12/26/13

Christmas in China

us

This year was my fourth Christmas spent in China, far away from my family and relatives. Last year was my first Christmas with my boyfriend Alan and he took great care of me while I was sick in bed. He even made Finnish soup for me according to my instructions.

This year Alan was away for work the whole week and I was very worried how the holidays would go without him by my side. It didn’t go as planned, far  away from my childhood Christmases, but in a way it was nice as well.

The Saturday before Christmas he went to the gym in the evening and while he was there, I decided to give him a surprise. I decorated our living room with Christmas ornaments, put up the tree with sparkling lights and wrapped his gift in a beautiful package. The smile on his face was amazing when he came back and saw what I had done. He also loved my gift, which was a jumpsuit similar to these these.

What about my gifts you might wonder? Alan got me a jumpsuit as well after I told him how much I liked his present myself! So now we have a matching outfits to wear at home, his is black and mine is red (see the photo above). He also bought me headphones as I’d been complaining how I can’t hear my podcasts in loud metros and buses. The headphones arrived while he was away, so I opened the express delivery package my self, but nevertheless it was a thoughtful present.

Christmas Eve is the most important day in Finland during the holidays. I mentioned this to Alan’s mother on that very morning and few moments later she came to me smiling and said: “We don’t understand Christmas or gift giving, but this is for you” and she handed me a red pocket of lucky money. I was so touched of how she cares about my holiday and traditions and wanted to give me a present.

I spent the Eve at home surfing online and watching Homeland with my cats, but on Christmas Day I cleaned the rooms and invited friends over. I bought lots of snacks and made traditional Finnish rice porridge for them. It takes one hour to make, but is very delicious! We also had dinner at a local restaurant in our village and then played card games until it was time for them to catch the bus.

I probably can’t spend Christmas in Finland anytime soon, as I hope to continue my studies next year. But I really hope that next time I can spend it properly with my boyfriend and his family at our new place in the old family home. And perhaps some day my family from Finland can join us as well for a different kind of holiday here in Guangzhou.

How was your Christmas in China or back home?

12/20/13

Winter without heating in Guangzhou

guanghou winter

It doesn’t snow in Guangzhou and the temperature doesn’t go below zero, but that doesn’t mean it’s always Summer in Guangzhou either. One of the big surprises that living in Guangzhou has  brought me are the cold winters.

Yangtze River is the longest river in China, actually the longest in whole Asia. In China there is central heating North of the Yangtze River, but not in the South. Nanjing University was built on both sides of the river, meaning only half of the dormitories have central heating. (Source: Jason Cullen)

The temperature in Guangzhou has come up back to 16 Celsius beginning of today, but the last few days were both cold and rainy. For a Finn like me it isn’t a problem if the temperature outside is 10 Celsius, but when it’s as cold inside too, I start to shiver.

We don’t have any heating at home, we don’t have double glazing and the air has a straight access from outside to inside on the first floor. Sun doesn’t shine to our bedroom during Winter and it becomes the coldest room in our floor. I used to hate sleeping with my socks on, but it’s the only option to stay warm in Guangzhou.

During Winter I have to wear two trousers, t-shirt, woolen sweater and a jacket on top. My hands get cold quickly and I try to warm my self by drinking hot water or tea. Taking a shower is both hot and cold. It feels good under the hot water, but as soon as you close the water, all the warm air will escape outside.

After almost four years I’m still not used to the Winters here in the Southern China and I caught a cold. Many of my friends did too. I spent a few days at home sleeping and watching TV series, but now I’m feeling better. I’m wondering how many days per year does Guangzhou have weather that I can feel comfortable in?

My cats are feeling the cold as well, one of them sneaking under the blanket when she gets the chance. They sleep close to each other and nap in the sun when it shines through the windows.

How do you manage Winters in the Southern China without heating?

p.s. As a Christmas present, VPN Security is offering a 40% discount for all of my readers with the following discount code: saragift. Learn more about the VPN here.

12/11/13

Train travel in China

In four years I’ve traveled in China by train at least for 165 hours. I’ve tried soft sleeper, hard sleeper, standing ticket changed to hard seat and comfortable soft seat in a bullet train. I’ve traveled alone, with my boyfriend, with a friend and with twenty classmates. So what is train travel in China actually like?

trainticket

Buying tickets

 

The first hurdle will be buying the tickets and it’s best to buy them in advance if you want to avoid waiting at the railway station for hours (days) or settle for a standing ticket. Especially during holidays, Chinese New Year being the worst, you have to buy the tickets in advance.

According to the official website, tickets for Chinese New Year 2014 will be on sale on 28th December (for 16th January’s tickets). According to my knowledge you can only buy tickets maximum of 18 or 20 days before the trip.

You can buy tickets at railway stations, from ticket sellers or online if  your travel companion has a Chinese ID card. Many hotels and hostels also have a ticket service that will help you buy the tickets you need with a small service fee. You will need your foreign passport to buy the tickets as the passport number will be printed on the ticket.

Timetables and prices can be found easily in English at Travel China Guide.

 

guangzhourailwaystationPhoto by Ken Marshall

Boarding the train

 

In big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou the railway stations can look like airports. When you get to the station, first check the big screen for your train number and which waiting room you should go. It can be bit hard to figure out the screen if you can’t read Chinese, but don’t worry, just ask any worker by showing your ticket to them and they will point you to the right direction.

I always arrive too early at the railway station, but I think it’s better to be early than late! Arrive at least half an hour before the train leaves and wait for your turn at the waiting room. On the screens you can see your train number again and possibly how long until it departs. The screen will also show you when it’s the time to board the train and an announcement is also made through the loudspeakers in Chinese.

If you don’t understand Chinese, keep an eye on the screen and ask the workers. Every time it’s time to board a train (it might be yours or some other train) massive amount of people will stand up and rush to the gates. If you are unsure, always ask the staff.

Only when the train arrives will they open the gate and let you to the platform. It’s pretty much impossible to wander to a wrong platform. Check the correct car number on your ticket and head to the right door. The train staff will check your ticket before you board so you can’t accidentally board the wrong train.

Once you have found your seat or your berth, hold tight on your ticket. The tickets might be checked again when you get off the train or during the journey.

IMG_2587

If you have a berth (hard or soft sleeper) the staff will change your ticket to a plastic card (picture above) for the time of the train ride. Before you arrive to your destination, the staff will wake you up if necessary and give back your paper ticket.

Different seats and berths

 

In general there are five types of tickets from the most to the least comfortable: soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat, hard seat and a standing ticket.

The soft sleeper isn’t really that soft, but it’s a cabin with four beds and a door that can be closed. This is ideal if you are traveling with friends in a group of four as you can have your own privacy. Soft sleeper tickets are the most expensive ones.

hardsleeper

Hard sleeper ticket is the one I’ve traveled the most with (picture above). It has six beds in one slot and it’s open to the aisle. The price is cheaper the higher you go, but it can be bit uncomfortable on the top berth. I personally prefer the lower berth, but the middle one is ok too.  The lights will be closed at 10pm and opened at 7pm if I remember correctly.

Hard sleeper is great alone, with friends or with 20+ classmates as we did last August. It’s easy to make friends on a train, especially if you look foreign, people will come and talk to you if you can find a common language. But you can also concentrate on reading your book too if you want to.

Keep your valuables on your bed when you sleep, but put your luggage under the lower berth or on to the luggage rack above the aisle. As a foreign woman traveling alone in 2010, there was always at least one gentleman helping me with my backpack.

Soft seat is a normal common and quite comfy seat great for a few hours train trip. Bullet trains only have soft seats which reminds me of seats in Finnish trains.

Hard seat on the other hand is a wooden bench where you sit with two other travelers on one bench. It’s like sitting in a metro for hours and hours. I had the opportunity to try it out once in 2010 when I was coming back to Guangzhou from Shanghai. I bought the ticket the same morning I was coming back, a big mistake, and got a standing ticket! Yes, that’s right, no seat available, but I could at least board the train.

After sitting on my luggage for 15 minutes, one Chinese guy with passable English offered his seat to me. He had paid more for his ticket of course, but he was willing to help a foreign girl in need. I refused first, but he insisted on giving his seat to me. He ended up sleeping on the floor for the 15 hours.

The lights may stay on the whole journey and as the food cart comes and goes, everyone on the floor has to stand up once a hour or so.

As I wrote, standing ticket allows you to board the train and find a spot in the hard seat car. It’s up to you if you choose to stand near the toilets or lay on the floor.

Toilets in a train

 

Soft sleeper cars have western toilet on one end and Chinese squat toilet on the other end of the car. Other cars have only squat toilets, which is actually a good things as you don’t have to touch anything.

It’s entirely up to your luck how clean the toilets will be after hours or a day of train traveling. Bring your own toilet paper and wet towels.

There is a separate area for washing your hands, face and brushing your teeth. It will be crowded in the morning so you might want to get up early so you don’t have to queue up.

 

food cart chinese train

Snacks, food cart and the dining car

 

I have never eaten in a dining car on a Chinese train, but there is one available for the longer journeys. You can also buy snacks or even dishes from the food cart that comes and goes at least every hour. Prices are of course more expensive then normal shops, but still tolerable.

Best thing would be to buy your own snacks before you board the train. Bigger railway stations have shops and restaurants where you can buy food to take away and eat in the train. Remember to buy enough water as well and bring a thermos if you want to drink tea. Hot water is available in every car.

If it’s a long journey, you might want to consider bringing some snacks you can share with other friendly passengers.

 

IMG_3794

Things to remember

 

* Charge your mobile phone and other gadgets before the trip. Buying a portable mobile charger is also a good idea as in most cases you can’t charge in the train.

* Bring you own toilet paper and wet  towels for basic hygiene. Also bring a small hand towel for washing your face in the morning.

* Put your valuables in a small bag you can carry around with you even when you go to the toilet. This is important especially when you travel alone and can’t have anyone to watch your stuff. Your bigger luggage should be safe under the lower berth or on top of the luggage rack, but don’t leave anything valuable inside it.

* When you get off the train and walk out of the station, always find the official taxis or use bus or metro. There will be numerous black taxi drivers shouting at you and trying to find a customer, but those are always much more expensive than the real taxis.

So here we are, my all 165 hours of wisdom in one blog post! I will continue to update this post according to your comments and my future adventures in Chinese trains.

Have you traveled in a train in China? Please share your exprience in the comments!

12/9/13

Our Finnish-Chinese Love Story

finnish chinese love story

Yesterday, one year ago, I met my boyfriend Alan.

It was 8th of December 2012 and I was invited to a Finnish pre-Christmas party in Foshan. It was held in a luxurious expat home of a Finnish family and I brought my Finnish classmate with me as well. It was amazing to get to eat those familiar Christmas dishes again, chat with fellow countrymen and listen to Christmas songs.

Then we got the bad news that our Japanese friend had broken up with his girlfriend. They had been together quite a long time, but for some reason it didn’t work out. He was feeling down, wanted some company and invited my classmate to the Perry’s near our university. So after Santa Claus shared his small gifts to the kids and adults, me and my classmate head back to Guangzhou.

We found our Japanese friend in a table with another Japanese Guy, a Chinese guy (Alan!) and a Chinese girl. We introduced ourselves and I just couldn’t help but to ask the Chinese, as they were sitting next to each other, if they were in a relationship. They laughed and said they were just friends.

We ordered food and drinks while chatting away and trying to cheer our friend up. In the end he wasn’t really on the party mood and was the first one to go home. The Chinese girl also went home quite early, my classmates disappeared in the crowd and so me, Alan and the another Japanese guy were left at our table.

The three of us continued discussing random topics that I can’t even remember anymore, but me and Alan started to talk more and more with each other. The Japanese guy was a real party animal and wanted to head to a club and convinced us to go too. We took a taxi to the party pier and the boys paid 150RMB each to get into the Wave.

In the noisy club with flashing lights and people surrounding us from every ankle, Alan saw his chances, took my hand and kissed me.

Few days later our common friend, the heart-broken Japanese, even offered to introduce other people to us as he wasn’t convinced we would be a good match. I remember he asked me if I had considered Alan’s family background, so Asian of him!

Luckily we didn’t listen to his advice and have been together ever since.

This blog post was inspired by Linda’s love story. Please share your own in the comments, I would love to hear it.

12/5/13

Life of a China Fanatic

berlizchinesephrasebookMy first phrasebook in middle school was my dad’s Berliz from the 1980’s

I was a huge China fan back in middle school and even more so in high school. I found my Chinese name online and let everyone know they could call me by that name if they wanted to. I read massive amounts of books about China that I could find from the local library or bought cheap as second-hand. I surfed the Finnish version of eBay at night to find China related items or clothing. My friends and family all knew that I was really into China.

I took my first one week Summer course in Chinese in 2005, studying the Mandarin Chinese with other students of my parents’ age. We learned travel Chinese and practiced taiji at the school’s park in the afternoons. I roamed bookstores to find those few Chinese textbooks and study material that were available between 2005 and 2010.

After I had read a few books about the Empress Dowager Cixi, and even bought a movie about her, I changed to the history books describing the life in China between 1950’s and 1970’s. I read and bought many autobiographies and tried to imagine what daily life really was like during those though times. It almost became an obsession to find out as much as possible.

Finally in 2008 I started my university studies in Finland and my first semester of Chinese begun. I was a diligent student in love with the Chinese language who wrote characters into tiny boxed on paper over and over again. My book collection started getting bigger and bigger so I didn’t even have time to read all the books I bought.

The big change on my journey happened in Autumn 2009 when I made the decision to move to China. First three semesters I was just a normal exchange student having half day classes. It was a big jump from two hours a week to four hours per day, but I loved it. My Chinese learning destiny was sealed when I applied for the undergraduate program in 2011. Chinese officially transformed from a hobby to my major.

After moving to China, almost four years ago, I noticed a slow change in my fan behavior. First it was mesmerizing to be able to see everything first hand, jump to the reality from books and documents. Then slowly life in China started to become more ordinary. Get up, go to school, eat, meet friends, surf the net, do homework, all those things that are done no matter where you are.

Finally in the beginning of 2013 I moved in with my boyfriend and his parents. Suddenly Chinese culture wasn’t something out there behind my door, it was all around me all the time. I used to think it was funny when expats said they needed a break from China, but slowly I started to understand their reasons. When I get overwhelmed by all of this, and it still happens after four years, I just build a temporary bubble around me and watch an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.

I do still see my self as a China fan and I have this huge passion towards the culture and the language, but right now I feel like I need a break. I haven’t been home for two and a half years,  I have only left China a few times briefly to go to Hong Kong. As I needed to come to China to appreciate Finland, now I need to leave China for almost four weeks in order to find my passion again.

I’m very eager to find out what kind of feeling I have when I get to Finland in January and how it feels like to come back to Guangzhou before the Chinese new year.

If you liked this blog post, please subscribe to my newsletter on the right sidebar. Thank you!