Monday, August 18, 2008

I'm Still Here! - Packing and Getting Ready to Go

The Bird's Nest Stadium!

I recently just returned from an incredible trip to Beijing, full of friends, Olympic games and adventures of Olympic proportions.

The Men's 100m final where Jamaica took the gold - I was there!

For anyone checking into this or sending me emails, I may not be posting or replying for up to a week. This is because I am in a frenzy of packing and sorting out last minute details before my return to Canada. When I return, I have to practice for a driving test and start getting ready for University once more. Keep checking back as I will continue posting during the school year and will start a photo album that spans the three months that I was in China. In the meantime, do send post requests and opinions so that I know what to focus on writing when I get a spare moment. And of course, do try to keep things green, and if you would like tips for that, I could most certainly post some up here as well!

Fun at the art gallery in an old factory district

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Photo Studios – There is a Little Bit of Celebrity in Everyone

Though photo studies may exist back home, they certainly don’t exist in as great a variety as they do in Tianjin. Such studios can be found in almost every major shopping area which I have stumbled across so far. Their staff are talented in photography, photoshop, photographic printing and of course, customer service. Many of such shops specialize in wedding photography but not the same kind of wedding photography that one is used to back in the west. Couples come to the studio and purchase photo packages which specify the types of prints which will be made after their photo session. After the arrangements are sorted out, multiple costumes are donned and the couple visits various locales or sets in the studio to have a professional photographer snap shots of them while they pose. The costumes range from traditional asian clothing styles (Chinese, Korean, Indian and etc) to modern, funky and eccentric. These photos are enhanced using photoshop and are then transformed to fit various print formats. Some can be printed on rug-like wall-hangings, large format glossy prints on wood, inset in glass ornaments and countless other presentation styles. A very popular medium is to arrange photos artistically against a backdrop and to print them out in a large format hard-cover book with rigid cardboard pages. I have yet to see photos taken by professional photographers at actual wedding events! Even at the wedding I attended, such a photo studio book was passed around during the ceremony and there were no professional photographers in attendance.

Similar photo studies exist for people who just want to dress up, try a few poses and create albums to help them commemorate their younger years. These studious are capable of churning out final products that are worthy of the glossy pages of fashion magazines. My colleague Yolanda took me to a photo studio which specialized in such albums. Here, she showed me the photos they took – the effects that were applied to them were simply breathtaking! The photo studio was quite an eclectic place. It was located near a major shopping area in a former concession building that had been converted to suite the studio’s purposes. There were even two greyhound dogs that lived in the studio who were often featured in many of the studio’s works to add variety. When we visited, one was away at the at a beach locale for one of the studio’s photography expeditions. The decorations inside were a mix of both the modern and the antiquated with some unique Victorian features that were retained from the original building. Here, Yolanda browsed her album on one of the studio’s computers and recommended some changes to be made. Meanwhile, two employees staffed the computers around us and continued with their work. Here, I was given the chance to see them in action as they enhanced the original photographs. Fingers flew and mouse clicks were abundant as pictures were refined, clipped, shifted and placed into their final artistic templates. After Yolanda was satisfied with her recommendations, I got the chance to chip in an opinion or two before we left the studio. It would take two weeks to make the changes requested and get the final copy printed. In the meantime, Yolanda was given the electronic versions of the photograph which you see up on the blog. The prices of these albums were quite reasonable as well, it seems that looking like a celebrity is not confined only to the realms of the super-rich and famous.

Beach Expedition - The Final Hours

I woke up for yet another early morning as my instinctive alarm clock kicked in, casting slumber out the door. I was the first one to awake and decided to travel to both ends of the beach for a walk. I passed by familiar sights that I had seen while on the ATV before. However, I never realized how strenuous walking on sand is until that morning!

After my stroll, I sat on some of our borrowed chairs. Soon, I was approached by two beach resort staffers who started talking in very rapid Chinese to me. I managed to explain to them that I could not speak Chinese and roused one of the men from his slumber to help address their concerns. It turns out that they just wanted to take the borrowed beach furniture back. I was very surprised when they brought up garbage bags and started to clean up our mess from the night before. I pitched in where I could but they were more than content to clean up on their own. In no time at all, the beach furniture was packed away once more in storage and I took a seat in the sand.

In no time at all as the sun rose higher in the sky, our group woke, packed up our tents, picked up our garbage and helped the women get the bunkhouse ready for departure. In the bunkhouse, we swept up the nutshells on the floor and filled a water jug with tap water to give the floor a good scrub. I was surprised by the lengths our group went to clean up after itself! There were no regulations that stipulated that we have to clean our areas before departure. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised with how scrupulously clean our group left both the beach and the bunkhouse.

We bade goodbye to the beach as we packed up our cars and drove out into the horizon. Soon, I was napping in the back and casting occasional glances outside as the various scenes of China rolled past. It was incredible how much I had missed out on during the night time journey. We passed farms of verdant green, mechanized harbours, power plants, factories, apartment complexes and bubbling fish farms. As the countryside rolled by, I played out the memories of the weekend in my head. Recently, my head has begun swim from too many experiences to be had in such a short period of time! I’m still trying to piece together my experiences here, all of the places, people, discoveries, landmarks and culture. My trip to China has been a full sensory overload, but oh what fun it has been!


P.S. I dedicate this blog entry to Darleen and Mr. Luo! Without them, this Beach Trip Would not have been Possible!

Beach Expedition Day 2 – Afternoon Activities

As we distanced ourselves from the beach area, the scenery changed quite drastically. The beach and barren salt flats were soon replaced by immaculate asphalt, gleaming white street lamps and verdant boulevards as we drove into the city nearby. Though relatively quiet, the place was not lacking in any of the amenities of a modern city. We soon stopped at a Chinese restaurant where we were led upstairs to a private room with two large tables. The place was well decorated, spacious, air conditioned and comfortable. In our private room, we designated one table for the men and one for the women.

There was as much merriment to be had as there was food! I’ll try and list the foods we ate but as often is the case in China, the dishes consumed were to numerous for all to be remembered. We dined on fried corn, spicy fish, spicy bacon, agaric, roast duck, roast pig, vegetable assortment, spicy chicken and vegetable mix, mushroom soup and the list goes on. As usual, a sizeable amount of the food was left uneaten. However, the food that is left uneaten at dining establishments is seldom wasted. At the PPG cafeteria and the many restaurants I have visited, uneaten food is placed into a separate food collection bin and which is carted away daily to pig farms. This certainly puts my heart more at ease as there is nothing I find harder to stomach than wasted food. I find it incredibly unfortunate that, although good food such as this is put to use in China, back home, such food is destined only for landfills. Of course at the landfill, its only future is to become a sodden methane-emitting mess. There certainly is a lot we can learn from the most common practices in place here in the orient. The same goes for the CFL’s as noted in a previous entry, when one is pressed to save money and resources, they can often be very innovative in an unintentionally green way.

After our lavish lunch, we returned to the beachside resort. This time, I was able to see the surrounding sights that were covered by a cloak of darkness the night before. We passed a variety of restaurants with open aquariums out front which displayed a live menu of fresh seafood. We also passed countless beach shops which sold swimsuits, swimgear and beach toys. Upon reaching the parking lot, I was surprised to find the place significantly more crowded than it was when we had left that morning. We had to circle the area for a little while before finding parking spots. As we neared the beach, it appeared to my untrained eyes that large crowds of people had materialized out of the sea – the beach was positively packed! Fortunately, the crowd was confined primarily to the shade afforded by the umbrellas that were close to the water. Our tent encampment had been left abandoned since the morning, but it remained standing – untouched by the bustling crowds. All of the women retreated to their air conditioned bunkhouse, most likely to watch television or play with their handheld videogame systems. I was surprised that only one of them made use of the sea! Meanwhile, I went with the men to lounge in the sand once more.

Soon, I was invited to play a casual game of beach volleyball. Someone had found a ball somewhere and it was soon bouncing back and forward above one of the nets that was randomly on the beach for the enjoyment of beachgoers. None of us were any good at volleyball so I was thankful that there was no serious element of competition to the game at all. No score was kept as we laughed, tumbled and dived, doing our best to keep the ball from touching the heated sand. I was the only foreigner present at the crowded beach of at least 1 000 people, it was a good thing that I did not look fully foreign otherwise I certainly would have stood out like a sore thumb. I was relieved to note that the beach attire is significantly more conservative for women (since I’m just so conservative as you may know by now) than similarly sandy places back home. However, for men, I was the only one wearing baggy, western style swim shorts. The men present wore very tight, spandex speedos or shorts – most of which must have been purchased from the abundant beach supplies shops. There was a certain openness and tolerance at the beach which is absent in similar environments back home. No matter how unattractive one may be swimming clothing, they are not ridiculed, stared or jeered at ,nor discouraged from joining in with the fun. There are also very few if no people tanning as dark skin is considered less desirable than being paler skinned in China. Because of this cultural freedom, self-consciousness is almost absent. Although I am completely averse to beaches at home due to a different beach culture, my aversion to swimming faded and I too joined in being free from self-consciousness.

I joined my companions with gusto when invited to head into the deep. In the water, the waves were large and the swimming area was crowded, but there was still a great deal of fun to be had. The volleyball had made its way over into the surf as well and was soon flying high above the waves. In the water people splashed, chased each other and rode inflatable boats on waves that were large enough to knock one over. I think that this must have been the second time I’ve swam in the sea in my lifetime. I was soon disoriented and was stumbling as if drunk, unfamiliar with the buffeting effect of the waves. The sand under my feet was fine and smooth, sharp stones and shells were completely absent which made the experience a safe one as well!

After the swim, more volleyball was played until we were completely exhausted and famished. My group of male companions and I made our way to the women’s bunkhouse for another shower session. It was a luxury that we had a private washroom available. Outside the bunkhouse, a good number of people were lining up to use the toilet or to shower in facilities that were considerably less clean than our own. I waited at the end of the line once more, to enable the designated male cooks to get the barbeque ready as early as possible. I couldn’t complain though as some of the men took showers two at a time, while I was afforded the luxury of showering alone.

This time around, the barbequing party included the whole car club. Some of the members prepared chicken legs and shrimp in addition to the lamb kebabs which we enjoyed the night before. By the time I had showered, the food was cooked and ready for consumption. There were outdoor tables and chairs for our use that some of the members pulled out of one of the public storage sheds. The kebabs and other meats were passed around liberally in addition to Chinese beer. Midway through my meal, I was called by one of the women (please excuse my inability to name my Chinese friends, remembering Chinese names is still incredibly difficult for me) to ride the ATVs which were available for rent. She pulled me over with another man to the vendor and started haggling over the rental price. Soon, three ATVS appeared out of nowhere and I found myself seated on one while the vendor was pointing at the various levers and throttles. Though unfamiliar with the controls, his jabbing fingers soon gave me an idea of what was the brake and the gas – all I needed really! No money exchanged hands but I was off and away on the noisy ATV leaving the other two riders behind. I was the most adventurous driver that sailed the sands that day, with my throttle on full almost the entire time. My other two companions drove significantly slower and were less adventurous in their voyages away from the barbeque site. In fact, one of the members just drove in circles near our barbeque site over, and over and over again. I used this opportunity to drive to both ends of the beach. On one side, where there were no people camped, large, wet areas were present. As I drove here, countless swallows materialized. It was almost as if they emerged from the ground. I drove away from these wet areas as soon as this occurred, I was terrified that I was driving on precious swallow habitat. Fortunately, upon later inspection this was not the case as these wet areas were completely devoid of any visible life. I returned the ATV back to the barbeque site and allowed other members of our group give it a ride. I never saw any money exchange hands nor see when the vehicles were returned to the vendor, but in the end it was all taken care of somehow. Sometimes, things fail to make sense to foreign eyes but often, that is half the fun of it all!

After the ATV ride, I resumed my dinner, this time dining on shrimp with shells and barbequed chicken. Note that I had not washed my hands with soap for the entire day. I had to clean my hands with sand before riding the ATV as they were sticky from the barbeque. I copied the hygiene habits of the other ATV riders by dipping my hands into the sand and giving them a good rub with the coarse, and hopefully clean grains. After my ride, the sand became my washing sink once more. Note that I was a little bit nervous to be eating the shrimp using my bare hands after the ATV ride. However, I had no choice really and despite that I’m still fine after the fact! For those with weaker immune systems, or a deep fear of bacteria, as you can see, liquid hand sanitizers are a must have!

The barbeque lasted well into the night as a cloak of darkness fell. Soon, the women all headed back to the bunkhouse and only the men remained, sipping their beer while sitting around the barbeque and slapping away the mosquitoes. Soon, personal fireworks shows began as the groups of beach visitors showcased their pyrotechnic skills for everyone’s amusement. These fireworks were not like the small-scale legal substitutes we are used to back home – rather they were closer to professional pyrotechnics likes the ones witnessed at the Independence Day celebration back in Tianjin!

The fireworks used had many varieties. There were ones that exploded in multicoloured showers, some that existed only to make deafening explosions and generate a blinding white light, others which cast a glittering stream as they rose into the heavens and some ones which were simply beyond description. I headed to sleep earlier that night as the men played a game of cards by the dying embers of the barbeque.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Beach Expedition Day 2 – The Morning Fishing Frolic!

I cannot quite comprehend how my tired self managed it, but I woke up at 8 am the next day amidst a symphony of snores and the sound of waves breaking on the beach. I was not the only one awake though as I spied at least a few pairs of feet padding around outside as I peeped underneath the tent flaps. I scrambled out from my plastic cocoon, careful not to trample any of my tent buddies. I joined those outside and lounged in the sand with the other male members of our tent group. I had a decent conversation with the few souls that were conscious using a combination of my limited Chinese and sign language. We sat there just watching the world go by and waited for yet another wild expedition to commence. There were countless interesting sights to behold – a pair of horses for rent, couples both young an elderly enjoying strolls on the wet sand, Chinese dogs and their owners out for a morning prance about and large tanker ships forming a backdrop in the distance in addition to an oil rig. Along the beach, an endless army of umbrellas had been unfurled for as far as the eye could see. Their ends billowed in the luxurious sea breeze that was refreshing to both body and soul. There were large green fences of nets set up enclosing the swimming areas. As I surveyed the scene, it was apparent that the beach area on which I sat was the place to be for tent camping, there was a mosaic of tents present that featured military styles, tent antiques and modern camping tents. Further away from the water, there was a built up area which consisted of the bunkhouses, restaurants and other warehouse sized buildings of undetermined purposes.

Soon, we were invited into the women’s bunkhouse to freshen up and have a snack-sized breakfast that consisted of packaged bread and sausage. I was last in line for the showers, and unfortunately for me, the hot water had already run out by then. I couldn’t care less though. For me, the experience of being at the beach was enough. As person familiar with camping, I was grateful that I even got the opportunity to have a shower!

One word of advice for travelling in China, you will almost always be guaranteed a culturally rich and unforgettable experience wherever you go. The one thing that you may have to look past though are the facilities which can be quite different from those we are accustomed to in the west. Don’t always expect to be greeted with luxury otherwise you will be sorely disappointed. If western facilities are a must for your comfort, I would recommend that you stick with main tourist sites and not stray far from the beaten path. To truly enjoy travelling in China, a great deal of openness for this unique and rich culture is a necessity. Simply put, if you go around expecting things to be exactly as they are back home, you may find that you are getting easily frustrated and your trip may be ruined by surprisingly small and insignificant things. In short, don’t dive into travel in China with rigid expectations. Rather, be open and savour just how different things are!

After our convoy group was awake and about, it was time to set off on a fishing expedition. We boarded our dustier convoy and rolled out to a fishing area. It was a good thing that all of the vehicles were fuel efficient, none of our cars had to fill up during the entirety of the trip. When we arrived at our fishing hole, the place was already crowded and bustling with cars. As we waiting by our vehicles for a purpose unknown, I pulled out a Chinese hackeysack which one of my colleagues had generously given me the day before. We did our best to keep it up in the air, but none of us were especially talented with this feathery contraption. Soon, nothing was safe from the wrath of the falling hackeysack. It rebounded off the cars in our convey, the occasional unsuspecting head and even hit a passing motorcyclist right in the face. Fortunately for the girl who kicked it at the unfortunate victim, he just kept driving onwards, unfazed, as if nothing had happened. Our games stopped only when the now battered hackeysack fell apart – I kept the feathers for good memories though.

Soon, I found myself walking with the crowd along the concrete pier. Fishing boats puttered off into the distance, and amateur fisherpeople from various walks of life crowded the edges of the pier. The pier was composed of large concrete blocks. One had to be careful as at the center of each concrete cube, a large hole was present and was at least one meter deep. An carelessly placed foot could result in a tragic fall! Nevertheless, people still rode motorized scooters and bicycles along the pier. The crowd of people fishing were infinitely varied. There were well-dressed men in polo shorts and spotless khakis, heavily tattooed teenagers with female friends, grandparents, babies, fashionable and fashionably clueless and just about anyone under the sun was out there casting their lines out into the deep. I saw an endless variety of fishing implements as I walked along – from simple long sticks with strings attached to circular nets suspended from the ends of extendible fishing rods. Our group walked for about fifteen minutes until we stopped by a seemingly random man who showed us a sizeable collection of fish and crabs in a cooler bag. To my surprise, some of the members of our group started picking up his spare equipment and used a collection of our own as we gave fishing a try. The man didn’t seem to mind though, and he was generous both with his advice and assistance as we blundered with the alien contraptions.

Since we had walked so far out, our group were the only fisher-people in the immediate vicinity. Unfortunately, this did not improve our luck though as our attempts at fishing resulted in us emerging empty-handed save a crab or two (and a few crab-pinched fingers). I gave crab fishing a try though when a friend surrendered his net in boredom. I used a contraption which consisted of two iron rings set parallel to each other with netting in the middle section around the outside of the iron rings. A dead fish was suspended at the center and there were four openings which the crabs could easily enter would inhibit their attempts to exit. There was not much magic to this style of fishing except for lucky guesswork as to where to cast the trap and plenty of patience to wait for a crab to crawl into the net and take a few bites at the fish. There were multiple times where the members of our group almost lost our borrowed crab nets as they became lodged underneath the concrete breakwater devices. When this happened, it took a lot of jimmying and patience to get them dislodged from a potentially watery but crab-rich grave.

Soon, our fishing team dwindled in number, as people tired of fishing and headed back our cars. I stayed until the very end, casting my crab net into the deep. Soon, it was past high noon and hunger compelled us straggler fishermen to make our way back to the convoy.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Beach Expedition

One weekend, my colleague generously invited me to go on a beach trip to 乐亭 (Le Ting) with her and the now infamous car club! A work week soon lay behind me and I anxiously waited in the office, aching to embark!

The long awaited moment soon arrived and I hopped in the car with her, her husband and a new friend. We drove into downtown TEDA to eat a quick dinner and pick up some drinks from the Tesco’s for the weekend. If I haven’t made it clear already, Chinese meals are some of the most incredible cultural experiences that one can have in China. Us four dined on an endless variety of food and sipped the sweet sugars of freshly squeezed juice of Papaya, Asian pear and Asian apples for a grand total of under $20 Canadian. I wonder if I’m dreaming at times like these… To pick the food for this meal, we had to head downstairs to a special room where all of the dishes (at least 50!) were on display, wrapped in plastic under the glow of fluorescent lightbulbs. For those who cannot read Chinese, these restaurants are a blessing! After, we returned to the PPG plant for reasons that were unknown to me at the moment. My colleague’s friend ran inside and later emerged with a gigantic Styrofoam cooler. This behemoth was full of lamb kebabs and other meats to tide our car club over for the weekend.

We began what turned out to be a long drive in the late afternoon as the sun began to dip below the horizon. The industrialized landscape of TEDA soon gave way to farmer’s fields and lush greenery as we drove into the distance. The areas surrounding Tianjin are salt flats, and the majority the earth is not arable. However, through cultivation by farmers, greenery can be coaxed from the saline earth. Thus, as one drives through Tianjin, they will stumble upon a checkerboard pattern consisting of miles of uncultivated wasteland that is interspersed with lush green oasis that have been carefully cultivated. Eventually, we reached a toll gate for one of the major highways where we waited for the other members of the car club to materialize out of the dark. Before long, a sizeable convoy of vehicles (at least seven) had pulled up at our meeting place. There were many faces, both those of old friends and new acquaintances at our toll gate gathering. Here, we pooled our money to pay for the accommodations and communal food and laughter was exchanged as our team readied itself for the uncertain journey ahead. My colleague’s car was chosen to be the flagship vehicle as it had a GPS unit and she has been to the beach before.

So off our convoy drove into the dark of night, traversing highways, winding our way through small distant towns and blazing a path into the night on some very very rocky country roads. It appears that a wrong turn was taken at some point along the way as we stopped at a gas station in the middle of endless miles of scrubland to reorient ourselves. We passed few vehicles, only a seldom few personal cars as well as hulking trucks carrying various types of cargo.

Soon after, we appeared to be on the right track as we arrived at our destination within an hour. We parked our cars by what looked like a covered market and discussed what would happen later that evening. It was here that the two way radio system proved invaluable to rally lost cars and make sure that no one strayed too far from the beaten path. Now, I originally thought that our group would be heading to a western style resort of sorts. Fortunately, the night would have some great surprises in store.

Soon I discovered that I would be sharing a tent with some of the other men on our trip, only the female members of the expedition would have a bunkhouse. My visions of decadent beach resorts soon faded, and I was excited to have a real Chinese beach experience. All of the women headed off to settle themselves into the bunkhouse while all of the men in the group marched off to the beach to stake our claim. We carried our belongings with us including the four tents which would house us for the entire weekend.

We started pitching our tents in the black of night, with only two pocket flashlights to illuminate our plight. There was much scrambling in the sand, but our spirits were high, delighted to finally be by the sea. It was a moment of bonding between the men in our group and I was honoured to be included. Using the limited Chinese in my repertoire I communicated what I knew of the topic of tent assembly from my camping experiences back home. It was quite the challenge as one could imagine, and sign language was used more often than words, but we struggled together and soon, the four tents were standing tall against the salt-rich sea breeze. By this time, our stomachs lapped at our consciousness as the sea waves lap the beach so we scrambled to get a portable coal-fired barbeque up and running. The coal bricks we had brought with us failed to light, even after exhausting a whole laundry list of lighting methods. Fortunately, a resourceful fellow paid a street vendor 5 RMB for a pile of burning embers. This helped our barbeque get off to a kick start and soon we were all munching on freshly barbequed lamb skewers. Some of us used the large Styrofoam coolers as makeshift benches. In addition to the meat cooler, another materialized which was full of Chinese beer. While one of the coolers was being used as a bench, it caved in and the poor fellow on top almost found himself skewered – literally!

By the time our bellies were full, sleep tugged hard at our weary eyelids, it was well past 6am and the sky started to lighten in the distance. In the tent, there were neither pillows, sleeping bags nor any forms of camping luxury but I couldn’t care less – all of this was superfluous compared to the experience. I fell fast asleep, with only a thin sheet of plastic between myself and the sand as a gentle see breeze lapped at the tent flaps – free air conditioning. Sometime, in roughing it, the beauty and the joys of the experience are made all the more vibrant!

THANK YOU!!! 谢谢!!!

It has been an eventful 2 months since this blog was born! So far, there have been over 1000 hits on this site, something that I never foresaw happening! Thank you for your readership, continued support and varied comments. Do continue voting in that poll to the left, it is useful for me so that I can gauge what you all would like to see! It is a little bit off that despite over 1000 hits there are only less than 20 votes. Don’t be shy, that poll won’t track your PC or do anything strange like that, I’m not a professional programmer!

I have made a lot of realizations since starting the blog, and over the course of the time that I have been writing this, I have most certainly been changed by my experiences. Know that I write this blog not only for my own purposes but to enrich you the reader. Because of this, please feel free to provide feedback on what more I can do to better serve your interests. That being said, I’m sorry if I cannot fulfill all of your curiosities, but I will do my best to leave no question unanswered.

As my time in China starts drawing to an end, I certainly hope that this blog will not. I will continue to write about China experiences in retrospect, dig through my journal to hash up new entries and start a photo album revealing more of my travels.

Though I soon return to my native land, I plan on coming back as soon as possible. I have fallen head over heels for China, and that is just for the tiny morsel which I have savoured for the past three months. There are a billion different Chinas I have still yet to see. Who knows where my path will soon take me, but I will do my best to write about it here. But once more, thank you, for giving me the support to continue my writing.