Tuesday, October 31, 2006

I hate to admit it, but my blogging ambitions have been falling short of their goals recently. The longer I’ve been on this trip, the harder it seems to keep an up-to date journal. I’d like to think that this is a reflection of my adaptation process – the more I get used to life in China, the less interesting my writing material seems to become…to me, at least. Regardless, looking back on the last five weeks, since the Carleton seminar began, there have been quite a few noteworthy experiences. I’ll do my best to recount the highlights and get us up to date here.

After meeting up with the Carleton group at the Beijing airport, we moved into what amounted to a hotel at Tsinghua University, the number two university in China. The four days we spent in Beijing were meant as an acclimatization period for the group, to get everyone’s feet wet in a somewhat stable environment. For me, however, it was a chance to meet up with every one I had met who was still studying in the Capitol. This didn’t afford me much rest, but it did mean getting to see Claire and her mother at a Hunan restaurant, my old roommate, who is now Ashton’s, and all the old CET people still studying, as well as some random people from high school whom I haven’t seen in a few years.

We then set off northbound on a huge double-decker bus for a tour of Chengde and Inner Mongolia. This was the “greeting the dragon” portion of our program, as termed by our ever-poetic program director (and my academic advisor), Zhao, in honor of whom this blog was titled. We stopped halfway on the ride to Chengde to see a portion of the Great Wall. After seeing one of the more touristy restored sections at Mutianyu, I was a bit wary of just how much else this section at Jinshanling had to offer. As soon as we were given the option to explore the restored sections or venture into the crumbling remains of the old wall, I was proven wrong. Luckily, only three of us decided to take the wall-less traveled, and it was definitely a highlight of my trip so far. We walked for about 1.5 hours out, and then back, negotiating steep, overgrown sections and stair-less entrances to guard towers. It wasn’t long before we were greeted by a sign notifying us that we were entering a “military restricted zone,” but we pretended not to notice and pushed onward The scenery was absolutely beautiful, and having the wall all to ourselves for a few hours was quite an amazing experience.

We continued on to Chengde, home of the Imperial Summer Lodge (a misnomer – it is several times larger than the main palace in Beijing, the Forbidden City). The night we arrived, we were treated to our first formal banquet of the program. I had heard from many past Tianjin Seminar participants that this program was notable mainly for the seemingly endless guanxi network of our leader, Zhao, and for the baijiu-saturated banquets that came along with it. Guanxi refers to one’s connections between other people. If someone has guanxi with another, it means there is a strong, favor-based bond between the two. More specifically, apparently, it dmeans that 26 foreign students will be greeted by a room full of local Party officials and a crew of media correspondents for dinner at the Summer Lodge. The mayor of Chengde, among others, were in attendance, which made for an interesting speech (in Chinese, of course) on my part in front of flashing cameras and videocameras. I didn’t have much prepared for the event, but I somehow pulled it off, and I’ve now developed a sort of routine for this sort of occasion.

We spent three days in Chengde before moving on to the remote province of Inner Mongolia. The excitement was palpable on the bus during the 6-hour trip north to the grasslands, and the two days we spent in the area were, although brief, as fun and bizarre as expected. The first night, we stayed in a hotel that transformed quite nicely into a bonfire-lit karaoke party. We knew they were preparing roast lamb for us, so no one was too surprised upon seeing a whole, skinned animal sizzling on a massive spit. We did not, however, expect the hotel staff to set up a massive speaker system, blaring Chinese/English line-dancing songs, and a full karaoke catalog (with a TV for the words, of course). That night, 26 foreign students danced, sang, ate and drank late into the cold, steppe night by the glow of a massive bonfire.

The next day, driving further into the grasslands, we made a stop to have the requisite Mongolian horse riding experience. Ours was brief and fairly contrived, but fun nonetheless. We ploughed further yet, eventually arriving at our home for the night: a small village of yurts. These were tourist yurts, and were thus equipped with a limited supply of electricity and running water, but real, felt, Mongolian yurts nonetheless. We spent the afternoon walking around the grasslands, meandering from one hilltop to another. This was definitely the Inner Mongolia I had in mind, and it was very refreshing to breathe unspoiled air after a summer of city-hopping.

Thanks for reading, I'm gonna get this thing up to date real soon, so check back!