Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Add Oil!

I never had any aspirations to go to the Olympics. I don't know why it just wasn't something that ever occurred to me as a possibility. But now that I'm here in Beijing, and getting to see five very different competitions, I'm not complaining. Nope. I'm yelling "Jiayou!" (that's Chinese for "add oil") just like everybody else. Even if I didn't have any event tickets it would be hard to be in Beijing and not get pulled in by the spirit of the event. Riding on the bus and on the subway, and even visiting the idyllic outdoor summer palace, people are all gathered about together completely rapt by whatever sporting event is going on on the ubiquitous TV screens (and in the case of the summer palace, all with their backs to the gorgeous scenery) and everywhere you look people from all over the world are roaming the streets decked out in their country flair. China is multicultural all of a sudden; it's truly a sight to behold.

I've been thinking that in many ways the Olympics are a weirdly fitting end to a year spent abroad. I've never felt more American than I have this year living in Guatemala and China. We spend a lot of time in class and with friends talking about American politics and apologizing for our government, as well as discussing American culture. Here at the Olympics I'm getting the opportunity to express some positive patriotism. Last night I wore the American flag and sported China's flag in face paint. We rooted for China's women as they defeated Russia in volleyball, and then got the same support from the Chinese fans sitting around us as the US underdogs battled it out with Italy. Ethan led everyone in a chant of: "Mei Guo! Jaiyou!" (America! Add oil!) The cliches are all true: One world, one dream and all of that.

I've put together a little slide show medley of our time in Beijing so far. We've seen three events: Soccer (Belgium vs. Italy), Gymnastics (men's and women's floor, women's vault and men's pommel horse), and Women's Volleyball (China vs. Russia and USA vs. Italy). They were all fun and exciting in their own way, and especially fun of course because we got to see two of our women gymnasts win silver and bronze, as well as the USA women volleyball players pull out a win against Italy in an exciting 5 set game. In our event down time we've been visiting with some ex-pat friends in the area, eating great food (including an Imperial-style meal of venison, lotus seeds, lilies, and other unusual goodies) and seeing the sights we missed our first time around in April. Today we took a beautiful (and hot!) hike on the Great Wall at Simatai and yesterday we went to the Summer Palace. We have two events left: Diving and Athletics (hurdles and sprints) before we make our long pilgrimage home via San Francisco and then Vermont. At some point in there I'm hoping to get pictures up of our amazing travels in Cambodia and Thailand. But until then: Beijing and the Olympics!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Gorgeous Guangxi

What a difference a day makes! Yesterday I was biking around beautiful Yangshou in the southern Guangxi province my mouth agape at the stunning Karst scenery and rice paddies spread out before us and today, after a 12 hour sleeper bus ride, I'm sitting holed up in a hostel in the middle of a typhoon on the border city of Shenzhen. Ethan and I thought we might be able to stash our stuff somewhere and hop on over across the border to Hong Kong for the day before our flight to Bangkok tonight, but with the typhoon and all we decided to lay low and recuperate after a night spent "sleeping" in our bunks on the bus (I woke up about every half hour wondering where something important was, though I couldn't remember what that something was. And I'm pretty sure Ethan was worse off than me.). At this point we're not even sure if our flight will be able take off on schedule - we hope, we hope!

The silver lining: with future plans up un the air, and Ethan taking a nap, I'm loving the chance to loaf around, reflect a little and post some pictures from the past few incredible days we've had exploring Yangshou. Yangshou is a small city by Chinese standards, but it's grown a lot recently catering to the tourist/backpacker industry. There are all sorts of things to do there: from biking, hiking and caving to a live late night light show involving six hundred fisherman that was dreamt up by a Chinese movie director apparently (we didn't make it there). Ethan and I kept it pretty simple. We spent one night in the city with the nicest couple at the West Lily Youth Hostel and then moved about 5 kilometers just outside the noise where we stayed at the Giggling Tree Hostel - a renovated farmhouse in a really spectacular spot.

In our two days in Yangshou we spent as much time as we could outdoors. The first night we got there we went on a an early evening walk out of the city among the limestone Karst domes that surround the bright green and gold farms. A lot of the scenery and the people reminded me of the rural areas in Guatemala quite a bit. The weather was very hot and very humid, and the crops that we could identify included rice (and plenty of it!), peanuts, chile peppers, squash, corn, bananas and grapes.

The next day we took a bamboo raft down the Yulong River - home of the image on the back of the 20 RMB note - but we liked it better in person. We spent about three hours on our river raft soaking up the scenery and ducking from the Chinese boys who were packing super soakers. After our trip we walked around the village, bought a few pieces of calligraphy from a local artist and walked by the peanuts laying out to dry in the afternoon sun.

The next day, after a night at the Giggling Tree, we packed up early and headed out on rented bikes. The bike trail took us all over the area, across the river three times (once on a bamboo ferry) through tiny farming communities and past idyllic swimming holes that we took full advantage of whenever the sweat became too unbearable.

Both nights in town we avoided the expensive western style restaurants and ate in this little hole in the wall spot where you go up to the stove and place a small portion of whatever you want in your dish on a small tin plate and then you sit communally with whoever else is waiting to be served. You eat the spicy dish with a small clay pot of sticky rice. Delicious.

Depending on whether or not our flight is delayed or cancelled, we will be heading to Bangkok next and then directly on from there in the wee hours of the morning to Siem Reap in Cambodia for a visit to Angkor Wat. The typhoon looks like a breezy drizzle right now, so I'm feeling optimistic. We'll see...