Couchsurfing in China: Yingtian Pagoda

One evening in Shaoxing, we pretended like it was not raining and made our way to Tashan Park to see Yingtian Pagoda. After browsing the market, we walked through the beautifully landscaped and peaceful park, climbing the hill to the entrance of the pagoda.

These two were ready for the rain. Could they be any cuter?
These two were ready for the rain. Could they be any cuter?

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We paid the small entrance fee, noting that, according to the posted hours, we had at least an hour to explore the pagoda and surrounding area.

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And that’s when the small Chinese man started chasing us. Literally, he followed us the entire time, rushing us through the levels of the pagoda. “Kuài diǎn, kuài diǎn!” he repeated, assuming that I would understand what he was saying and adding hand signals for emphasis. “Hurry up, hurry up!” may have been what he said, but I am fairly certain what he meant was “I am lazy and want to go home early today, so hurry up even though these stairs were built for skinny people and you will barely fit.” He was very insistent.

I'm pretty sure "stairs" this steep and narrow should not actually be considered stairs. It is a miracle that I did not fall, especially because I was literally being chased.
I’m pretty sure “stairs” this steep and narrow should not actually be considered stairs. They were more of a stair/ladder hybrid. It is a miracle that I did not fall, especially because I was being chased.

Despite being rushed, I still took time to admire the intricate details of the pagoda’s construction.

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Even more incredible were the views of Shaoxing from the higher levels.

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I think the Chinese man was annoyed that I took so many pictures. Sometimes, I may have intentionally slowed down the picture taking process. Or taken more pictures than strictly necessary. Because I paid my entrance fee, dang it.

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After being hurried through the pagoda and exiting at least 30 minutes before closing time, the doors were locked behind us.

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Perhaps the visit Yingtian Pagoda was a bit shorter than planned, but pictures and memories last forever. After all, it’s not every day one is chased through the steep, increasingly narrow stairs of a Chinese pagoda.

 

 

Couchsurfing in China: Transportation Talk

Let’s talk transportation. While in China, I had the life-threatening experience opportunity to use many different modes of movement to get from point A to point B. I already wrote a bit about the private car that was hired to pick me up from the airport. I did not, however, share my immediate fear upon the car moving into traffic. It was like there were no rules. As if lanes and traffic signals were mere suggestions.

It was terrifying.

Whether travelling by bus or by taxi, using transportation was terrifying.

This is what it feels like to ride in a vehicle in China
This is what it feels like to ride in a vehicle in China

Because both driver’s licenses and cars are complicated and expensive to purchase, personal cars are a luxury. On the other hand, buses and taxis are inexpensive and e-bikes (short for electronic bicycles) are unregulated. As in you do not need a license to drive one. Just let that sink in for a moment. The point is, the average person uses some combination of walking, bicycles/e-bikes, and public transportation supplemented with taxis to get around. I used each of these while in China, although unfortunately because I took a private car to and from Shanghai, the one way I did not get to travel was by train.

On Sunday, we took a bus to nearby Keqiao for a Sunday meeting with friends.

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Between waiting on the bus, spending time with friends, taking a bus to get to a lunch spot, and taking yet another bus back, the entire day felt like it was spent waiting or riding on a bus.

These two provided plenty of entertainment while waiting for the bus.
These two provided plenty of entertainment while waiting for the bus.

I appreciated how fortunate I am to have a car, which I can use to go places without consulting a bus schedule or standing in the sun waiting (an hour…) for the next bus to arrive. Although there was fresh pineapple while waiting.

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Pineapple makes everything better.

I got to have the standing-room-only-balancing-next-to-someones-armpit-packed-bus experience. Sadly, the bus was so tightly packed that I could not get to my camera in order to document the moment. That was one of the times when I felt like I was truly in China – trying to look out the window at unfamiliar scenery, squished into a crowd of people speaking a language I did not understand, but among who, for once in my life, I did not feel especially short.

In addition to the city buses on Sunday, we also took an intercity bus from Shaoxing to Hangzhou later in the week. It was quite comfortable and I enjoyed the change of scenery from city to country and back to city during the drive.

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Junie looking out the window at the country houses
Junie looking out the window at the country houses

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Seats were individually purchased, so everyone had a place to sit. Seats were ostensibly also assigned, although people seemed to generally sit where they wanted. During the drive, I found it most helpful to look out the window and attempt to ignore moments like this…

This was not a picture from the bus, but is representative of the experience.
This was not a picture from the bus, but is representative of the experience.

And this…

We are not actually in a lane of traffic
We are not actually in a lane of traffic

Diaphragmatic breathing was also useful to manage the rising panic I intermittently felt.

As a side note, China is a cash-based society. So do not expect to be able to use a credit card, at least not outside of a major city. To take any form of transportation required cash. At any given time, I was carrying between 500 and 1000 yuan. Although that was not an especially large amount of money, there was something quite satisfying about pulling out multiple 100 yuan bills. Most taxi rides to the places we went in Shaoxing seemed to cost around 10 yuan (1.50), even with multiple people in the car. If I remember correctly, the individual bus rides within Shaoxing were a few yuan at most and the bus to Hangzhou cost 25 yuan each way.

And then there is the e-bike – the family vehicle of China.

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Obviously.

Bicycles and e-bikes (motorcycles are not allowed within Shaoxing) are common enough to have their own dedicated lanes and own traffic suggestions laws.

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Parking lots looked like this.

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The e-bike was perhaps my favorite way of getting around Shaoxing, although I may have felt differently if the weather had been cooler or rainier during my trip.

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Although fun, there was a bit of an adjustment period during which my bum was rather sore. And wearing a skirt while riding the e-bike definitely took some skills (thanks, Candi, for loaning me the pair of tights). Oh, and my hair generally looked a bit like this.

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Scooters were also a viable option for getting around campus.
Scooters were also a viable option for getting around campus.

And last, but not least, and certainly not least weird – there was time we accepted a ride from a random stranger. Yes, that is correct. One evening when we needed to get back to the bus station in Hangzhou, seemingly every taxi in the city already occupied due to rush hour traffic, a random guy on his way home from work pulled over and offered us a ride. For a price, of course. For several yuan and tense minutes of uncertainty about the future of our organs, five adults and two children piled into a red, 4-door sedan and trusted that we would end up where we wanted to go.

Whether by foot or by taxi, by bus or by e-bike, I loved the opportunity to explore a new place. The occasional terror I experienced while doing so just added to the adventure.

Couchsurfing in China: Shopping

I cannot believe it has already been a month since I left for one of my favorite trips ever. I loved so many things about my time in China, but one of my favorite aspects was getting a glimpse into day-to-day life. I certainly had the opportunity to do a bit of sightseeing, but I also had the unique experience of living with Candi and Justin for a week.

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In case you are curious, I did literally sleep on the couch.

For instance, I had the opportunity to join Candi for Saturday grocery shopping. Unsurprisingly, the shopping experience differed considerably from my typical shopping trip at home.

Perishable items, like fruits and vegetables, are bought frequently throughout the week and consumed within a day or two. Thus, when shopping in China, it is important to know where your closest fruit stand is located. Candi’s fruit stand of choice was located across the street from the university and was a spot we visited multiple times during the week.

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Although fruits and vegetables were readily available, buying other groceries took a bit more effort. I will talk more about the varied and sometimes frightening forms of transportation I used in another post, but for now, suffice it to say that we used the e-bike to visit stores in multiple parts of town in order to get everything Candi needed for the week. In case you are wondering, an e-bike does not have a trunk. As we shopped, we had to become increasingly creative about fitting the accumulated bags into and on the e-bike.

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We visited a couple of stores in order for me to shop for gifts, before visiting the foreign food market located in Shaoxing’s new InTime City mall.

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Of course foreign food means anything not from China, so that’s where Candi can find things like parmesan cheese, salsa, and non-meat-flavored tortilla chips. And apparently bad coffee, as well. Frozen durian and “chicken paws” were also available, just in case one’s supply was running low.

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We did not have time to make it to the large Auchan supermarket, where Candi frequently shops, but I could not miss checking out Walmart. Walmart was located amid many other buildings, just one more of thousands of businesses that interminably intermingle in the chaos of the city.

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These lockers were to store previous purchases while shopping - bags couldn't exactly just be left sitting outside on an e-bike!
These lockers were to store previous purchases while shopping – bags couldn’t exactly just be left sitting outside on an e-bike!

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Once in the store, it was hardly recognizable as a Walmart. Rather than the characteristic white and blue signs, bright red and yellow signs highlighted low prices and sales. There were live fish and the meat was recognizable as the animal from whence it came with hair still attached. There were open bins of rice and giant bottles of oil next to rows of instant noodles and snacks that I did not even recognize as such. It was fascinating and, to be completely honest, sometimes a bit disgusting.

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In addition to grocery shopping, Candi took me to one of the fabric markets to get a custom made qipao. A qipao, pronounced chi-pow, is a traditional Chinese dress, although I wanted a shirt rather than a dress.

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Picking out the fabric
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And choosing a pattern

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After I chose a lovely silk fabric and the pattern I desired, my measurements were carefully taken. The entire time, I imagined the tailor secretly judging my large American proportions.

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I quickly got over any self-consciousness when I was told the price – 200 yuan, the equivalent of $30. Thirty dollars for a custom, silk qipao! Although this tailor seemed to specialize in qipaos, there were multiple vendors who could seemingly make just about anything.

Me wearing my qipao
Me wearing my qipao

Elsewhere in Shaoxing, remnants of fabric were piled high, waiting to be waded through and chosen.

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It often seemed as if stores or vendors selling a particular product, such as fabric or electronics, were grouped together. So rather than going to one place to get everything, one would end up going to multiple parts of town in order to buy different items. The mall was perhaps the exception to this. I again noticed this while walking through Tashan Market on a rainy weeknight. Although everything from Hello Kitty bags to intricately carved wooden furniture to puppies was being sold, the market seemed to primarily focus on plants and “antiques.”

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Junie especially enjoyed the purple flowers.

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Jobie especially enjoyed the fish and turtles.

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Shopping in Shaoxing was a fun experience. It also reminded me to appreciate that when I want groceries, furniture, flowers, and new clothes, I do not have to drive to multiple stores within a city. I simply have to drive to Target, even if it is an hour away.

 

Couchsurfing in China: Taking a Shower in China

When I last left off in the story of my recent trip to China, I was looking forward to taking a shower. Like really looking forward to taking a shower. A long, hot, luxurious shower. Oh how naïve I was. As if it would be that simple. I was soon to learn that taking a shower in China was a bit more complicated than I expected.

  1. Get over my initial shock that there was not an actual shower. Bathrooms (or water closets – WCs – as they are more commonly called) are typically tile rooms without separate showers. Rather there is a showerhead and a hole in the floor. Right next to the toilet.
  2. Turn on the heat lamp and/or radiator because otherwise it will be freezing.
  3. Don’t forget to wear shower sandals!!
  4. Turn on the water, but not too hot because the hot water heater is tiny and the hot water will not last for long. Oh and remember that the hot and cold are backwards.
  5. Shower quickly.
  6. Squeegee the floor. Because it is not designed to drain.
  7. Try to get my clothes on without getting them wet. The floor is not actually dry; there is just no longer standing water.
  8. Begin to daydream about the long, hot, luxurious shower I will have when I am back home the following week.

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Okay, so perhaps it was not quite as bad as all that. And it was far from the worst conditions in which I have showered. Although squeegee-ing was involved. As was a heat lamp and some creative moves in order to get dressed.

My experience taking a shower the first night served as a metaphor for many of my experiences in China. Sometimes it was confusing, or uncomfortable, or made no sense. But that is the charm and the challenge of China. It was not always an easy place to be. In fact, there were many difficult moments. And yet those moments somehow made the trip better.

Of course, I was also fortunate to be hosted by people who live there, who know what they’re doing, and who speak the language. They were wonderful and made my time in China rather simple, all things considered.

And yet, there were many moments where the only appropriate response was to say, “It’s China.” Often said with mild befuddlement and a hint of exasperation, the phrase perfectly captures the incongruities between visiting China and being accustomed to life in the US. My friends introduced me to the phrase almost immediately upon my arrival.

Another example of “It’s China” moments included the toilet situation. Specifically the “squatty potties.” They are exactly what they sound like – essentially holes in the floor over which one much squat.

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Oh, and they are BYOTP. When out in public, I could generally expect that going to the bathroom would be eventful. That is, if I could find the bathroom and subsequently determine which side was the women’s restroom in the first place. Because sometimes there were no symbols. Rather, some bathrooms were marked solely by Chinese characters, none of which I recognized. There is a certain level of trust involved when walking into what you have been told is the women’s restroom.You know how sometimes restaurants will have creative ways of delineating which restroom is for which gender and despite the fact that you check at least three times before walking into what you are 99% sure is the correct restroom you still feel afraid that you will, in fact, walk into the incorrect restroom so you feel tense and sort of use your peripheral vision to determine whether you were correct (oh good, no urinals)? Yeah, it was like that, except worse.

On another note, I had been warned that I might get some attention simply for not being Chinese. There were certainly moments when I felt a bit like a celebrity. For instance, when a stranger would ask to take a picture with me, an experience that was both awkward and weirdly fun. But nothing prepared me for the amount of attention that Jobie and Junie received in public. Yes, they are two very cute children, but seriously, they could draw a crowd just by showing up.

This entire crowd of people gathered to watch the kids. And take pictures and videos of them.
This entire crowd of people gathered to watch the kids. And take pictures and videos of them.

Jobie and Junie would even receive gifts from strangers, such as apples.

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Just as the children received the most attention, children were also the most likely to openly stare or come up to speak to us in order to practice their English phrases.

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Short version, if you want to know what it is like to feel famous…

Then there were the things that were just, um, interesting.

Like fruit grown to have a face
Like fruit grown to have a face
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And smoothies that came in baby bottles

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And a final, and much less energetic, example: The Great Coffee Shortage of 2015. Coffee is not exactly a hot commodity in China, tea being the beverage of choice. During my visit, the place that Candi usually buys her coffee, Starbucks, was OUT OF COFFEE BEANS. Yes, I was that upset at the possibility of not having morning coffee. We randomly tried another brand that we found in the foreign food market, but it was rather inadequate. And by inadequate I mean it tasted like an herbal tea and both Candi and I had headaches by 9 am due to caffeine insufficiency. Thankfully, we learned that the less than ideal coffee was able to make a decent Thai iced coffee when copious amounts of ground coffee beans were made into a coffee concentrate. Although I imagine most things taste better with the addition of sweetened condensed milk.

I loved my time in China. Even in the baffling, confusing, and uncomfortable moments (side note: uncomfortable is an understatement when it comes to describing a caffeine headache) I was fascinated and enthralled. I would endure weeks of WC showers and squatty potties and awkward celebrity if it meant more time to explore China. Although perhaps I would draw the line at days of bad coffee. Even so, sometimes the only thing to do was shrug my shoulders and say, “It’s China!”