HK to Xining

Skyline of Central (HK Island) at dusk

Things have been moving kind of quickly since I last updated this post. I’m now in Xining, Qinghai province, in my awesome apartment and getting ready to teach lots of middle-school kids.

How did I get here? This past week has been a bit of a whirlwind, so I’ll start with Hong Kong. After chillin’ with Caroline and Daniel at the hostel for 24 hours or so, I got on the semi-bullet train bound for Shenzhen. If you’ve never heard of Shenzhen, think of it as Chinese-style capitalism run amok. Shenzhen was China’s first (and most successful) Special Economic Zone, an enclave of capitalism which Deng Xiaoping set aside from the rest of the country in 1980 as a testing site for free-market reforms. The Shenzhen SEZ proved wildly successful – once a fishing village, it rapidly became a burgeoning city which is today home to almost 9 million people – and inspired other SEZ’s and economic reforms around the country. That said, Shenzhen is also known for its dramatic economic inequality and high crime rate compared to other areas of China. Not the most fun place to visit. So after an hour speeding through the Pearl River Delta – which appeared through the train windows as that uniquely east-China landscape of factories, farms, and apartment blocks all strangely jumbled together – we pulled into Shenzhen and I booked it for the Hong Kong border.

Not that I had far to go. The Hong Kong border is literally inside the Shenzhen train station (or at least in the same massive building complex). I got off the train, walked through the station, passed through Chinese customs; then strolled across an air-conditioned overpass spanning a filthy river lined with barbed wire – the Hong Kong border – before passing through HK customs and being spit out of the building on the platform of the MTR train.

No wonder the British lost HK, not to mention the US...

I remember that when the British turned Hong Kong over to the Chinese in 1997, many thought that Hong Kong would become just like mainland China. Not so. HK is still a world away from the mainland – in its physical appearance and infrastructure, its diverse population, its extraordinary concentration of wealth – but also in the habits and attitudes of its people. The population of Hong Kong may be predominantly Han Chinese, but the  atmosphere and pace of the city (at least the downtown areas) seem to be driven by the Western elites who have remained after the Colony became part of China. The city gets up late and stays up late – a timetable which is more Western than Chinese (often in China I’ll get up at 7 or 7.30 and feel like the last person in town awake) – and the entire city seems to run to the beat of the frantic wheelings-and-dealings of the Western businessmen who crowd the central districts. I overheard a number of conversations during my time in HK – in restaurants, on the metro, walking down the street – and they all involved investment schemes and complex financial instruments. The entire city felt like a blown-up version of Wall Street – or as Wall Street might look if there were no rules or regulations restraining anybody involved. And sitting comfortably at the top are the Western-born financial elites, raking in cash from their mansions high atop Victoria Peak. Honestly, the place made me feel more than a little uncomfortable – like I was an occupying colonial power – and I couldn’t wait to get back to China.

HK is squeezed between the mountains and the ocean. The rich (white) people live on top of the mountain.

These stores are real (not fake). This is not China.

That said, I enjoyed many things about Hong Kong. The ethnic diversity made for interesting conversations and a delicious variety of ethnic cuisines which are not readily available in China – Indian and Middle Eastern especially (though I was frustrated sometimes by small restaurants which looked like they were serving baozi or jiaozi (Chinese buns or dumplings) but were actually serving greasy, nasty Western breakfasts of slimy ham, eggs, and white-bread t0ast). And Hong Kong’s physical appearance is stunning: the famous view from Kowloon of the island’s skyline over the harbor is just as mind-blowing as I expected (I sat and watched it for almost two hours), but – surprisingly – Hong Kong also offers lots of mountainous parks and green spaces which are beautiful places for escaping the city’s intensity. On my (only) full day in Hong Kong, I spent the morning (after dropping off my passport and paperwork at the China visa office) exploring the city before hiking up to The Peak (to avoid the HK $56 tramway fare), along a road which encircled the summit, and finally back down to the city. The views from up top are stunning – encompassing the relatively undeveloped south coast and the superdense north coast of Hong Kong island, as well as the rest of the region – but the peak is extremely touristy and is topped by two malls (complete with Burger King and Starbucks). What really made the hike awesome (despite the face-melting heat and humidity) was the opportunity to spend some time in a large, undeveloped green space – which I’d been craving in Guangzhou. Hong Kong has preserved much of its mountainous landscape in large parks, which made the city much more tolerable.

View of some of the mountains on HK island from The Peak

The strangely quiet and (semi) undeveloped south side of HK island.

Central skyline at night

And finally, the visa office – the reason I was in Hong Kong in the first place. After a fitful sleep in a closet-size room in the infamous Chungking Mansions (a massive tenement block strangely located next to the Intercontinental and filled with “cheap” guesthouses, “cheap” Indian restaurants, blood-stained stairwells, dealers of every sort of drug imaginable, and immigrants from all over the world yelling into their cell phones (and at each other) in the hallways trying to conduct shady business deals), I woke up early and got to the visa office before 6:30 in an attempt to secure a good spot in line. I had to fly out of Guangzhou to Xining the next day, and wanted to make sure I could pick up my visa when the office opened the next morning. And I was in luck: I was the fourth person in line! Another guy my age lined up behind me, and we got to talking. He was from Bellingham, Washington, and was teaching in Kunming – but, just like me, had to get his visa situation fixed. I had been dreading the 2.5 hour wait for the visa office to open, but being able to talk with someone (mostly we bitched about Hong Kong and how we wanted to go back to China) made it not only bearable but fun.

The infamous Chungking Mansions

Inside CK Mansions. Not pictured: blood stains, coke dealers, etc. Though my room was (if small) actually quite tolerable...

I was in and out of the visa office much more quickly than expected, and got to spend the better part of a day exploring the city (as described above). The pickup process the following day was even easier; I was out of the office by 9:15. I hopped the subway and was back in Shenzhen by 11am. After taking the train to Guangzhou and meeting Lydia with my bags (for which I am greatly indebted to her), I went to the supermodern Guangzhou airport and proceeded to learn that my bags were 37 kilograms overweight.

“What?” I exlaimed. “I thought I got two bags free.” This was not entirely true; I knew that there was a weight limit – but it was worth arguing about.

The man behind the airline counter frowned. “You have 20 kilograms free, but your bags weigh 57 kilograms. Each kilogram overweight is 24.45 kuai [yuan], so you have to pay…905 kuai in overweight fees.”

Nine hundred kuai -equal to about $130 US – was almost as expensive as my flight. This seemed to me to be a ludicrous amount of money in China (considering you can buy a small piano for slightly more) so I decided to bargain. I told the man I was a poor student, a volunteer teacher moving to Xining; I had no money to pay for bags. After a few minutes of arguing, I got the price down to 700 kuai. I pulled out all the money in my wallet and walked away; I had checked my bags but my pockets were much lighter.

I finally got into Xining around 1am the following morning – the plane had been delayed and also had to make a stop in Wuhan. I was met by my two exhausted and disheveled-looking men, holding a sign which said “Jonas.” One was my waiban, Wang Guoli, and the other was the official driver for 师大附中 (Shida Fu Zhong, the Affiliated Middle School of Qinghai Normal University), the school where I am living and working. We drove sleepily into Xining and – once into my apartment – I immediately crashed.

The following morning, I got to look around my apartment and explore my surroundings. My apartment is newly renovated and extremely comfortable; much more so than I had expected (and far nicer than most places I’ve ever lived). I have a bathroom, kitchen, living room, bedroom, small deck, and closet. The apartment is amazing – but not without a few quirks. First, the shower – like most Chinese showers I’ve seen – is not enclosed, but is located right next to the other bathroom fixtures (which receive a heavy soaking whenever I shower) and drains into a tiny grate in the floor. In most Chinese bathrooms, the grate is at the floor’s lowest point. But in my bathroom, the lowest point is about a foot away from the grate, so water pools on the floor for hours after I use the shower. Another quirk is the “stove”: I have an electric hotplate which cannot be adjusted to different temperatures, but rather has different settings for different types of Chinese cooking – which makes cooking on the hotplate daunting for the uninitiated. I feel fine using the “boil” setting, and only mildly uncomfortable using “steam” – but out of my element when using “hot oil” and totally lost when using “hotpot” or one of the two different types of “explode-fry.” Needless to say, cooking at low heat is pretty much out of the question.


Living room - the edge of the star trek coffee table is on the left


Lastly, some of the furniture in my apartment is unexplainable. In my living room, I have  a perfectly fine sofa, TV (covered in a red felt teddy-bear TV cover), and coffee table. But perched in the corner is something that looks like it could have come out of Star Trek, a black and gray combination coffee table – cabinet – UFO thing that serves no distinct purpose. On top of it perches a chintzy lamp that looks like it came from the TV room (or “den,” in the terminology of many from my fair city – as if it were a place to hibernate all winter long) of an aging Northeast Philly housewife with a two-foot-high ‘do. All together, it makes quite a spectacle.

From the outside, my apartment looks like any other Chinese block – cheaply and poorly constructed, so that it seems much older than it is. Outside my apartment is a massive, 400-meter-track-sized slab of concrete that my waiban said is the school playground. Most of the time (so far – school hasn’t started yet) it’s completely empty, a desolate expanse which only hosts the occasional roller-skating kid. I’ve been thinking it would be great to turn into a massive ice rink in the winter.

My apartment block. Probably constructed five or ten years ago.

The "playground," strangely devoid of playing children.

But apart from that, the campus of 师大附中 (as well as that of Shida, the Qinghai Normal University) is actually quite nice. We’re located on the western edge of the city, and the neighborhood is divided in two by a street named after the May Fourth movement of 1919 (五四大街). Sarah and Devin live across the street on the South campus, a five to ten minute walk away. In between our places is a fun little restaurant street, with cheap noodles, baozi, and xiaolongbao (among other things); behind Sarah and Devin’s place is a massive wholesale food market which is easily the largest and craziest market I’ve ever seen. Housed under massive steel arches reminiscent of a train station, farmers sell 50- and 100- pound bags of potatoes, onions, barley, greens, and all sorts of vegetables and meats and fruits and grains – pretty much anything imaginable. The place is a total melee, which is part of what makes it fun.

My waiban has been extremely busy, and I’ve only had a few meetings with him – and those at my request, in order to iron out a few details: most importantly, who and what I will be teaching. We registered at the local police station, but I haven’t done much else with my waiban; as of right now, many questions are still unanswered and there are lots of loose ends (where’s my contract?). But on the plus side, I’ve had some time to prepare for classes, now that I’ve learned more about my teaching situation. Rather than teaching 20 classes of 50-plus students each – with each class only meeting for a single 45-minute period each week – I will be teaching six classes in the school’s International program: two classes of Senior 1’s (10th-11th grade) and four classes of Senior 2’s (11th-12th grade). These classes still have fifty students apiece, but because they meet three times a week I think that I’ll be able to make more (and quicker) progress. Apart from having received copies of the textbooks, that’s about all I know of my teaching situation; it’s hard to access other teachers, and I really haven’t met anyone at the school besides Mr. Wang, so I don’t know what to expect. But nevertheless, that’s enough for me to start planning for the year.

Mr. Wang’s relative absence (and my consequently loose schedule) has also given me quite a bit of time to explore Xining. So far, I’m really enjoying the city – and it’s not just the perfect weather (highs in the 70’s, lows in the 50’s, intense high-desert sunshine). Though little remains of the city’s ancient past as a Silk Road trading post, modern Xining is an fun and diverse place. The city has large Hui (Chinese Muslim) and Tibetan populations, which makes it feel more cosmopolitan than many larger Chinese cities. The city is also filled with markets – food markets, clothing markets, night markets, Tibetan and Hui markets, tchotchke markets – and the street life is a lot of fun. People here seem more relaxed and friendlier than in Guangzhou, and often more willing to talk with strangers. Combine all this with the beautiful parks, the great food (especially street food), and the convenient and dirt-cheap transportation system and Xining is truly a great place to live. And I haven’t even had the time to go out of town: the mountains loom over the valley on all sides; the mountain behind campus is topped with a prayer flag-bedecked stupa and looks like a great hike.

新宁广场 - a public square close to campus, which (some nights) hosts traditional Tibetan square dancing to a soundtrack of techno.

A Xining maket

So all in all, I’ve really been enjoying Xining. By myself – or with Devin and Sarah – I’ve already spent a good bit of time walking around the city, exploring the markets, eating the delicious street food (and attempting to cook Chinese-esque food on my stove), haggling over all sorts of goods in the wholesale market, drinking beer at the shady beer gardens alongside the parks and rivers, and generally having a great time. I also finally (after five days off) scouted the running situation, which looks tolerable to good: there’s a path running along both sides of the Huang Shui river for miles – and which is less than five minutes from my apartment. There’s also small roads and trails running up (and alongside the base of) the mountain above Shida as well as the Shida track and the massive sidewalks on the city streets (which will be good resources in winter). Hopefully I’ll get to go running tomorrow; Xining is at about 2,300 meters (7,500 feet) in elevation, so it’s going to be an interesting one.

Just like Coke and hamburgers - an all-American meal - except now, for your convenience, it's wrapped into one delicious dish!

One strange thing that I’ve noticed about Xining (more like something I couldn’t not notice) is that people set firecrackers off quite frequently for no apparent reason. Actually, they set them off pretty much all the time: yesterday morning they went off continuously for over an hour. I can’t quite figure out why – maybe it’s a form of protest, or celebration, or maybe it’s just kids looking for something to do. The first few times I heard them it scared the shit out of me – the firecrackers were about 20 feet away, and there was nobody next to them; the person responsible was invisible. They must have got a kick out of watching the foreigner almost piss his pants. And on a totally unrelated note, I bought a bike at a wholesale market and it’s been fun to cruise around the city – although quite an experience getting used to biking in Chinese traffic. While biking, you have to use a strange mix of aggression and caution; aggression, otherwise you’ll never get anywhere, and caution, or you’ll quickly get run over. Most locals seem to be fearless on bikes, but I never want to get to the stage where I’m not afraid of Chinese traffic.

Anyway, it’s been fun and I’m really looking forward to spending the year living and working here (as well as learning more about my work situation!). It’s fun to have Devin and Sarah nearby, as well as Ligaya (our TESOL instructor and a former ViA volunteer at Shida) and her boyfriend, who just arrived yesterday to teach at Qinghai Daxue. It’ll be a good support network, but we’re also separate enough that we can get some personal space; we don’t have to see each other every day. So overall, everything’s looking up here in Xining. Classes start this Thursday, so I’m busy preparing…I’ll update again next weekend or so as to how it’s all going.

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3 Responses to HK to Xining

  1. Bruce says:

    Jonas, it’s great following your experiences and adventures–thanks for taking the time to give us all a sense for what you’re doing, and the photos are a wonderful addition. Sounds like you’ve “landed” in a good spot for you, an interesting city to explore. I hope classes start well for you. Keep on posting! Bruce

  2. Kailah says:

    Glad to hear you survived the “wilds” of Hong Kong–both actual mountains and sketchy Chungking Mansions. HK is weird, isn’t it?!? Though now massively rich Chinese people also live on the Peak alongside their filthy-rich forein-born compatriots.

    Your apartment in Xining is so nice!! Nicer than mine here, though I may be moving in a month. ANyway: enjoyed reading about your experiences.

  3. Hannah L. says:

    Aaah you make me miss China so much! Especially western China – for whatever reason, I found that I liked China more and more the farther I traveled away from the eastern cities.

    I had exactly the same situation as you in my dorm room in China where the showerhead was inexplicably placed directly over the toilet and the sink. Every time I showered, the entire bathroom flooded until I was up to my ankles in water swirling with dirt. Have fun with that 🙂

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