The Climb

Day 68 (2nd of May, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

At 4am, I arose to the bleating of my alarm clock. It is remarkably easy to wake up early when it is at your own discretion as opposed to someone else’s. The campus was much more beautiful with empty streets and a midnight blue sky unobstructed by clouds and pollution. I was able to take my first glance at a clear moon in months.

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There were cars at the university taxi rank in the early hours, which was lucky. The drivers were huddled around a bonfire waiting for the first customers of the morning.

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Arriving at the train station, I walked past the masses of domestic travellers sleeping amongst their produce as they transported it by between cities.

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I had booked a hard sleeper carriage on the train at 6:30am so that I could nap during the 3-hour trip. It was a comfortable sleep and was greatly needed to muster up some energy for the climb ahead.

Upon waking up, I had crossed the provincial border into Shandong Province. Shandong is a coastal province steeped in history. It is the birthplace of Confucius and holds many of the most sacred sights in Buddhism and Taoism. Today, it has the 3rd highest GDP out of China’s provinces, largely due to it being the intersection of the east-west and north-south trading routes.

The train station looked like most others, though.

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While at the station, I noticed that they actually had a decoy ticket office. Tough luck for any of the suckers who accidentally buy artificial tickets rather than authentic ones.

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The train station is just by the city centre, and so I wandered around the main streets to take a look and work out how to get to the mountain. As you can see by the pictures, English isn’t exactly very common in these parts.

I decided to approach the bulk of this adventure without much planning. I wanted to do it the old-fashioned way – a physical map, packed meals and lots of interacting with the locals. Eventually, I figured out which bus I needed to catch to get to the base of the mountain.

While on the bus and chatting to a local, they told me to get off at a particular stop which turned out to be wrong. While I was there, though, I decided to pop into a restaurant to buy some breakfast since my packed food wasn’t enough.

In the restaurant, I experienced the second case in a week of what I think is genuine racism. The waiter looked confused that I would be coming to his restaurant, and shook his head whenever I tried to use any Chinese. When I eventually got my hands on a menu, I just asked for the basics.

“Dumplings?”

“Don’t have.”

“Fried rice?”

“Don’t have.”

“Noodles?”

“Don’t have.”

I started to suspect something was up. I enquired as to what exactly they sold if they didn’t cook any of the staple Chinese foods. The waiter snatched the menu from my hand and said, “There’s a KFC down the road, this restaurant is for Chinese people.”

“But I can speak Chinese!” I protested.

“There is a KFC just down the road.”

“I didn’t come to China to go to KFC!” I argued, but to no avail. I had the typical ‘talk to the hand’ shoved in my face until I left the restaurant.

Incidents like that wouldn’t normally annoy me, except when there are very few alternative restaurants in the area. I skipped a full breakfast out of frustration.

Eventually I found my way onto a bus and ended at the base of the mountain. Hordes of people were walking around with wooden canes which were sold at the stores for 50c each. I felt like I had to buy one to fit in. I picked up some incense too so that I could burn it in the Buddhist and Taoist Temples.

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In the village at the foot of the mountain, there were a few signs translated into English. As usual, I was feeling in a particularly rebellious mood.

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Eventually, I found my way to the ticket booth and bought a ticket into the Mt Tai area. This mountain is the leader of China’s “Five Sacred Mountains”. It is said that if you climb Mt Tai you will live to 100 years old. So, the hefty ticket price didn’t seem like a big ask. The ticket vendor explained that it was a 5-6 hour walk to the top of the mountain. In order to catch my evening train on time, it would be safest to catch a bus halfway up the mountain before ascending the main part of the track by foot. Then, after a meal at the summit, I could catch the cable car down.

I quickly forgot about that plan, however, when I met my new friend from Beijing. He spotted me alone at the ticket booth, and asked if I’d like to walk with him since he was on his own too. I could only understand about one out of every twenty words he said, because his speech was obscured by a thick accent and plenty of local slang. I was able to convey to him that I had a train to catch at around 6:00pm, and he seemed confident to be able to lead me on a route whereby I’d be back in the city on time. So, I decided to follow him.

This seemed like a good idea until the smoko’ breaks every five minutes became mundane. I decided to put up with it for an hour too long.

This is the only picture I got of my friend.

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The beginning of the climb was littered with hundreds of ancient plaques just like these.

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After the Beijinger stopped for yet another cigarette, I decided to keep on walking. I powered on and whipped the kit off like the hardcore mountaineering locals.

Suddenly, my blindingly white skin became the tourist attraction.

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By the time I realised that I had walked past the bus to get to halfway, I was already too far into the climb to back out. I was climbing at a good pace and quickly realised that the “5-6 hour” estimate was probably more accurate for the chain-smoking 北京人.

The views of the climb were incredible. They mist-coated limestone cliffs which are so characteristic of China fit appropriately amidst this land of mystery.

Rows of characters engraved into the cliff-faces were a common sight.

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After passing the bus terminal half way up, the climb quickly became laborious and physically exhausting. Never ending staircases wound their way through columns and pillars of rock.

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Since I was climbing at a relatively fast pace, I was able to tag along with small groups of locals at different stages. For one section of the climb, I walked with a couple from Zibo in Shandong Province. During another section, I walked with a group of students from Yangzhou. Nearer to the top, I clung to a contingent from Chengdu in Sichuan Province, largely because I wanted to get some recommendations from them for when I inevitably travel there.

While between groups, I made sure to comply with a friends request to “vlog”, and I recorded a video journal.

My favourite view during the climb was close to the summit. The fog of this scene softened the incline of the limestone walls, which seemed suspended between stability and implosion.

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Just before reaching the peak, violent winds started barrelling down the mountain and with them came a torrent of rain. The ice cold water was a pleasant relief from the heat of physical activity. While everyone else got out the ponchos and umbrellas, I stayed strong.

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After finally reaching the peak, I settled in for a well deserved lunch and bottle of the local brew at a restaurant. The rewarding hearty meal reminded me very much of lunch time during a day of skiing.

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Due to the heavy winds, the cable car was closed. This threw a spanner in the works as I thought that I might not make my train on time. I resigned to whatever fate had in store for me and walked down without rushing unnecessarily.

The views on the way down were different as much of the fog had rolled out with the rain.

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I ended up making it back to the train station in good time, and was even able to change to a ticket on an earlier train. On the train, I did some study and had a nap before getting into Xuzhou at 8:40pm. I headed straight back to my dorm for a rest.

 

Day 69 (3rd of May, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

I realised only recently that The Cure’s Sydney concert in July will coincide with my brief visit back home, and so I made sure to set my alarm this morning to be one of the first to access the presale. The Cure are one of my favourite bands of all time, so I have no regrets purchasing my own ticket. But, I decided to buy two other general admission tickets as well. So, three tickets and too much money later, I had what I came for. They’re more expensive than anyone had expected, so there’s a good chance that I won’t have any friends who’ll buy them off me. I decided still to buy the tickets because the band has a history of selling out their first night (especially in venues the size of Qudos Bank Arena), and my thinking is that I could make a profit scalping the other two tickets. It’s a risk and one which I won’t see the outcome of for a number of months, but I’ll let you know how it all goes.

After the morning listening class, I found it too unbearably difficult to keep my eyes open. So, I sent a message to my head teacher (to her frustration) to say that I was feeling sick and that I needed to take my second class off. Her and I agreed that taking a nap was the best thing to get over my “sickness”. In reality, I was just heavily fatigued and needed to sleep, but I wasn’t getting any opportunities to go to bed early or sleep in. She insisted that I get a doctors’ certificate, though. The process of getting the doctors’ certificate ended up taking the whole class, and I only got a 20 minute power nap out of the whole ordeal. It’s incredibly frustrating how they treat class attendance at Chinese universities more like they do school attendance in Australia. As per the original agreement with my head teacher, I turned up to the afternoon class.

After this class and some tutoring work, I caught a bus to a nearby suburb to change up the environment for dinner. On the bus, the women sitting in the seat directly next to me somehow thought that she could get a sneaky picture of me while I was reading my book. She discretely put her phone in her lap, angling it almost 180 degrees so that it was resting horizontally on its front with the camera pointed up. I ignored it, but I seriously couldn’t believe that she thought I wouldn’t notice.

 

Day 70 (4th of May, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

Between classes today, I was able to help a friend with the pronunciation of her English speech. They’re strict on not talking in the library, so we moved into the international house to get a quiet spot to practice. Unbeknownst to me, there’s a rule in Chinese dorm buildings that you’re not allowed to bring in outsiders (to prevent parties and so forth). So, before I knew it, security were in my room asking my friend to leave. Spontaneously, I convinced the guard that she was Korean and from the other international house, and she played along with the act by saying in broken Chinese “I’m sorry, I don’t understand”. Il Kwon, my (genuinely) Korean roommate, helped us out. He babbled to her in Korean. She replied in hilarious fashion “annyeonghaseyo” (hello), because it was all she knew how to say. Eventually, the security decided to turn a blind eye.

It really began to sink in during the afternoon just how quickly exams and seeing Dad are approaching. To fill you in on the exam situation, there are two blocks of exams which I’ll sit during this course:

#1: HSK (optional), Saturday 21st of March
The HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, meaning ‘Chinese Level Exam’) is an internationally recognised certificate stating your level of Chinese. It is used to gain access into university degrees in China, jobs on the mainland and to gain credit points for university in Australia. Unfortunately, this won’t be useful for my university course since I don’t have the option of incorporating Chinese. But, I thought that I may as well take an HSK home with me since the score I get over here will be the best I can get for some time (and I never know if I’ll change degrees or job plans in the future).

When I arrived in China, I could pass HSK Level 3 comfortably. On the 21st of March, I expect to pass HSK Level 4 to the same standard. I will also attempt HSK Level 5 for the experience, but don’t expect to pass (my only chance would be if it were an easy test, in which case I might just be able to scrape into the 60% pass mark).

To fill you in one what these numbers mean, here is some information on the levels applicable to me:

HSK Level 3 600 Designed for learners who can use Chinese to serve the demands of their personal lives, studies and work, and are capable of completing most of the communicative tasks they experience during their Chinese tour.
HSK Level 4 1200 Designed for learners who can discuss a relatively wide range of topics in Chinese and are capable of communicating with Chinese speakers at a high standard.
HSK Level 5 2500 Designed for learners who can read Chinese newspapers and magazines, watch Chinese films and are capable of writing and delivering a lengthy speech in Chinese.

Each step is roughly double the difficulty of the last, which makes me particularly proud that I’ve progressed a whole rank (around 600 characters) in two months. Though, to be frank, I know for certain that I haven’t learned 600 new characters in this time. I’d say I’ve learned maybe 300 characters. I just don’t think I was performing to my capacity when I arrived, because although my vocabulary was larger than the 600 estimate, I wasn’t at all experienced in their usage outside of an HSC paper.

Hopefully the above table explains why I don’t expect to have an easy time attempting HSK Level 5. It’s designed for those who can read Chinese newspapers and magazines, neither of which I can do. It’s worth a shot, though.

#2: Course Exams (compulsory), End of June
These are the exams which enable me to obtain my course completion certificate from the university. These exams don’t matter much to me, and I won’t let them stress me too much. I’d rather allocate more effort to the internationally recognised score.

As a result of the impending exams, I began my goal of doing one past paper per day today. The papers are meant to take one and a half hours, but to understand them comprehensively, they take at least double that time. On top of regular uni work it’s a tough ask, but it’s only for two and a half weeks, so I’m prepared to do it. I launched into the programme of study with a solid first night.

For my half an hour break, I walked to a small hole-in-the-wall place in an alleyway nearby. I have always passed it on the way to the bus, but I have never trusted the hygiene of the food there. My stomach has hardened, though, so I decided to give it a shot. I came out with the most satisfying feed I’d had for weeks – peppered rice congee. And, no joke, it set me back 40 cents.

On the way back to my room, I passed a group of students who started calling out English phrases when they saw me. A common one which they all seemed to like was “Oh my God!” I turned around and took advantage of the attention, trying to get a practice conversation out of the ordeal. I walked away with their WeChats and invited them to lunch the next day. These short-term “one lunch friendships” are becoming all too common, but my Chinese still isn’t at the point where I can sustain a genuine friendship past a lunchtime’s worth of conversation without them having any skill in English. I’m working on that…

 

Day 71 (5th of May, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

Over the past week I’ve been feeling a noticeable stagnation in the improvement of my Chinese. After speaking to a few people about this, it turns out that this is a very common experience around two months into a full immersion. Apparently it’s largely to do with having “charged up” pages and pages of vocabulary during your school years. It takes about two months to get all of those words into proper oral circulation. My progress was really fast at the beginning of the trip because not only was I learning new content in class, but I was consolidating all of my HSC work. Now that I’ve mastered the high school content and caught up to the level of the university course, my progress has started slowing to the regular pace.

It was because of this that today’s lunch was well timed. As planned, I met my new friends for lunch. The conversation was good and I didn’t struggle as much as I normally would with the higher level words, which was a good sign of progress after a week of stalling.

Some pictures were sure to be taken of the occasion. Like in Australia when we’d take a ‘normal’ and then a ‘silly’ photo, over here they do a ‘normal’ and then a ‘cute’ photo.

Their definition of a ‘normal photo’, of course, includes the peace sign.

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This new ‘OK’ symbol I’m starting to see on campus evidently confused me.

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For the ‘cute’ photo, I kept my original smile to the dismay of the people at the table. After many failed attempts at being ‘cute’, they eventually forced me into the pose I referred to in my last blog post.

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The name of the girl in the photo is ‘Fancy’. I no longer hold back from criticising some of the abhorrent choices of names over here. She was resolute on sticking with it, though. It’s still not the worst I’ve heard. One of the teachers I work with is called ‘Gritty’. Another person I’ve met is called ‘Phat’ because of the slang word meaning ‘cool’. Unfortunately, his weight backs up his name. It was a horrible coincidence which I couldn’t bear to break to him.

But I can’t talk. I’ve been told by some that my name is a girl’s name (or that it’s unisex, but mainly used by females), but I’m too deeply established as “YILIDAN” for it to be convenient to change.

After feeling stuffy in my room during an afternoon of work, I decided to get out to the gym. I pushed through a tough session and came out on the edge of being sick. On the way back to my room I bought a fan and set it up next to the bed where I lay until the feeling passed.

Later in the evening, I was asked by my Korean friend, Wally, to help him with his English resume. He was a Commando in the Korean army, which is incredibly impressive. His personal statement was very entertaining. “I am raw diamond”, he claimed, “I am solid taken from underground very valuable”. His metaphor to describe his resilience and value to a company clearly didn’t translate effectively from Korean, but it was still a fun task to find an equivalent in English.

I ended up rewriting the whole resume and came out with a month’s supply of Ginseng Tea as a gift of thanks.

 

Day 72 (6th of May, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

Radiohead released their second new song in a week today to my delight. Radiohead are my favourite band ever, and they continue to produce some incredible art decades into their existence. It was also announced today that a new album would be released on Sunday evening. As a result, everything from Karma Police right through to the new song Daydream was blaring over my speakers today.

Since it was Cinco De Mayo yesterday, Americans in Xuzhou had invited me to go drink with them at a bar in town. I accepted more out of obligation than anything. I have been rejecting their invitations since I first realised that, frankly, they were crude, delusional, Trump-supporting twats.

Upon realising that my genuine desires should trump (ayye) any sort of obligation, I pulled out at the last minute and unwound in a café instead.

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For dinner, I feasted on squid sticks. I first tasted this almost unbearably spicy snack with my first exchange student from Beijing, Fan Zi Mai. Her dad took me to a street food lane where he gave me samples of Sichuan spice, such as in this particular snack.

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Day 73 (7th of May, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

Today I resigned to wearing a face mask like the rest of the Xuzhou population. I thought people were always overreacting, but one too many mouthfuls of the dandelion-like fluff off one of the trees below led me to buy a packet.

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I find streets full of surgical mask-wearing people to be quite apocalyptic, but the Chinese girls view them as a fashion statement. Many girls were washable face masks. I’ve even seen designer face masks selling for quite high prices in some of the city-centre stores. I’ll have to get a photo when I next pass some.

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Teaching was mundane, to be entirely honest. It was made worse by accidentally falling for the ‘deceptive tofu’ in my lunch again, only this time it wasn’t very good tofu. I was carried through the day by reading text message updates on the Riverview vs Joeys 1sts and 2nds matches (Riverview won both, shout out to everyone involved). I wish I could have been there. It sounded like such a nail-biter of a match. It definitely would’ve been a good reunion with classmates too.

Back at the uni I holed myself up in another cafe until the late hours of the evening still churning through the work which I was meant to finish yesterday. I’m finding that HSK Level 5 papers take much, much longer than a night to complete.

 

Day 74 (8th of May, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

Teaching was better today. I found the classes to be much more fulfilling and the students were considerably more cooperative. In one of the afternoon classes, all of the parents came in to watch. I managed to pull off a bilingual class by translating what was going on to the visitors.

While walking past the bathrooms, I caught a glance of the female urinal.

Before China, I didn’t know that these things existed. I’ve never been into an Australian girls’ bathroom, so I’ll have to be filled in on this, but I’m under the impression that these ‘concrete trenches’ are nowhere to be seen.

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You can picture yourself how one would utilise this style of toilet.

I think it’s a good concept. It would certainly shorten the ever-present line for the girls’ bathroom.

After being out at the school, I returned to the university campus to tutor my middle school English students. We covered two units – family and technology. In the family unit, I asked each student to present to the class an introduction of each of their family members. For example “My cousin is Elijah, he’s 17 years old, etc”. In China, they refer to uncles and aunties as ‘Uncle 1’, ‘Uncle 2’, ‘Auntie 1’, ‘Auntie 2’ and so forth. It seems to take a lot of the feeling out of the words, but it’s just part of the language.

I quickly realised that all of the students were getting stuck when trying to name their uncles and aunties. It turns out that many actually don’t know their names since they have referred to them by their number their whole lives. That’s not to say that they have comparatively weak relationships with their extended families, though. I’ve always been a firm believer that even though knowing a name may be symbolic of your relationship with someone, it is not the fabric of the relationship itself. Much like how soldiers don’t literally “fight for our flag”, they fight for the country which is represented by the flag.

It won’t be long before I start calling Bianca and Anneke ‘Sister 1’ and ‘Sister 2’.

I don’t know how Dad would handle the naming system while juggling his other family.

We also worked on a technology unit during the lesson, where I guided the students through all words relating to phones, computers, software and so-forth. I was teaching them about Western equivalents of popular Chinese sites, and when I mentioned Google as being our version of Baidu, none of them had ever heard of it. It’s quite amazing to think that there are 13 year olds in a country just north of our own who don’t know of Google.

The coming week is looking to be routine – class, study, one-lunch friendships and work. It’s good to get into a rhythm amongst the chaos of such an unpredictable place.

Also, Happy Mothers Day to Nonna Rosa, Grandma and my own Mum. Thank you for being the incredible people you are.

Until next time,

Xavier.

 

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2 thoughts on “The Climb

  1. Xave,
    Great work once again with your adventure updates. A little local news Waleed Aly won a Gold Logie last night, with “The Project”, could have something to do with your appearance and interview.
    That was some feat climbing up that mountain. Great to see you showing the locals, how our bronze Aussies, love a challenge, and show them that we love someone with a six pack.
    I found that extremely sad that they told you that the restaurant was only for chinese, couldnt you imagine the do gooders back home having a field day in the media if one of our Fush & Chups shops only sold to Nu Zulanders.
    Until next week.
    Love.
    P1 & G2

    Like

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