Warning: this post is going to be a long one! If you don’t want to read the whole thing then I suggest skipping ahead to part two.
Part One: Chengde (承德)
The title of this blog post, “ren sheng di bu shu”, translates into English as “a stranger in a strange place”, which is precisely how I felt in my final three weeks in China. While of course there is always some degree cultural shock involved in moving anywhere new, Beijing is an extremely modern city with all of a westerner’s needs readily available. The same cannot be said about my living situations for the final weeks of my trip. I started this new chapter of my adventure by moving a couple of hours up north to a city by the name of Chengde. Chengde is a small city, surrounded by mountains, with a local population of approximately half a million. However, of that half a million there were only an estimated number of five foreigners currently studying in the city, the only foreign female being me (however I later found out that there was a group of Bulgarians that came to Chengde to work as dancers in the one club in the city). There is something to be said about the experience of being one of the only white girls living amongst a sea of Chinese faces. At times I felt a bit like a celebrity, with one young child running up and clinging onto my leg in a restaurant, yet at times I felt a bit more like an alien, with locals pointing, staring, and whispering, yet never actually speaking to me. I was placed with a home stay family that actually only consisted of one 26 year old girl. At first I was disappointed, afraid I would be missing out on the cultural experience of Chinese family life, but I soon came to appreciate my living situation. My host sister and I, who I commonly referred to as my 姐姐 (jie jie), quickly became close friends despite her lack of English. My life was literally consumed by the Chinese language! Monday through Saturday by days went as follows: wake up, breakfast, private lessons, lunch, more private lessons, grocery shopping, dinner, studying … repeat. On an eventful evening I would go out to dinner with my jie jie and her friends, or meet up with a fellow student for a drink. However, my days were typically not the trilling adventure that I am used to while traveling. That being said, it was a great way to improve my Mandarin as fast as possible – my reason for being in China in the first place!
Living Like a Local
While Chengde may not be the most interesting city to visit as a tourist, I definitely understand the appeal of the city for a local. Cost of living is beyond cheap! Seeing as my afternoon lessons took place at a cafe across the city, I would venture onto the local bus each day. The bus has a flat rate of 1 kuai, which is the equivalent of only 15 U.S. cents! However, on late nights back from the bar/club I would usually opt for the more convenient option, a taxi. In Chengde you can get anywhere in the city for 10 kuai (apx. $1.60). If only New York taxis had those types of prices! On the evening when my jie jie didn’t feel like cooking we would often stop for dinner on our way home from class (she gave lessons to a different student in the same cafe). A very common dinner in China is malatang ( 麻辣烫). You fill up your bowl with an assortments of veggies, meats and tofus and then give it to the cashier to be weighed. After weighing the raw food, it is all thrown into a spicy broth to be cooked in a spicy soup-like dish. I particularly enjoyed the ability to customize the dish to my liking, as well as the fact that a large bowl typically costs under $2!
Since I had lessons Monday through Saturday I wasn’t able to sightsee as much as I would have liked. However, I did manage to see two amazing sights during my time in the city, Puning Temple (Puning Si 普寧寺) and the Chengde Mountain Resort (Bishu Shanzhaung 避暑山庄). I was particularly excited about visiting Puning Temple (普寧寺) because, as I learned in my Buddhist Art History class at Oxy, this temple houses the largest wooden sculpture of Avalokiteshvara in the world! It was definitely worth the visit, despite the icy temperatures that I faced during my early morning trip. As for the Mountain Resort, I joined a friend from Beijing for the leisurely stroll through the grounds. It was a shame to not see the resort during the summer, when the flowers are in bloom and boats are able to sail the lake, however the lack of tourists made for a very relaxing visit. There were, however, a lot of locals taking advantage of the frozen over lakes for a day of family ice skating.
The nightlife in Chengde is nothing to rave about! However there are a couple of bars and one nightclub, M1. Being a white tourist at M1 was quite the experience! My first time there, a friend and I were given an insane amount of free alcohol, simply because we were foreigners. My second time at the club there was a particularly amusing performer. Decked out in a neon suit, the performer sang, what I believe to be, an original song in English.. which was essentially two sentences repeated over and over again for a couple of minutes.
Part Two: The Mountains (near Feng Nin)
The original plan was to spend three weeks in Chengde, however because of Chinese New Year and Spring Festival I was invited to spend the final week back in my jie jie’s home village with her famil. I’m going to go ahead and make the bold claim that my week in the mountains was by far one of the most unique experiences of my entire life. Upon arrival I quickly learned that luxuries such as running water, indoor toilets, and heat were not to be found in this mountainside village. Perhaps this would have been easier if the weather didn’t drop to icy, low temperatures as the sun set each night. That being said, situated high up in the mountains, with no other houses in sight, the area was quite beautiful despite the winter’s extremely dry climate.
Unlike in Chengde, where my time was consumed by studying grammar and vocabulary, in the mountains I would spend my time visiting various family members and participating in the daily activities of the individuals who lived in the village. What that usually entailed was a 6:45 firecracker wake up call, followed by a feast of a breakfast. Unlike in the U.S., the Chinese make no distinction between which foods should be eaten at various meals. At 8:00 the table would be set, overflowing with meats, vegetables, dumplings (my favorite!), and a large variety of nuts. However, the one thing that I could never get used to is the family’s drink of choice on those early, frigid mornings: baijiu (白酒). Served hot from a kettle, I was expected to start my day by consuming teacups full of lethally strong liquor. However, on some occasions they switched to beer after a couple of shots . . . and yes, I am still talking about breakfast. Luckily the mother (and all the other relatives for that matter) were great cooks because the amount of food that I was expected to eat was ridiculous! I made the decision to only eat vegetarian while living with a home stay (to avoid being served strange and undesirable meats), however this was a very foreign concept up in the mountains. When I told the grandfather that I don’t eat meat he literally laughed in my face.
A State of Cleanliness (of lack thereof)
Getting clean in the mountains was unfortunately not an option (oh how I appreciate the running water back at home). Each morning I was given a bowl of hot water to wash my hands with, and that was the extent of it (luckily I had a bottle of Purell with me)! However, on New Years eve at the grandparents house I was told that it was time to wash my hair. My jie jie led me to the front hall/kitchen which was bustling with family members preparing the big meal, where I was given a large bowl of hot water and instructed to wash my hair in the bowl. Unfortunately I was not given a towel, so my hair froze in a Medusa-esque hairstyle shortly after being washed.. I practically lived in my winter jacket, seeing as even indoors it was still too cold to take it off most of the time. I also kept my shoes on at all times, other than while in bed, seeing as it was common practice to spit on the floor, throw garbage on the floor, and also the babies to urinate on the floor (which was often not mopped up until hours later).
Chinese New Year
I was lucky enough to not only spend Chinese New Year in China, but I got to spend it the traditional way, by living with a family on the countryside! The holiday spirit was in the air the morning of New Years Eve, reminding me of the energy in my house on Christmas Eve morning. Firecrackers went off from morning until night, however the biggest, most beautiful firecrackers were saved for midnight! It is tradition in this village that the dinner meal is not eaten until midnight, so a long day of preparing food was in store. Lucky for me that meant lots and lots of dumpling (egg and leek for the vegetarian)!! The grandparent’s house, where we were spending the evening, was full of activity as family members cooked, chatted, and played countless rounds of cards and mahjong! I spent many hours learning traditional card games with my jie jie and her cousins.
My last couple of nights in China were some of the best! On what was supposed to be my final night in China my jie jie and I went out with about 30 of her family members for a night full of delicious food, heavy drinking, and hours of signing karaoke! Unfortunately, due to heavy snow and icy roads I was unable to make my flight the next morning. While I was quite disappointed at the time, things ended up working out quite alright. I actually got to spend one last night in Beijing, and Jesper and Rupert, some friends from LTL, helped me to spend my last night well with cheap pints of beer and red wine!
After a lovely week at home with family and friends, I am ready to set off on my next adventure! I will start the trip off spending two weeks in Thailand and Laos with my mom, followed by another month of backpacking on my own throughout Vietnam and Cambodia. Let’s do it!