Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Very Merry Unbirthday

Monday night, we went out for my belated birthday dinner at a local Turkish restaurant with people from work. Tuesday night was another DisneyEnglish birthday celebration. Wednesday, I took a day trip to Yangzhou. 

Yangzhou is a small town about an hour or so away by train. One of the ATs at work is from there and had given me a short list of things to do while I was there. I arrived and jumped on a bus to the lake. I joined an older Chinese couple and a student named Susan. Susan and I spent have the day exploring the beautiful Slender West Lake Park. The coolest thing I saw there was a piano on wheels. The pianist and his violin playing wife played Hava Nagila at a park in Yangzhou, in China. I was highly amused and pleased. 

Susan and I eventually went to the culture/food street to eat. Although there were more tourist shops than restaurants on that street. Until you got to the Song Dynasty East Gate at the end of the road. After lunch, Susan went to one of the gardens, while I caught a bus back to Nanjing and went to bed very early. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

How About a Change of Scene?

Note: This blog entry will be very, very long. 

I know this blog is supposed to be about life in China. But what's life in a country without a trip outside the country?

I went to Turkey for my birthday. I went with a list of sights my cousin had done with a friend of his in 10 days with the goal of completing all those things in 3.5 days. Mission accomplished. And then some.

After work on Saturday, I took the train to Shanghai to go to the airport for my 1:40am flight. It supposedly took off around 2, but I slept through take-off and most of the flight. After a layover in Moscow, I arrived in Istanbul around 12:45pm on Sunday. My cousin, Marshall, met me at the airport, and took me on the scenic route to my hostel. We saw a fountain the Germans gave the Turks, which they had to build, so it cost them a ton of money; pillars from the Hippdrome (the ancient racetrack that was connected to the Imperial Palace of the Ottoman Empire and now forms the courtyard between the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque) and the Imperial Palace; and the Hagia Sofia (I-ya-sofia). 

The Hagia Sofia is a church that was built by a sultan during the 1500s and it was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman Empire. It is awesomely huge (fact stolen from the Internet: the Statue of Liberty can fit inside with room to spare) and incredibly beautiful. There are mosaics of Christian images and signs in Arabic for prayer, a coronation corner, and much more. Marshall showed me the mosaic of the emperor whose face was changed 3 times as the church was being built (it took so long to build the building, there were 3 emperors) and a Viking's signature, and the wishing hole. Incredible. From there, we went to get my first real Turkish meal - Iskender. Iskender is meat on flat bread with a tomato sauce and yogurt to dip in. It was delicious. We walked up a giant hill to the Galata Tower, but the line to get to the top was longer than we wanted to wait, so we continued on to a synagogue and wandered Istiklal Caddesi (the main street downtown), had some Turkish coffee (so strong and gross), and played backgammon at his favorite hookah bar.

Monday was the big day. I had the free breakfast at the rooftop bar of my hostel - fabulous views by the way - and got ready for the day. On my way out, I met a very nice girl from Morocco, Ines, and we decided to explore together. We started our day at the Blue Mosque (Sultanhamet), a large and imposing mosque across from the Hagia Sofia next to our hostel. Gorgeous. 

Then we stopped at the Basilica Cistern, an underground cistern that was used to collect water during the empires (sorry, I don't know my history of that region as well as I should). One neat thing Marshall had explained was that the pillars all look different, kind of like they had recycled various parts of other pillars to build these. The base of 2 of the pillars were Medusa heads - one sideways, one upside down. No real reason why. Very cool. 

Next we walked across the Galata Bridge, where we saw people fishing. And we climbed the giant hill and went to the top of Galata Tower, were we saw incredible 360 degree views of the city. Istanbul is a city on 2 continents, so we looked over Europe and Asia. And then we got on a boat to Asia. 

We only stopped on the Asian side long enough to buy a boat ticket to the Prince's Islands, where we spent the majority of the afternoon. Prince's Islands are called that because that is where crown princes were sent so they wouldn't kill each other to be crowned sultan. We went to the largest of the islands, Buyukada, had lunch and explored the very expensive looking neighborhood. There are supposedly wild horses on the island, but we didn't get to the right part, though we did see horse drawn carriages. The whole thing was incredibly beautiful. We eventually headed back to the European side and made our way to the Cemberlatis Hamam. 

A hamam is a Turkish bath. You go, take a shower using a bowl in a fountain, then lay on a towel on a hot marble slab until a large Turkish woman (or man, I presume, if you're male), scrapes off your dead skin with a loofa glove. Then you receive a bubble wash, which was really cool because there was a towel-like thing that when dipped in water and shaken turned into a bubble-pillow thing. So cool. After you're rinsed, you go sit in a warm indoor pool. Ines and I decided to splurge on the oil massage too, so then we went for that, which was much more relaxing than Chinese massage. I stole a towel before we went to dinner and a very happy sleep. Ines also gave me a necklace she had from Morocco for my birthday, which I thought was extraordinarily generous of her. I felt slightly guilty accepting it, so I treated to dinner.

Tuesday got off to a bit of a late start. And it got even later after I had to wait in line for a half hour at Dolmabahce (Dole-ma-bah-chee) Palace. Word of advice: Dolmabahce was not on my original sight-seeing list; it had been recommended by a Turkish woman Ines and I had met on the boat the previous day. It is expensive (for Turkish sights), and requires guided tours, and you have to wait around a lot. So I recommend going with an organized tour group (they get priority) or first thing in the morning so you don't waste as much of your day; or skip it. It is very beautiful and ornate, but you barely explore 1/10 of the rooms, and the only super-interesting part of the Harem is that you get to see the room where Ataturk (founder of modern Turkey) died. (He had a short bed with a bedspread that looked like a Turkish flag - there; saved you a trip.) And of course, no pictures allowed in the whole thing. 

From there I headed over to the Egyptian Spice Bazaar. Which, despite the name, has more than just spices. It has candies, sweets, jewelry and other touristy things to buy. I bought some Turkish apple tea that Marshall had gotten me hooked on. (It's not the same.) Then I stumbled into the Grand Bazaar, which is huger than huge. It covers over 10,000 square meters. The covered portion has been around since the 15th century. As not much of a shopper, I was completely overwhelmed by the number of shops and people and I found my out as quickly as possible. I passed by Istanbul University and  arrived at Sulemaniye (sue-le-mon-ee) Mosque. 

I don't know why, but I liked Sulemaniye Mosque better than the Blue Mosque. It is gorgeous, and they provided real scarves at the door if you needed one instead of pieces of cloth. It was also less crowded. I recommend both. Then again, there are lots of other mosques to visit too...

From there, I made a quick stop back at the hostel before catching a bus to meet Marshall at his university for dinner with his friends (2 he met while traveling in Georgia - as in formerly of Russia) and a boat party on the Bosporus to celebrate the end of midterms. Key phrase: a boat party on the Bosporus straits. Between Europe and Asia. At night. We floated past a castle, under a bridge, and we think we saw a dolphin. The stars eventually came out. It was wonderful, to say the least. 

*Addendum - before we got on the boat, we had dinner, a drink, and a waffle. A waffle, though, is not just a waffle. It is like a make your own sundae bar, but instead of ice cream the toppings go on a waffle. Yum!

Finally, it was Wednesday, my last day in Turkey. I got another late start, but spent the morning exploring the Turkey Archaeological Museums. Yes, plural. There is one building of ancient civilizations with the usual museum artifacts - coins, weapons, hieroglyphics, statues, etc; a pavilion of mosaics and pottery; and the third largest building built to house the many sarcophogai found in Sorin, somewhere in that region. Pretty interesting. I enjoyed it. 

Then lunch with Marshall, Leslie, and Bernard (his friends from the previous night) and exploration of the Topkapi (Toe-pa-cop-ee) Palace, which is where all the sultans lived before Dolmabahce was built. It's huge. And much more interesting to explore than Dolmabahce, in a much more leisurely way. Cooler artifacts, too. Unfortunately, we were a little too leisurely and didn't make it in to see the Harem, which are the private rooms of the sultans, but we looked at the book in the gift shop. 

We split up - Leslie and Bernard went to meet another friend of theirs, and Marshall took me to Cemberlatis (chem-burr-lah-tiss) - the burnt column. It once held a statue of Constantine, which was knocked down by a hurricane, later replaced by a cross, which removed by the Ottomans, and later the column was burnt by a fire. If you look at it from a certain angle, it looks like it's wobbling and about to fall down, but you can be sure from it's history that you're safe. 

Finally, I went to see a performance of Whirling Dervishes. A dervish is like a Muslim friar; someone on a spiritual path. They wear big hats and long white robes and whirling dervishes is a ceremony (and now a tourist attraction) where they spin in circles from a symbolic state of non-existence to one of existence. The music and spinning is extremely calming and mesmerizing. In the introduction they wish the audience a "peaceful spectacle". 

After that, I picked up my bag from the hostel and met with Marshall for some final non-Chinese foods. We took the Tunel - an underground train to get up the hill by Galata Tower - and walked along Istiklal to get some food souvenirs for my co-workers. Then we had a food parade to finish as much of Marshall's suggested food list as we could before I had to leave for my flight. 

I flew/slept through Thursday and arrived in Nanjing to go to work on Friday. It was a wonderfully fantastic week!

Friday, April 13, 2012

A Spoonful of Sugar

We started reciting this at lunch yesterday. Who knows why.

But little weekend trips are like medicine; they make things better. Not that they're bad. Anyway, this weekend, I went back to Suzhou. This time I went with Laura and Karen, and we stayed in a lovely little hostel on a historic street by a canal. Very quiet and pretty. After we arrived on Tuesday and checked in, we found lunch at a little dumpling place and ordered what the waiter/owner recommended, very helpful since we couldn't read the menu. 3 kinds of dumplings later and we split up to do some sight-seeing, since it was their first visit and my second. I headed south from where we were and went to see twin pagodas that someone had built for their teacher, a garden, and the southern scenic area. It was mostly sunny, so it was nice to walk around and sit by the water in the garden. The scenic area (Pan Men) had a pagoda to climb which supposedly had a great view of the city. So I splurged the extra 6RMB ($1) and decided to climb. They were the narrowest most steep stairs ever in a pagoda, and I actually had to duck my head between levels. Also, you can only climb to the 4th of 7 floors, so I don't know if I'd recommend it, but the view was nice enough. I kept walking along, climbed the wall, which is a land and water gate; I think it said the only one in China. By this time it was starting to rain, so I headed back to meet the girls for dinner. We had some more dumplings, went back to the hostel, realized how early it was, and went for some tea at a teahouse down the street from our hostel on the canal. Delicious.
Courtyard outside our hostel door
Twin Pagodas built for a teacher

Master of Nets Garden
PanMen Scenic Area

Ruigong Pagoda
Some of the steps in Ruigong Pagoda

The next day, we were debating what to do and eventually decided to take a bus trip to Tongli, a water town a bit outside Suzhou. We had heard it was beautiful; I had heard it was a place that offered to for a temple stay; and we had heard there was a sex museum. When we got there, we had our tickets to enter the city, which included some gardens and historic halls, no boat ride on the canals in the water town. It was a bit, very touristy, and I only recommend it if you get there very early to do more of the sights. From the bus station, we took an electric cart ride for 2RMB to the old town's entrance, went to a garden. It was a meditation garden but there were 1 or 2 schools on field trips there, so it was not so peaceful. Fortunately while we were there, someone informed us about a better garden (much nicer and quieter), and we walked there. Then we went to the China Sex Museum. It was surprisingly interesting in an informative and educational way, though it had some fun statues as well. It's the only one in China, and tells about the history of sex and how it progressed. 
Garden in Tongli
The red things are prayers or wishes for  ancestors at a temple in Tongli garden

Statue in China Sex Museum
You don't see that every day

Then we had dinner, caught the bus back to Suzhou and the train back to Nanjing. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Today is Tomb Sweeping Day, when Chinese people take care of the graves of their ancestors to show respect, bringing foods, burning fake money to provide for them. They also visit graves of significant historical people or of people who died in big events in China's past. Because of this, I had a real weekend - Saturday and Sunday off to make up for the schedule change related to the holiday.
Fake money for sale to burn for Tomb Sweeping Day
Friday before work, I went to lunch with a couple of girls from work, and we ordered somethings from the pictures on the menu. Then the restaurant gave us complimentary turtle soup. We tried to tell them we didn't order it, until they insisted it was free. One of the girls got so sick she had to leave the restaurant; the other one and I tried it. It was fishy. 

Saturday and Sunday were beautiful. Megan and I saw a dog show on our way to go paddle-boating on the lake, and then we ended up going in a circle for a half an hour. Afterwards, we had dinner and met up with people to go out for the night. Sunday, I had brunch with a non-Disney friend and relaxed in the afternoon. I went to dinner with another FT, and we had steak. Real steak. I had a yummy 3 course meal for 59RMB (about $10). The manager gave us his card so we would come back again.