Archive | October, 2011


31 Oct

Well, it’s almost November. You all know what that means, right?

NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is a thirty-day exercise in insanity creativity, where one attempts of bang out a novel of 50,000 words in a month. It’s based around the premise that anyone can write a book if they really put their nose to the grindstone. (Nothing is said about the quality of said books and with good reason. That’s what editing is for.) Basically, it’s a boot camp for anyone who has ever wanted to write a book. I write better under pressure (you should see some of the term papers I’ve come up with), so NaNo is perfect for me.  While you may think this is crazy, famous books like Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants started life as a NaNo manuscript.

This is going to be my seventh NaNo. I’ve only failed once, despite rolling computer blackouts, a keyboard without the letter “m”, the agonies of wasting time counting individual words the year I wrote by hand, and one laptop whose screen refused to stay upright. I’ve NaNo-ed in Taiwan, New York, Gainesville, Beijing, and now Chengdu. My topics are generally sci-fi and fantasy; I’ve covered robots, vampires, cyberpunk, ninjas, steampunk, witches, and one very irritable demon. Granted, all of it is complete and utter crap (I know the value of my writing and it is probably very useful as a mulch-like product) but the experience is very fun.

If you live in an area with other Wrimos, communities get together for write-ins, which are kind of like writing support groups: part commiseration, part sugar rush, all fun. Think of a bunch of people sitting around with their laptops, occasionally with weird questions being asked, like, “Does anyone know the flash point for linoleum?” or “what’s a good name for a Lovecraftian horror from beyond the stars that’s fond of ice cream?”. (Shout-out to the awesome Gainesville Wrimo’s – you guys rock.)

This year, I plan on writing this epic by hand. I know, it sounds painful, but really, dragging a notebook around China is much, much easier than my beloved laptop. Plus, it means doodling in the margins.  I don’t have a plot line, or even an idea of what genre I’m going for. I’m the Queen of Random, baby. Planning is for wusses.

I’ll keep you all updated as to how things are going. Given my previous years experience, I will probably be about 20,000 words behind the suggested wordcount or so and then pull off a couple 8,000 word days at the end of the month to squeak by the finish line at the last moment on the 30th. Good times.

You all should head on over to see what the good people at NaNoWriMo* are up to this month. I’d love to recruit someone else into this crazy awesome time.  You can find me there under the name TombCrank the Crafty.

Happy writing!

*The site is almost always down the first few days of November; too many people try to access the servers and it slows down to the equivalent speed of a fast-moving glacier.


Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong, Part Two

28 Oct

Part one can be found here.

Getting up at ungodly’o’clock, Katia and I stumbled our way to the bus station and found ourselves faced with a quandary. Several other students from our dorms were there, all headed in different directions. Some back to Chengdu thanks to budget constrictions, others to destinations unknown (look, it was six thirty in the morning, what makes you think I’m going to remember poorly mumbled Chinese?), and Kyle and co. to Huanglong (lit. “yellow dragon”). Given that the title of this post is “Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong”, I bet you can see where this was going. While at the bus station, we also cleverly bought our tickets home at the same time. It would suck to return to Jiuzhaigou, only to find ourselves unable to get a seat on the bus ride home.

Surprisingly, there was very little snoozing on this trip. Mostly because of this.

Yes indeed, it has already started snowing in the mountains here in Sichuan. Brrr, I say. That didn’t stop people in the farming communities we passed through from still being out and about. In fact, I believed we passed by an autumn harvest of some leafy green thing (cabbage, maybe?) on both trips.

Katia and I were more interested in throwing snowballs at each other but hey.

On the bus ride there, the bus attendant gave us a minor heart attack when he went around selling tickets for the return ride home and for the park entrance itself. Instead of the price being 110 kuai, which is what our friend’s tour guide said it was, the price had more than doubled in the two years since print. I gulped. Given that we had already purchased return tickets, I was operating on fumes and supplies already purchased. (A reusable water mug and a couple of hot cocoa mixes or bags of tea goes a long way. So do crackers.) Katia spotted me the difference and we arrived in Huanglong.

It was fortuitous that we had broken down and bought the damn tickets, price gouging or no, because the bus dropped us off at the bottom of a mountain with only park structures in sight. No support village, catering to the needs of the tourists and the locals. Just a national park and a couple of convenience food stands with wildly inflated prices.

If you’re smart, you suck it up and buy the ski-lift tickets to drop you off at the top of the mountain and work your way down. Katia and I did this, mostly due to our shortened time-frame. We had to walk the entire damn thing in under four hours. Katia figured that if little old Chinese ladies could do the mountain without resorting to oxygen cannisters (and they sold them! People used ’em! Even at the bottom of the mountain, the pansies.), so could we. And in better time.

Ahahaha. Mine is a bitter laugh. More on this later.

We met up with the others at the top of the mountain and started off. The path was a wooden walkway nestled in amongst the trees. This was pretty, but wet, since all the SNOW was melting off. Onto us. There is a lot of walking and oohing and ahhing.

For your viewing pleasure:

Despite the advice of Tommy, I thought visiting Huanglong was actually very fun. It wasn’t a repeat of Jiuzhaigou thanks to the added excitement of snow.

Unfortunately, my feet did not agree with my head. About a month ago, I sprained some tendons in my foot going down six flights of stairs. It was no big deal so I didn’t go to the doctor (besides, there is honestly very little they can do for foot injuries), but as I was going down dozens of steps at Huanglong, my feet were rebelling. I was usually in the back of our group with Xavier, who has a bum knee, or made a painful effort to keep up. Thankfully, nothing was swollen when I got back to the bus, but for the next three days stepping down, even off the curb, was painful.  I think it basically breaks down into something like this: Jane < Mountain < Little Old Chinese Lady on our bus who beat us to the bottom.

Back on the bus, we trekked to Jiuzhaigou. At one point in our trip, we were at cloud level.

We stayed at the Tibetan family hostel for one more night and then bused back to Chengdu. The road back to Chengdu runs directly through the quakezone from the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake. It took us a while to understand that the big signs across the gully from us with 213 written on them meant the Highway 213. The rocks had shifted and landslided to the extent that it looked like they were never even there. Terrifying stuff, when you think about the fact that I was on the same road in some parts. It’s like, one day a good stretch of I-95 sinks into the ocean. I don’t have any pictures from this stretch of the journey due to camera issues, but it’s sobering all the same.

This was a really fun trip for me. I got out of Chengdu, if not Sichuan. I hung out with Katia, met some new people, ate some good food, got some exercise, and spent a lot of time on a bus.* All in all, it was a good experience that I would highly recommend. Protip: you should probably do all this hiking in better shoes than Converse hi-tops, though.

*Total time spent in a bus: 26 hours.

Jiuzhaigou, Part One

26 Oct

This past weekend, I had an exciting adventure off to the distant edge of Sichuan province. Jiuzhaigou (lit. “nine village valley”) is a famous nature preserve here in China, on the par with Yellowstone. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and really quite pretty in the fall. In fact, everyone I’ve talked to has said that the month of October is the best time to visit. And when a few friends said they were going this past weekend, I was spurred into action. Katia and I talked it over and decided we were going to go, ten-hour bus ride or not.

Jiuzhaigou is only 200 miles away from Chengdu, but the road runs through a very mountainous region and is winding and narrow. In most places, it’s just a single lane each way, which is more than a little terrifying when the bus driver attempts to pass the slowpokes and there is oncoming traffic. (Katia says I’m a worrywart and that they won’t crash, honest, it’s their job and they drive this way every day. I am not reassured.) The bus left Chengdu at 7:30. Unfortunately, our other friends were on another bus, so it was just us and thirty-odd Chinese tourists.

The ride took about nine hours, which meant we made extremely good time. Except for the bathroom break every two hours, Katia and I spent most of the trip sleeping, which is really the best way to deal with nine hours stuck in a small area, your bag wedged in on your lap or at your feet. The breaks were also interesting. Locals attempted to get money from you somehow, either from using the restrooms, buying touristy crap, food, or, on one memorable occasion, riding a white yak or bored looking camel. This break was also notable because I saw a clear blue sky in what seems like has been forever.

Upon reaching our destination, Katia and I found out that the hostel only had one bed, not two, reserved for the weekend. Not exactly worth it. Instead, we found lodging with a Tibetan family run hostel which was located a bit off the main drag of Jiuzhaigou. The room was well-appointed and dinner was only 20 kuai extra. Plus, the husband would take us to the park in the morning.

After a scrumptious dinner, we went to bed. It gets dark at night in the mountains. (Plus, no streetlights.) And, you know, we had to get up at 6 so we could make it to the gates of the park by 7 am, when it had opened. So at ungodly o’clock, we shivered a lot and debated on how much to wear. The night before, one of our neighbors had advised us on what to do once in the park. It’s a big place. Tommy suggested to not bring big coats, since it would warm up later on in the day. While this may have been true for Tommy, we had slightly less pleasant weather on our day in the park – misty rain in the morning, cloud cover for most of the morning, one brief warm moment in the afternoon, and a slow decline towards cold as the day ended. I didn’t bring my leather coat, but I probably should have. Thankfully, I had layered on enough in the morning that I wasn’t too cold.

The first thing we did upon entering the park was to head to the very end. This is the recommended way of dealing with the park trail – bus to the top and walk your way back down to the bottom of the valley. The first stop was the Primeval Forest at the end of the line. This is the best possible place to see wild pandas, if they feel like wandering anywhere near loud tourists. Given that the park’s panda population stands at a little under 20, it was pretty much a given that they were a no-show. I don’t blame ’em. I wouldn’t particularly want to be out in the wet, cold morning with a bunch of Chinese tourists either.

We had a quick breakfast of squished croissants that had made the trip from Chengdu with us, dried dates, and a mug of instant hot chocolate.

There was a lot of walking, interspersed with random picture-taking, and a couple of snack breaks. Look, some pictures!

In fact, there was even a bunch of “Picture Taking Opportunities”, wherein you could pay 20 kuai and dress up like the indigenous Qiang or Tibetan people and then take photos in front of an absolutely stunning landscape. Clearly, Katia and I were above such petty amusements.

Who am I kidding, of course we did it. The lovely Tibetan lady gave us walnuts, it was hard to resist. I maintain that as foreigners, we have no dignity here in China and people stare at us anyways, so why the hell not?

After that, we had a thoroughly unsatisfying lunch of ramen noodles and continued down to the central fork. By this time, it was past three, which was rather alarming since the park closed at six. (Jiuzhaigou has a delicate ecosystem. No need to declare it a World Heritage Site and then watch as overnighting tourists trash the place.) A quick bus ride to the other end of the park left us at Long Lake. This was something we could have skipped. It was colder on this end, with a lot less tourists. There was even snow on some of the distant mountains. I have less photos from this end of the park, mainly because around two in the afternoon, my camera beeped and said “Memory Card Full”. I then promptly cursed quite a bit and fiddled around with the settings, getting less quality shots in exchange for quantity. My work is based around the Law of Averages – the more photos I take, the odds are at least one of them is actually decent.

We engaged in a healthy amount of capitalism at the little Tibetan tourist trap – Katia bought two silver bangles and I indulged in two new scarves. (Yes, yes, I know I can knit my own damn scarves. I like them, okay?) By this point, the park had closed and we were rushed out along with other errant parkgoers. It was well and truly dark out as we trudged past the gates… into a downpour. Our rides were set at 5 and 6 – we got on the public bus, showed the attendant our hostel’s card, and sat. The bus was probably 95% Tibetan, the exceptions being us and a Chinese guy who got off almost immediately. The ladies seated around us chattered amongst themselves, a couple of huge woven baskets resting empty on the floor. They were nice enough to make sure we got off at the right place. It was still raining as we set up the hill, only to be met halfway by the husband* with a set of umbrellas.

Dinner was just being cooked as we got in – Katia went down to see how things were made and I followed. I am pleased to report that my own personal recipe of spicy potatoes is damn near the same as the wife’s*. Ignore the poor picture quality and look closer at the stove. It’s wood-burning. Katia had a breakthrough as to why the dishes were metal – they could sit on the stove top and stay warm while she continued to cook, dish by dish. We had another delicious meal and went to bed, having confabbed with Kyle and the others about our plan of attack the next day.  Our original plan of a guided hike in the other valley was scrapped, due to an over-abundance of Hong Kong tourists having booked the last slots.  It was decided we would attempt to get tickets to Huanglong, a park (somewhat) nearby.  And if not, well, we could always head back to Chengdu.

Stay tuned for the exciting sequel – Huanglong!

*I am a bad person. I have no idea of how to even pronounce their names, let alone spell them. (It’s written in Tibetan on the card, okay? I’m not that far along in my studies.)

Programming Notice

24 Oct

Sorry.  No blog post today – I’m on a bus from Jiuzhaigou back to Chengdu.

Food Friday: Coffee Edition

21 Oct

I am a big tea drinker. No surprise there, given the three summers I spent working in a teashop and years of having a nice earl gray after dinner with my dad. But college turned me into an unrepentant coffee fiend. I mean, the Starbucks was actually located inside Library West, how the heck am I supposed to resist that sort of temptation with my poor sleep habits? My last semester in school I practically had a coffee IV-drip set up in order to get my thesis finished. (I regret nothing!)

Most mornings, my lovely roommate would make the coffee. This was mostly a function of her having the earlier class in the morning. It was a good system: I donated the beans, she made it strong enough for me to stay awake, and I didn’t have to fiddle with rocket science in the morning. Good times all around.

Things are a little different here in China. While Starbucks does have several outposts here in Chengdu, including one a scant mile away over by the Shangri-La Hotel, the price is pretty exorbitant. A medium mocha will cost me about 30 kuai, about five bucks. Not insanely expensive, especially when you look at airport-Starbucks prices, but when compared to the relative cost of everything else around here, it looks a little steep. In comparison, a tea at a stand will cost me anywhere from 2 to 7 kuai, depending on how fancy I get. I generally spend about 10 kuai per meal, usually fried rice or noodles. So spending that much on coffee makes me feel a little uncomfortable.

To fill this necessary gap, I looked at how the locals got on. Instant coffee is all the rage over here. You have a small packet which you empty into your mug. Add hot water. Congratulations, you now have coffee. Terrible, terrible coffee. I’ve found that a single packet doesn’t make a nearly strong enough coffee for me, so I generally tear two or three, depending on how I’m feeling that morning. It’s got cream and sugar already added (although I’m not sure how, exactly). Frankly, it’s pretty idiot proof, which is kind of why I like it. If I got coffee beans and a French press, that would be much more likely to result in undrinkable swill than a cup of coffee.

When I’m in the mood for splurging, I head over to Kaffestugan, the local Swedish coffee bar. I positively love this place. Yes, the stair up to the third floor are gross, but you know what? Good coffee that is cheaper and closer than Starbucks, internet, clean and bright shop area, bookshelves, and (wait for it) bagels with lox. Swedish meatballs. Cinnamon buns. Yes, I do tend to end up spending a bit more here, but you know what? Cinnamon buns. It’s hard to go wrong with that.

Overheard in Chengdu

19 Oct

There is an old man on the street with a bag full of turtles and another pair on a leash, one of which is quickly making a break for it.

Passerby: “Oh, turtles! Turtles are great pets.”

Old man, looking confused: “What? No. Turtles are good eating.”

Me: “Uh, excuse me?”

Old man: “Oh, I love turtle soup. Very delicious!”




17 Oct

So it turns out cha-cha – the actual Latin dance, not the electric slide – is hard. Who knew?

I went to a dance class today with a friend, Victoria. It was a bit off campus and I borrowed a buddy’s bike to get there, passing by the very new stadium on Renminlu. The dance class itself was pretty fun, even though I was visibly the worst. There may have been flailing in the wrong direction. (Maybe a beer beforehand would have helped.) Victoria, who is Argentinian, was much better than I was. Maybe next time I’ll get the hang of the moves.

And they played this song over and over and over again.

Over and over and over and over and over again.