Monday, March 19, 2012

Just Another Day in Paradise

Our hotel was up at the top, right about where the road ends.
After leaving Bangkok, we took a minibus about 2 or 3 hours outside of Bangkok to Rangoon, where we got a ferry to Koh Samed island. Koh Samed is one of a group of about five small islands to the southeast of Bangkok. I decided on Koh Samed island for two reasons. First, it is close to Bangkok, which was important because we didn't have very much time in the country. Second, it wasn't Pattaya. There's nothing really wrong with Pattaya, and it's definitely the most well-known beach/tourist location in Thailand. But I didn't want a big, party scene. I wanted a beautiful, scenic island where I could relax with my parents. Plus, I read a lot (and I mean a lot) of reviews about how seedy Pattaya is. Koh Samed seemed like the perfect place, and it was.

We got to Rangoon and had to wait about an hour for the next ferry. We dropped our luggage off and went for lunch at a little pub next door that had open seating. The ferry ended up being a little bit of a disaster. We got there right on time, which was clearly a mistake. It didn't leave for almost an hour. We were sitting in the heat on a boat for almost an hour while they loaded things, and people kept showing up. It was jammed full of tourists and people coming back from grocery shopping on the mainland. I had the misfortune of choosing a seat that was only partly under the canopy cover. I thought this would be perfect, because I could see the water and lean out to get a breeze during the 30 minute ride. I ended up getting a lovely bright red sunburn on only one side of my body.

We weren't exactly happy campers when we pulled up to the island and found that we would all have to unload our suitcases ourselves from a rocking boat onto the dock. My mood picked up, though, when I saw the taxis. They were lime green pick up trucks with benches in the bed in the back that you sat on. The ride was awesome. I was a little nervous because our truck seemed to be taking us away from the main part of the town, but our resort was beautiful. It was almost at the farthest north point of the island, right where the road stopped. The main lobby was an open bar/restaurant right on the beach, with a few seats to tan. On the left were the cabins and suites for guests, and a pool. We had a two bedroom suite, plus we could leave the air conditioning on when we left - a definite upgrade from Bangkok!

After dropping our bags off, we took a cab bag down to the main beach so we could walk around and see what there was to do. Although there wasn't a private beach, the main beach was just as quiet, if not more so, than any private beach that I've been to. It was beautiful. The colors in my pictures look unreal. The sand was soft. The beach was absolutely beautiful. Even more important, it wasn't crowded at all. The restaurants were right on the beach, and at night, they would bring out tables and benches with umbrellas. We walked all the way down to the end of the beach, until we found a little bar at the end. We decided to stop there for a drink, since it was already mid-afternoon. They had buckets of drinks there, and we ended up splitting a few buckets of mai tais. While we were there, the bartender told dad that he wanted to be his son. That bar ended up being the place that we came a lot, because this guy was absolutely hilarious. He only spoke a little bit of English, and most of it was to be able to tell jokes. He was awesome.

After our drinks, we walked back into town to look around a little bit. We stumbled upon a massage parlor that was advertising massages for about $6/hour. We went in and got Thai massages. They were absolutely amazing, even better than the ones we got in Beijing. We ended going back again the next night. I was pretty burnt the next day, so I just got a foot massage and pedicure, but that was heavenly as well.

Fully relaxed from our massage, we headed back to the beach for dinner. We sat out at one of the benches in the sand. The food was great, but what was even more interesting was the show. There were people walking up and down the beach, selling things. The first thing I got to do was light one of those lanterns that you send up in the sky. A guy was walking up and down the beach, letting people buy them and send them up in the air. The pictures we got were really blurry, but it was still really neat.

Next, we noticed a group of three boys. They were doing a show with fire batons. We saw them down the beach from us, but after their show there, they walked up right by our restaurant to repeat it. They were probably there for at least 30 minutes, just playing with fire on the beach. They had batons, a few hula hoops, and other props that they dipped in gas and then lit on fire to do their show. It was absolutely amazing. These kids couldn't have been older than 10 or 12.

My camera is old, and can't really take pictures at night, but I was able to get a few videos of them. The videos are much cooler than any description I could offer. I uploaded them at my picture website,

Again, for some reason, this blog won't let me upload pictures or videos any longer.

The next day, we got up early to go into town and rent motorbikes for the day. We got two bikes for the next 24 hours, which coincided almost perfectly with the start time of the boat tour we were taking the next day.

We wanted to see the entire island, since it was so small, and the motorbikes were really cheap to rent. We figured this would be the best (and most fun!) way to see as much of the island as possible. All we had to do was give him our licenses. He showed us how to turn the bikes on, and then off we could go!

I think I've been on a motorcycle a total of five times in my life, and not a single one of those times was I actually driving it.

We decided that we would go north first, to see what was up past our hotel. To do this, we had to turn around. We took off down the narrow, crowded streets of town. It is only by the grace of God that I didn't kill myself or another person. As we took a little side road to help us turn around and head back toward the hotel, I had a terrifying realization: I had absolutely no idea how to turn. If I leaned too much, I felt like I was falling, so I kept going slower and slower to turn. That didn't help matters at all, and as I learned later, it actually helps to have speed when turning a corner. Then, as I felt like I was falling, I would grip the handlebars tighter. This also didn't help, as I kept gripping the gas and speeding up. As I sped up, I clutched onto them even harder. I missed running into a barbed wire fence by about two inches. Again, it was only by the grace of God that I survived that first turn.

Somehow, someway, I made it back through town and up to our hotel. It was there, where there was hardly any traffic, that I told my dad I was going to need some lessons before we actually took off, or it was about 95% certain that we would be spending the rest of our vacation in a hospital in Thailand.

Dad took me on the back of his bike to practice riding up and down the street. We only had two bikes - I had one and then dad drove another with mom on the back. I definitely felt more comfortable and confident after feeling how he drove it and how to move with the bike. We also changed bikes, because I think mine had more weight on the front and was harder to turn.

We found out then that the road didn't continue past our hotel and we'd have to go back down to the south of the island. Riding down through town was fine, until we got to the beach. All of the roads from our hotel down to the beach were paved, which was perfectly fine. Then, the roads turned to dirt roads. This would have been fine as well, except it had rained earlier that morning. The roads were full of ruts and potholes, and therefore, massive puddles. I actually had a lot of fun riding on these roads, because it was kind of like off-roading, and I got to splash through muddy puddles on my bike. These roads were fine, until we started to get further south on the island, and all of the roads turned into massive hills. These hills were terrifying, and we finally had to stop on one because I almost had a huge wipeout.

My problem was that I didn't allow enough room between dad's bike and mine. I could have made it up if I had enough momentum. This hill was HUGE. Dad and mom took off ahead of me, and I followed in their path. About 2/3 of the way up, dad started to lose speed. He couldn't finish making it up the hill with two people on his bike (this was how steep it was). He stopped abruptly, which made me stop. Then, my problem was that I didn't have enough weight on my bike to keep the top of it from falling back down. I felt the front starting to come back, and thankfully had enough sense to just leap off the bike and to the side. I had about two seconds to do that before the bike came crashing down. I half caught it, mostly with my ankle, so it didn't crash all the way down the hill. It would have sucked to pay for a broken motorbike. Anyway, after that, we decided that it was in our best interest to head back up to the beaches. This was all the way into the afternoon, after we had already spent at least 5 hours on the bikes, and were probably pretty far south anyway. We knew we'd just have to go up it again once we did get to the other side, so it was probably good that we headed back when we did.

Anyway, before our near-accident, we had an awesome day. All down the road running south were a bunch of side roads that led to small resorts and beaches. We rode along some of those roads, and stopped at quite a few of the smaller beaches to have a drink or to sit by the beach. The weather was perfect, and there was always a breeze so it wasn't terribly hot. We rode our bikes for most of the day, then we went and got massages again, and had dinner on the beach. We had a few drinks and then went back to the hotel.

The next morning, we got up to return the bikes in town and wait for our boat tour to start. Our boat tour was from 10am-5pm and went to a bunch of the surrounding islands. We were on a speed boat with about 15 other people, which was a little bit scary at first. Once we got going, though, it was beautiful. We made four different stops, I think. The first stop was at a beach, where we got snorkels and a few hours to look around. We had lunch on that first island. After that, we went around to a couple other beaches. Then, we stopped by a reef where we could get out of the boat with the snorkels and swim around, which was really beautiful. The last stop on our boat tour was this place where they kept a bunch of different types of fish, turtles, and sharks. This was one of my favorite places. They had each one in a net partition, with floating barrels surrounding it. Across the barrels were planks of wood to walk on, and you could walk up and down and just look at the sharks RIGHT THERE next to you. It was so awesome. I was just zooming up and down the planks, trying to find all of the sharks to get pictures. The planks weren't very sturdy, so a lot of people were just standing around or just walking very slowly. I think that the men who worked there thought I was hilarious for walking as fast as they were, so a couple of them took me around to help me find the best sharks.

After the tour, we went back to the hotel for a while to clean up and then headed out for dinner. There was a hotel/restaurant down the road that we decided to try because it was within walking distance. We thought the restaurant was just inside the hotel, but once we got there, it was much cooler. We took a little boat that was like a ferry out to the restaurant, which was raised above the water on stilts. Each of the tables were on the ground, and you sat on cushions on the floor. The tables were glass, and the floor was cut out underneath them, so while you ate, your feet were dangling over the water. It was so awesome. Plus, the restaurant was attached to the place with all of the sharks, fish, and other fresh seafood. I had fresh lobster that night, which was absolutely delicious. It was probably the best restaurant we ate at for the entire vacation.

The next morning, we headed out to begin our adventure in Vietnam! for pictures and videos from Thailand.


I love Thailand.

While we were there, we stayed in Bangkok, but took a private car west to Ratchaburi and Kanchanaburi. After a few days in Bangkok, we headed to Koh Samed island, which was absolutely beautiful. My only regrets about Thailand are that we didn't get up to Chiang Mai and that we didn't stay longer. I absolutely fell in love with the country - the people, the scenery, everything! If I know anything for certain, it's that I will go back to Thailand again in my life.

Kanchanaburi and Ratchaburi are on the map to the west of Bangkok.
Koh Samed is a small enough island that it's not on the map. It is just
off the coast of Rayong, which is on the map.

Now, we arrived in Bangkok at 11pm. I was a bit nervous of how the airport situation and transportation would go down. All I could think about was my first experience in China, arriving in Beijing at the same time. We found the international wing of the airport next to deserted, and were informed that, though the luggage and information counters had signs saying they were open 24 hours, "Chinese people value their sleep. It is very rude to disturb them." and we spent the next 18 hours waiting for Kirk on tile floors in the Beijing airport.

I was extremely happy to see that this would not be the case in Thailand. The airport was bustling, and everyone was friendly. Within five minutes of picking up our luggage, we had exchanged money and pre-paid for a taxi that would take us to the address of our hotel. All we had to do was go outside, give our ticket to the proper person, and she led us to the van that would be taking us and our luggage to our hotel. It was glorious to be reunited with an old friend I hadn't met in some time: efficiency.

This was one of the many reasons why I found Thailand to be so refreshing. It was so wonderful to be in a place where you could actually feel that people were proud of their country. No one was throwing their trash on the street; no one was defecating on the sidewalk. My standards have clearly fallen since coming to China if the requirements for visible national pride are that you don't deface your own country - but eh, so be it.

Anyhow, back to Bangkok. I was a little nervous about going to Bangkok, to be honest. Sadly, about the only image we see of Thailand involves sex to some degree, and I had no idea what the city was going to be like. I ended up loving it.

But first, our hotel. Dad left it up to me to plan out most of the trip, including booking flights and hotels. I think this was a decision he ended up regretting, as my only criteria for choosing a hotel was the cheapest option on Expedia. This prompted him to teach me a valuable lesson: never book a hotel that is less than three stars. Oh, well. (I was a bit pickier about flights. Even though I've flown to multiple different continents, I'm still terrified of flying!)

Our hotel in Bangkok was Pinnacle, and I believe it had 2 1/2 stars on Expedia. It was a bit far away from the airport, but actually ended up being only a few blocks away from one of the main shopping and tourist areas. I thought that it wasn't too bad, especially the lobby. It had a restaurant and bar! But, I had spent the last five months only staying in hostels. I was fresh off the Harbin fiasco. Almost anything would have been perfect to me. My parents, though, were apparently quite nervous as we pulled up in front of the building.

The room itself wasn't terrible. The only problem was the air conditioning unit. It worked just fine when it was on. The problem was that the electricity in the room was triggered by having the key in a slot on the wall. We had to take the key with us when we left each morning.

We got up for our first full day in Bangkok with no real plan. I had a list of things to see in the city, and I had read online about riding elephants. There was a room in the hotel with a tourism advisor, and he sent us with a car down to an agency. The agency set us up with a car the next day to drive us out of the city to a few famous spots, a van to Koh Samed island, and a private car to pick us up from Koh Samed and take us to the airport. While we were there, I met a guy who was an English tutor in Thailand. He was making US salary or better, but living in Thailand with their prices. Now that would be a sweet deal! After leaving the agency, we got back in our car to go back to the hotel, but our driver asked if we wanted to keep the car for the day. Since the car and private driver cost roughly $20, it wasn't even a question. It ended up being great. We saved a lot of time that we would have wasted by having to walk and take the subway everywhere. Since we had decided to spend the next day out of the city, it was really important that we saw as much as possible that day.

The first place we went was to see the big, golden Buddha. Both mom and I had to borrow wraps from the main office. Needless to say, we were rocking some really awesome fashion statements. The Buddha was really neat. My camera batter ended up dying, so we had to use dad's Blackberry for most of the pictures that day. After seeing the Buddha, our driver took us driving through Chinatown. All of the Lunar New Year decorations were out, but I'm glad we didn't stop. We were in Thailand, after all!

Next on our driver's plan was the Grand Palace. This time, all three of us had to cover up. Mom and I had to wear yellow collared shirts and dad had to borrow a pair of linen pants. The Grand Palace was absolutely massive. We easily spent close to two hours there, and could have easily spent more.

There were parts that were open to tourists, parts that were only open to Thai citizens, and parts that were still being used for government. The front part of the grounds were just a bunch of really ornate, beautiful buildings. As you walked further, there was a huge prayer building that you could go into. Even further in, there was the old palace that they had turned into a little bit of a museum - or, parts of the bottom floor, at least. It was mainly old weapons, so it was really cool. Plus, there were some guards around, so I got to add a picture with them to my collection.

There is a college right across the street from the palace, so there were quite a few students at the palace. It was actually really funny to see a bunch of students going around in pants and sweaters while tourists roamed around in shorts and dresses, dripping sweat.

After the palace, we had an awesome lunch next to the river with our driver. We got to talk to him a little, and he booked us a dinner cruise for later that night. After lunch, we headed to a Buddhist monastery. All around the outside were old statues of Buddha that had been found in different places all around the world.

Afterward, our driver took us to a jewelry store and a tailor. The jewelry store was so cool. It's the world's biggest jewelry store, actually. When we first went in, they took us to a back room where they showed a video about the store and the store's specialties: rubies and sapphires found in Thailand. There were women in dresses walking around to serve drinks. Then, we went to the workroom. We got to see the work in action. It was pretty awesome. The actual store was absolutely amazing. I couldn't believe how much jewelry there was in that room. There were tons of people working there, so someone was there immediately to talk to each new group that came in and to try to persuade them to buy something. The most amazing part of the store, though, wasn't even the jewelry. It was the prices. It was unbelievable. The jewelry cost probably about 1/4 of what it would cost in the US. Dad ended up buying mom a ring and a pair of earrings, and I got a ruby ring and sapphire necklace. It was awesome.

Next, we went to a tailor, where dad got a ton of stuff made. Again, the prices were crazy. They were really great about working with our schedule for fittings, too, since we only had two days in Bangkok They sent someone to our hotel twice since we couldn't fit it into our schedule to get to the shop during business hours.

That night, we were picked up in a van at our hotel to go to the dinner cruise. I'm pretty sure we were the only Americans on the boat. Dinner was served buffet-style. It turns out, everyone on the boat had taken a lesson on shoving and budging in line. One lady had a degree in, "using your child as a shield". The river cruise actually ended up not being as cool as I thought it would be, mainly because the only things that were lit up along the river were pictures of the king. That made it pretty hard to see or take pictures of anything else.

The ride back to the hotel was actually the most entertaining part of the night. There was a group of tourists from India in our van who were drunk out of their minds. They spent the entire ride back singing/screaming songs in the back of the van. I got a voice recording of them on dad's Blackberry. Oh, and they had all crowded around me, asking to get pictures with me before we got back in the van, so the driver saved me and let me sit up front with him.

The next day, we got up early to meet our driver to go out of the city. The first place we stopped was the Damnoek Saduak floating market (Ratchaburi on the map). This market was absolutely amazing. Each group had a boat and driver. These boats had some crazy motors on them, especially for how small they were. It was pretty awesome when we would get to the open parts of the river because our driver would speed down it. Once we got to the market, though, it was unbelievable. The river was packed, boat to boat, plus shops lining each side of the river that the boats could stop at. These market boats were selling everything you could think of: coconuts and food to clothes, souvenirs, and even knock-off bags. It was so much fun. If you wanted to look at a shop, your driver would just float on up! There was one guy who grabbed our boat as we were going by, and he had a box full of pythons. We got out to take pictures with them. It was kind of scary at first, but it was still pretty awesome. I'm not really that scared of snakes, especially if they're not just out in the wild. He got mom and dad to get in some pictures with me, which dad was not thrilled about at all. I got a bunch of pictures with the guy after he finally took the snakes off me, too.

After the market, we went a little way down the road to Elephant Village. It was great. Mom and I went on one elephant and dad took another behind us. We had a bucket of bananas to feed our elephant during the ride. We sat on a seat on the elephant's back while our guide just sat on her head. Every time she wanted a banana, she would stop, lift her trunk back toward us, and blow air. At first, it was just our guide feeding her, but then he let us do it. He jumped off the elephant to take pictures for us, and we ran out of bananas. I think it made her mad, because she stopped in the middle of the road and kept snorting at us. Our guide had to get back up on the elephant, which was also cool. She put her trunk down, he climbed up on it, and she lifted him right back up onto her head.

After riding elephants, we drove about an hour away to Tiger Temple (Kanchanaburi on the map). Tiger Temple is a place where monks raise tigers to roam around. Each monk has a tiger that it raises since it's a cub. They don't keep the tigers in cages or anything. The most they have is that some of them have chains that are like leashes for tourists to "walk" them. They have them on a feeding and eating schedule, and since tigers sleep so much, it works out that they're mostly just sleeping while the tourists are there. It's really crazy to see, because tigers aren't the only animals that are roaming around uncaged at Tiger Temple. They have everything, from chickens to deer just walking around. It's a really bizarre thing to see a tiger about 20 feet away from a loose deer, but have nothing happen. I'm sure that most of it is that they keep the tigers fed extremely well and wear them out with a lot of play time.

In addition to the monks that train the tigers, there are other trainers that stay in a dorm at Tiger Temple to help raise, watch, feed, and play with the tigers. They run most of the tourist attraction. When you get there, they have one or two tigers on a chain leash, and they take a group of people to walk along a stretch of dirt with the tiger. They tell you when to come up and how and where to place your hands on the tiger while you hold the leash. Of course, the monk is right next to you on the other side and the trainers are all around. But it is a huge rush to know that you're holding a chain attached to a massive tiger while you're stroking it's back like it's some sort of pet.

After walking the tigers, we were walked down to an area where about 15-20 of them were stretched out, sunning themselves, surrounded by rocks. This was where we could get our picture taken with them if we wanted. You could get your picture taken next to it for free. We had already done that on our walk. There was another option that you had to pay for, but a member of your group could sit with the tiger's head in their lap. Mom and dad let me be the one who sat with the head in my lap, but I don't think that either one of them really wanted to do it. All of the tigers had collars on, but most of them weren't actually chained down. They were just pretty much all sleeping. To get out to the tigers, one of the trainers would come up, and you had to put your hands on their shoulders and follow them in a line to get to your tiger. When we got there, they positioned us how we were supposed to sit, and then picked up the tiger's head by the chain, smacked him a few times in the face, and the plopped his head in my lap. I had to hold my hands in a certain position, with them wrapped around his neck and my fingers interlocked under his mouth. I assume this was to mimic the feeling of a collar around their neck. I got to do that with two different tigers. At first it was a little scary, but mostly exhilarating. It was a freaking tiger in my lap!

After our pictures with the tigers, we walked around the grounds a little bit. We got to watch some of the tiger cubs "playing". The way they played was that they took them down to a little area with a moat and some rocks, and the trainers had long sticks with garbage bags stuffed with things and other noise makers. They shook the sticks and garbage bags in the air and the cubs ran around and leapt up in the air to break the bags. One of them missed and ran smack into the rock wall behind him, which was actually pretty hilarious. It was fun to watch, but I don't think I would have wanted to be one of the people who had 10 tiger cubs launching at them.

Our last stop that day was the River Kwai and the museum (also Kanchanaburi). I had actually never heard of River Kwai or any of it's history. It turns out that there was a huge network of Japanese internment camps through Thailand, up to the border of Burma. The Japanese were trying to build a railway that would connect through to troops in Burma, and used prisoners of war to do so. (Nicknamed the "Death Bridge" because of how many POWs died building it.) The museum was all about trying to keep the history of those camps alive, because a lot of people don't know that there were prisoner of war camps in Thailand. I know I had never really heard of it before. The bridge over the River Kwai (which is apparently a book and movie) was a part of the bridge that had been bombed by Allied forces trying to stop the Japanese from being able to transport supplies to the front in Burma.

Our last stop in Thailand was one of the main shopping districts. To our surprise upon arrival, we found that it actually wasn't just a shopping area. We had actually been directed to Patpong, which is one of the "red light districts" of Bangkok. What was the most bizarre about Patpong, though, was that you could walk down this alleyway/street, and on the left hand side was a huge outdoor shopping market, much like the silk market in Beijing, with families and tourists roaming around. On the right hand side were a bunch of bars, sex shops, and people coming up to ask if we wanted to see a ping-pong show. There were also a lot of prostitutes walking up and down the street. It was pretty clear that, if that's what you wanted, it was easily accessible. But, at the same time, if you wanted to avoid it, that was just as easy. We shopped around for a bit, and then sat outside at one of the bars to have a few drinks and people watch. We were only there until about 10pm, because we had to be up early to get a bus to Koh Samed, but there was still plenty going on.

The last thing we did before heading back to the hotel was try some street food. We walked up and down the street, trying a few different things. Mainly, we tried different kinds of chicken. They were spicy, but extremely delicious. I thought street food in China was good, but this was even better! After trying a few things, we took a tuk tuk (kind of like a rickshaw) back to the hotel.

The next day we got up to begin our journey to my favorite part of the trip, Koh Samed island.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Life and Lies in China

Now for some updates on my apartment.

At the beginning, our apartments were dirty but livable. Size-wise, our apartments are actually pretty big. I have a refrigerator, a bed, a place for my clothes, and a bathroom. It works.

We also had a semi-gate in front of our apartment. It wasn't locked, but it actually served the purpose of keeping people away from our building and whatever dirt you could call our "front yard". Right before school got out for Spring Festival, however, the government started doing demolition and rebuilding. It was supposed to be a beautification project, but it's actually a really ugly brick wall that runs down the length of our street. Instead of a gate in front of our apartment, we just have a big, wide gap. Anyone can walk up to and around our apartment building. And, trust me, they do.

Now, you're probably asking yourself, "But the gate wasn't locked, so how much difference does it really make that the government removed the broken gate?"

Well, I'll tell you. Our front yard is now used as a toilet, and our building and front door for a drum. Let me elaborate.

1. The front yard as a toilet. Now, I've talked before about the squatter toilets and the babies with no diapers. Those things, while pretty disgusting to look at, are still understandable. I've even seen some young (okay, up to like 8 years old) children peeing against trees on the street. Again, they're a little old, but okay. I can deal with it.

What I can't deal with, however, is seeing grown people using our front yard as a toilet. The first time we saw this was a few weeks ago, when Lauren and I were walking back from class. We saw that three of the Thai students were standing on the sidewalk, laughing at something by the door of our building. As we approached, we saw what it was. It was a boy, probably between 8-10 years old, holding a roll of toilet paper, and pooping in our front yard. Now, this wasn't a homeless boy. This wasn't a baby who didn't know any better. This was a fifth or sixth grader who had been given a roll of toilet paper by his parents and sent to our yard to use the restroom, in lieu of an actual toilet. He proceeded to poop in not one, but THREE different places in our yard. (No, we didn't watch this. We saw the evidence later.)

The next run-in I didn't see in person. Lauren, poor soul, did. As she walked out of our building, there was a grown, adult man squatting and pooping against the wall of our apartment building.

2. The building as a drum. This is actually quite terrifying. At least 2 times a week, between 11:30-11:45pm, a group of very loud, very obnoxious men try to force our front door open. They pound on it and shout. Then, they move around to the side of the building, continuing to shout. Sometimes they pound on the walls. Sometimes they take metal pipes and run them along the wall. Sometimes they throw things at the wall. We don't know their purpose; we just know it's terrifying to listen to.

The last update about my apartment is probably the most disheartening. I posted a few weeks ago about issues with the fire extinguishers in our apartment. We've been asking for new ones since December, and had two incidents that could have turned into fires in February. We asked Mr. Dong for them repeatedly, and emailed Kirk about getting new fire extinguishers. A few days after talking with Kirk, we noticed that there were extinguishers in the holders on each floor. We were happy. I even thanked Mr. Dong.

Then, today happened. We came back from the train station and realized that there were no more fire extinguishers. We asked the building manager about them, only to be informed that we had actually never had new fire extinguishers. They had simply taken the old, expired ones and put them back into the holders to try to fool us and stop us from telling Kirk that the problem hadn't been solved.

Quite frankly, I find this enraging. I find it beyond the grasp of decent human behavior that we would be denied fire extinguishers for three months in the first place. The fact that they lied to us about it makes it even worse. The fact that they believe they can get away with such a thing is simply disgusting.

I think about what I believe is a logical response to this situation. Say this is an exchange between two different schools in America. One school refuses to provide fire extinguishers to a building of teachers who have already experienced a fire. Then, the school openly supplies fake extinguishers to the teachers. What would the response be? I don't think it would be out of bounds for the school to call the other and tell them that if there are no fire extinguishers by the end of the week, the school will be expected to either find a new place for the teachers to live or pay their airfare home immediately; and that under no circumstances will there be any more teachers sent there. This isn't a question of someone whining about not having a comfortable apartment, or no internet, or any other array of small issues. This is about personal safety and a risk to their lives.

But it's China.

End rant.

Back to the Grind

I still have a lot of updating to do about my travels over the break, but I thought I'd take a little detour to write a few blogs about, you know.. teaching.

I wrote the following blog while I was "punishing" one of my classes by making them sit in silence. I've broken it down into titled sections.

1. Upon Arrival
To any frequent readers of my blog, I'm sure it's become quite clear that Mr. Dong gets a huge amount of joy out of playing with us. One of his favorite things to do is tell us the wrong dates of break. The dates he told us for break the first time were January 18th until February 5th. These eventually changed to January 13th to February 6th. Therefore, my parents booked their flight for January 14th and left on the 30th. Come to find out, about two weeks before, that we were actually going to be done on January 6th. It ended up being alright, because I got to go to Harbin, but it was really frustrating because if I would have known that we were getting out so early, maybe Domenic could have came with my parents or something. He didn't start school until the 21st. Then, to add even more on top of that disappointment, Mr. Dong also purposely lied to us about the end date of the break. Three of us ended up having to take a personal day on the last day of classes so we could get to Harbin - which wasn't actually a problem, because the Junior 2 teachers had been sending us away all week so they could use our period to prepare for the exams. Mr. Dong, however, was really pissed about this, so he told us that we needed to be back almost an entire week before school started. So, I spent an extra week sitting on my ass in the Shiz when I could have been spending more time with my parents, who I hadn't seen in five whole months.

Another thing that struck me as really sad when classes first resumed is what happened to the poor kids. Our internet was out again at the apartments when we got back (even though we'd told Mr Dong about it two weeks before). That meant we'd been spending a lot of our free time at the school to use the internet. The night before classes started, the school was bustling. With classes? Oh, no. With children cleaning the school. Welcome back from break! Here's a dirty mop!! It was so terribly sad that these poor kids had this to look forward to. On top of that, their first week of classes was nine days long. Yep, we started on a Thursday and taught Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and then the next Monday through Friday. Talk about burning out these poor kids their first week back at school. Back to observations about cleaning. I've found that the class monitors generally don't have to do as much cleaning as the other kids in class. They get to walk around with a little notebook and point out dirty spots for the other kids to clean, or to criticize places that hadn't been cleaned properly.

2. On Teaching
One of the things that continues to baffle me as a huge difference between my Chinese students and what I remember of middle school in America is how they share answers and things in the classroom. Sharing answers for homework and in-class work isn't frowned upon here; the only scores that really matter on the exams, and no-cheating policies are very, VERY strictly enforced then. I first noticed this when I tried spelling tests at the beginning of the year. The concept of keeping your answer to yourself and not telling those around you was so hard for my students to grasp. I would get the class under control and get 2-3 words in, and then on the first difficult word, at least one person just couldn't contain their answer and would shout out to the class how to spell it. There would be whispering as students told the people next to them. There were no elbows covering answers or heads bent over papers so neighbors couldn't see what you were writing. (Eventually, we stopped doing spelling tests. It was partly because of this, and partly because most students would simply refuse to write anything if they didn't already know how to spell a word, because they considered it more embarrassing to try and fail than to not try at all.)

I also had a problem with this "community" type classroom experience this week. The kids were supposed to draw a map and answer a series of questions about it. Then, I randomly selected students to come to the front to describe their map to the class. As always, there are a few kids in each class who just don't do the assignment. If they get chosen, however, there is always a classmate who will just give them their map to bring to the front. It wasn't like, "This is my map and I drew it and you should get your own." It was like, "Well, it's your turn to talk, and I have a map while you don't, so.. here!" It was really frustrating, but I found that telling the student, "Next time, you need to draw your own map instead of using a classmate's" they would turn red. It still got my point across, and they got the chance to speak in front of the class, which was the real purpose of the activity.

Another instance where I realized how important the classroom unit is to Chinese students is when one of my boys and I had a discussion about a vocabulary word. He was trying to tell me that he wanted to know the word for the student who sits next to me. I said, "Classmate". That wasn't it. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the equivalent would be in English. We ended up settling on "Seat mate", though I'm not really sure that it's even a word or correct. He was adamant, however, that the word classmate did not adequately describe the two people who sat next to him. They were part of his group, his homework unit, and they helped each other on activities. As I've mentioned in other blogs, the kids don't change classrooms here. The teachers who teach each subject do. The kids stay with the same group all year, every day, from 7am until 5:30pm. Sometimes later than that.

Of course, I'm also still having problems with discipline. This is an issues that I'm sure will continue the rest of the year, and I've pretty much come to terms with it. I'm perfectly okay with not being able to control or discipline my kids the same way their Chinese teachers do. Simply put, I don't want to be like that. I don't agree with that style of teaching. Between the three of us, we have seen teachers at our school do the following: make students run for between 40-60 minutes as punishment, give a child a bloody nose, beat a child over the head with a handbag, smack a child, make students stand in the cold with no coat and their nose against the wall for 40 minutes...the list goes on. Quite frankly, if the choice is between being like that or having a few rowdy classes, I'll take the rowdy classes every time. And I understand why they act out with us. Of course we're nowhere near as intimidating as their other teachers. We have to come to grips with the fact that part of our job is to provide a little bit of a break to our students as well as to make them more comfortable speaking English.

Most of the teachers here, though, don't make our job any easier. There are two teachers I know here who are nice to me and have helped me out when I had a discipline issue with the kids, or who gave me their phone number if I need anything, etc. Two.

I have one head teacher who doesn't like me at all. She was fine at the beginning of the year, but it all went downhill after Mr. Dong asked me to edit a paper for the school newspaper. He told me that it was from a teacher in the senior building. The paper was terrible. And the person who wrote it began the paper by saying they had been teaching English for 20 years. I was scared, to be honest, of what this person was teaching the kids here. Needless to say, I made quite a few corrections. (For example, there was one page that was one, huge run-on sentence. And entire page in Microsoft Word.) Then I found out that it was this teacher's paper. She didn't let me teach her class from October through the end of the semester. I've only taught it twice since we've been back.

I've also had head teachers who come into the classroom in the middle of my class to "make an announcement". These announcements are generally met with the students laughing and looking at me awkwardly. If I have the students talking and participating, there are teachers who will stand outside and stare through the windows, which terrifies the students into not speaking. The Chinese teachers here tend to equate any noise in a classroom with the class acting up, as the general layout they follow is much more lecture based. This becomes difficult, however, when the class I'm supposed to be teaching is Oral English. I also had one boy attempt to videotape me during a class. When I asked him to put the videocamera away, he told me that his teacher had asked him to do it. I still took it away from him.

Lauren has also had this issue with one of her male teachers. I hope she doesn't mind me talking about it here, but it is a great example of how the teachers try to undermine us. The two of them don't really talk, but say hello and goodbye to each other. She had a feeling that he was mocking her, in the sing-songy way that a lot of people here mock the way we say "hello" and "goodbye" by extending words for an unnecessary amount of time or raising the inflection of their voices too high. She got this confirmation, though, when he came into one of her classes in the middle of her lesson to talk to her students. One of her students informed her that he came into her class to tell them that, "he thinks you are a very silly girl."

Things have gotten worse this semester in the teacher's lounge. We started out the year with five desks to split between the seven of us. When we got back from break, we found that we only had three left - the other two had been taken over by other people. It is noteworthy to mention that every Chinese teacher at our school, whether full or part time, already has an assigned desk. Ours are at the front of the room, so a lot of teachers try to use them as a place to put papers or things when they don't want to walk back to their own desk. As we've had a lot of internet issues this semester, we've been spending more and more time in the teacher's lounge, using our desks. After a battle with a truly crazy member of the staff here, we have now been pushed into sharing only two desks between the seven of us. This woman is off her rocker. She "claimed" the desk by covering the chair in rags and the desk in orange peels. Her papers are strewn everywhere, and there are discarded cups and bags on the side. If one of us happened to be using that desk, she would stand behind us and watch. We eventually ended up just giving her that desk because it wasn't worth dealing with her to use it. That apparently wasn't good enough, as she is currently trying to steal another one of our remaining two desks. If we are sitting in the one next to her, she will stand behind us, or try to lean on our chair, or try to put papers on any empty space at our desk. It's like it is absolutely killing her to watch us use any space at all in this room.

3. Valentine's Day in China
February was a pretty easy month, subject-wise, because there were already built-in holidays to teach about. I started our week back by teaching about Valentine's Day. I knew I had to keep it pretty well-regulated, since relationships in middle school and even high school are strictly taboo here. My kids go into hysterics at the words girlfriend and boyfriend. When I was their age, I already had my first boyfriend. Anyway, word got out to the Chinese teachers that we were teaching about Valentine's Day, and I didn't have a single class that week that didn't have one of them observing (and usually tsking) in the back of my classroom. We started class by making a list of things we associate with Valentine's Day: chocolates, roses, hearts, gifts, teddy bears, cupid. We talked about how kids in America celebrate Valentine's Day, and how we had class parties where everyone decorated a box and everyone brought a Valentine and candy for every student in the class. We talked about candy hearts and the messages they had on them, and after giving a few examples, I let the kids shout out things they thought the hearts might say. Some of their answers were hilarious, such as, "Be my wife." Most of them were pretty tame, like "Girlfriend", "Boyfriend", or "Call Me". We made a list of things that couples might do on Valentine's Day: go to dinner, go to a movie, take a walk together in the park, make dinner together at home. One of my boys, Gavin, asked me if we were allowed to have boyfriends or girlfriends in middle school in America. I told him that it was up to the parents to decide if their child had a boyfriend or girlfriend, and at what age, but that there are quite a few American middle schoolers who do have boyfriends or girlfriends. He told me, simply, "If we are caught with a boyfriend or girlfriend, our education is over."

The last thing we did in class was to write Valentines to each other. I made sure to stress to them that you could give a Valentine to anyone, whether it was a parent or grandparent, a sibling, a classmate, or even a celebrity. Here are a few of the funniest:

Dear Wang XX,
I like you because... (YOU KNOW!) You make me feel happy.

Dear PZX,
I love you, because I love you. You make me feel is tit.

Dear Zhao,
I like you, because you are ugly. You make me feel you are lazy.

Dear Yang Peng,
I like you because you are very scary. You make me feel very scary too but I think you are very interesting.
Lujio Zhao

Dear Tom,
I like you very much because you look like my brother. You make me feel safe and happy. Do you know Justin Beiber?

Dear Yang Ya Qi,
I like you because you're very beautiful. You make me feel very exciting.

Dear honey,
I like you because you are my sunshine. You make me feel warm and sweet.
Mirror Legend's Boss

Dear iPad,
I like you because you are very cute. You make me feel beautiful.

Dear Meng Yifan,
I like you because you is my first wife. You make me feel...
Zhang Zi

Dear Jon,
I like you because you are very just so-so. You make me feel very important.

Dear HYQ,
I like you because you are my fire. You make me feel very excited. Come on!

Dear Mary (yes, me),
I like you. Because I think you are very kind and beautiful. I want you to be my "wife".

Dear xx,
I like you because you is have money. You make me feel have math monkey.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Homeless in Harbin

In my first post about Harbin, I completely forgot to write about one of the most hilarious and frustrating things that has happened during all of my travels in China - the time our hostel tried to make us stay in a tent.

Yes, a tent.

So, we took a 22 hour train to Harbin and got in early in the morning. We met Aaron at the train station and all headed to the hostel. He had booked us six beds during our stay (Sarah was meeting us the next day), but when the hostel emailed him to confirm, they only confirmed three of the beds. He tried to email them back, but never got a reply. That was definite foreshadowing for how this place was run.

We arrived at the hostel at 10ish. When we tried to check in, they seemed pretty understanding about the mix up, and we wrote down on a piece of paper for them how many beds we would need on each day - Iraise was leaving first, then us three, and Sarah and Aaron were last. They wrote it all down and told us that we would have the beds, but they would be spread out in different rooms. We were completely fine with that, as long as we had beds. The catch was that we would have to come back at 2pm to check in, and they had a place for us to leave our bags. I was a little weary of leaving my bags, since they were out in the middle of the lobby. They did have these padlocks on them, so we decided to leave and go into the city for a while for lunch and come back later.

We ended up staying out until about 5pm before we got back to the hostel to check in. They checked us in to three different rooms, and told us that there was a chance they could put us together the next day, if we wanted to check out and check back in again. The way I understood it was that we could stay in our rooms if we wanted, but if we wanted to go through the whole process again, they would find us an empty room together.

The hostel itself was.. interesting. It was very clearly not a hostel aimed at foreign guests. First, it smelled like cabbage EVERYWHERE. Everywhere. Second, only about two members of the staff spoke any English. Third, there were NO western toilets. Whatever, we could have dealt with it. The first night was fine. In the morning, we decided that we were fine with being spread out in our rooms and didn't feel like checking out, leaving our bags, and checking back in again, since we were going to be out later than the night before.

We went out and had a GREAT day in Harbin - saw the ice festival and everything. It wasn't until past 11pm that we arrived back at our hostel. We went to our rooms to find that our stuff had been piled in the corner of each room, and the hostel had assigned a new person to our bed. I really, really, really hate people touching my things without permission. It's one of the things that can send me flying into a rage extremely quickly. I immediately decided that I wanted to go somewhere else, and that they were going to give me my money back.

We all had our stuff piled in the corner and went to ask the front desk staff what the hell was going on. They led us back to the laundry room, where they had a bunch of two-person tents set up, under a bunch of drying laundry. This was where they expected us to stay - four people to a two-person tent.

Not only that, but when we got upset about it and asked them to explain why they had kicked us out of our rooms, they immediately began lying. The lady up front told us that she had told Iraise that morning that we would be moved to tents. We told her there was NO WAY we would have agreed to that in the morning; we would have thrown a fit then, just as we were now. Thankfully, we had David there to help translate things for us. There was a bunch of fighting, because this lady was pissed that we were calling her out for lying.

We spent at least 45 minutes arguing with the hostel staff and trying to find a new place to stay. Aaron and David went down the street and found a hotel that had two rooms open for us, so we decided to book the two rooms and split the beds between the six of us. We ended up demanding that we get all of our money back, including for the night we had already stayed. They ended up giving it all back to us, and asking us not to rate them poorly on the Hostel World website in exchange. (Fun fact: they are no longer listed on the website - yay!) Apparently, they had done this to other people as well.

We had another surprise waiting for us when we got to the hotel. We checked in to the two rooms, knowing that one was regular and the other one was a bit bigger. Aaron and Sarah were going to stay in the double, and Emily, Lauren, Iraise, and me were going to stay in the bigger room. We got to the first room, and it was a normal room, except the bathroom. The bathroom was in it's own room, but all of the "walls" were just clear glass, so you could see everything. Then, we went to the bigger room. Not only was it a bigger room, but it was the deluxe "honeymoon suite". It was by far the gaudiest thing I have ever seen in my life.

It had the clear, see-through bathroom, but it gets so much better. In the middle of the room was a red circular bed on a red velvet platform with red velvet carpeting. Surrounding the bed were these purple string curtains that pulled all the way around. The floor was black and white checked tiles, and there was a purple velvet couch on the side. Behind the bed was a stripper pole. Not only were there lights, but there was a disco ball and a machine that flashed holograms of Hello Kitty on the ceiling and played obnoxious dance hall music. In other words, a seizure waiting to happen.

We ended up staying there for the next two nights in our wonderfully gaudy, Chinese honeymoon suite in the beautiful city of Harbin.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Hong Kong

For the rest of my holiday break after Harbin, my parents came to visit. Our trip itinerary was this:

1. Hong Kong and Macau
2. Bangkok
3. Koh Samed, Thailand
4. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
5. Shanghai
6. Shijiazhuang
7. Beijing

The first leg of our trip started with me flying to meet them in Hong Kong. I was flying from Beijing and was supposed to get in about an hour and a half before them. I figured this would give me enough time to collect my baggage and be waiting for them at their exit. I knew I'd be at a different exit because I was coming from the mainland and they were coming from the US. My plan was ruined, however, when my flight was delayed by almost 45 minutes out of Beijing. I still don't know why. It just was, because it's China.

I got to Hong Kong and collected my suitcase, which thankfully was one of the first on the belt. I headed out "Exit B" to the main part of the airport. I then realized that the ONLY things I knew about my parents flight were the time they were supposed to arrive and what city they were coming from. I had no idea what airline. I rushed over to the information desk to ask about flights coming in from Chicago at that time. He told me there were no flights coming in from Chicago at that time, but told me there was one coming in from Chicago that was a half hour earlier than what I expected. I assumed that was the correct one and headed to "Exit A" to wait for them.

I still had some time to wait for them, so I waited nervously by the exit, watching to see when the stream of Europeans ended and the Americans started coming in from Chicago. In reality, I wasn't really waiting for them that long. In my heightened sense of excitement and anticipation, however, it felt like I had been there forever. Immediately, all of the worst possible scenarios started flashing through my mind. I was torn in indecision. Shanghai had two airports - why hadn't I checked to see if Hong Kong did, too?! I could see in my mind my parents arriving at the other airport, and I was nowhere to be found. But, what if I went to the information desk to ask if there was another airport, and meanwhile missed them walking out the exit I was standing at currently? I decided against leaving and stood my ground outside Exit A. Thankfully, that was the correct choice, and I found my parents. Of course, I started crying as soon as I saw them and mumbling something about them actually making it.

We waited for an hour for our hotel shuttle, and I was pleasantly surprised at how nice it was. I had booked everything online on Expedia, and my only criteria for booking was that it was the cheapest option available. After dropping our bags off in our room, we headed down for hot pot in the hotel lobby.

We only had two full days in Hong Kong and Macau, and it was quite dreary the whole time. It rained or drizzled the entire time we were there, which made it difficult to take pictures at some of the tourist sites we visited.

Our first day in Hong Kong, we visited the Big Buddha. To get there, we had to take the most terrifying cable car ever up to the top. It took almost a full half hour to get there because it was so high in the mountains. We spent the day walking around the city, stumbled upon the Jade Market and just a few street markets, and then headed to Macau for the evening.

We didn't have a plan for how to get around the city, so once we left the ferry, we just climbed on a bus headed to a casino. We chose the Galaxy casino mainly because their workers were the only ones who spoke English well enough to tell us that the shuttle was free. It was much further away from the ferry than the other casinos, and we were a bit worried that we were heading to a sketchy place. When we arrived, though, we found that we had inadvertently chosen the shuttle bus to the newest casino in Macau - that also happens to currently be the largest casino in the world! Hooray for us!

We had a few drinks and walked around the casino for a while. The only table games they had were Blackjack and Baccarat. Dad ended up playing Blackjack for a while, and we got quite a crowd at our table. We ended up staying in Macau for a long time, and ended up getting back to Hong Kong so late that the subway had stopped running.

The next day, we walked around the city again, and took the Star Ferry around so we could see all of the big buildings, which was really beautiful. That night, we took a 9pm train to Bangkok to continue our adventures.

Link to Hong Kong and Macau pictures:


Oh, man. I can't believe I forgot to write about this the first time. Hong Kong is so drastically different from mainland China. I could hardly believe it. I felt extremely awkward a lot of the time as I realized how some of my mannerisms had changed to accommodate the mannerisms of the people I interact with in China daily. First, I couldn't believe how clean Hong Kong is in comparison to Beijing (and the Shiz, haha). It's the only place where I think people actually abide by "No Smoking" signs. There are also "No Spitting" signs, which I found wonderful. A small, but much needed, break from the constant hacking and spitting that haunts me on the mainland. Other things I also didn't see in Hong Kong: people using the outdoors as their personal restroom and babies with slit pants. Heaven.

The other thing that is worth mentioning about Hong Kong is that lines and rules exist in this place. One example is how people use an escalator. So, in most of the world, if you want to stand in place, you stand on one side of the escalator, to allow for people who want to walk to use the other side. This concept does not exist in mainland China. Everyone will rush to get on the escalator and then just stand there. Just stand still. Oh, you wanted to walk up the escalator to go quickly? TOO BAD. China doesn't want that for you. You must hurry up to wait. Well, in Hong Kong, people actually abide by this rule. I had the hardest time remembering to do so. Every time we would get on an escalator, my dad would have to remind me to stand behind him to allow people to walk around me. It was this one small example that made me realize how I am so used to just having to shove my way through crowds and ignore certain social cues that I grew up around. Another problem I had was waiting to get on the subway. In Beijing, you shove and elbow your way onto the subway any way you can. In Hong Kong, people actually wait in lines on either side of the door. They allow people to exit the subway car before they start boarding. It was very, very hard for me to remember to wait in line and not shove people out of my way.

Winter Wonderland

The first leg of my holiday adventures began on a 22 hour train ride up north to Harbin, China.

The red circle is where Harbin is in the country.
Harbin has had a ton of Russian influence, and initially became a large city because Russia built a leg of the Trans-Siberian railway that went through Harbin to Vladivostok. Harbin was also occupied by the Japanese during their occupation of Manchuria, and by some accounts suffered some of the worst atrocities in Manchuria. There was a war museum outside the city, where there had been a Japanese "medical testing" facility. Unfortunately, it was closed while we were there, so we were unable to visit.

Because of their mixed history with foreign influence, we had some unsettling encounters with some of the people who lived in Harbin. Overall, I'd say there weren't really very friendly to us.

Aaron's student David is from Harbin and was our tour guide through the city. David is one of the kindest people I've ever met. He sacrificed the first four days of his own holiday break to show us around his city and make sure that we were comfortable and able to see everything we wanted to before we had to leave. It was great to have him around, and he was able to explain some things to us about why people weren't very nice. Apparently, Harbin has a pretty bad history with Russia that they're not forgetting anytime soon. David explained to us that, if we were white in Harbin, they pretty much assumed that we were Russian. Although, the few times where people realized we were American, there wasn't really a difference in the way we were treated, either.

Anyhow, despite this, our trip to Harbin was AMAZING. The city is absolutely beautiful and the snow and ice sculptures are unbelievable. The crazy arctic temperatures were definitely worth everything that I was able to see in the city.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the trip started with a 22 hour train ride from Shijiazhuang to Harbin. Since it was the beginning of the holiday break, traveling in China was difficult. China doesn't exactly do planning ahead, and you can only buy train tickets 10 days in advance. We bought our tickets the day after they went on sale, and by that time, there already weren't any sleepers available. We really, really wanted to go to Harbin, so we decided that taking an overnight train on just a seat was a truly Chinese experience, and we were going to just do it. They only had bench seats available, which means that there are no arm rests or anything in between the seats. Just a padded bench that you sit on with the other people in your row.

Another thing about Chinese trains, especially T and K trains, is that there is the option available to buy "standing" tickets. However, there isn't always a special compartment for those standers. No, no. They just take their huge bags and stand in the aisle, around the bathroom, on the counter by the sink, or anywhere else they can find a place - including your seat if you get up to use the restroom.

To fully grasp what was going through my mind on this train ride, I made a journal that I tried to update as much as possible with whatever sane or insane thoughts that were going through my brain at the time.

22 Hours on the Train Ride From Hell

11:30am: I've been on this train for all of 10 minutes and already feel like I've lost my sanity. On my side of the train, there are a bunch of college students heading home to who knows where. They are also apparently opposed to actually purchasing train tickets. When I arrived at the train, the man checking tickets actually held the crowd back for the four of us (Iraise, Lauren, Emily, and myself) while mumbling something about Harbin and mei guo ren (Americans). I don't know exactly what he was saying, but I imagine it was something that involved lots of pity and surprise. "These poor American girls have no idea what they're in for. Harbin? Oh, no." I understood once I arrived at my seat and there were three girls already shoved on the two-person bench seat that was supposed to be seating me and one other person. In a haze of disbelief that this was really my life, I weakly held my ticket out and pointed to the 113 on my ticket. My. Seat. Instead of getting up, as that would be far too logical, one girl climbed into the other girl's lap, while the third stood at the end of the table, effectively blocking my leg room. I would like to add that my train car has 118 seats and a capacity of 118 people. There are, additionally, roughly 50-60 people standing in the aisle with their luggage. These girls and the two people across from me had already covered the table with their crap - mostly candy, sunflower seeds that they will eventually spit on the floor, and an odd assortment of fluffy winter gear with cartoon characters on it. Add to this that I probably have bronchitis and need to eat something so I can take the prednisone Iraise got me from a Chinese hospital last night, and I am not a happy camper. I grumbled something about, "I paid for this seat, and I WILL USE IT." while i kicked the girl out of my way and edged my backpack and bag of food under the table, my legs on either side of it. I used this same tactic to get the writing space on the table I'm currently using, except elbows were involved.

11:45am: The girls next to me were just trying to take my picture. They are already roughly six inches from my face. China.

12:00pm: Took the first dose of my sketchily-obtained medicine. Immediately after, a group of men began smoking between the cars, about five feet away from me, and directly under the "No Smoking" sign. No one else seems to care. I can feel my lungs crying.

12:30pm: The girl in front of me seems to feel as though her status as a stander entitles her to my leg room. I've settled for instead resting my feet directly on top of hers. If she won't give me the foot room in front of my seat, she can be my footrest. I also caused a commotion when a stander behind me decided to loop her arm around the top of my seat, blocking me from being able to use my own head rest. I patted her arm, said excuse me, and then lifted it off of my seat. My. Seat. You are not my problem.

1:20pm: Currently being squeezed out of my seat as the two girls in the ONE seat next to me try (and fail) to sleep sitting on laps. I am pressing as much of my weight as possible against them just to get a corner of the table. I hope they find it annoying. I am not tired. I am also not ready to use up the battery life of my electronics. I will continue this game.

1:30pm: As they are college students and know a few words of English, I have resorted to adding grunts of "rude", "move", or "are you serious?" with my elbow jabs. Again, not my problem that you didn't buy a seat.

2:00pm: The girl across the table from me is now playing music out loud on her phone. I have resorted to earplugs.

2:45pm: First attempt at a nap = epic failure. Now, the girl next to me started playing what is quite possibly the worst song in the world, on blast, from her cell phone, right next to my ear. Trying to decide on an equally annoying and obnoxious activity that I can engage in; strongly considering playing "Big Pimpin" out loud on my iPad. I think one of them can possibly read my mind, she got them to stop right before I reached my breaking point. That, or she understands the word fuck.

3:00pm: Prednisone is working. This is the best my lungs have felt since early November.

4:00pm: I don't think anyone in China knows how to chew with their mouth closed.

4:05pm: This train is staging a competition for who can be the most obnoxious individual. That's the only explanation that makes sense.

4:15pm: Used a squatter on a movie train. Wearing a surgical mask was necessary. A small part of me wants to push the two girls next to me off the moving train. They seem to think that they can sit partly in my seat.

4:20pm: The girl standing in the aisle is wearing a shirt that says, "Barack Obamd: skyline Friendly organizations in Peace." Ladies and Gentlemen, meet our new president, Barack Obamd.

4:21pm: Someone is playing a recorder.

4:22pm: What's that old torture device called where they tie each of your limbs to a different horse and then all four run in a different direction? Something and quartered. Drawn and quartered. I'm not entirely convinced that it would be inhumane to draw and quarter the inventor of the QQ instant message noise or the man currently playing music on a loudspeaker in the car of my train. I want to go boil water for my instant noodles. Not sure what will happen to my seat if I move. Still holding out on using electronics. Will need them for the last leg of the journey. Even earplugs won't drown out the sound of the girl next to me eating a meat stick.

5:40pm: Still playing music on his loudspeaker, except now there is singing. Including the girls next to me. It sounds like some sort of nationalistic war fight song recorded over the music for Celine Dion's song for The Titanic.

5:45pm: There is a man across from Lauren who has consumed an entire grocery bag full of pre-packaged chicken feet. He's currently passed out on the table. I don't know how he can eat all of that and not die.

6:30pm: The two standers have left, FINALLY, leaving me with only one other person on my two-person bench. Great success!

6:50pm: The train has cleared! There are now only about 10-20 standers. We are less oxygen-deprived now. Dinner time!

2:40am: I've surprisingly been sleeping on and off since roughly 8:30pm. I must sleep in two hour shifts. Have to stand up and walk around because my butt, back, and spine hurt so bad. Someone behind me is gnawing on a full melon. The only way sleep is possible is in my wolf hat and earplugs. I feel homeless.

5:30am: Everyone around me is eating instant noodle bowls for breakfast.

5:50am: The music has started again. The concept of courtesy doesn't exist here.

8:00am: Woke up. Starving. Nothing edible on this train. All I have left is a noodle bowl. My body is anti-sodium right now. I need water. Where is the annoying water cart man who came around every hour on the hour except when I need him?

8:10am: Surprised at how well I maintained my sanity on this train. Just a little under two hours left and I haven't used any electronics, despite bringing my laptop, iPad, and iPod. Lauren and I started shutting the door on the chain smokers. It really doesn't help much. I want to take my prednisone, but I need food. People took pictures of me sleeping. And eating. And blowing my nose.

9:05am: Arrival in Harbin!! 40 minutes early.

AND, here are the pictures: