01 April 2014

Sun (and Sunburn) in the Philippines

We spent Michael's spring break in the Philippines. I've never ever had the Philippines on my list of places to visit, but it turned out to be quite lovely. We went there because Michael told me that he didn't think Bangkok was safe, and when I opened up Kayak Explore and looked at flights out of China from the Shanghai, the Philippines flight was the cheapest.

I spent way too much time trying to figure out the best travel route. There has been so much planning on my plate recently that I was feeling really overwhelmed. Michael clearly needed a break, too, and after narrowing down places I'd like to see, I finally decided that we were going to book one place and just stay there. Michelle having a vacation without an overly-full itinerary? Crazy talk.

I found a good deal on a place called Cooper's Beach Resort on Palawan Island. When I checked the weather the day before we left, I was scared because it looked like a lot of hot, rainy weather. It ended up only raining one day, hurray!

I think I'm about done going on budget airline flights in the middle of the night. Our plane left at 1:30 AM. Whew.

Michael's artsy airplane photo photo 2014-03-22711_zpse3091bd5.jpg
Michael being artsy in the plane.

It's more fun in the Philippines photo 2014-03-22630_zpsb4751922.jpg
Is it really more fun in the Philippines? And what is "it"?

For once, it really was nice to do nothing. Michael and I arrived before 10 in the morning, and we didn't wake up until after 7 PM. The food that first night was great. They had boiled potatoes, meat-filled cabbage, and some curry vegetables that I couldn't stop eating. The price and the taste of the remaining meals weren't so good, but not having to worry about food was great, and I enjoyed my mango juice at every meal.

Open-air restaurant at Cooper's Beach Resort in Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-24101536_zps8710bb3f.jpg

Each morning, a Philippine woman dressed in what looked like pajamas to me came and took our key to clean our room while we tried to check emails and Facebook. For some reason, the spotty wifi favored Michael and I gave up trying after a couple of days of nothing.

View from our room at Cooper's Beach Resort in Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-28095858_zps5a3bd2cd.jpg
This is the view from our room.

Bed in our room at Cooper's Beach Resort in Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-28103006_zps13d32f0b.jpg
May I just point out here what a bad idea it is to have a board jutting out of a headboard? How are you supposed to sit in bed and read or watch movies?

On the second day, I think the only thing we did the entire day was walk along the beach and back. We watched a lot of movies, took a lot of naps, and I read a lot. Each day, we threw some darts and Michael got more and more puzzled as my skills decreased after his tutelage. We enjoyed some braided hammocks until we started thinking about how painful (and possibly deadly) it would be if a particularly large coconut above us fell.

I may not be consistent at darts, but sometimes I get the bull's eye photo 2014-03-231000_zpsb2e3e0bb.jpg

Philippino lizards! photo 2014-03-221931_zps707c7a86.jpg

We learned quickly that bugs can get into anything but a sealed Tupperware. In the evening, we saw lizards, during the day, we heard chickens crowing. One night, there was a large cockroach in the bathroom. We didn't kill it, but Michael did carefully put down a towel so that it couldn't come out and bother us while we were sleeping, and it disappeared. Another evening, I could see something under the sink and the angle of the legs told me that it was more likely to be a spider, but the size was just plain freaky. Being as freaked out by spiders as I am, I didn't look too closely. Instead, I went and asked an employee to get rid of it. I waited outside, but when I heard Michael say, "It's fast, isn't it?" I had to run out of earshot. Michael told me later that the boy had stepped on the spider in stocking feet. I wish I didn't know that.

The resort is owned by a German family, which meant that the majority of guests were German. I thought that was delightful, especially when I could hear that a group behind us was clearly from Saxony (the state where Leipzig is). It was interesting to me to hear that the German family spoke to the guests in informal. At first I thought that their friends must be visiting from Germany, but after several groups of guests came and went, it was clear they didn't know people before their visit. Hmm.

When we checked in, we were asked if we were interested in diving and I said maybe. The German dive master, Kevin, came and talked to us and offered to let us try diving in the pool to see if it was our thing or not. We joined him in the pool the next afternoon. At some point when Kevin was speaking to someone on the side of the pool and I pitched in something in German, he was surprised to learn that I speak German and started speaking German to me. Clearly he told his family, because that evening, they said, "Abend" to me at dinner, and the father said, "You learned rather fast, didn't you?" I wasn't sure how to answer that. Three years doesn't seem fast for learning German, but he seemed to be impressed.

Anyway. Kevin was a patient teacher. Breathing underwater is such a weird feeling. I could do it for a little bit, but I had to keep coming up for breaks because I felt like I wasn't getting enough air even though I clearly was. Michael went down and then started swimming around the pool like a natural, with perfect buoyancy and steady breathing. The old man by the side of the pool insisted to me later that it was guaranteed that Michael has done diving before. I had trouble relaxing and feeling like I could do anything but focus on breathing. Also, maybe this is just me with my never-ending post-nasal drip, but with the dry air coming from the tank, I felt like I was drowning in snot and had to keep swallowing, which didn't seem to work well with diving. Finally, Kevin got me to go down to the bottom of the pool and around, where I tried to focus on looking at the tiles and letting the buoyancy of the vest keep me horizontal as I kicked with my flippers. It was fine until I saw a bug and thought, "I'm doing this!" and smiled—my mask filled with water because of the smile and I went straight up in a bit of a panic. It felt good, though, to get somewhat comfortable with something that seemed scary, especially when I was trying to do it in front of some unexpected spectators.

I love the German word "doch" because I feel like there's no good replacement for it in English. It basically means that you're insisiting the opposite of what someone just said. So if someone said, "So you don't have any sisters?" to me, I could say, "Doch," and that would mean, "Yes, I do have sisters." I taught Michael the word "doch" over two years ago and he says it often enough, but it's a tough one to use correctly, and usually when he uses it I just end up shaking my head and laughing. This time, however, I thought it was hilarious. As the father of the family walked by, he jokingly yelled, "This time, don't pee in the pool!" to an old German man watching us. When I translated for Michael, he said, "Doch!" or, "Do pee in the pool!" I don't think anyone else heard him or knew that he was trying to speak German, but I found it amusing.

After my first round underwater, Michael told Kevin that his tank was empty, but Kevin thought that Michael must be mistaken. He was surprised to find that Michael had indeed used the entire tank. What big lungs Michael has! Kevin tried to convince us that we should get a diving license from him, but our eyes popped out of our heads when we heard the price, so we started considering what's called a "fun dive"—your depth and time are limited and a dive master must be with you the entire time.

The next day, we scheduled a cheap massage for the afternoon and then headed north on one of the resort's mopeds. I trusted Michael, but I couldn't quite get over the feeling that mopeds are not very stable and they leave you very vulnerable. However, I enjoyed the wind and pointing out the tiny shack stores on the side of the road. Many of them had thatched flooring connecting the road to the store window, and I wanted to stand on one just to see how sturdy it was. There were a whole bunch of areas that had signs saying to stop for inspection, but we never saw anyone there, so on we went.

 photo f709cde7-4dd7-4b79-983e-65eb10a888bd_zpsb5ed2a1f.jpg

Near the Underground River in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-261011_zps32c55180.jpg

We passed a lot of schools and saw school girls walking in matching cotton skirts. There were a surprising number of basketball hoops along the way, as well as stray dogs that laid in the middle of the road. Somehow, people knew the moment they laid eyes on us that we weren't locals. I don't know if it was the shiny moped, the fact that we were actually wearing helmets, or my white legs shining like a beacon, but many would yell, "Hello" or wave at us. In China, you see people carrying amazing amounts of stuff on scooters. Here, we saw amazing amounts of stuff strapped to the top of buses, and often with that stuff were people. People on top of buses. That would never go over in the U.S., would it?

Turkeys in Palwan, Philippines photo 2014-03-25052606_zps86af3c65.jpg
When we stopped for gas and an old woman was gathering big Sprite bottles full of gas to give us, I saw the biggest turkeys I've ever seen in my life in her yard. Her family probably thought it was funny that some foreigner asked to take a picture of their turkeys.

We didn't find a hiking trail like I had hoped, but the views of mountain and beach were incredible and refreshing. There were a lot of great-looking beaches, but we felt very unsure of which ones we could go on. Eventually, we stopped at one that had some shade and I waded way out into the water. When a woman told Michael that we had to pay and he didn't have the right change, he asked if we could leave then without a fee and she said yes, so off we headed to a restaurant, where we were served rice with cold fried vegetables and beef. The price of both our drinks and meals came to about $3. Wow. We also bought some water after marveling at how much cheaper it was outside of the resort.

Scooter/Moped in Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-25054907_zpsbf2a3530.jpg

Beach in Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-25060400_zps4ff31d4b.jpg

Goat in Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-25900_zpsdb496738.jpg
Yes, that is a goat on a log.

Roadside Cafe in Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-251204_zps12da4a33.jpg

As we headed back, we looked for mangoes to buy and stopped at several places, during which time I decided to change into my jeans instead of my swim shorts because my legs were feeling hot and looking red despite the three times I'd put sunscreen on them. At each stop, we were told we'd have to head into the city to find mangoes, so we finally went back.

As soon as we got back, it sunk in just how bad my legs were (and there was quite the triangle of red on the tops of my feet). Apparently knees are super vulnerable to the sun when you're on a motorcycle/moped/scooter, because even with three sunscreen applications, they were fiery red. My friend Dani had a daughter pull boiling water onto her once and I remembered her telling me that she learned how the damage continues to be done for a long time after and you have to keep cold water on it for much longer than she ever would have guessed, so I hopped in the shower and let cold water run over my legs for as long as I could. Add to that some aloe vera pulled straight out of the garden (thanks, Cooper's!), some Ibuprofen, and ice, and the fire was still burning. I ended up icing while Michael got his massage because there was no way I was letting anyone near my skin. I felt so mad at myself. I am very careful with my skin and thought I was taking good care of it until it was too late. Michael had a bit of a burn as well, but for him it was just his knees. It didn't seem to bother him much, and within a couple of days, he had nice brown knees with a really clear tan line.

Sunburn from our moped ride along the coast of Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-27124217_zps3b97a4d6.jpg
My knees are usually much knobbier than that, and this is before the burns got worse.

Unfortunately, the burn dominated the rest of the vacation for me. I couldn't sleep well while I tried to elevate to prevent swelling and the scratching of sheets, and the burns got so inflamed that I could barely walk. Standing up after sitting caused me to gasp in pain—my knees were so swollen and my skin was so stiff that I felt like I couldn't even straighten my legs all the way. Each day I hoped that things would calm down, but they didn't. Every new batch of ice nearly caused me to hyperventilate because of the awful pain it invoked. Sitting in the pool was the only thing that felt relieving, but it was temporary relief, and I could only sit there after the sun was low or I'd just be getting burned more. The moment the sun fell on my burns, an angry sizzling started up, but I couldn't cover the burns because that was painful, too.

Somehow I managed to still make it to the one thing I'd wanted to see: the underground river. We were picked up by a friendly young woman who kept calling us "Miss Michelle" and "Mr. Michael," or "ma'am" (which they pronounce like "mom" in the Philippines, which threw me off), and "sir." Our group ate lunch at an all-you-can-eat buffet place while waiting for our boat. I really enjoyed the tempura-type veggies, and Michael really enjoyed the jello desserts. While people-watching, I realized that pink lips are all the rage in the Philippines right now for girls. The sun was so hot that everyone bought a lot of ice cream and tried their best to stay out of the sun. Michael and I were also able to buy a ripe yellow mango to eat later. Thankfully, the boats, though so loud that we probably suffered ear damage, were shaded.

Beach in Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-26063344_zpseec26bdd.jpg

Beach at Underground River in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-26063408_zps3ac6adae.jpg

Monkey at Underground River in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-26063951_zps5a9da822.jpg
Once we made it to the protected beach, there were monkeys and lazy-looking monitor lizards to look at.

Monitor lizard at Underground River in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-26064549_zps0f0917e4.jpg

Monkey at Underground River in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-26064939_zps939fa4d7.jpg
Michael nearly got the camera stolen by this monkey.

Tree mold at Underground River in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-26071957_zpsc182b95f.jpg
I couldn't figure out if it was mushrooms or mold or what growing on the trees, but it looked cool.

Beach at Underground River in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-26074331_zps4028d472.jpg

After about an hour of waiting, we were put on a boat with a guide in the back. Unfortunately, because of the guide's accent, the echo in the cave, other groups, and the noise of a lot of bats, I didn't catch any full sentences, though other people on the boat seemed to think the guide was pretty funny. Michael was asked to be in charge of the spotlight, so both of us listened hard for directions like "up" and "right" and managed to keep the guide mostly happy.

Boating into the Underground River in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-26082117_zpsc8c405ce.jpg

Boating into the Underground River in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-26082415_zpseab2d352.jpg

Boating into the Underground River in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-26090643_zps9a12a283.jpg

Michael with lifejacket in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-26092406_zps0012b4a3.jpg

Boating back from the Underground River in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-26093903_zps653bc9a4.jpg
It was fascinating to me that the boats had balancing beams on either side, that a guy with a really long pole guided us to the shore, and that most of the boat's beams were made of bamboo.

The group wanted to then go on a zipline, which sounded really awesome, but with my legs being as unhappy as they were, I declined. That meant that we had to wait for a couple of hours. We got some smoothies and ice cream and watched the stray dogs everywhere. Interestingly, the dogs were all about the same size and shape, though their fur color and patterns differed a lot.

Stray dog in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-26103220_zps20e2bd69.jpg
This dog reminded me of my sister's dog, Nestle.

I tried to cool off my legs in the ocean, and a white dog came and befriended me. I wasn't too worried about that, but then it kept trying to get right up against me and I was afraid it was going to scratch my sunburns. Then Michael saw that it had a goopy eye, shooed it away, and insisted that we walk elsewhere. Somehow the dog kept finding us. "What did you do to this dog?!" Michael kept asking. We left not too much after that, the van zigzagging through mountains as we talked to the Philippine and Philippine Canadian family in our van.

That evening at dinner, we scheduled a fun dive for the next morning. I hesitated because I didn't think my legs would be very conducive to the activity, but I didn't know when I would have another chance to dive. Kevin said I wouldn't have to wear a wet suit, but then Michael said I should try, and with some baby powder, I was able to get it on over my burns without too much trouble.

Wading out to the diveboat in Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-27013313_zps5157d7ca.jpg
We waded out in shallow, clear, mini-jellyfish-infested waters to the boat.

Diving with Cooper's Beach Resort near Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-27020408_zps4b3b98f2.jpg

On the water near Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-27014555_zps6d728ce7.jpg
It was impossible to get a photo that showed just how bright it really was outside because the camera automatically adjusted.

Michael got into the water with another dive master after a British couple had done their thing, and then I got in with Kevin. Once I was in the water, I forgot about my sizzled legs, but my fear came back a bit and I wasn't sure I could dive, but after Kevin added some weight to my vest, he pulled me down and we kicked around for a good half hour, with Kevin gesturing the directions, constantly checking if I was okay, and pointing out cool things to look at! The reef wasn't as vibrantly colored as I had thought all reefs must be, but it was really cool to see a lot of fish, some sea slugs, blue sea stars, and even a long, thin, yellow trumpet fish. It was hard to keep a moderate focus on breathing. I felt that if I thought about it too much, I'd end up doing something dumb and panic, but if I didn't think enough about it, I might try to breathe in normally through my nose strongly enough to pull water into my mask. Luckily, the views were good enough to keep me just distracted enough, and Kevin was a great guide. There were a few times that I was so focused on something underneath us that when I looked up, I was headed straight to a tall mound of coral and had to turn. I was worried about breaking some coral and kept taking deep breaths and using that to pull myself up higher in the water. I was also worried that I would get tired since I'm not a very strong swimmer, but it turns out that your vest keeps you buoyant enough that all you really have to do is gently kick your flippers. At one point, Kevin handed me a round piece of coral to feel, which I thought was awesome.

I dove!

Michael diving with Cooper's Beach Resort near Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-27030622_zps7920432c.jpg

Michelle diving with Cooper's Beach Resort near Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-27035422_zpsb8ae0228.jpg

Michelle diving with Cooper's Beach Resort near Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-27035513_zpsec7ee7ae.jpg
You forget how heavy the tank is until you get out of the water.

Michelle diving with Cooper's Beach Resort near Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-27035706_zpsba29c139.jpg

Michael diving with Cooper's Beach Resort near Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-27930_zps4ae3d652.jpg

We got back before it was even lunch time and had the rest of the day to do nothing. Awesome!

Michael and Michelle at Cooper's Beach Resort in Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-281051_zpsbf2330e2.jpg
Our last morning on the beach.

Beach at Cooper's Beach Resort in Palawan, Philippines photo 2014-03-281050_zpsced595de.jpg

The same guy who picked us up at the airport in Puerto Princesa drove us back. We asked him to stop at a fruit stand so we could get mangos, but he warned us that they weren't allowed in the airport. "Don't worry," I said, "we want to eat them right now," and on the spot we ate them. Yum.

Though I thought the third day after a burn would show me some relief after I had paid a lot of attention to my legs, I was still in a lot of pain. I managed, however, to get a dress on instead of the swim shorts I'd had to wear every day, and I held it up as I walked. With all the waiting in lines, it was a tough day. When we got to Manila, the international terminal wasn't yet opened for the next flight and so we had to wait outside in the very warm air. Ouch. I had wanted to go into the city for a few hours, but that was clearly not happening, what with afternoon traffic and me barely being able to walk. Luckily, I saw an ad for a cafe, and we ended up getting the halo halo taro ice cream I'd wanted to try, a giant tropical fruit smoothie, some pork sizzling on a ceramic plate, and some stir-fried vegetables with chicken.

Trying a tropical smoothie and taro root ice cream 
(halo halo) at a restaurant near the Manila Ninoy Aquino Airport in the 
Philippines photo 2014-03-281628_zpse6d8c1fb.jpg

Once we were able to go into the airport, there was a lot more waiting, and with the quick disappearance of a line and the sudden immersion in Mandarin, we felt like we were back to China already. Weirdly, everyone had to pay an exiting terminal fee, and the airports had two security checks—one just to get into the airport, and another one for ticketed customers. I did not enjoy the way they start every pat down by sticking a hand right in the middle of your chest and sliding down.

Although Michael had said that we could get the same delicious chocolate croissant and paninis we'd gotten on the way in, and though the airport was tiny, once we got inside, we saw that for some reason, the room had been partitioned and we weren't allowed into the other section. Amazingly, Michael made friends with a janitor, who asked his friend on the other side to buy us paninis, and a money/food trade was made in the men's restroom (or "comfort room," as the signs called it). Unfortunately, on the way to do the pick-up (ha ha, it sounds like drugs), Michael was overly eager and didn't take care that his knees didn't scratch against mine as he exited the aisle. I yelped and then leaned over in pain for a good while, trying to breathe, feeling like I'd just been torn open. When I finally looked, I saw that the skin had been so tender from the burn and all the soaking and aloe vera moisturizing I'd been doing that a big circle had torn right off. Imagine me trying to be friendly anyway as Michael introduced me to some banker guy from Singapore. Oooooooooow.

After having sat for a while, it was quite the ordeal to get me on the plane without having other people bump into me and getting up the stairs to the plane, and then we discovered that somehow our row didn't have air like most of the other rows did, so I couldn't aim it on my legs to cool them down. I felt so miserable that when the flight attendants announced that the weather in Shanghai wasn't conducive to landing and we'd all need to get off the plane, I nearly cried. We spent another several hours in the terminal, during which time we watched a movie and got food from the airlines—including a small packet of Philippines-brand dried mango—the freshest I've ever had.

We got back to Shanghai around 4:30 in the morning, and let me tell you, the walk to where the taxis were was some of the longest, slowest walking I've done in a long while.

I didn't leave our room again for another two days. Praise be to Michael for taking care of food. Instead, I convalesced, each day hoping that the next day would be the day when the pain would subside and I could wear normal clothes, walk, and sleep. My skin looked really mottled, I couldn't remember having sunburn pain be so intense for so many days, and no blisters were forming, so I felt  worried that this was more than a first degree burn and I had done some major tissue damage. I soaked in cold tub water that had baking soda and oatmeal sprinkled in it, then shivered for hours since I couldn't put on pants and the hotel heat is no longer on. I also moisturized with hydrocortisone, mentholatum, Neosporin, and aloe vera all day long. I read that aloe vera doesn't soak in, so I felt unsure of if I should try to scrub some of it off to allow other stuff in. I ended up just letting the towel get what it could whenever I gently dried off, resulting in some yellow stains. I also read that vinegar does wonders for sunburns, so I managed to shake through the pain it caused for a few minutes before diving back into the cold tub.

I'm writing all this in past tense, but today's the first day I left the room, and I did only because Michael wasn't here to get food for me and I was really hungry. The constant burn is finally starting to die down, but still, every time I stand up, I can hardly take the pain. Also, the itchiness started, so I popped an anti-histamine, varied between the cold tub and the blow dryer to overwhelm the nerves, tried a hot shower because a lot of people online said that has the longest-lasting effects (yes, I know that hot is not good for burns, but I was desperate), and even tried rubbing a banana on the burn (which seemed to be pretty good despite the smell). Hilariously enough, all my cream/salve/lotion/goop supplies are running out, and while I was conditioning some leather shoes today I realized that the "Dr. Martens Wonder Shoe Balsam" that my mom bought for me probably thirteen years ago might be great for a burn. Sure enough, I looked it up, and with the ingredients being coconut oil, lanolin, and beeswax, I'm now keeping my very own leather soft and supple. Thanks, Mom!

So, in summary, if you ever get a really cheap ticket to the Philippines, you should hang out in Palawan, bring painkillers and aloe vera gel with you, and avoid the sun like the dickens.

30 March 2014

Beijing and Hiking the Great Wall of China

It only took me six months of living in China to make it to Beijing. The reason I hadn't gone was because I kept waiting for a time when Michael could go, and there just wasn't ever one. He said he didn't care to go anyway, and I found some Hult students who wanted to go, so off I went, with two really tall German guys.

When I think of Beijing, I will ever think of:

  • walking forever
  • losing my hair elastic and getting the rat's nest of fury
  • getting my tongue and brain flustered between Chinese, English, and German
  • my phone running out of juice every single day
  • soldiers all over the place
  • the awesome hike on the Great Wall

Dinners Because of Delayed Flights to Beijing photo 2014-03-05183232_zps50107c4f.jpg
Our flight was delayed, but awesomely, the airlines passed out hot dinners to everyone.

We arrived around midnight at a tiny airport south of Beijing, so we didn't go to bed until pretty late. We stayed at a cool Airbnb that while about an hour away from the city center by metro, had three bedrooms and three bathrooms.

The Forbidden City photo 2014-03-06112706_zps1a70d2b3.jpg
The Forbidden City is large and in charge. You walk through courtyard after courtyard after courtyard. Apparently it got its name because no one was allowed to enter or leave without the emperor's permission.

The Forbidden City photo 2014-03-06124133_zps7d972e3d.jpg
I thought the area towards the back was the nicest. I also thought that the guys would eventually catch up with me, but they didn't, so I spent the rest of the day on my own, which was fine.

It took ages to walk all the way back to the entrance of the Forbidden City, which is across from Tiananmen Square. Unfortunately, soldiers were blockading something, and I ended up walking the same huge block several times and I still ended up having to go through security three times—I even had to show my passport!

Tiananmen Square photo 2014-03-06092252_zps155d7e76.jpg
The Square. Also enormous. This view is just half of it.

 Mao's Resting Place photo 2014-03-06080635_zps5700acd1.jpg
It took me two rounds to realize that the mausoleum was closed. :( Preserved Mao is in there somewhere.

Sculpting in Time Cafe photo 2014-03-06165852_zpsb7bc7866.jpg
Because my phone died, I went to the metro stop by where we were set to have dinner, walked for about half an hour until I found a cafe/coffee shop called "Sculpting in Time," and collapsed there with some fries and a smoothie.

Not only did I need to deal with my phone, I had somehow lost my one hair elastic, and with a scarf and a wool coat, I could feel that my hair had the most enormous rat's nest that has ever existed. I tried to kind of hide it by putting it up in a pen, but that didn't work too well since the only pen I brought with me had a rubber grip.

Once my phone was charged, I was able to figure out where to go and met up with the guys at a great pizza place called "Tube Station."

 Tube Station Pizza photo 2014-03-06183945_zps5e15032b.jpg
As you can see, the pizza was almost as big as the Forbidden City.

When I got back, I took pictures of my rat's nest. (How interesting that the day of, I felt so embarrassed about the rat's nest of fury, but now here I am sharing it with the world.)

Rat's Nest of Death photo RatsNestofDeath_zps0dc3bf00.jpg
No fingers or comb could get through that monster. I could have named it.

I smothered the thing with shampoo (I didn't have any conditioner, unfortunately) and then spent a good half hour patiently combing, combing, combing. I was so glad to find an elastic in a drawer in the apartment. After that, it was a braid or a bun every day.

The next morning, the Lama Temple was the first stop on our list.

Lama Temple photo 2014-03-07044740_zpsb82cf2fa.jpg
People were throwing money, trying to get it onto the top of this thing. I saw a coin hit a woman.

We had agreed that we would stick together this day, but I ended up waiting for the guys every five steps and I was getting really bored and frustrated. Finally, I gave Julian the guide book and the map and said I would go at my own pace and meet up with them in the evening.

My next stop was the Olympic Plaza, where the famous Bird's Nest structure is. Once I got there, I found that I wasn't very interested in doing a tour, and there wasn't much else to do, so I left to go find the bus to the Ming Tombs.

Amazing Streetfood Chicken Taco Thingy photo 2014-03-07075858_zpsb1b43112.jpg
Unfortunately, I went way out of my way and didn't find the bus (there was another one elsewhere), but I did find this delicious chicken street food taco thingy, as well as some hot sweet potatoes. The woman cooked the chicken for about five seconds, so I was a little freaked out about eating it, but it seemed to be fine.

Next stop: the Summer Palace.

Summer Palace photo 2014-03-07103501_zps4e8cf760.jpg

Summer Palace photo 2014-03-07101747_zpsa3173ac1.jpg
The Summer Palace was such a serene place. Unfortunately, my experience wasn't so serene. I rented this audio guide, and it just wouldn't work correctly. I went back to the booth twice and was told I had to walk the direction of the dots. I did my best to walk that way, but the map just wasn't detailed enough, and even when I knew I was at the right place, the audio didn't always start up. Frustrating. I think pretty much the only thing I got from it was that this long, roofed walkway holds the record for the world's longest corridor.

By the time I arrived at the other gate, my feet were done, but I still had to get to the metro, find somewhere to charge my once-again-dead phone, and then go to wherever the guys wanted to go for dinner. I got off at a random stop, and limped slowly around the corner . . . and found this:

Hutong, Maybe? photo 2014-03-07121316_zps3e93a675.jpg
I hadn't actually planned on going to the traditional "Hutong" neighborhood, and I'm not even sure that's what this was, but it was cool. Unfortunately, I walked the entire length of it before I found a place that looked appealing and like it might have a power outlet.

Watery Spaghetti photo 2014-03-07123835_zpsc3dd4f40.jpg
I ordered this watery, spicy spaghetti, and ate it as slowly as possible while my phone charged.

I guess we were all really tired that night, because the guys just wanted to go back to the apartment like I did (which is good, because there was only one key).

Sore Feet photo 2014-03-07205507_zps1f0111dd.jpg
My feet were so sore and swollen that I put them up before I even took off my coat.

Since the Shanghai Hiking Lovers Meetup group that I'm a member of was meeting in Beijing that weekend to hike the Great Wall, I scheduled to join them. Because of the last traumatic hike and my sore feet from walking around Beijing for two days, I was a bit scared to go, but I confirmed that there would be a small group of people who wouldn't go as far. Ferdinand and Julian agreed to join, and the three of us looked completely crazy when we showed up where the Beijing hikers were meeting—they all had brand new, bright, professional hiking gear.

On the bus on the way to the wall, people introduced themselves using the microphone, one by one. There weren't many expats, and even fewer dared to get up and even try some Chinese. I went up and said, "Da jia hao. Wo shi Michelle. Wo shi ruanjiangongchengshi" ("Hi everyone. I'm Michelle. I'm a software engineer.") People cheered a lot at that. Then I said, "Wo zhu Shanghai . . . normally? . . . wo zhu Jiu Jin Shan. Wo yao xuexi Hanyu yinwei wo de laogong shi taiwanren." ("I live in Shanghai . . . normally . . . I live in San Francisco. I want to learn Chinese because my husband is Taiwanese." They all cheered again. "Danshi ta bu yao shuo Hanyu he wo. Wo xuyao ni de bang zhu." ("But he doesn't want to speak Chinese with me. I need your help.") Then as I was about to hand back the microphone, I said, "Wan de kai xin." ("Have fun.") I can say sentences and have people understand me, see? The problem is knowing what the heck people say to me. 

Within a couple of minutes of getting off the bus, we were headed up a steep, wild-looking path. I noticed that a Chinese woman took breaks about whenever I did, so I asked if we could hike together. Her name was Miao Miao, and she was very typically Chinese, from her puffy white boots to her disbelief that I was carrying cold water with me.

The Great Wall Hike With Miao photo 2014-03-08051551_zps36a341b9.jpg
We made a good team. The weather was perfect for hiking, and bringing Michael's jacket was a great idea.

The Great Wall Hike photo 2014-03-08055159_zps86989079.jpg
Miao Miao clearly liked taking pictures of and for me. I didn't even have to ask. Awesome.

The Great Wall Hike photo 2014-03-08074825_zps7789f628.jpg
Once we got to the touristy part of the wall, some parts were sooooo steep that we pretty much crawled up them. We started taking breaks every ten steps.

The Great Wall Hike (Miao) photo 2014-03-08060531_zps2dace155.jpg
I saw a woman in a bright pink wool coat and heels clip clop her way up these stairs without taking a break (or at least as far as I saw). I don't know what world she is from.

The Great Wall Hike photo 2014-03-09115421_zpsa1666495.jpg
It was about here that I found out that I'd completely missed the escape of the "easy" group—they went down some really awesome-looking toboggan chutes, but lack of service and phone battery made us unable to reach each other. Again. I was told that I could go back and go down and try to find them, but I'd gotten that far, and Miao Miao and I were doing well, so I went on.

The Great Wall Hike Rough Parts photo 2014-03-08083924_zpsb01a5944.jpg
This is what the wall looked like past the touristy section. We hiked with a group of other Beijingers and wow, I couldn't understand them at all, though they could understand my horrible Chinese.

Beijing Friends Climbing During the Great Wall Hike photo 2014-03-08115041_zps81eff4c2.jpg
I loved the entire hike, but going down was especially fun for me. I liked picking out which root or rock to step on next. Miao Miao didn't find it so easy and we got further and further behind. The guide stayed just ahead of us, encouraging us to go faster because the buses were waiting. I think at one point she said I should just go ahead, but I remembered being ditched on the last hike and said no way. When we got to the rock in this picture, even the guide got a little bit stuck. I was right behind her, and it didn't look that tough to me. I ended up going down the other side while she was still shakily surveying her options. As I waited for the others to get down, I wondered about what made it easy for me, and I tried to point out the right footholds.

Having to slow down helped me look at my surroundings. Here are some attempts at being artsy/sharing the beauty:

The Great Wall Hike View photo 2014-03-08093319_zps1cc62221.jpg

The Great Wall Hike View photo 2014-03-08111238_zpsd45bf443.jpg

The Great Wall Hike View photo 2014-03-08111242_zps4fe984f6.jpg

The Great Wall Hike photo 2014-03-09115526_zps8369a8be.jpg
Miao Miao shot this photo as we were coming off of the mountain and into the valley. I was tired but so happy. I'd done 18 kilometers that I hadn't expected to do. And somehow my feet didn't hurt as much as when I walk around a city all day.

Stiff Socks--Signs of a Good Hike photo 2014-03-08230051_zps079a74b1.jpg
The sign of a good hike: your socks stand up by themselves. The hike was my absolute favorite part of Beijing.

Grandma's Kitchen photo 2014-03-08210545_zps162556a6.jpg
Once we got off the bus in Beijing, I invited Miao Miao to join us for dinner. We went to "Grandma's Kitchen," a place that my friend Kate suggested. I loved the hamburger bun that was nearly the size of my head, and the mint ice cream shake was really refreshing.

The next day, Ferdinand and I decided to go to the Ming Tombs in the afternoon. He insisted that lunch is "almost as important if not more important" than breakfast, and we needed to sit down and eat something warm. I said, "I know that Germans think that. I'm just going to go to the store and pick up something while you eat."

Unfortunately, we got distracted on the metro and ended up going all the way around the city. Then, walking to the bus wasn't so easy and we ended up climbing up a retaining wall by a river and walking all around a big gate until Ferdinand waved down the departing bus that we needed.

To make things even more stressful, we had to stand up the entire one-hour bus ride, and because there wasn't much room to move around and I had to hold myself up using other people's chairs, I couldn't even take off my jacket. I don't know if I've ever sweated that much without physical exertion. I just hoped that the effort was worth it.

It wasn't. We arrived around 16:50, and though the guide book told us the place would close at 18:00 and the "selling ticket time" didn't end for a few minutes, we couldn't find anyone to sell us a ticket and the guy at the entrance wouldn't give us a break. We ended up running right back for the bus and heading back. I again stood the whole way. We wasted a day. :(

Rejected by the Ming Tombs (Taken Around 16:50) photo 2014-03-09113303_zpsd6aa60ad.jpg

We arranged to meet Julian at Soho for dinner and then I used a Chinese restaurant app to try and find us a place to eat dinner. The first one on the list looked pretty good, so we walked toward the location indicated, only to stand in front of it and see that it was another location of Grandma's Kitchen, the place we'd eaten at the night before!

Noodles with Brown Sauce photo 2014-03-09143130_zpsfa450a5f.jpg
We ended up in a Chinese place instead, where you have to mark everything you want on a big piece of paper. I was jealous when Julian's meal turned out to be what I had hoped for, but my noodles were decent.

The next day, I headed to the National Museum while they went elsewhere. I found out from a guard that the museum was closed. Ack! To add to my frustration, my phone was quickly running out of battery and it was out of money anyway, so I really couldn't look up anything or let the guys know about the museum.

I walked and walked and walked for miles, past a lot of soldiers who stared at me with my giant backpack (I'd brought all of my belongings with me) until I collapsed in a cafe where I bought some waffles before heading to the airport.

When we'd booked the tickets, I had said that two days were enough for me, but Ferdinand was quite set on five days, saying we'd need every minute. As it turned out, everything I did that I liked occurred in two days and I wished that I'd just returned to get stuff done in Shanghai. Oh well—I had several opportunities to speak some Chinese, I quite enjoyed a day of hiking on the wall, and I was able to see the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.


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