Written by James J. Hudson, 胡杰雄 (University of Texas – Austin)
Intensive Chinese Language in Harbin, Student Correspondent, Fall 2012
There’s always been something special about being on a train in China. It affords one a glimpse of Chinese culture that could not be seen in any other part of the country. When one flies on an airplane back in the states or elsewhere it always seems that everyone is in such a hurry to get to their destination. On trains I’ve always had the sense as if I was really going somewhere, a definite sense of movement, not like in a plane separated from the earth where you are 30,000 plus feet above it all, and then hours later you arrive in a totally different place. It’s not the same kind of feeling. Maybe by seeing the world go by through the windows on a train we perceive time and space differently, as up close and personal. The scenery, be it countryside, urban spaces, or sunlight and clouds in the sky, flickers past us all at once. We take it in. We become part of it all.
China is a big country, and people often have to traverse long distances to do business, travel for the holidays, or if you are a student returning home for a winter or summer break—going to visit family. So if you expect to go anywhere on the cheap in China you better get used to spending a good amount of time on trains. My longest train ride ever was probably a 30+ hour ride from Hunan Province to the city of Kunming, where I was lucky enough to have a “hard sleeper,” which is a relatively comfortable bed in a six bed open sleeping berth. For those who want to pay more for better comfort and more privacy, they also offer four bed closed compartments, or “soft sleepers.” If you buy tickets too late, or if all the sleeping berths are taken, then you have a choice of a “hard” or “soft” seat, which is no problem if you are merely travelling from one nearby city to another, but could be quite uncomfortable if you have a long trip ahead of you.
What can one expect to experience on a train in China? For starters, Chinese people. Lots and lots. And never an open seat/bed. On some of the more crowded trains I’ve ever been on, no seats were available and people had to stand up for the whole trip, or until a seat became available. So if you are one of those people who cherish their personal space and hate crowds, then train travel in China is probably not for you. On hard sleepers you typically share a berth with five other people, and being a foreigner, you are often inundated with questions. Where are you from? What are you doing in China? What do I think about U.S. foreign policy or China’s amazing economic growth in the last 20 years? A great opportunity to practice your Chinese if you are a student! It’s not always comfortable. Why do I always get the berth with the snoring beast or screaming infant? Being able to hear everyone’s conversations and noise can try one’s patience. And the smells. Foot and body odor, the constant smell of instant noodles, or the foul smell from the bathroom. Being on a train also puts you as a foreigner on full display for Chinese people to gawk at in curiosity as if you are some kind of exhibit in a museum. After spending so much time in China I’ve never grown comfortable with how Chinese refer to anyone who is from outside their country: 外国人 (wai guo ren), which literally means “outsider.”
But even if you are an outsider Chinese people can be the most gracious hosts of any people I’ve ever been around. My most recent trip on a train serves as a classic example. I was on an overnight coming back from Tianjin to Harbin, and luckily I had a hard sleeper. For dinner I purchased some junk food at a local McDonald’s before boarding (no instant noodles please!), and shortly after we left Tianjin I sat down at the small table near the window to eat my Big Mac and fries. The man sitting across from me was also eating his dinner and noticed that I was almost finished with my drink. He pulled a beverage out of his own bag and promptly set it down in front of me and encouraged me to help myself. We ended up getting to know each other and had a great conversation. Awesome! I love this country. Such is the flavor of being in China, meeting new people, and taking in such a fascinating culture. What better way than on a train?
Last week, the whole CET family had the opportunity to exchange the lively Osaka atmosphere for a day’s venture into distant mountains, entering a very peaceful, very green world. Arima Town and Rokko Mountain might be only a couple hours away by train, but they certainly felt like a different world.
After riding a cable car to the summit of Mt. Rokko, we had the chance to navigate a ropes course, which involved us shimmying across logs, swinging from cables, and crawling through nets at various stations. At first, my sleepy-self was a bit hesitant to embrace the idea of an early-morning workout, but the ropes course easily proved to be one of the most fun activities I have done with my new friends in Japan. It was particularly special because it was a moment shared with the whole CET group – our amazing Resident Director Lauren, CET staff helpers Kyoko-San and Mitsutoshi-San, our Japanese roommates, and my fellow American students were there cheering each other on and laughing together, yet another reminder of the incredible people that surround me on this trip.
After a cable-car ride back down the mountain (this time in a car suspended high over the valleys, offering a breathtaking views of the mountains below), we took a much-needed trip to the Onsen and then excitedly explored the friendly town of Arima. While coastal Osaka is lively and loud, Arima is nestled into the mountains, stone streets winding through old-fashioned architecture. Both are beautiful cities in a unique way, and my trip to Arima reminds me that there is so much to see in Japan. However settled in I may be to the friendly and familiar part of Aikawa I now call home, there will always be another world nearby waiting to be explored.
In that respect, I’m very lucky indeed. Osaka is a great launching point for travel throughout the Kansai area, with beautiful cities such as Kyoto just a short train-ride away. Many of our Japanese roommates are either native Osakans or from various Kansai hometowns, which creates a great opportunity to travel! I’ve already taken a day trip to my roommate Iyo’s hometown, Nara – a tranquil city famous for the Daibutsu (a breath-taking temple featuring a giant statue of the Buddha) and the many friendly, hungry deer that wonder its streets.
And Osaka is not only a gateway to Japan, but a gateway to the world. I recently had the opportunity to explore nearby Kobe’s Chinatown (Nankin Machi), and the experience was unparalleled. Walking down streets lined with food stands and lit by glowing lanterns, listening to rhythmic Chinese drumming and watching acrobatic dragon dances was a beautifully surreal experience. That night’s rain dampened none of Nankin Machi’s vibrant night culture of food and celebration. As an international studies major, I’ve been paying particular attention to the growing Japanese-Chinese tensions, but it seemed as if none of these politics intruded into Kobe’s Chinatown – reminding me that inter-cultural experiences are one of the most valuable forms of international diplomacy.
All these amazing places inspire me to leave no stone unturned during the time I have left in Japan, whether that stone be down the street or a train-ride away. Osaka contains infinite layers of complex culture building on and growing from each other, and it’s a true marvel to be living in the center of it every day.
My nearly 24 hours of travel time finally ended last night as my Japan Airlines flight landed in Ho Chi Minh City. I have now decided that Al Nippon Air is officially my favorite airline. Despite being crammed into tiny economy seats, the beautiful Japanese flight attendants served us an amazing teriyaki beef dish with hot tea, miso soup, and noodles. Never before in my life had a finished my plate of airplane food wanting seconds. Well done ANA. Well done.
Next level dining.
The wait at baggage claim was an excruciating experience. I had very little faith that my bag had travelled the distance from SFO to HCMC. Staring at that loading belt to the baggage carousel was like opening gift after gift at Christmas hoping for a Nintendo 64 only to find books and clothes beneath the wrapping paper. Except Nintendo 64s usually aren’t full of life saving malaria medication. Luckily I got a Nintendo 64 for Christmas and my green rolly suitcase did indeed make it to Vietnam, but two of my trip mates were not so lucky. They got socks for Christmas. Their luggage which was apparently stuck in Chicago will hopefully be arriving tonight. Good luck to them both.
Finally, after leaving the airport and making it to our guesthouse in District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City, we were all ready to pass out in a comatose-like sleep, but, of course, not before getting to meet our program director Alyce Van. Alyce has been living in Vietnam for five years, but is originally from Orange County, CA. After studying at Yale, she spent 5 years running the CET Academic Programs in Vietnam, so we are definitely in good hands. We were also introduced to her assistant, Kai. Kai is a second year Vietnamese college student attending one of the most prestigious international business schools in the country. His English is very good and he has been super helpful at helping us all settle in. Although it was great meeting Alyce and Kai, I was miles past absolute exhaustion so it was certainly bed time. Too exhausted to throw a fit when Alyce told us breakfast was at 7:00am. I can get cranky when I’m tired.
I was assigned to the luxurious room 124, complete with two beds, A/C, and a fully functioning bathroom! Hold on, let me quickly clarify “fully functioning”. We have a toilet, a sink, a mirror, and an shower open spout that pours directly onto the bathroom floor. At least its hot water. Nonetheless, the rooms are comfortable and one really can’t complain. Have yet to spot any spiders in this country, so my arachnophobic self is as happy as a clam. A spider free country? That’s something I could get used to.
Once I hit my bed I almost immediately passed out, falling into a beautiful Jet Lag induced sleep. But Jet Lag giveth, and Jet Lag taketh away. Around 4:30am I woke up, fully alert, and not in the least bit tired. All I could do was will myself back to sleep for the remaining 2.5 hours before breakfast. But on the bright side, I have never been so awake at 7am in my life! Maybe that has something to do with why I am nearly falling asleeeeeep as I write this………
For breakfast we went on a short walk around the corner to an alley market where I was finally introduced to the wonderful world of Pho. I wasn’t sure what the Vietnamese eat for breakfast, so I asked Kai, to which he responded “Vietnamese food!” Of course I asked him what they eat for lunch and dinner, to which he again responded “Vietnamese food!” Looks like I will be eating a lot of Pho. This was also where I realized how dirt cheap everything in this country is! A big bowl of Pho with a bottle of water? 35,000 Dong!! Sounds a lot cheaper when you covert that to about $1.50! All in all a great breakfast and a great way to start the day.
After a quick orientation with Alyce in which we were given 800,000 dong (about 40 bucks) in spending money, we went for a 2 hour walking tour through downtown Ho Chi Minh City. ***A quick note on the difference between Ho Chi Minh City and Saigon. Saigon was the name of this city up until 1975 when the North Vietnamese captured South Vietnam and as the US dipped out of the war, creating the unified nation we know today as Vietnam. To rub the victory in the world’s face, Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the north, renamed the city in his honor. Despite the city being officially known as HCMC, Vietnamese Americans who fled South Vietnam during the war like to honor the history of the city by calling it by its “true” name. Most Vietnamese tend to prefer Saigon merely because its a complete pain in the ass to keep saying Ho Chi Minh City all the time.*** Now back to the story. So our walking tour was amazing! Within the first five minutes me and few other guys broke down and bought a Vietnamese sandwich for no more than 50 cents. Pure deliciousness. Of course I quickly calculated that my weekly stipend can buy me about 80 of these. Don’t temp me street venders…
On this tour we all got a cash course in crossing the street in Vietnam. The streets here are ridiculous! absolutely full of motorbikes, cars, busses, and the occasional rickshaw. To the inexperienced traveler (me about an hour ago), crossing the street would seem just as easy as crossing a lava flow assuming you don’t want to end up like Anakin Skywalker (first Star Wars reference!). Alyce told us the key is to walk steadily and consisently across the street, letting everyone else avoid you, but “you have to dodge the busses and cars, they will just hit you”. With that sobering advice, we took to traffic like Patches O’houlihan.
Along our walking tour we walked by the American Embassy which was guarded by soldiers donning AK-47s while the Spanish Embassy guard dudes were chilling drinking ice tea or something. Why so serious US? Along the way we found that a very nice Vietnamese policeman was following us, making good use of his whistle as he kept us safe by direction traffic around us an keeping an eye out for possible pick pocketers. He was nice. I like to call him Tom. After about 5 minutes he left though. And now I’m sad.
One of the highlights of the day was eating at a very famous restaurant called Pho 2000: Pho For the President. According to photographic evidence, President Bill Clinton actually ate here in 2000! The food was pretty good so I see why. I decided to go all out and try the allegedly very good Avacado Smoothie. I was surprised to find that it was actually delicious and amazingly refreshing in the humidity.
On the way back, in a typical South-East Asia fashion, it starting pooring rain so we took shelter in the famous opera house downtown. We then realized that for 9 dollars we could see an opera tonight at 5pm, apparently a very good opera called “The Spirit of Vietnam”. So tonight, in Saigon, I am going to the opera! I knew I should have packed my furs…. Per my dads request, after the Opera we plan to get a drink General Westmoreland style at the famous Saigon Saigon lounge atop the historical Caravelle Hotel. This will definitely make for a sweet first night in Vietnam. Until then, I gotta freshen up for my big night on the town.
Still looking for Charlie (whoever that is),
Prague is no doubt the heart of continental Europe. It is situated right in the center. For this reason one should never make the mistake of classifying Prague as an Eastern European city, especially not in earshot of a Czech. If Prague is the heart than, while you are here, you will find how effortless it is to be carried by the veins of busses and trains that branch out from the city center and take you to all the other organs of the body that is Europe. Here are some of the places I’ve traveled so far and information on the train station and bus services to help you plan your study abroad weekend getaways.
The first place I traveled was Berlin. The city is a mere six-hour bus ride away. I booked with Student Agency, which is essentially the Mega Bus or Bolt Bus of Europe. They offer services to almost every major city for a very cheap price.
The city itself is a stark contrast from Prague in size and style. It is an enormous city by comparison yet everywhere is extremely accessible through its advanced system of trams, buses and subways.
Where Prague is very medieval and aged, Berlin is the very definition of modern. Since the bulk of the city was destroyed during World War II, the Germans had to completely rebuild and start over. When you visit Berlin you are visiting a city rebuilt from scratch sixty-seven years ago.
Explore the whole city, but definitely spend more time on the east side. You will find less touristy, cheaper, and tastier establishments and a more hip and vibrant culture. You must see the East Side Gallery, a free, outdoor collection of paintings with what remains of the Berlin Wall as its canvass. Definitely indulge in the Berlin street food. Have the currywurst and the best doner kebab outside Istanbul.
Amsterdam’s reputation precedes it. By day, the city is charming and relatively quiet. Filled with art museums, cafes, and cheese shops along side a maze of peaceful canals. By night, Amsterdam is the greatest party in Europe. Having a vibrant nightlife in one of the most relaxed and least judgmental places on Earth. It is a land where sin is legal and celebrated.
Amsterdam is also an amazingly energy efficient city. Everyone has a bike and is the preferred method of travel. It is not uncommon to see hundreds of bikes left about on main streets and dining areas. Bikes accompanied with a great metro and tram system make driving an automobile a pointless endeavor that will result in just getting in people’s way while trying to navigate around the canals and through the tiny side streets. Holland in general sets a great example for sustainability and green energy. As you enter the country, look out the window and take in the sights of rows of modern windmills.
While you are in town, definitely have French fries with peanut sauce. You’ll never want to have it with ketchup again. Amsterdam also has exceptionally good chocolate and cheeses. You will not go hungry.
Istanbul is only a two-hour flight from Prague and well worth your time if you want to see a European city that is completely out of the norm. It is technically in the Middle East and is the crossroads between Europe and Asia. In fact you can even take a ferry between the European and Asian side of the city.
The city is filled with magnificent sites such as the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, the Spice Bazaar, and stunning views of the sea. It is a fun walking city, filled with delicious food and the best coffee and tea you will ever have.
Since the flights and sightseeing were rather pricey, I tried couch surfing for the first time on this trip. I encourage all of you to join the network. Even if you have a hostel, you’ll never be alone in a foreign country, will all the surfers willing to help show you around. Mine was no different, she was really sweet and accommodating the entire time I was in town and even showed me around the nightlife area. I can say that I certainly made a new friend in Istanbul.
If you ever have a burning desire to feel like royalty, take a trip to Zatín, Slovakia. Zatín is a tiny town in the Hungarian speaking section of the Slovak countryside. My ancestors hail from that part of the world and my dad wanted to make a trip out there.
The town never gets American tourists thus we were quite the spectacle. The townspeople brought us to the mayor’s office where he insisted on serving drinks. Lots of photos were taken of us shaking hands and he handed us all the gifts he could muster. Mugs, tote bags, postcards and the like.
A reception in the mayor’s office was not enough. The man insisted he take us to the local pub. All drinks were on the house. My dad made a remark about the glasses the beer was served in and the bar gave us a set to take home. Everyone in the town wanted to put us up for the night but we had to move on.
I have just returned from Vienna a couple days ago. If you are a shopper, Vienna is the place for you. It is essentially New York’s Fifth Avenue converted into a city.
Sparsely placed among the rows of shops and boutiques are art museums of all kinds and little European coffee shops. One of the best hot chocolates I’ve ever had was in Vienna.
If you are a film major or into movies, definitely check out the Jewish Museum. Most of the museum is devoted to a Jews of cinema exhibit that goes through the history of Hollywood. It is complete with clips from all of the best films of the last century. At the end of the exhibit you can see the actual baseball bat used by “The Bear Jew” in Inglorious Bastards.
Unfortunately we did not get to see a show at their renowned opera house but we did walk around the building several times. One thing that certainly goes for the city is the impressive architecture. It is definitely worth spending a day or two there.