I spent my fall break in a small city in Gangsu Province called Dunhuang, situated on the edge of the Gobi desert. In fact, it’s an oasis in the Gobi desert. In the time of the silk road, it was a prominent stop for weary traders and part of an important route between India and Mongolia. Today tourists travel to Dunhuang to see its famed Buddhist caves, hike its dunes, and appreciate its small town charm.
I arrived in this lush oasis with a few other CET students at the peak of fall color. The orange and yellow trees were bright against the golden sand dunes, which rose almost alarmingly, behind the spread of trees. Although initially a tad befuddled about how to get from the shiny new train station to the actual town, we were befriended almost immediately by a bus driver who saw us from a far and yelled at us to hurry up and get on the bus. Throughout the week, uncannily he found us again at least two separate times when we needed the bus!
One of these times was when we needed a bus to visit Dunhuang’s Mogao caves. At the caves we went on a tour with a Chinese speaking tour guide, which was a bit of a challenge; but I was impressed at how much we could understand. Besides which, the intricate patterns painted on the walls and the awe-inspiring sculpted Buddhas spoke for themselves. One of the Buddhas we saw was approximately 5 stories tall. I kid you not. When we were entering this room, I was confused at first as to where the sculptures were, until I realized that some ways to my left there was a Buddha’s foot, taller than I was, and to my right another one.
Another day in Dunhuang was spent hiking the sand dunes. We woke up early because we planned to spend the whole day frolicking in the sand like young’uns. For this adventure we first rented (very sexy) neon orange boots to protect our shoes, and then set off to ride some camels. On our camel ride we chatted with a Chinese man who was riding a camel in front of us. Later, unbeknownst to us, he bought us tickets to sled down the sand dunes. Yet another example of the warmth and generousity of spirit we met all over Dunhuang. After sledding, we hiked to the top of a dune and looked out over Dunhuang. From this vantage point it wasn’t hard to imagine that we were travelers on the silk road, reaching an oasis after a long camel ride.
We also had a great time exploring the town of Dunhuang. Though small, it is a vibrant and friendly town. We found many delicious things on sticks to eat, and had a great time shopping in the night market. We even found an American style cafe with delicious hamburgers, milkshakes, and bottomless cups of coffee (!!!). I would very strongly recommend Dunhuang as a place to visit, especially if you need a little time away from the hustle and bustle of China’s urban areas such as Beijing or Shanghai.
“I know I’m going to cry, I just know it.” I don’t know how many times I said that in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. Every year, just like everyone else in America, I come together with my family, laugh, eat, talk, dance, and usually remember how much I love them. It’s absolutely my favorite holiday. I even took the fact that I would miss it into serious consideration when choosing which semester to leave. So, instead of moping around, wishing I could be home, I adopted my great-grandmother’s method of “become so busy you don’t have time to think about anything else.” Two weeks prior, I volunteered to become one of the organizers for the Thanksgiving dinner CET held for us. Yes, it was a lot of work, especially because our teachers (and I suspect they did this to take our mind’s off Thanksgiving abroad) gave us an obscene amount of work that week, but it certainly took my mind off not being home. I never truly appreciated the access I have at home to various kinds of food until I spent about 5 hours over 2 days looking for balsamic vinegar (we didn’t find it).
Cooking itself was a blast! Every night, starting three days before Thanksgiving, about 10 people would head to the dining hall kitchen to cook. Even our teachers came (though I suspect more to see how foreigners cooked than they did to help). Starting on Tuesday all the way to Thursday at 6:00pm we made: salad, corn bread, roasted vegetables, eggplant parm, mashed potatoes, stuffing, brownies, sweet potato pie, pumpkin pie, and apple pie. SO MUCH FOOD! Thursday night, at 6:00 sharp we started serving.
At my table, once we sat down there was hardly any conversation, as we were all far to busy savoring the flavors of basil, cheese, and sweet corn that we all missed. Funnily enough, while I easily slid under the warm blanket of familiar flavors, our roommates and teachers experienced flavors, which for some of them were completely new! “Eggplant with cheese and tomatoes!” I heard one roommate say, with a slightly offended, slightly fascinated tone. Later on, I saw her taking seconds on the Eggplant parm…
It was exactly what Thanksgiving is supposed to be—people talking, eating, and laughing together. No I wasn’t home. Yes, I still skyped into my family’s Thanksgiving the next morning. But when it’s all said and done, I couldn’t have asked for anything more perfect. (And no, there were no tears
CET Chinese Studies Fall ’11 student, Chris Wehner (US Naval Academy), was recently featured in an article on DCMilitary.com. During Fall Break, Chris ran 100 miles from Beijing to the sea with two CET classmates supporting him on bikes.
Click here to read the full article about Chris on DCMilitary.com
Click here to read Samantha Wolfe’s blog post about what it was like supporting Chris on his run
So you’ve decided to study abroad in Japan. You have done the first step. Now what can you expect? Upon reading many blogs from fellow study abroad students, you might get some mixed feelings about Japan. Some will express shock at the cultural differences they face in day to day life, while others may express joy and happiness at being in a new place. Everyone is different. But one thing remains for sure: You will definitely learn something new in Japan.
I won’t go in depth and state why you should study abroad in Japan. Instead, I’ll give you some useful tips for surviving in Japan.
So, what can you expect in Japan?
1. Public Transportation
Yes, cars exist in Japan, but the most common (and convenient) way to get around Japan is either by train or bus. The trains here are surprisingly reliable because they are usually on time. You don’t necessarily have to memorize the train schedule because they come almost every 10-15 minutes. However, there are different types of train, depending on how frequently they stop.
Futsuu “Local Trains”_- The local trains usually stop at every stop. These are considered the slowest of the bunch if you plan one going far. But if you happen to get lost, the local train never fails. Just take the local train and you’ll (eventually) be back home.
Kaisoku/Kyuukou “Express Trains” - Some train companies may choose to name their Express Trains in various ways. For the JR Railway, it is called the Kaisoku. For the Hankyuu Railway, it is called the Kyuukou. These Express Trains stop almost at every two or three stops. Therefore, it can be considered a quicker option.
Shinkaisoku/tokkyuu “Limited Express Trains” - Again, companies may choose to name their Limited Express trains in different ways. Nevertheless, Limited Express Trains make the fewest stops, usually at big cities. The seats are much more comfortable, but the Limited Express Trains tend to be somewhat crowded since people may want to go to the big cities. The Limited Express Trains are usually the fastest of the bunch.
Since there are various types of trains, you can change trains at the stops. There is a flat rate for riding the train to a certain destination. Therefore, you can ride either the Local Train or the Limited Express Train for the same price. The only determinant of the ticket price is the destination. If your destination is further away, it will cost more. But which type of train you take to the get there is up to you. The trains are very cheap, ranging from a little under $6. It beats having to worry about gas money.
If you want to go from one big city to another in a short amount of time, you can choose to take the Shinkansen or the “Bullet Train” to go from one city to another (Kyoto to Osaka or Osaka to Tokyo), but the Shinkansen is usually expensive.
As a college student in the US, I don’t usually have much time to sit down and quietly enjoy a nice meal or even a soft drink. Sometimes, I grab a snack and eat it on the way to class. However, that’s in the US. In Japan, it’s quite rare to see people eating while walking. It is even rare to see someone have a drink of coffee on their way to work. Usually, you would pay for a drink from a vending machine and drink it right then and there. There’s even a nice convenient trash can next to vending machine for your own use. Useful, no?
3. Etiquette in the Train
Upon boarding the train, you’ll see various signs to turn off cellphones or put them on silent mode. Usually, people do not talk on the phone while they ride the train because it can be considered rude. You can text or listen to music quietly. However, some parts of the train do not allow you to use the cell phone at all. Instead of seeing signs to put phones on silent mode, you’ll see signs with cell phones and the word “OFF” next to them. This is probably for safety reasons (since almost everyone has a camera phone that can take picture of anything). The train conductor may ask you to go to the next cabin/car.
Also, do not eat or drink food in the train. Since we’re foreigners, we already stick out in Japan like sore thumbs. However, eating on the train will help you get what we call “The Stare.” Eating on the train is considered rude because it can be somewhat self-indulgent. Also, the train is public space, so eating food should be done in your own personal space.
Overall, there is more to talk about, but these are the things that mostly stood out to me in Japan.