Uncertainty is Fun!

View of 大有山村, a village on the mountain immediately above Xining

Things are getting busy around here (as if they weren’t already). The semester will be ending in a few weeks, and, despite the winding down of normal classes and the gearing up for exams, my schedule is still being changed. Dramatically.

On Monday, I went into Mr. Wang’s office to see if an arrangement had been worked out for my Saturday classes. As of a month ago, my schedule was changed to include two classes on Saturday – something which is clearly against my contract. Rather than simply change the schedule again (which the administration seems to have no problem doing), Mr. Wang suggested I simply not go to those classes; he would find someone to cover for me, therefore taking the (admittedly slim) moral high ground and making me feel profoundly guilty for skipping classes merely because they were on Saturday. And because they were against my contract. And because I traditionally don’t really work on Saturday, because I’m 犹太教 (as I told Mr. Wang to smooth the process).

Regardless, I came to his office on a whim on Monday to see if anything had been worked out. It hadn’t.

“You don’t have to teach this Saturday anyway, because it’s Christmas,” said Mr. Wang.

“But what about the next few weeks?” I asked. “Should I teach on New Year’s day?”

“We don’t have classes that day,” said Mr. Wang. “Oh, and I forgot to tell you. We don’t have classes on the following Monday, the 3rd, either.”

“Great, thanks for telling me.”

“And this week, you don’t have senior 2 classes on Thursday or Friday because they have the ‘huikao’ tests.”


If we didn’t have classes Thursday or Friday, then I’d already had my one class of the week with Senior 2 class 12 – and, because I thought I’d have other classes with them later in the week, I had done a fun activity with them rather than plowing through the material I have to finish prior to the exam. The huikao exams meant that for most of my senior 2 classes (except, of course, class 14 – lucky me!), I only had one period that week to teach them. And I had to get through a certain amount of material, as I’d already written their final exams (as demanded by Mr. Wang) and sent them to the printers. I spent a couple of hours poring over my lesson plans for the next few weeks and, after much compressing of class activities, managed to fit in everything the students will need to know.

The next day, I went into Mr. Wang’s office to ask about a Christmas party later this week.

“I almost forgot to tell you,” he said. “We changed your schedule. Only for two weeks.”

“But there’s only two weeks left of class!” I said.

“The schedule is temporary,” he said.

I looked at the schedule. Everything had, indeed, been changed. Only my senior 1 classes were as before. This affected my final week of class, during which I had to fit in the exam and one class of content despite the lack of classes on Monday. Now, with extra classes piled in on Monday, I had to change my lesson plans yet again to squeeze in all the information that needed to fit into the students’ heads. I went home for some more lesson plan revising.

The uncertainty of life here; the utter lack of planning or scheduling is a constant. But no matter how many times your bus is hours late because you had to wait for the driver’s friend or detour to pick up someone’s oil jug; or you find out about a schedule change during a class period in which you’re either supposed to be teaching and you aren’t, or you’re not supposed to be teaching and you are; or (as Sarah and Devin learned last night) you find out about a Christmas party you’re supposed to be at after the party started; or (again, Sarah and Devin’s experience) you find out that you have to move across campus for seemingly no reason at all; no matter how many times these kinds of things happen, they are still events that make you stop in your tracks and think: what exactly is going on here? How can this happen? How does this country even manage to function if nobody knows anything?

But I guess that’s my life lesson for the week: even in the United States, where people are scheduled to near-death frenzies of meetings and conferences and business trips and parties and youth soccer leagues and piano lessons, nobody really knows what’s going on. Which, once you recognize the fact, is something that makes life’s unpredictability and uncertainty that much easier (and more fun) to deal with.

Take my current winter break plans. I’m going to be traveling overland to Chengdu with Sarah and possibly Brooke, but we don’t really know when or how. Then, after going to Sanya, I’m going to Yunnan with Kailah (and maybe Kim?), but all we know is that we’ll end up in Shangri-La eventually (that sounded unintentionally deep and powerful, but now it’s a real place, as discovered by the Chinese tourism board). Then maybe we’ll do a bit more traveling around Yunnan, or maybe we’ll travel overland to Chengdu. Then I’ll probably meet my mom in Beijing. But all this is uncertain; the profusion of probablys and maybes indicates the wonderful uncertainty that always surrounds planning a trip, or really doing anything at all, in China.

In 大有山 just above Xining

Anyway, a few details about recent life and I’ll be off. Life has been pretty uneventful recently. Two weeks ago (pre-rant), me, Sarah and Devin went on a beautiful hike up the mountain immediately across the river from where I live. I’d been running up that way every so often, but due to time constraints had not made it very far. This time, we took a taxi up to the base of the mountain and hiked up to the top. The top is surprisingly flat, and after hiking for a little while through barley fields, you come across a surprisingly large village strangely named 大有山 (big have mountain?).

In the middle of the village, lying next to a small open square, is an old temple where elderly men with wispy beards sit playing cards and mahjongg and soaking up the early-winter sunlight. They speak to you in near-unintelligible accents but one, speaking a distant variation of putonghua (Mandarin), can be understood. You chat with the old men for a little, then go back to the square and wander around the village being pointed and started at and called “laowai” every few seconds. It’s nice knowing that these places are within minutes – literally – of Xining.

Engrish practice

frozen pond in 大有山

After hanging around the village for a while, we hiked up the mountain above which had great (though currently smoggy) views of the surrounding area. To the north was a deep canyon, beyond which were more and more mountains rising up into snowy peaks in the distance. Below, to the south, was the Xining valley, filled with coaldustsmoggy air. Ahead, to the west, was a vast rolling plateau of barley fields. We decided to stroll down the road, which my map showed eventually leading back to the main road into Xining.


view from 大有山

in the grasslands

All of a sudden, the wind picked up, whipping clouds of dust into the air and stinging our faces with pellets of soil. We hunkered down and kept walking down the road; I looked for somewhere more sheltered to hang out until the wind died, but we were on the open plateau, exposed to anything that came at us from the sky (or in this case the ground). We walked down the road under the buffeting gusts of sandy wind.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a car appeared. “Xining?” said the driver. “Yes,” said us. We hopped in and drove down into the valley. As we entered the Xining valley, we suddenly went from fields to factories; a massive industrial complex, chimneys belching smoky gases of all scents and colors, appeared below. The complex seemed to go on for miles. I gaped in wonder; surely, these were the “dark satanic mills” of William Blake’s Jerusalem – on steroids.

Surprisingly quickly, we were back in familiar territory. I went back into my house and shut the door, more frightened than ever of the valley’s air pollution.

Last week was uneventful except for its extreme cold; on Wednesday, the temperature only reached -14 C (and fell to -25 in the morning). Not only that – on Wednesday, it snowed for the first time in months! PRECIPITATION! how unfamiliar it has become in this arid environment. Sure, we only got a ‘heavy dusting’ (what they would call an inch at Sunday River) but it was beautiful nonetheless.

SNOW! first precip in 2 months

On the following Saturday, I went on an extremely long and beautiful run up 大有山 and, after puffing my way to the 2850 meter (9000-plus-feet) peak, I took a road northwards in the hope of making it into the deep canyon below and, eventually, towards the northern end of Haihu Lu. The narrow dirt road ran through beautifully snowcovered fields and along a ridge before passing through a tiny village nestled in a natural bowl. The villagers looked at me as a kind of alien as I passed through.

I continued along the road through the fields before I found a narrow path which descended a ridge to another dirt road which ran above the canyon floor. The road ran through more villages, traversed seemingly impossible slopes, and teetered on the edges of a deep canyon carved out by a narrow stream before ending up in another village, its skyline dominated by the beautiful single minaret above a newly renovated mosque, perched on the side of the valley above the canyon. I ran through town, dodging sheep and herders in the street, and continued down the canyon which finally spilled out into the open valley which leads north from Xining to Datong. I ran a few miles down boring, industrial Haihu Lu before finding myself back at home. A great – if exhausting (600 meters of vertical gain) run.

That evening, I met up with a big group of people to go ice-biking (!) in Renmin Gongyuan (People’s Park). Unfortunately, though the ice was thick enough for the bikes (which have treads rather than normal tires), the bike man was not renting them out yet. So instead, we went to a pool hall and played some pool. Then we had a delicious hotpot dinner before going to the bar for a fun holiday party of sorts. All in all, a good weekend – until the next day, which I spent almost entirely writing my classes’ final exams.

sign near People's Park.

at the pool hall


This week has been relatively uneventful so far, other than the constant schedule changes and upcoming xmas dinner with Mr. Wang and the principal (tonight! at the Stalinist-style Xining Binguan!). I’ve been extremely busy with final exam preparations and grading, from which I’ve taken a break to write this post – and to which I will now return.

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