Friday, March 25, 2011

My Parents are in Qufu...

...greeted at the train station with flowers and a ride home from my student's parents.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Photo-Only Attractions in China

As you may recall, I have decided that some famous attractions are worth visiting, and some are not.  I call the nots "photo-only attractions" because you can get as much joy from gazing at a picture as from actually visiting the site.  In this post, I will highlight a few such places in China.

1.  The Bund in Shanghai
I know I am doing a great disservice to Shanghai and all of Shanghai's admirers by yawning at its iconic river-side district known as the Bund.  This is an area within Shanghai's former international settlement that has lots of old embassies and financial centers, a great view of the river, and many interesting wharves and buildings.

I once read an author who said the Bund at night was his favorite place in China, period.  So you can imagine the anticlimax when I arrived to be greeted with endless construction sites and smog.  The construction was the worst part, but it's probably mostly finished now that the World Expo has come and gone.

Someday I'd like to give the Bund another try, and I believe it has the potential to wow me out of my current indifference. Until then, enjoy the photos and visit this attraction at your own risk. 

View across the river to the famous Oriental Pearl Tower and the Pudong district.  Also, street repairs.

Historic buildings, hazy skies
 Recommended alternative:

If you find yourself near the Bund, save your feet and opt for some tasty treats at Dunkin' Donuts

2.  The Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi'an
A king dies and builds an army of thousands of individually unique clay soldiers to guard his tomb, which he has booby-trapped so elaborately that experts to this day cannot figure out how to get in.  Sound awesome?  Yes.  It's an awesome story, but the actual site is not that cool.

(Once again, I'm probably offending all the people who loved this attraction, and I know many.)

There are two things I disliked about this attraction.  First, all the soldiers are just lined up in a couple warehouses where excavation is supposedly ongoing.  There's not that much to look at -- a glance will do the trick.  That's good, because all I could get was a glance, which brings me to the second thing I disliked: the crowds.  Any tourist attraction in China will be crazy on a holiday, and this place was no exception.  You had to fight your way to the railing to even get close enough to snap a picture.

October holiday crowds in the ladies' room
October holiday crowds swarm around the somewhat creepy giant terra-cotta warrior puppet that appeared at the Olympics

October holiday crowds swarm around the periphery of the warehoused soldiers

There they are!

Recommended alternative:  The Terra Cotta site has a Subway restaurant, which was the highlight of my visit.  If you're fresh from America and thus not dazzled by American fast food, skip the site altogether and take a bike ride around the Xi'an city wall at sunset:


3.  Window of the World in Shenzhen
Picture this: Your town goes from fishing village to one of China's hottest economic zones in 30 years flat.  You have absolutely nothing to offer in the way of cultural or historic attractions, because your city is only 30 years old and most people are mostly interested in making money.  The solution?  Build a bunch of theme parks.  This is Shenzhen, China, across from Hong Kong, and the theme park pictured below is called Window of the World.  It has small replicas of more than 130 famous places around the world.  I didn't actually visit this attraction, but we went in far enough to get a taste and a picture.

Now that I think of it, this is probably more of an "even a photo is not that cool" attraction.

Fake mini-Louvre
Recommended alternative:

How about dessert at the mango place in the mall?

4.  The Forbidden City, AKA the Imperial Palace, in Beijing
This is a must-see on everyone's Beijing itinerary, and it doesn't need to be.  Yes, it's cool that emperors lived here for hundreds of years and no one was allowed in except family, concubines, and eunuchs (or something like that).  The problem is, now they allow everyone in.  This is another destination where the crowds are oppressive, elbowing you at every photo opportunity and forcing you to wait in long ticket lines.

Another problem is that every building starts to look the same after awhile.  They are all built in the same traditional style, and they are all nearly bare on the inside except for eclectic museum displays and ornate thrones that are really hard to see (because of the crowds and because you can't actually enter many of the buildings to explore them).  

Finally, there aren't nice places where you can just sit and rest, taking in the view and soaking in the history.  Overall, a nice photo book with some good articles would probably be just as good as the real thing.  Here are photos of my three visits:

2006, on a cold January day with my travel crew from Iowa

2009, on a sweltering day where I waited over an hour in line and kept getting jabbed in the head by people's sunbrellas

2010 with my family, just outside the entrance
Recommended alternative:  Go to the public park behind the Forbidden City, pay $1.50, climb the little hill, and enjoy the birds-eye view of the whole complex without the crowds or the ticket price:

There you go!  I've just knocked four attractions off your China to-do list.  But I can almost guarantee you'd still go, and that's OK.  I could be wrong.

Have you visited China?  Would you add or subtract any attractions from this list?   

Thursday, March 17, 2011

On Sanity and Salt

The most recent bit of craziness to hit China is a panicked run on salt.  Why?  Radiation in Japan. 

Apparently, the Internet rumor mill has been saying that if Japan's radiation floats over here, iodized salt can help protect the thyroid.  This is in spite of multiple government and medical bulletins informing the public that this is not true -- you can't safely eat enough salt to get enough iodine to benefit you.  Nonetheless, people have stripped most supermarkets of their entire salt supply.

These photos and more can be found at The Shanghaiist.

I think this type of fear-driven, mob-mentality illogic can happen anywhere -- remember gas stations on September 11? -- but I think Chinese culture is particularly prone because it magically combines two mentalities:  Follow the crowd and Beat the crowd.

There are voices of reason in China who will try to speak up when things get crazy, but most people seem content to spread the crazy around as fast as they possibly can.  When there's crazy on the loose, whether the stakes are low or high, no one is afraid to throw a few punches to stay on top of the crowd.  And Chinese crowds are, if nothing else, excitable.

In my uneducated opinion, this mentality is responsible for small insanities (frantic salt runs, building moats around universities during the SARS crisis, leaping over benches to be near the front of the pack at the train station) and big insanities (the Cultural Revolution, to name one). 

I sometimes wonder if any big insanities will break out during my time in China.

POST EDIT:  I don't feel right about mentioning Japan here without expressing my sincere sadness for the tragedies upon tragedies that have struck them this week.  At the time of this writing, the nuclear situation is deteriorating in Fukushima, and the eventual outcome is unclear.  Let's pray for miraculous intervention.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"I can't believe I'm here!" vs. "Is this all?"

A 1997 family vacation evaluation, as completed by my little sister:

I've started a new mental classification of well-known tourist spots:  "Must See in Person" versus "A Photograph Will Do."  All the famous attractions of the world, which we've all seen zillions of pictures of, could fit in one of these categories.

A must-see attraction is one where experiencing it with my own eyes, ears, nose, and feet significantly adds to the interest or enjoyability of the place.  At a place like this, I think things like, "I can't believe I'm actually here," and "This is so much cooler than I expected."

Examples from my own experiences, in no particular order:   Yellowstone National Park, the U.S. Capitol building, Mesa Verde cliff dwellings, Pike's Peak, Teotihuacan (Mexico), Notre Dame cathedral (Paris), the Eiffel Tower, Angkor Wat (Cambodia), the Petronas Towers (Malaysia), and the Taj Mahal.

I would also include places such as Ground Zero and S-21 prison (Cambodia), where being there doesn't add much sensory interest, but helps you really feel the horrifying-ness of what happened on that spot.

My dad and brother at the Badlands, a definite must-see destination

My sister at Yellowstone

My family exploring the Mesa Verda cliff dwellings

Lentz kids at the Appalachian Trail.  We probably hiked a quarter-mile of this.

A photo-only attraction is one where you can see all there is to see just by looking at a photo.  Actually being there doesn't really add anything substantial.   At places like this, I think things like, "Is this it?" "I thought this would be more exciting," and "I want my money back."

Examples:  Niagara Falls, the Liberty Bell, Four Corners, Mt. Rushmore

Me at Niagara, disillusioned

I also think it's possible to guess in advance what types of attractions might be worth visiting in person.  For example: Stonehenge?  A photo-only attraction.  The moon?  A must-see destination.

With my parents coming to China next week, I've been thinking about the places I've visited in China and which category they'd land in.  Stay tuned for my take on some of China's better-known tourist attractions.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Chilly Toddler?

...Try some sleeve covers on the legs to stay warm.  (As seen at our favorite Sichuan restaurant this week.)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Wedding Week

My teammates Chip and Mallary have an awesome write-up on their blog about the American-style weddings they had in culture class last week.  I attended a couple of these weddings and had a great time.

Be sure to watch the video, which is very cute and funny.  The preacher, bride, and groom were all my students last year.

Click the link.  Seriously -- you will not regret.  Click here! Click here!

Bali Dreams

Before winter holiday, the group I traveled to Bali with was doing a little planning by e-mail.  I wanted to get an idea of what people wanted to do there, so I sent out an e-mail with the subject line, "What are your Bali dreams?"

Which apparently sounds like an X-rated site, because a couple of my friends told me they almost didn't even open it.

In any case, we made a video to capture all our Bali dreams coming true, and you can watch it here:

Friday, March 11, 2011

Day in the Life: Friday

Q:  What do I do all day here in China?
A:  Sit around in the coffee shop drinking fruit tea.

At least that's what I did today.  Every day is different, and today was nothing special, which makes it a perfect candidate for a "Day in the Life" type of post.

7:16:  Asleep.  Received a text message from my teammate: "Are we meeting for prayer this morning?"  Turns out 3/4 teammates were snoozing in bed at the time of the text, which made for a sleepy-eyed prayer meeting.

8:00:  Checked e-mail, surfed Internet, decided against taking a shower.  Last minute class prep.

9:30:  Biked to department.

10:10-12:00:  Taught public speaking class.  Today's topics:  Managing Stage Fright, Writing Outlines

12:00:  Lunched with my teammate.  We went to a restaurant we have nicknamed the "Clean Restaurant" (because we don't know any restaurants' actual names).  At one point I looked around at the dingy walls, the grayish floors, and the vegetables being peeled before my eyes in murky basin water, and wondered how I got to a place in my life where I would call this "clean."

1:30:  Biked to Qufu's sole coffee shop.  Drank fruit tea and worked on lesson plans and powerpoints.  Downloaded YouTube videos.

5:30:  Biked home.  Rush hour in the bike lane!

6:50:  Made macaroni and cheese, courtesy of a package from home.

7:00:  Crashed my teammate's TV night with her students.  Enjoyed three episodes of Modern Family.

9:00:  Made copies, bought pens and crackers.

9:30-now:  Read blogs, made flashcards, drank strawberry drink.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What I'm Doing for Lent

I typed my title up there just now and accidently put in "What I'm Doing for Lentz."  Cracked myself up.  That sort of thing also happens to me when I try to send e-mails to people named Chris: "Hey Christ, how's it going?"  ...  Shoot.

Anyway, the real topic today is What I'm Doing for Lent.  I always used to give up pizza, but that's sort of a moot point in a town without pizza.  (Actually, there are a lot of small things that you inherently give up just by moving to a new country, and you usually find that they're not that important anyway.)

After visiting India, I've been thinking more about poverty and injustice, so I signed up for Relentless Acts of Justice, which is being put on by World Vision.  During Lent, they'll send you daily or weekly e-mails related to faith, poverty, and injustice.

Want to join me?  Click the link to learn more.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Travel Review: Breaking it Down

In this, my final post about my winter holiday travels, I am going to tell my story in numbers.  First, a quick review of where I've been:

  • Albuquerque, USA:  My brother's wedding, sightseeing, and eating sopapillas.  11 days.
  • Beijing, China:  Intensive Chinese study at my organization's headquarters.  12 days.
  • Calcutta, India:  Volunteering at Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity houses.  14 days.
  • Delhi, Agra, & Jaipur, India:  Sightseeing.  4 days.
  • Chiang Mai, Thailand:  Annual teachers' conference for my organization.  10 days.
  • Bali & Lombok, Indonesia:  Sightseeing.  8 days.  
  • Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia:  Passing through.  1 day.
This is kind of a weird mix of places, but the choice of locations was mostly dictated by where I had to be anyway (ABQ for the wedding, Beijing and KL for air travel, and southeast Asia for the conference).  I also really wanted to be able to volunteer, and India seemed like a good opportunity.

Fun Facts about Lodging:

Our overriding goal was to live as cheaply as possible (usually around $5-6/night), so we found ourselves in lots of back-packer districts and barebones hostels.  Here are some more fun facts about lodging:
  • Places I stayed: 14
  • Nights spent in Bangkok airport:  2
  • Nights spent on overnight trains or planes:  4
  • Nights when I had my own room: 3
  • Places with no hot water:  about 5
  • Places with no sink:  1
  • Places with no towels, TP, or trashcans:  more than 1
  • Places with a pool:  4
  • Places with free breakfast:  Lots
  • Most expensive hotel:  Probably the Hotel Albuquerque.  Thanks, Mom and Dad!
  • Cheapest hostel:  Little Bird hostel in Chiang Mai, Thailand ($3.50/night).
  • Favorite lodging:  Nick's Pavilion in Ubud, Bali -- Bridge, trees, stream, pool, and a view of the rice paddies.
  • Least favorite lodging:  Nameless cheap-o hostel in Gili Islands, Indonesia.

Fun facts about transportation:  
  • Almost everywhere I went (except the US and China) has left-side driving.
  • One of the things I liked about Indian subways was the "Women Only" car.  They also had separate sides for men and women on city buses.  
  • Another fun way to travel was going by boat between islands in Indonesia, especially when we took the fast boat, sat on the roof and got soaked by the spray.
Travel methods:
  • Flights (counting each leg separately):  16
  • Boat journeys:  3
  • Train journeys:  3
  • Day trips with hired drivers:  3
  • Other travel methods:  car, taxi, tuk tuk, subway, bike, and bus

Other fun facts and favorites:

The places I went were all so different that it would be impossible to pick a favorite.  However, I would say that India was the most memorable and the most meaningful.

If, sometime in the future, you want to plan a trip to someplace warm -- come to Southeast Asia!  There are so many gorgeous places with interesting and hospitable cultures, and it's much cheaper to travel there than anywhere else I've ever been.  You will also learn a ton about the history, religion, and language of these countries, which I never knew anything about until I visited them.  I'm really thankful to have had the opportunity to see this part of the world.  (And also really thankful to finally be back in Qufu!)

Travel Review: Foto Favorites

Calcutta: Bike rickshaw, multilingual sign

Calcutta:  Colorful pedestrians

Calcutta:  Moment in time at the flowermarket

Calcutta:  Pre-dawn rickshaws and empty streets

Fatehpur Sikri: Mosque gate

Fatehpur Sikri: Ghost town at sundown

Jaipur: Scene through screen at Amber Fort

Jaipur:  Nutty observatory

Jaipur:  Fabric for sale at market

Chiang Mai, Thailand:  Treetops and me

Ubud, Bali:  Dancing on coconut coals

Bali: Coffee beans

Bali:  Mallary with waterfall mist

Indonesia:  En route from Bali to Gili Islands

Gili Islands:  Beach walk

Gili Islands:  Sunset

Lombok:  Rice paddies

Lombok:  Horse cart

Lombok:  Gorgeous coastline

Lombok: Forest and stream

Lombok:  Ladies at work

Senggigi, Lombok:  Local children at beach

Saturday, March 5, 2011

And the Winner is...

Back row, L-R:  Most Active, Best Transformation over the Winter Holiday, Most Lovely & Best Skin, Best Painter
Front Row, L-R:  Sunshine Sister Award & Most Warm-hearted, Best Singer, Most Talkative, and Best Wife
Yesterday we had our "Academy Awards" in public speaking class.  Each team had to create an award, decide who to present it to, and write a one-minute speech of presentation.  Then the winners had to give an impromptu acceptance speech.  Some memorable moments:

"Most Talkative" was won by a girl named Zoe (who hardly ever speaks in my class).  In her acceptance speech, she said that she loves to talk all the time, even though her oral English is not good and her oral Chinese is also not good.

When Karen accepted the "Best Wife" award, she expressed surprise that she "had a family and didn't know."  I think they meant to call it the "Best Future Wife" award.

The winner of the "Best Skin" award expressed thanks that her parents made her eat so much fruit.  Then she admitted that she does indeed have beautiful white skin.

Good times teaching here in Qufu.

(Click the picture to zoom.)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

India Photos


After four attempts over the last few days, I was finally able to upload photos from India.  My Internet here has been v.e.ry. s.l.o.w since my return.  Wah wah.  (Please read that as a sad trombone noise.)

Anyway, there are about 75 pictures, but if you are not my mom and dad, you can feel free to look at fewer.  They are in a Facebook album called Incredible India, which you can access by clicking on the link, even if you don't have Facebook.

In other news, today I taught my first class of the semester: public speaking.  It's going to be a lot of fun.  Tomorrow these same students are doing their first mini-speeches, which are fun presentations and acceptance speeches for our very own academy awards.  I happen to know that awards will be presented in categories such as Best Transformation over the Winter Break, Most Likely to be a Successful Housewife, and Most Warmhearted.  I'm excited!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Snow in Qufu!

Today I had the unexpected delight of enjoying my first snow in Qufu this year.   Wispy little flakes darting around this afternoon turned by nightfall into heavy clumps landing softly on vendors' tarps and students' umbrellas.  It was mushy and cold, but I'm not complaining.