A Travellerspoint blog

Mid-Autumn Festival on Tai Shan

China’s most sacred mountain brings a fresh perspective on Qingdao

September the 22nd was Mid-Autumn Fest, a day which normally ends with me and my sisters prancing around our back garden with paper lanterns attached to bamboo sticks. However, since I am in China this year, the only similarity this time round was that I ate mooncake! Mooncake is the traditional food we eat during the festival to remind ourselves of Chang'e, moon goddess of immortality (see the legend of Hou Yi and Chang'e).

We got 3 days off from teaching as well as selected pressies from the school (see pics). Me, Elinor and Natasha decided to use this time off to make a trip to Tai Shan (泰山); China’s most sacred mountain which was also in our province of Shangdong. Anyone who's anyone (in China) has climbed it: Confucious, Qin Shi Huang (the first emperor of China - the one in that film 'Hero') and even ol' Mao. Thus with the prospect of following in their footsteps, we were all certainly excited about our first slice of travelling action since arriving in Qingdao.

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Mid-Autumn festival presents from school

Unfortunately, days off for us = days off for the 1.3 billion other people living in China. Factor in the ‘festival effect’, where Chinese people journey back to their hometowns to deliver mooncakes and whatnot, and you start to feel like sardines swimming in a packed paddling pool.

September the 22nd

We arrived in Tai’an (the city at the base of Tai Shan) after a short 4 ½ hour train journey. Immediately we had to join the queues to sort out tickets for the return journey. The annoying thing is that you can’t buy tickets online which often means having to brave ‘queues’ at the actual place of departure since you can’t seem to buy tickets in advance without actually being there. If that makes sense.

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Sardines in a tin...each with a box of mooncakes

After checking in our cheap ‘hostel’ (dodgy cause they didn’t even ask for our passports…), we headed out to explore Tai’an. The main attraction here was Dai Temple (岱庙), an expansive temple complex which rejuvenated our rather tired selves (having set off at 6.10am in the morning). The serenity of this place, coupled with the clean mountain air, was just what the doctor ordered and we spent more than 3 hours simply wondering around the temple buildings and their gardens. There were also these wondrous bi xi’s (鼻息) – mythical tortoise-like dragons which supported stone stelaes (tablets with ye olde Chinese wisdom).

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We also spent some time trailing a Chinese tour group to observe their unusual activities which seemed to involve keeping one’s eyes shut whilst circling a stone block (keeping hands in contact constantly) anti-clockwise then clockwise before (still with eyes shut) attempting to walk your way towards another stone block of unknown significance. Well, I’m a sucker for such oddities so I also attempted it under the eyes of the tourist group who, to be honest, were probably looking at Elinor and Natasha.

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Strangely enough, alongside the gardens, bi xi and stelae, there was also a small geology museum (???) which I took a shining to:

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Where were you before my finals?

Once we retired back to our room, having used the local KFCs toilets to avoid the monstrosity that awaited our bowels in our hostel, we tucked into a mooncake I had brought with me. Glad it wasn’t the meat one, we ate a third each before going to bed (obviously brushing our teeth in between but I won’t bore you with such mundanities from now on).

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Nom nom nom...this one had a peanut filling

September the 23rd

Today was the day of the big climb. Having once again used the wonderful facilities of KFC, we set off on our journey up Tai Shan laden with goodies (mainly sweets and water) to keep us going for the whole day. BOY did we need it. Although Tai Shan is only 1532m above sea level, it was certainly no gentle ascent. As well as the small and steep steps (resulting in crab-like sideways walking), we had to contend with what the Chinese call ‘人山人海’ – a ‘mountain of people and a sea of persons’. Alas, they all seemed to be fitter than us three – especially the OAPs who frequently overtook us with religious fervour. Must be all that dancing to ‘sex bomb’.

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Top: One of the numerous shops selling religious trinkets and incense of varying sizes. I didn't have much money left so bought the smallest bundle I could find. The shopkeeper took pity on me and gave me a free red armband. I didn't know what it was for but I DO love freebies.
Bottom: Those red armbands seemed to be hung up in random places en route to the summit. My personal theory is that the red armbands are placed when the person can climb no more...thus I was determined to hang mine up only once we had reached the very top!

Once we reached the mid-point of our climb, we could’ve stopped to have some ‘la mian’ (pulled noodles) but we decided to press on. We even resolutely decided against taking the cable car up to the summit. We’re hard as nuts we are.

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Top: Pulled noodles being...pulled
Bottom: Food supplies have to be carried up the mountain thus food gets pricier the higher up you eat!

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L: Me and some red calligraphy carved into stone. It means something profound. R: Here come the tourists/pilgrims!

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More than half way up the mountain, some guy thinks he's a joker.

From then on, the ascent got even steeper. We weren’t the only ones struggling though - we saw a young American woman slowly battling up and offered her water. Katie, for that was her name, was trying to catch up with Dan, for that was her friend’s name, who had gone ahead with her water, mobile phone, money and anything else of use. We decided to undertake the rest of the summit together and onwards we went. Understandably, I didn’t take many pictures from this point due to exhaustion though I did manage one short breathy video:

and no, I am NOT wearing a wife-beater.

Upon reaching the summit, we were pretty chuffed and took the obligatory pictures and chatted to our new found friends Katie and Dan who coincidentally were also living in Qingdao this year! I also was glad to burn the incense sticks I had been carrying all the way up. However, our chuff-ness was short-lived when we discovered that we weren’t at the summit at all (DOH). Elinor and Natasha were reluctant to go on but a bit of light persuasion by yours truly soon saw us trekking onwards up yet more steps (though not before we ate a well deserved bowl of beef noodles at one of the restaurants on the aptly named ‘sky road’).

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Me trying to light my incense sticks without getting charred myself. Alas my incense sticks, battered from the long journey up, started crumbling and breaking apart so in the end, I kinda unceremoniously just threw them into the fire...(I still get my good luck right?)

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Up we go again...

When we *finally* reached the REAL summit, at the temple of the celestial Jade Emperor, breath-taking views of the cloud-swathed mountains greeted us – the pictures really don’t do any justice. Whilst Elinor and Natasha wandered around taking snaps, I participated in ‘spiritual stuff’…I always feel obliged as a ‘paper Buddhist’ (though I think I may be Taoist…) despite not being practising. Meh. I like the smell of incense so that’s good enough for me.

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'Spiritual stuff' included hanging up that red armband I got given at the base of Tai Shan.
When in doubt, just copy everyone else...

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With the sun starting to set, we headed down those small and blommin steep steps once again. Katie and Dan had got the cable car down and as night fell, perhaps we should of as well! In the end however, I was glad we did it the ‘pilgrims way’. Btw, fellow friends of the travel bible – LONELY PLANET LIES! It says (and I quote) “it’s possible to scale the mountain at night…the way is lit by lamps”…NOT. It honestly was pitch dark with only the sound of (possibly death-harbinging) dogs to keep you company. Surprising enough, there were still many people coming up as we were nearing the base of Tai Shan – hardcore climbers no doubt wanting to get to the summit for sunrise.

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All in all, the whole ascent and descent took us 10 hours including rest-stops we made along the way. We were certainly glad to find ourselves back in our room for another long-awaited sleep.

September the 24th

On the bus back to Qingdao, we amused ourselves with ’20 questions’ – spiritually clearly still on my brain as I choose ‘Jesus’ as the figure that Elinor and Natasha had to guess. When we finally pulled into the long-distance bus station in Qingdao, we were all pretty pleased to be back ‘home’ as it were. I guess sometimes you need some distance and perspective to renew yourself. The break was definitely needed but we returned with a new sense of ‘connection’ towards Qingdao (now affectionately known as QD). As we went for a nice dinner with our new American friends, I reflected on how different my mid-Autumn festival was this year and silently toasted Tai Shan for making QD seem more welcoming than ever.

Posted by EddieBlock 17:00 Tagged landscapes friends festival sightseeing spirituality tai_an tai_shan Comments (1)

China 101 - #1

#1 - Spitting

I've decided that during my year in China, I will periodically post some smaller entries that will hopefully give you a flavour of what China is like. I certainly don't mean to point out only the negative stuff but to begin with, the first thing that sprung to my mind (and my ears and sight) was...

SPITTING

When I hear "aaaaarrrcgggghhhhhhck" - a sound I cannot hope to imitate in print - I fear for my feet. Especially when wearing sandals, I always have to do a 360 degree turn every time I hear that noise to make sure that I am out of spitting range.

It is, of course, the delightful sound of the conjuring up of phlegm up one's windpipe reading for expulsion. It's not even a gender thing - I've seen both men and women do it though it's mostly been older folk so perhaps it's a habit that is dying out. Hmm...I haven't noticed much change even in areas with signs like this:

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Maybe spitting in public onto the streets may help in my Chinese transformation. Maybe not.

Posted by EddieBlock 17:00 Tagged china_101 Comments (0)

Teacher's Day

Do you want KFC with a side helping of roses sir?

September the 10th was Teacher’s Day and it’s a day to celebrate the contribution that teachers' make to society. Although we didn’t have any lessons on that day, Elinor and I decided to come in early (the same time as the other teachers normally start their day) at 7am.

We didn’t really know what to expect but at the gates, students were lined up in rows to form a corridor (and this was in the rain!). Some students then ran up and gave us…well, Elinor a rose*. Indeed, a recurring problem is that some students (and even some guards who stop me when they think I’m a student bunking!) do not know that I’m a ‘foreign teacher’. With Elinor, it’s a tad bit more obvious.

  • I later got my first rose from Jasmine (she felt sorry for me) after which some students followed by example!

Anyhow, so we later sat in on a ceremony which involved speeches (which went over my head) by both teachers and students. The teachers who had taught for more than 20 years were paraded infront of everyone and given awards of some sort. I guess that the concept of ‘a job for life’ is still prevalent in China.

I do wonder whether such a day could work in the UK. I mean, they have Teacher’s day in other countries (Brazil, India, Russia and the US to name but a few) so why not? My hunch however, if probably not. I guess you need a ‘tradition’ of teachers having a highly respected role in society and in China, this stems from Confucian ideals which is undergoing a modern revival. Anyhow, all the teacher’s got given fruit by the school as well as (more up my street) a 60 Yuan KFC voucher! :D I love teacher’s day. Perhaps we should push for it in the UK afterall!

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I realise that only 40 Yuan worth is seen here. I had to test out one of the vouchers immediately after receipt...

Posted by EddieBlock 17:00 Tagged food teaching Comments (2)

Things can only get better...

...and they did. D:Ream was right!

Now I’m no expert in 90s pop, well certainly not by self-admission, but I did think to myself that things could indeed only get better. It’s amazing what a few simple (or not so simple) steps can do. I proceeded with my 7-step plan to get my life in order in weeks 2 and 3 of my Qingdao life:

1. Get some food

At first, I just wanted to avoid the perils of buying food since I still have not lived down the time I got refused at the till because I didn’t weigh my bananas (what happened to the check-out people weighing stuff there and typing in the food code?). Of course, at that time I didn’t know what she was talking about so beat a hasty retreat into the realms of restaurant food. Now some people may think this would’ve posed an even greater problem for me but in our first few restaurant visits (still super cheap), me and Elinor went together and she helped me order things that weren’t ‘apple’ (苹果 in case you’re wondering) or the basic fruit vocab I had learnt. Ironically (I don’t know whether I’ve just committed an Alanis Morissette faux par but meh), the first few meals I had in Qingdao were not Chinese but Korean. Food is food as far as I’m concerned.

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The skewers on the right are pig intestines! Surprisingly juicy (and yummy) - luckily we only found out what it was after we ordered it!

Anyhow, I soon plucked up the courage to return back to the supermarket and despite the unfamiliarity, it was nice to experience such ‘new’ things again even in mundane tasks such as getting food.

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Prizes for guessing what the second and third pictures show! (click on pictures for answers)

I returned to fill my fridge and cupboard full of edibles, including my range of basic sauces (soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil etc) and the ‘holy-trinity’ of Chinese cooking – garlic, ginger and chilli. Now despite all this (deliberately) making me sound oh-so-Chinese after all, I didn’t really know what I was doing. Anyhow, after I figured out how to work my gas cooker I started 'cooking'...perhaps take a look at my first few attempts and you be the judge:

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This was suppose to be 'kong pow chicken' (this is what us ELAs always ordered in Beijing)...hmm...perhaps I was too ambitious on my first go.

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L: I call this 'left-over stirfry' R: My first attempt at fried chicken...I was quite chuffed! Doesn't count as 'Chinese' though..does it?

2. Get my internet fixed

This was a biggie. That first week, as I’ve said, was tough especially because of the lack of internet. I now know what academics mean when they talk of the ‘digital natives’ – we really are the ‘plugged in’ generation; so much so that we don’t realise it until there is the absence of it!
So anyway, was overjoyed when the internet man did a few clicks here and there (it looked so simple yet I knew it would’ve been out of my grasp) and bobs-your-uncle, I could now check my emails and read news. I’m so pleased that the BBC and the Guardian are not blocked in China! It’s a shame other things like YouTube, Facebook and BBCiplayer are unavailable but hopefully I’ll find a way around soon…

3. Get my TV fixed

Again, it was so simple yet the simplest things were just not possible for me to figure out on my own and that’s why it was so frustrating in that first week. All those Chinese manuals and wires and stuff. Anyhow, the TV man didn’t seem to need anything extra, he just switched a few wires around and hey presto – a whole plethora of channels to watch albeit Chinese ones (there is of course CCTV 9 which is English) out of my current linguistical depth.

The TV man cottoned on pretty quickly that I was ‘foreign’ and thought I was Korean. He was pretty surprised when I told him where I was born (“我出生在英国” – I was born in Britain – was one of the few complete sentences I DO know, simply because I’ve used it so often that I don’t need to get out my phrase book anymore). He even gave me a 50% discount on the service charge…I think he just felt sorry for me!

4. Learnt how to use the washing machine

Now this one, I figured out on my own (I felt like a little kid who wanted someone to praise him for a seemingly easy task). Who knew you had to plug up the washing machine yourself? (Though I suppose I should be grateful..I've heard stories from Tianjin of some ELAs having to fill up the washing machine themselves with the shower head!)

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5. ‘Home-fy’ my flat

One of the first purchases was of course a map. I spent ages looking for the ‘right kind of map’. Anyone who knows me well knows how much of a cartography buff I am. Spent AGES trying to find one which had a projection, scale, colour scheme etc that I liked though of course, as all geographers know: “all maps tell little white lies” (Monmonier, 1996; 1) – ah, reticent geography finals knowledge :)

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I also bought (through some bargaining skills/hand gestures) a nice rug for 75 Yuan (about £7.50) to spruce up the bedroom and decorated my flat with lots of nice pictures of family and friends which all cheered me up immeasurably:

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6. Started teaching

My biggest enemy was boredom so it was with great enthusiasm that I started teaching in the second week after arrival in Qingdao. It was certainly a task trying to control 50 students (plus!) in each class though luckily, in my first few classes they were seemingly bedazzled at the prospect of a ‘foreign teacher’ (though they weren’t sure whether I was ‘foreign’ at all) that they were relatively easy to keep engaged (and also they haven’t figured out I can’t speak mandarin yet…wonder how long that’ll last!).

OH and during the first two weeks of teaching, it was 'Teacher's Day' in China! (See the next post - I felt it deserved special mention!)

7. Started mandarin classes

Speaking of which, within the first few weeks I got myself a mandarin tutor through the recommendations of the previous ELAs at no16 middle school who had been taught by Wendy. First impressions are good so I’m hoping to make some good progress – I’ll keep you posted!

So yeah, that was my 7-step plan which has helped me settle into life in Qingdao. Slowly but surely, things are most certainly getting better.

Posted by EddieBlock 17:00 Tagged food flat everyday_life qingdao settling_in Comments (4)

Settling down in Qingdao…or not.

What honeymoon period?

Recalling my A-level English lingo, my first thought was ‘pathetic fallacy’ as the train pulled into Qingdao station after a 5 hour train ride from Beijing. As we (that is, the 3 ELAs posted in Qingdao) journeyed through China’s eastern coast, it had got progressively darker and we were greeted with full-blown rain as we reached our final destination which was to be our home for the next year. My second thought was “Wikipedia lied to me”. Not so much Hawaii as Bognor Regis.

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What I had in mind before I got to Qingdao...

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...and what it was really like*

  • EDIT: I'm pleased to say it is MUCH prettier nowadays. Seemed like it was just smoggy in that first week!

Nevertheless, we were also greeted quite enthusiastically by our mentor teachers – Dorothy from No9. Middle School for Natasha and Jasmine from No16. Middle School for me and Elinor. We soon piled into separate cars with our luggage in off we went to our flats.

Assumption no1: Me and Elinor has assumed we were staying at the same flat. WRONG.
Assumption no2: Me and Elinor thought our flats were both going to be near the school. WRONG.

Alas, when we were told that one flat was closer to school than the other, my (don’t laugh) instinctive gentlemanly-ness immediately conceded the flat nearest to the school to Elinor. Little did I know at the time that my flat was not a 3 minute but a 25 minute walk from the school. How I cursed myself in those early days.
(EDIT: I’m now quite content with my flat after some weeks of getting used to compulsory exercise in the form of walking).

I was driven to my flat, helped with my suitcases and then found myself alone in a bare and unhomely flat. This first week was to be my hardest and I realised how totally unprepared I was for living on my own – I clearly had it good by being always surrounded by a big family at home or my nice flatmates at uni. Sigh. This sense of isolation was compounded by the fact that the tv didn’t work, nor the the washing machine or the cooker and I had no internet (clearly worse than having no tv, wearing dirty clothes and starving).

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First row (L-R): Office, Living area, Bedroom picture 1,
Second row (L-R): Bedroom picture 2, Balcony area, Bathroom
Third row: Kitchen

To rid myself of self-pitying melancholy, I turned to…er..alchohol. No, didn’t end up in a drunken stupor but simply went to the Qingdao Beer festival – a homage to Qingdao’s Germanic past. There I drank heartily and had my fill of many skewers of lamb, pork and chicken meet. YUM.

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When in Rome...

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I couldn't agree more. Best be starting that 'Chinese journey' of mine then.

I even met a goat of ‘Xi Yang Yang’ (喜羊羊) fame (full title: “Pleasant Goat and Big Bad wolf”). If you haven’t heard of this cartoon craze sweeping China, check ‘em out. I’ve dug out the very first episode for your viewing pleasure: 喜羊羊与灰太狼. Meeting such a celebrity definitely cheered me up:

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We also celebrated Natasha’s birthday within the first few days of arriving. With just the three of us here in Qingdao, it was a small celebration but we were definitely grateful for each other’s company instead of staying in our flats wondering what on earth we had got ourselves into...

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Eating birthday cake the Chinese way

Anyhow so in summary, the first week was tough. When we were given our pre-departure briefing by the British Council, we were told to expect a ‘honeymoon period’ of exciting experiences and exploring new scenes. We were shown something similar to the following:

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I felt like I was going down towards 3 already

I had expected the 'honeymoon period' to have lasted a lot longer. You know you’re in for a rough time when even jumping photos fail:

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It just looks like I'm squatting for something entirely different... :O

Posted by EddieBlock 17:00 Tagged food drink flat birthday qingdao settling_in Comments (0)

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