Archive for April, 2007

Summer has arrived

April 26, 2007

We finally are having some nice warm days here and we can wear short sleeves instead of winter jackets against the cold. The sun is shining, the lawn on Campus is turning green and bushes are blooming.

Blooming apricot tree
Blooming apricot tree, photo taken on the trip to Chengde.

A few weeks ago we already had some trees blooming in front of our faculty building, but by now it finally stayed warm for not only a few days. But the Chinese told us, that right now the weather is still enjoyable, in the summer it will be burning hot. Nonetheless, the transmission from winterly cold to warm was quite short. “In Beijing spring and fall are not very long”, said a Chinese friend lately, and she definitely was right.
But there is going to be a problem for Chinese, especially girls: The beauty ideal is to have white skin. So you can buy all kinds of whitening sunscreen and people avoid being in the sun for too much time. When I went for a walk with my language exchange partner at Weiming Lake, it was hard to find a place to sit in the shade – the ones in the sun were all empty although it was not that hot, so that one could not stand sitting there. It’s just that Chinese are afraid to get sun-tanned.

Last year when I was in Taiwan, it was much hotter than it is right now and some people even wore a jacket when they went across the street to buy something to eat – just to not get any rays of the sun reaching their arms. Another phenomenon is using an umbrella against the sun. I have already seen some in Beijing, but not as many as I had seen in Taiwan. Well, I think there might be more when it’s getting hotter in the city. I’ve also seen some students using books as a replacement for a parasol: They just hold the book over the face – looks a little funny to my eyes.

Summer scene on campus of Beijing University
Scene on Campus of Beijing University.

As the temperatures were rising I also thought that it was time for a hair cut. Other students have become a regular customer to hairdressers and have tried all kinds of different hair styles already. This is quite cheap compared to German prices, today I paid 10 yuan (1 Euro). Well, I guess I looked somewhat like I needed a haircut, because when I got to the hairdressing and massage shop today, the person opening the door was simply asking me “lifa?” (“Haircut?”)…

Tomorrow I will buy a monthly ticket for the summer palace (颐和园, Yiheyuan). It’s just 33 Yuan (ca. 3,30 Euro) and will be valid throughout May. This student price is relatively cheap as the park is one of Beijing’s most visited tourist attractions, but the ticket can only be bought during the last few days of the months before and requires a photo as well as a valid student ID. Since from our university it less than 10 minutes by bike, I hope I will have a lot of chances to go and enjoy the park either by walking or just to relax.

However, I guess next week won’t be too relaxing: Despite having next week off because of the May holiday, I will hit the road to travel along with some 150 million Chinese. We already booked the rooms where we are going to stay, but the train for the way back might be tricky. Without some “special relations” it is only possible to buy the tickets four days in advance and the tickets for the long distance trains usually are sold out very fast. But I’m very confident that we will get back to Beijing – the one way or the other!

Wei? – Cell phones in China

April 23, 2007

The Chinese call the cell phones 手机 – shouji, translated literally it would be “hand device”, so kind of close to the German “handy”. It seems like everybody in town has such a “移动电话” (yidong dianhua, portable phone, their official name but that name seems to be way to long so nobody uses it) to stay in contact with family, friends, colleagues or business partners. You can see them everywhere and using them is relatively cheap, over here I just pay a fraction of the fees I would have to pay in Germany. In all parts of China I have been to so far, the reception is quite well, some remote villages even only do have a cell phone connection because it would be more expensive to connect the village by wire.

When I first got to Beijing I bought a SIM card, or “SIM ka” as the Chinese say. When it comes to pick your number it really matters if you believe in the Chinese meanings of the numbers. It’s cheap to buy a number that contains a lot of “4”s and expensive to get a number with a lot of “8”s. When buying the card I did not expect that even in the official shops of large company such as “China Mobile” it is common to bargain. Just when I went with my friend the other day they wanted a higher price for the exact same card that I had. When I explained that I had paid less, they gave us a better price without any discussion (so it probably was still too high).

Chinese text message
Chinese text message.

Luckily my phone can display Chinese text messages. My friends who took their cell phones from Germany can’t read those messages that are quite popular here. But I only have that considerable cheap, no name phone which was made in China. So although I cannot use it to write text messages, I can at least read them.

Other friends bought a new cell phone here, but when buying a brand phone one has to pay attention whether it really is made by this company or if there’s only a Chinese company “lending” the company’s brand name. Those phones are also sold in regular shops, when we asked at one shop about the cheapest cell they had they even told us, that it’s “not a real Nokia.”

One of the most frequent words used by Chinese when talking on the phone is “wei” (喂). It is a replacement for “Hello” as well as for “Can you hear my now?” (Is this commercial still on TV in the US?!) Chinese also assume that it’s hard to understand them when the other person on the phone cannot be clearly understood. So people often shout at their phone that loud that I sometimes asked myself why they are not simply using the shouting to communicate…
So when walking through the city or a park or sitting in a train – by now I am used to the ringing of a cell phone and the shouting that follows afterwards.

“Communism is our official religion” – A Christian service in China

April 22, 2007

One Chinese friend told me a few days ago: “Communism is our official religion. Actually, most Chinese do not have a religious belief, while more and more Chinese got to know and accept Christ. ” Well, I think this number still must be very small, but I met about 70 or so this morning. The Christian service I attended with my Chinese friend was hold in a conference room in the eighth floor of a conference center. There were all kinds of people there: children, students, workers, at least one currently unemployed, elderly people – although their background is so different, they themselves said they simply are one family.

The service was very emotional, after wishing the persons sitting around oneself a good morning (“zao”), we started singing songs to praise God. They had a video projector so I could follow the text that was not too hard to read because the few lines were simply repeated several times. Everyone joined the singing, was clapping hands and the atmosphere was really relaxed (轻松 “qingsong”).

After this opening, a bible text was read out aloud and repeated by the attendees, the priest started a lengthy preaching speech. I used some jokes and everybody followed his words attentively, but it was relatively complex (somehow about why it is impossible to directly hear or see God) so at some point I could not follow any more because I did the words he was using. Some of the students were eagerly taking notes – their strong believe in Jesus was perceive.

Then followed a flash-video presentation (that had it’s origin not in mainland, I’m pretty sure of, because it only had English captions and in not-simplified characters not commonly used in mainland China) and another emotional speech that even made some people start crying. As the the speaker was among the crying people I did not understand more than a few words.

In the end newcomers had to introduce themselves in front of this audience (er, I did not really had a clue what to say…). When I thought we were over, and people were just going to have some kind of small-talk or a little chat I suddenly realized that the small groups that were building up were meant to discuss the group member’s individual problems with the group and pray for them. At that point I really did not to know what to say, especially because the others were referring to parts of the priest’s speech – I had did not really understand it. After the others said that my Chinese was really good, I kind of was forced to say something, so I once again introduced myself and basically said that I did not have any sincere problems that I want the others to pray for…

Although according to my friend there had been some foreigners taking part in the group’s activity, today I was the only one and therefore somehow stuck out. One little child afterwards spotted me, pointed with the finger at me and said “Waiguoren” (Chinese for foreigner). This situation has happened to me before quite a few times so I was not surprised by the child’s words, but rather by the short dialogue that followed:
Mother: 他是一个朋友。 (He is a friend)
Child: 如果他是朋友的话,我为什么没见过他?(If he is a friend, then why haven’t I seen him before?)
Mother: 因为他跟妈妈一样,今天第一次来。(Because today he came for the first time, just as your mother)
So I guess you would become a friend and “family member” really fast. But do I want to become a family member?!

After the whole procedure which took some two or three hours I had lunch with my friend. While I was told that the members are happy that their organization is not forbidden by the government, I was thinking how I could kindly decline a possible request that I should regularly attend the service in the future…

Beijingers training etiquette for the Olympics

April 17, 2007

I just read an interesting article on how to prepare the Chinese for international guests during the 2008 Olympic games. According to the article curb public spitting, public cursing and littering are the main problems in Beijing, as well as a missing consciousness to properly line up and signs that badly translated into English.

I would agree that Beijing is a city where you every day see somebody who noisily spits on the street or at other places. I’ve even seen people spitting in a restaurant. During the first days I was shocked, but by know I guess I’m used to it – I was re-alerted again to this special behavior just when someone from Germany paid a visit and was new to this way of Beijing’s mostly male spitters.
A reason for spitting might be the dirty, dry air which might have some impact on the production of spit, but foreign visitors during the Olympics might still be offended.
There are some signs telling you not to spit, but so far this is limited only to certain places and has only shown little success.

No spitting
A “No spitting” sign in China. (By Harald Groven, released under CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Another problem mentioned is the the lacking awareness to line up in Beijing. This phenomenon can be seen at various places: At subway stations, where everybody wants to get in the train even before other passengers had a chance to get off (I guess that traffic in general is a place where everybody is trying hard to push forward as fast as possible), at the cafeterias on Campus (well, it’s okay if you are able to maintain your position once you lined up) and so on.
At other places however, the Chinese aren’t too bad: Although the lines at the train station often reach 20 people in front of each counter, there is not jumping the queue.
There has been an official “queuing day” on the 11th every month, but so far I have not noticed any change (even on April 11, but I probably wasn’t in one of those lines where volunteers were telling people about the special day).

I don’t know about the public cursing mentioned in the article. It’s a little strange to watch Chinese use their cell phone: If the connection is not very good (or in cases where the other person is far away, who knows), Chinese start to shout when on the phone. It’s not that they are having an argument, it’s more that they want to make sure that the words are not lost on the way to their dialog partner.

The translation of some signs might be funny, some is simply not to understand if you don’t know Chinese. So you might order a “crap” dish instead of a “crab” dish or a sign on a mountain path warns you of slips (“Caution, slip”). But this is a large topic, I might want to write about it separately another day.

Yet another travel report – Chengde and the Great Wall

April 16, 2007

Great Wall at Jinshanling
The Great Wall at Jinshanling.

This was my third travel weekend in a row, I guess that’s why I haven’t seen many sights in Beijing yet. This weekend I traveled in a large group as about 70 of the German students joined the trip to see Chengde and the Great Wall. Since we were such a large group, we traveled with two coach buses and had all the sightseeing planned beforehand. Therefore we did not need to think about which places to go to like during my trips to Shanghai and Taishan when we were only a small group. But on the other hand, we could not decide to spend how much time at each sight and when to take a little rest.

The tourguide told us some interesting facts about Chengde and it’s temples and history as imperial summer residence town during the Qing dynasty. Unfortunately she was telling some information well known to us about three times during our two-an-a-half-day-trip, so it was sometimes hard to listen – but at least we were allowed to leave the group and discover the sights on our own.

Protect the green Great Wall
Sign in front of the “real” Great Wall to prevent forest fires and save the “Green Great Wall”.

The first sight we saw, was the Great Wall – not the actual Great Wall but the “Green Great Wall” just after we left Beijing. This is a large forest program to prevent sand storms and desertification. Therefore thousands of trees were planted in file, all of the same kind – so one can only hope that there is not a pest harming this monoculture. A big problem for this plantation is the lack of water in this region. We crossed large riverbeds with rivers not carrying any water at all, the fields were all dusty and no plants are growing yet. I wonder when they start to seed or plant on the brown, dry land.
Another enemy of the Green Great Wall is fire. Everywhere one could see fires to prevent fire disasters and to save and value the environment.

Temple and sparse fields near Chengde
Temple and sparse fields near Chengde.

The “real” Great Wall” was impressive: It reached until the horizon, it was impossible to imagine how the stones have all been brought here centuries ago. The part we visited at Jinshanling was renovated, however most parts of the Wall encounter a creeping destruction, either by nature or by people who have been using it as resource for stones after the Wall was not needed anymore for defensive purposes.

The next day we had the “full Chengde tour,” consisting of a visit to the most famous temples and the imperial summer residence. In the morning we first went to Puning temple (普寧寺) that differs from the temples I had seen before, because it was built in Tibetan style. For example there were prayer wheels and a lot of colored banners flying in the wind. The Guanyin statue inside the temple was huge (actually it is the largest wooden Buddhist statue in the world). Unfortunately the importance of this temple for tourists made the temple loose some of it’s spirit: The Buddhist monks are playing instruments for you after you made a “donation” and even worse – there is a whole street of stands where tourist bits and pieces are sold and money is asked for fishy performances.

The second large temple we visited that morning shows the Chinese’ ability to copy – in Chengde they copied the famous Potala palace in Lhasa. But is not a tourist trap – it was copied for emperor Qianlong’s sixtieth birthday in 1761. Although it is smaller than the original in Tibet (there it was intended as palace for the Dalei Lama) it is still very impressive. Ten years after the Potala palace, the Panchen Lama’s temple was also copied and build in Chengde, right next to the duplicate of Potala.

Potala in Chengde
The Potala Palace – not in Lhasa but in Chengde.

In the afternoon we toured Bishu shanzhuang – the summer resort of the Qing emperors. It is larger than the summer palace in Beijing, but while the summer palace features a lot of buildings with a nice view on the lake, most of Chengde’s summer residence seems to consist from forest. Nonetheless, we it was recognized as UNESCO cultural heritage site, maybe also because of it’s historical importance as international guest were welcomed here and treaties were signed.
We had great views on the Potala and the Panchen Lama’s temple and enjoyed a boat cruise on the lake. Unfortunately we the steering wheel of our boat was not in good shape and we had some trouble to get back to the landing stage.

Imperial Summer Residende in Chengde
Boat cruise in the Bishi shanzhuang (“Summer resort mountain area”).

On Sunday morning we visited factory where all kinds of glass manufactured. It was interesting to see, the travel guide told us that some of the workers in the (privately run) company receive higher salary because their work “is not good for their health.” Although the factory was very clean and the workers experienced to visitors, few wore a protective uniforms and it looked pretty chaotic when workers carried chunks of viscous glass from the oven to their working place. The main reason for this visit was to go to the shop of the factory afterwards were kitschy glass art and normal glasses were sold.

After that we would have climbed the “thumb mountain” but as busy Chinese style tourist we did not have enough time for this so we used to cable car to get up the hill and touched to awkwardly shaped 37 m tall rock – according to a Chinese saying I will now live up to 130 years…

The Thumb Rock near Chengde
The “Thumb Rock”.

Last but not least out trip included a famous Manchu-Han-Banquet er – lunch. It was not a traditional “full Manchu-Han Banquet“, that once consisted of several hundred courses, but still, it had some great local dished, was served by waitresses wearing traditional clothes and made most of us sleepy during the way back to Beijing.

Hangzhou – Or: How Chinese like to travel

April 13, 2007

Chinese love to travel. Whenever you go to large scale tourist spots, you can see Chinese tourist groups gathering around their guide. The guide can be singled out easily because he or she is usually carrying a flag and using a megaphone to entertain and inform the group with a stream of words that can hardly be understand by an outsider. The group as a whole sometimes can be recognized by wearing the same king of hat or some other kind of common outfit. When we climbed Taishan, there was a school group, all wearing the same clothes.
According to my roommate who recently traveled with such a Chinese group to see the Great Wall, the guide’s biggest fear is to lose someone, so it is quite impossible to leave the group to individually take some pictures or take a rest at a scenic spot.

Tour guide in China
Following the guide’s blue flag in Shanghai.

The behavior of sticking together in a group and following a leader is omnipresent: Even on the two minute walk in Shanghai from the ticket office to a bus who took us to the boat for the Huangpu river cruise, we had a guide with a blue flag showing us the way.

When we got to Hangzhou however, we discovered a different approach of traveling: On the train to from Shanghai to Hangzhou we young met a couple that went to Hangzhou for one day – without having put a lot of effort into planning or even joining a guided tour. On the two hour train ride they first started to discuss which sights they were going to see. When I asked them what time we would got to Hangzhou they only had a rough idea about the scheduled arrival – just like we… So we had something in common and after they had read my homework that I had written in the train (a text about China’s one child policy), we kept on talking until we were in Hangzhou. We all were quite hungry, so we decided to have lunch together – it’s always good to have a Chinese who can read the menu when it comes to the point of deciding which dishes to order.

After that, five Germans and two Chinese went to see Hangzhou’s Lingyin Temple and the famous West Lake. The temple was impressive and featured the tallest halls I’ve ever seen in a Buddhist temple. We were lucky to catch a glance of a religious ceremony right in front of a huge Buddha statue.
We did not go to the West Lake until sunset. That way we avoided the masses that crosses the dam across the lake in the afternoon. As Hangzhou has always been part of the Chinese saying 上有天堂 下有苏杭 (“In heaven there is paradise, on earth Su[zhou] and Hang[zhou]”), Hangzhou has long been one of the favorite tourist attractions of China. When we took a bus to the temple that is located on the other side of the West Lake, it seemed to take forever because the street around the lake was filled with tourists in tour buses, private cars, on bikes and on foot, so I was happy that most Chinese were already heading back or having dinner at the time we were walking the dam and crossing the bridges to Gu island.


Religious ceremony at Lingyin Temple.

After dinner we headed back to Hangzhou’s train station – only to discover that the were no tickets left for the last trains to Shanghai – it was impossible to take a train until the next morning. As we were not the only ones who suffered from the lack of train tickets, a private company were using buses to Shanghai that filled up quickly. Of course the buses were more expensive than the train ride but they were comfortable and I could had a 90 minute nap on the way back to Shanghai.

So on the one hand there are tourist groups that are following a strict program, on the other hand there are (mostly young) Chinese who leave without having a return ticket and who spontaneously decide what places to go. There might be a change towards individual tourism in China, but after all, the tourist groups are remaining an eye-catcher.

Sightseeing in China
Traveling the Chinese way: “We came, we saw, we took a photo.”

Joining a Chinese travel group seems to be relatively cheap, part of this is made possible not only of the low wages that the young tour guides receive but also the arrangement of places to go. A lot of trips include lengthy stops at tourist shops and the tourists are expected to buy some memorabilia. Since the tour guides work on commission, they sometimes seem to focus more on selling goods than presenting the actual sights.

Contrasts of Shanghai

April 11, 2007

After last week’s trip to Shandong we decided to go to Shanghai for the Easter weekend. Well, the Easter holidays are really not important in China, I did not discover a single piece of information telling me about this Christian holiday. The only religious activity I noticed, was the birthday of Guanyin Pusa on Good Friday. Actually it was only by chance that her birthday was celebrated that day, because the it is calculated from the Chinese calender.

Drum school in Shanghai
Students learning a traditional drum performance in front of Pudong’s skyline.

Shanghai is a thriving city, it seems to be more lively than Beijing, but this might be a matter of climate: While it is still considerably chilly in Beijing, Shanghai has experienced temperatures that made it possible to only wear a pullover or even a T-shirt.
Shanghai seems to be a more westernized (or “taiwanized” as my roommate called it) city than Beijing – more people are speaking English, the clothes are like in cities in Europe or the US. There are also more tourists exploring the city than in Beijing (well, I hardly got to any tourist places in Beijing yet, whereas I went to the main tourist attractions in Shanghai, so I don’t know, whether this really is true). And when having a large groups of tourist, peddlers who want to sell their useless stuff are numerous and you need to say “Bu yao” much too often.

Shanghai lights at night
Lights of Shanghai as seen from the Jinmao Tower.

Shanghai is also a city with big contrasts: The skyline is already impressive and new high rises are build on the rare free spots in the Pudong area which was declared to a special economic area in 1990. Until then it mainly consisted of farmland, now it features not only the Jinmao Tower, China’s highest building, but also several bank headquarters and has become a symbol of China’s economic raise.
On the other hand bank (of Huangpu river) there are still some old quarters with narrow streets, chatting neighbors in Shanghai dialect (that I don’t understand at all) and clothes drying outside the windows. On the little little street markets are few tourists but a lot of tasty food…
Once again it was astonishing how close such large contrast are. Only a few minutes on foot and the whole scenery has changed.

In Shanghai we also visited two large temples on Good Friday, the Longhua and the Yufo (Jade Buddha). The first one was really impressive because on Guanyin’s birthday the temple was filled with praying people and not only with tourists. We actually had lunch at the temple with hundreds of other people honoring Guanyin. The Jade Buddha temple is closer to downtown and obviously visited by more tourist groups – actually we ran into a German group that day in the temple. But the entrance ticket was more expensive than at the first temple and one had to pay extra to see their best Buddha statues.

Longhua Temple in Shanghai
Worshipers at Guanyin’s birthday.

We also visited two museums in Shanghai, the “Shanghai Museum” and the museum that was built at the place where the party’s first congress had been taken place. The Shanghai Museum has an interesting architecture and the pieces on display were really fascinating. In contrast to the American Indian Museum in Washington, D.C. current problems are not mentioned, for examples tensions with minorities were omitted , instead a sign read: “Our splendid and glorious Chinese civilization is the result of integration of various nationalities that have lived in China.”
The founding museum of the CCP was not exactly giving a neutral view, but as we did not expect such thing, we took it as an interesting place to see how history is written (and changed) in China. So even if Shanghai might be a city with lots of banks and businesses and its people obviously love to go shopping in the exclusive boutiques and shopping malls, China after all calls itself a developing country under a Communist leadership.

Food on a street market
Food on a street market.

During our stay we went up the Jinmao tower to the 87th floor and enjoyed the view over Shanghai’s evening lights. We strolled the busy streets and rested in Shanghai’s parks, had a chance to get a boat trip on the Huangpu river and were putting a one-day-trip to Hangzhou into our visiting program. Even though we had four days to visit, it seemed a little short for such a big city. To get the maximum time for the stay, we left Beijing on Thursday evening with the overnight train and got back on Monday evening by plane. That way we also got to see the futuristic Pudong airport that is linked with Shanghai by a 30 km magnetic levitation train (actually the train was build in my hometown in Germany). We stayed in a cheap youth hostel located right next to the People’s Square, it’s location brought Nanjing Donglu, Shanghai’s most famous shopping street, museums and the subway station into walking distance.