrate important moments in the lives of the royal family (including the King’s 80th birthday and the death of the King’s sister, which led to a 15-day national mourning period that was subsequently extended to 100 days in some cities).

Here in Yangzhou, my faculty course was occasionally called off for rain, the faculty-wide singing competition, and to allow my students to attend Communist Party training sessions.

This month, all of my freshmen classes are canceled so my students can take part in a month of mandatory military training.

Every student at our school, and I believe this is done at just about every school in China, has to participate in military training for the first month of their freshman year. The training includes marching, learning some basic military chants and songs, and some basic combat maneuvers (at our school, this appears to be limited to hand-to-hand combat, and it’s very basic).

Mostly, it’s a whole lot of marching, standing at attention, and responding to basic military orders.

At our school, most of the new recruits are girls (like in the States, the girls outnumber the boys on college campuses here). And most of them (above) are very thin and very tiny. This, my Australian colleague tells me, means that a few students will faint from standing too long in the heat.

The training is not too strenuous, but it is quite long. Training begins around 6:00 a.m. and I’ve seen the students finishing up as late as 5:00 p.m. in the evening. According to a local friend, the training is led by members of the actual Chinese military.

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The Sports Burka

BEIJING – One of the many things that makes the Olympics great is that at some point in the Games you are guaranteed to see something you’ve never seen before.

I’m not talking about watching a man run faster than anyone in the history of the world, even after slowing to a jog and beating his chest a few strides from the finish. Or a guy from Baltimore winning eight gold medals in swimming.

I’m talking about the strange and wonderful things you’ve never even thought about, the stuff you need an NBC analyst to explain to you. Like the difference between a gold medal performance and a last-place routine on the pommel horse. Or how exactly one accumulates points in a synchronized swimming contest.

For me, it was a sprinter from Bahrain and her Sports Burka.

Prior to Heat 4 of the women’s 200 meters in Beijing, I had never pondered the question of how a woman from a strict Muslim society might dress if she were to compete in a foot race.

But on August 19, as I watched from a lower-level seat in the Bird’s Nest, Rogaya Al-Gassra provided an answer. As her competitors removed their track suits to reveal spandex shorts and form-fitting tops that were often little more than sports bras, the runner from Bahrain stepped into the blocks in what could only be described as a Sports Burka.

It was a two-tone spandex suit, complete with a hood that resembled a swimmer’s bathing cap. The Sports Burka was as form-fitting as her competitors’ athletic apparel, and thus equally aerodynamic, but it cleverly met her religious requirement for modesty.

Islamic purists might cringe at the idea of a woman sporting a form-fitting spandex suit, but the Sports Burka covered every inch of Al-Gassra’s body aside from her hands and face. The suit did not cover the sprinter’s nose and mouth, as a traditional burka would, but this concession seems rather necessary to allow the runner to breathe as she attempts to out-run the fastest women in the world.

And that is just what Al-Gassra did, winning her heat in 22.81 seconds to advance to the second round of competition that evening.

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The Bird’s Nest

BEIJING – Don’t we look great together?

I’ve never had a crush on a building before, but when I saw the National Stadium in Beijing, I just knew.

It’s the prettiest building I’ve ever seen. And the most photogenic. Trust me. I have 137 photos of it.

And it looks perfect in all of them.

I know what you’re thinking. $420 million is a lot to spend on a stadium. Hey, $40 billion is a lot to spend on an Olympics, and that could be a low estimate considering the millions in lost revenue from the hundreds of factories that were closed down to give us that beautiful, blue sky as a backdrop.

But just look at it.

It looks even better from inside.

When you look at this next one, keep this in mind. You’re not looking at an art museum. That’s the ground floor of a stadium in Beijing.

And let’s not forget about this.

Pretty great, huh? Especially when you consider what is just across the street.

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Heineken House

BEIJING – A few weeks ago, this building was an agricultural exhibition center.

It’s the size of a small convention center, or a very large sports bar.

On August 8th, the place turned into a giant beer hall, dance club, and ticket dispensary, and it will stay that way until the Closing Ceremony. It’s called the Holland Heineken House, and it’s the place to be if you’re Dutch, know someone who is, or just like the idea of a sports bar with a capacity of about 2,000 people.

The Dutch have been doing this since 1992, and they’ve gotten pretty good at it. I’ve been in Beijing since the Opening Ceremony and I don’t think a day has passed that I haven’t heard someone talking about the Heineken House. One of the more frequent late-night discussions in the courtyard of my youth hostel involved my British, Irish, and American friends wondering why none of our countries has opened something like this.

The Brits have something called the London House, which the people at the door will tell you is “a place for networking,” before asking who you know and what company you work for, and the Americans have something called Club Bud, which is an exclusive night club sponsored by Anheuser-Busch that is by invitation only.

But there is only one Heineken House.

During the day, it’s a great place to watch the Games, shop for ridiculous orange-colored souvenirs, and enjoy some overpriced fries with mayonnaise. It’s also the best place in Beijing to buy last-minute Olympics tickets. Each day you can choose from a lengthy list of available tickets for the next three days of competition, as long as you are accompanied by a Dutch passport-holder, and they go for just a smidge above face value.

At night, it’s the most popular night club in town, with daily performances from bands and DJs who my friend Janko tells me are very big names in Holland. The crowd is split between people dressed for a night out and people dressed in ridiculous orange-themed costumes (think plastic clogs, oversized overalls, and jester’s hats, all orange). It’s not a place to go if you’re 5-7 and enjoying the fact that you actually get to feel tall in this country, but it’s a very welcoming crowd for a place that is basically a national gathering spot for a country you aren’t from.

The place is so great it might actually be altering the demographics of the spectators here in Beijing. For a fairly small country, there are Dutch people everywhere at the Olympics. And they usually have really great orange costumes on.

If you believe Janko, a lot of them are here because of the Heineken House.

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BEIJING – The opponent came out first, to polite applause.

His name happened to be Joe Murray, and he happened to be representing Great Britain. But none of that mattered much. No one had come to the Worker’s Gymnasium that day to see Joe Murray.

The man they were waiting for came out moments later, and a bomb went off.


The Chinese fighter was Yu Gu, a 54 kg bantam weight. If you passed him on the sidewalk, you wouldn’t know it. But on this day, as he emerged from the tunnel and walked to the ring, he was The Baddest Man on the Planet.

He waved to the crowd.


He threw a punch or two into the air, and did a quick shuffle-step.


It was the seventh fight of the day. Through the first six, you could hear the girl six rows back wondering aloud about how the scoring works.

As Yu Gu’s trainer removed the fighter’s robe, you couldn’t hear yourself think.


The opponent looked like he’d already lost. Four rounds later, he had.

17-7, and it wasn’t that close.

The referee raised the Chinese fighter’s hand.


It was only the preliminary round, the one that narrowed the field from 32 to 16. There were a half-dozen events going on that were more important. But the few thousand Chinese who were fortunate enough to be in the gym that afternoon, including the large groups of schoolchildren who had come with their teachers, didn’t have those tickets.

Most of them will not get another opportunity to watch one of their countrymen compete in these Olympics. So they made this one count.


Yu Gu bowed to each corner of the gymnasium before exiting the ring. The seventh fight of the day was over.

In the eighth fight, Gojan Veaceslav of Moldova won a narrow victory over Khatsyhau Khavazhy of Belarus. They fought in silence.

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