Saturday, July 29, 2017

Dinner In The Mountains

Wild Goose Pagoda with the Quinlin Mountains in the background
Breaking News - With timeline conflicts there is the possibility that the 2018 ESL Derby could be postponed until August 2018. This will give all the horses a chance to re position themselves plus it will give the handicapper the opportunity to visit a few of the stables and check on the conditions of the contestants..

Latest Updates- We have a new entry in the 2018 ESL Teaching Derby. Indonesia is coming in very weak and I think she is just looking for attention. Vietnam has shown great support and looks to be the class of the field. Russia has gained quite a bit of momentum and, although a huge mystery, she is big, powerful and confident. If she takes the lead she may not give it up.

* Timeline conflicts. The race is in March but the Horse needs to be ready in September 2017.
(1) = Number of conversations with the Trainer for inside information.

Latest Odds
Vietnam 2 - 1: Holding Steady (1) *
Cambodia 4 - 1: Quiet Strength Could Carry The Day
Russia 8 - 1: Gaining Momentum But Still An Outsider (2) *
Thailand 10 - 1: Attractive But A Weak Payout (1) *
China 15 - 1: Fading, Losing Strength (1)
Indonesia - 50 - 1: New Entry. Jockey Might Be To Old (1)
Nepal 50 - 1: Outclassed But There Is Interest (1)
Mongolia - 99 - 1: Needs A Miracle

Now onto other things. China is about food and eating. A normal greeting in the West is "how are you doing". Here is China it is not uncommon for someone to ask "did you eat today?" or "what did you have for breakfast?". I do not know where it stems from but that's just how we roll here in the Middle Kingdom. When I head into work it usually takes about 15 seconds for someone to ask "what will we have or lunch/dinner today?". Our lunch and dinner breaks are at set times, usually 12:00 and 5:00 so depending on your shift it is one or the other. A long day gets you both and that is a huge "happy day" to work because "we can eat twice" (these are true quotes).

Why the talk about food? The last couple of weeks, myself and three colleagues, Siscola, Candy and Owen, have finished our shifts early and decided it would be fun to do something. A few weeks ago we went to the Qinlong Water Park which was as insane and fun as you could imagine a Chinese Water Park to be. There was a massive wave pool, great slides and steep drops into warm pools. A funny observation from the day. Everyone was having a great time. The lines were not to long and there were smiles all around. Every person in the park was soaking wet. Then the skies opened up and everyone ran for cover (except for Owen and myself). The girls yelled we must stay out of the rain and get dry. We just looked at each other knowingly that that comment made no sense. As I looked around I notice we were the only 2 people not taking shelter and we got more than one odd look. I mean it made no sense to be wet, run in from the rain to get dry and then when the rain stopped run back to the pools and slides to get wet. I think the thunder and sheet lightning had a little bit to do with it.

Standing in the Rain
The noodles are taking their toll
This week Candy suggested we head into the mountains for a BBQ. That got our attention. Her husband would drive if we picked up the food. Now the thing to remember is when it comes to food the Chinese, and in particular Chinese woman lose their sh** when organizing a meal. This was going to be fun to watch. We were warned to just go along and do what Candy and Siscola said.

I do not need to go into details of our market shop but needless to say we ended up with 4 huge bags of meats, vegetables, fruits, noodles, snacks and other assorted goodies. It was not just a BBQ, we were going to have Hot Pot as well. Hot Pot is a Chinese staple. The pots sits on a burner and it has a divider in which one side is water boiled with a bit of sweet and the other side is a spicy soup. You then take whatever you have prepared and toss it in to one side or the other and let it cook. You then take out bits at a time and eat it. Simple, delicious and filling. Good thing there was BBQ as well. Thankfully Siscolas partner showed up because at least 6 of us could put a dent in the food.

Zhang, Candys husband, picked us up and we loaded in the food into an already packed car. This boy knew what he was doing. We were going to drive to the Qinglin Mountains which were about an hour away depending on traffic. We found a little spot along a well traveled road beside a mountain stream. There was a house the provide parking and electricity for patio lanterns for about $5.

We unpacked, put the beer in the stream and started cutting and preparing. We skewered the beef, cut the vegetables and tofu, prepared the sauces and, well just got organized. How did we get so organized so quickly? When we got out of the car Zhang said to us with a sly grin "just do what the woman say and we will be ok". So we a point.

The location was great, the food was beyond delicious and everyone just relaxed and enjoyed themselves. There was a combination of Chinese, English and Chinglish spoken but nobody was hurt or insulted. It was mostly laughs at the absurdity of it at times.

I think the Chinese get a bad rap. Maybe because they seem so very aggressive in the way the speak, or live their lives. Remembering there are 1.3 billion people in this country personal space is not a luxury so if you want to do something you do it. There is no please or thank you but then again nobody is insulted as they do not have time for such pleasantries because it is "normal to do these things". It is normal to do these things!  In the west we have come to expect platitudes. In China it is normal. The simplicity of that logic astounds me every day.

What they lack in Western social graces is a warmth and generosity that bubbles up under all that "loud". Sharing food with them is considered the ultimate compliment and it is taken very seriously. Driving back later that night we suddenly stopped at a makeshift road side stand. Candy jumped out and returned with fresh peaches. "These look delicious. Let's eat them now". 

"What did you eat today?"  Say that to the next person you talk to and monitor their reaction. Will they think you are concerned about their health or will they think WTF is wrong with you? I am thinking the latter.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Huashan With A Rabbit

Most Chinese who study English take an English name. It is usually something standard such as Sally, Carol, Cindy, or Eric. Others get creative with their name.
Meet Rabbit. She is a 18 year old English Student who is without a doubt the most independent 18 year old I have ever met, Chinese or otherwise. Why Rabbit? "Because I am curious, cute and funny" was the response. Who can argue with that simple logic.

About 2 months ago she approached me in Starbucks, boldly sat down, smiled and said "hello. You look like my father. He died in an auto accident when I was 5 and I miss him. Do you want to be friends". So we are now friends which may sound simple but that statement is very important in China culture. We practice English and Chinese together, explore the city, her family cooks me food and her grandmother is always sending me dumplings (Jao zi). Her brother is a freak for bugs and insects and as I am writing this he is in Inner Mongolia on some Creepy Critter quest. I also help him with his English and he shows me the latest in his bug collection which I have to say is fairly extensive and impressive. We do not spend  to much time together but she has become a great help to me.

When I randomly told her I wanted to hike Huashan it took her about 3 seconds to tell me she would come with me. You read that right, she did not ask if she could go, she told me she was going. It was followed up with "I will arrange everything. The train tickets, the park fees and how we get there". We met at MacDonalds a few days before we left because she had coupons for Minions Nuggets and a drink and wanted to buy me lunch but I could not drink Cola because it was bad. I would drink cold tea with Lemon. How could I turn down that offer.
We sat down and she had prepared everything. Train times to Huashan and the return to Xi'an from times we discussed. The Free bus from the train station to the mountain, prices for the gondola down and different routes we could take. She then pulled out a palm size printer and from her notes she printed our itinerary on a sheet that was the size of a small shopping receipt. What time to take the subway, what time to meet at the train station, where to exchange our online ticket for paper ticket and so on. She did it all so "matter of factly" without missing a beat munching on her Minion Nuggets. I adore the positive glow of youthful optimism and enthusiasm

There are various ways to get to Huashan. We chose to take the high speed train from The North Railway Station which is at Beikezhan, the last stop on Line 2 of the Metro. Trains leave every hour and there are extra trains in the morning so you can walk up and buy a ticket unless it is a holiday then for your own sanity, buy it online. With ours already bought we still had to line up and get a paper ticket, which for me defeats the purpose of buying online but as Rabbit said, "China has so many people, it is just a habit to buy it online because they sell out". Smart girl because I experience that trying to go Hukou on the last holiday weekend and  yes, it was "sold out".

Anyways, we stood in the fast moving line to exchange our ticket. We were running late so Rabbit just walked up to the front and just started talking to the ticket taker. That is how they roll here in the Middle Kingdom. If you have to you butt right in and nobody says a word. The thing is she moved directing in front of a young western guy who showed his traveling experience by just standing patiently waiting for his turn. I chatted with him a bit and as it turned out we helped him get his ticket. No harm, no foul.

Of to the train we go, climb aboard and after one stop we are in Huashan in 30 minutes. Price of the ticket was 54 Yuan, about C$11. The bus is cheaper at 34 Yuan but it takes a bit over 2 hours. Bear that in mind if you are undecided about spending the extra $4. From the massive yet empty train station we walked to the FREE Huashan bus that would take us the 20 minutes to the park. Yes, Free Bus. We climbed aboard and there was out Western Friend just chilling in the crowd. This boy did his research. His name was Dan King, he was 24 and he had just finished a 3 year teaching gig in South Korea. Now he was touring Asia for 4 months before heading to Canada (Chatham, Ontario) to meet up with his girlfriend, as these things go. We arrived at the park bought out tickets and I invited him to hike with us and he readily accepted. So off we went, Huashan was beckoning.

The start was easy enough. We passed through a large gate into a temple complex which none of us had any interest in. Sorry Buddha today was not about you and that big old belly of yours. It was hot with the temperature push 40 C and the canopy that covered us gave us relief from the sun but not the heat. Remember hiking in China is usually about stairs, lots and lots of stairs. These trails were functional thousands of years ago as access to high temples and other areas of worship. Rabbit lost all her enthusiasm about 15 minutes in and I thought this could be a brutally long day if she did not dig a bit deep. With that being said, having been a mountain guide in Nicaragua there is a pattern that most trail hikers follow if the climb is difficult. They struggle for the first 30 minutes or so, not so much tired because of weak muscles but usually lack of breathing rhythm. Once they get past the mental part of it "being difficult" the breathing rhythm kicks in and they find their groove. Speed is not important now, it is the ability to keep climbing and right on target Rabbit found hers. The complaining stopped and the talking and picture taking resumed.

There is great information about Huashan all over the web plus some spectacular YouTube videos of the insanity that is the South Trail. WikiTravel, and China Travel Guide are great places to start. We focused on the South Trail and the North Peak because at the North Peak was the gondola ride down, and that really appealed to me. There are multiple peaks and trails so you can come back often without trying to do it all and killing yourself.

We climbed wide stairs cut into the hillside covered with mystical trees. The higher we climbed the trees thinned out opening glorious views at each turn. There were ornate stone bridges hanging over deep valleys, curved stairways leading to well needed rest areas equipped with anything a good Chinese hiker would need. Food, water, snacks, well designed maps carved into wooden signposts and at places huge Plasma screens showing the surrounding countryside. People were staring at the huge screen oohing and ahhing when all they had to do was take 10 steps to the left or right and see nature in all it's slender. That moment of "our society is nearing it's end" is for another time.

Along the way we met only one other foreigner, a young guy from Colorado USA who hiked with us for a couple of hours. We had great attempted conversations with people every step of the way, hikers and vendors alike. Everyone wanted to say "hello" and take pictures which I am now quite used to. Rabbit jumped right in when any other Chinese wanted to take pictures. She would grab the camera, people would switch places, there were selfies and lots of high fives and hand shakes. It was all good fun. We started out climb about 10:00 am after catching the 8:30 train out of Xi'an. We were not near the top of the North Peak and it was pushing 3:00. That was 5 hours of hard and sometimes hair raising hiking and climbing. The closer to the top the steeper the stairs. Heavy link chains started appearing giving us something to grip. I used the sparingly having mastered the head down spider crawl using both my hands and feet. The chains were a comforting sight though. Chains being a comforting thought. Weird when you think about it. We reached the North Peak and the views were worth every grunt, groan and curse along the trail. We were resting and deciding what to do. To the left was the cable car down, to the right the 90 minute round trip to the West Peak up a long very steep ascent. My heart sank because the West Peak was calling but I have hiked enough to know that when my legs have had enough it is time to call it a day. I am sure I would have make the West Peak and it now sits there waiting for me. After sitting for about an hour we said good bye to the dude from Colorado whose name I forget (I think it was Eric) we jumped on the cable car (80Y) for the 5 minute smooth ride down. We noticed that there was a trail that ran the length of the valley down from the north trail. With that I decided that the next time I will take the cable car up the North Peak, Hike the West Peak and South Peak, return to the North Peak and hike down under the cable car.

*Vanity alert*

 I have eaten my share of noodles in the past 4 months, especially cold noodles from the street carts, it is really showing. That belly was not there when I was hiking 4 days a week in Nicaragua. It is time to get rid of 5 - 7 kilos especially with a trip to Tibet and the Everest Base Camp coming up in October.  It did not effect my hiking in so much that my legs were strong but I do remember having the ability to be quicker when I was a bit lighter. So it goes. No more noodles for me for a while which means today is a sad day in Xi'an as the city is famous for it's variety of tasty noodle dishes.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

2018 ESL Derby

In the field of opportunity It's plowing time again
There ain't no way of telling where these seeds will rise or when
 -- Neil Young

With all due respects to Neil it is time to start planting my own seeds of opportunity.....that makes no sense and sounds as stupid as anything I have ever written. Anyways it is research and planning time. I have 8 months left on my contract here in China but we all know how quickly time marches on  so it is time to start thinking about securing my next job. Granted it is not mandatory to have a job to go to but it sure takes a burden off while you are traveling to that destination. Without a job it could be very easy to wander SE Asia and have a year get away from me, or two. That would be great if I was in my 20s but I crossed and blew up that bridge many miles ago.

With that being said I have secured a tutor position with 2 different online companies. ALO7 and CiMok Tutors Online. I have chosen the CiMok Tutors because they are willing to work with me and give me the flexibility that I want. I have kept my account with ALO7 as a backup. I really liked their platform and processes of hiring and training. I realized that there must be commitment on my part and with schools peak times very cyclical, wandering for 4 months and then finding a home for 8 to teach is a great option. Finding a job that gives me a set schedule and teach online part time at night is an idea situation and my goal for this next step on my journey.

The following is a list of places that are the most likely destinations after my contract finishes in March 2018.

The betting favorite would be Vietnam. For reasons unexplained it has a magical ring to it for me. Thirty years ago Vietnam was a "war" and not a country. I would be happy to be a part of spreading the joy about Vietnam as I have done for Nicaragua. Everything I read and the videos I have watched are outstanding. Sure it has its challenges but every country I have been to does. There is Hanoi, Hue, Ho Chi Ming City (Saigon) and to many places in between. I think living in any of these three cities would exceptional. Hanoi as the modern colonial town, Hue the ancient capital and Saigon the free wheeling city of the south.  Northern Vietnam borders South Eastern China which could limit travel time in between depending on a start date but those things always work themselves out.

The Betting Favorite  Opening line 3 - 1
July 8: No Weakness 3 - 1

Mysterious Cambodia is still what many countries including China use to be for ESL teachers. Show up and you will find a job with decent pay.  Everything points to a good salary similar to China with the cost of living much less expensive.  Angkor Wat, Phnom Penh, Khmer history and the brutal Pol Pot with the Killing Fields. Like Vietnam the is a country that has come out of decades of war and brutal civil strife to embrace the future. Cambodia would be my favorite but to get there I would travel through Vietnam. Keep in my this is my first choice and I may not be ready to work again when I get to Vietnam

Will Not Fade  Opening line 4 - 1 
July 8: Lurking 4 - 1

I like China but it I would need a serious offer on my next contract of cash and extra vacation time to stay. The fact that I am already here, set up and the living is easy and comfortable. The country is so big and there is still much to explore plus it is the only jumping off spot into North Korea. That in itself will kept it among the favorites.

A Strong Contender  Opening line 6 - 1
July 8: Showing Positive Signs 5 - 1

The late entry into this race and dark horse to pull out a victory is Russia.  Why not Russia? Living and working in Moscow or St. Petersburg or going off the map into the Siberian towns screaming for teachers. Who would not want to at Kamchatka or Urktusk onto their journey as a tribute to the board game RISK. Areas so vast and a history so complex this would be a satisfying challenge unlike any others. Russia is not completely off the table.

Risky Pick  Opening line 99 - 1 
July 8: - Renewed Interest 15 - 1

A gleaming paradise with everything I could ask for and like Mexico and China before Thailand has never been on my radar. I have come to realize that the "not on my radar countries" tend to do very well with me when decision time comes. Bangkok, Full moon parties, picturesque beaches, hidden island and great food. What is not to love. I think the odds would be higher but with Vietnam and Cambodia running 1 and 1A and China a comfortable third Thailand may be a country that becomes a travel destination and not a teaching destination. It does have the advantage of being a "work online" only location otherwise the odd would be higher.

A Big Jump in Class  Opening line 15 - 1
July 8: Falling Back 20 - 1

Nepal would be the clear but favorite if this was the end 2018 and I had experienced SE Asia. Unfortunately Nepal becomes a launching point into India and Sri Lanka which is in the opposite direction of where I want to go next year. The jobs are also very low paying so it would take another dedicated teaching location to save the money to go there. I think Nepal would be a 6 month setup instead of the standard year. However the trekking lure is strong but once I visit Tibet this October and view Mt. Everest I suspect that may hold me until next year.

Still Needs Some Work 30 - 1
July 8: Showing A Spark 22 - 1 

Mongolia has been high on my list since I started teaching however as a next stop destination she has slipped in the rankings. For me Mongolia becomes the stepping stone to Central Asian Republics with my eyes on Mystical Georgia. Nomadic Tribesmen, The legacy that is Genghis Khan, vast expanses and the chaos of Ulaanbaatar. It is on the list only because it has been a priority for me to get there but randomly changing plans can sometimes bring the greatest results.

Pace Is To Quick Opening Line 50 - 1
July 8: Not Much There 75 - 1

It is easy to look at a map and get enthusiastic, excited and a bit overwhelmed. I think my focus now is SE Asia that will include Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Phillipines, Brunei, Indonesia including Borneo but again those who know me realize that focus is not one of my most endearing qualities sometimes. Along the way there will be stops in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea and if Kim Jong-un is not acting like a clown a trip into North Korea is still possible.

After SE Asia I really want to head in one direction if possible. I can turn East to New Zealand, Papau New Guinea, The Solomon Island, New Caledonia, Fiji, Easter Island and across the South Pacific to Chile. From there Colombia, Brazil, Suriname and Cuba before a return trip to Canada. I could  turn west into Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Georgia,, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka up to Turkey, Greece and the Mediterranean. If possible finish with Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and back to Canada. I do not know what direction I will be going each direction will hold their own mysteries.What I don't know is how long it will but I am giving it 5 years which has me returning to Canada in the fall of 2021 or spring of 2022. That will depend on where I am when I have 6 months remaining on my passport. What I do know is that I will be having new experiences, both good and challenging, and nobody can ever take that away from

....oooh the Maldives I forgot about the Maldives!