HSK-ing

Day 82 (16th of May, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

It was only at 4am this morning that I managed to crawl into bed. After a long night of study (of which I clearly underestimated the time required) and a few hours crafting this blog, I finally got the sleep which I have so desperately been needing.

Oh, the lengths I go to for this journal.

But in reality, when reading posts like this to my grandkids in decades to come (likely in spite their protests), it won’t be the late nights that I remember, but rather the great memories which I am trying to preserve.

After a sleep through to the late afternoon, I woke up to the murder scene that was a blood nose during the night. It marked the beginning of a chain of blood noses, probably stemming from weather, which would continue throughout the day.

It was today that I decided to put an end to my nocturnal lifestyle, and so after finding out that my only class had been cancelled, I made my way down to a food street about twenty minutes away which sells 把子肉 (ba zi rou), a Xuzhou speciality. I was recommended this dish by an Australian, actually. In my first month here during my doomed quest to find a fellow Aussie, I was referred to the WeChat contact of a Brisbane boy who had studied at the same university some time ago. Upon finally getting into touch with him to see if he had any recommendations of what I needed to do while in the city, he insisted that I try this particular dish.

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As you can see, 把子肉 is a big slice of fatty pork. It was as soft and flavoursome as a stewy meat could be, but it was probably a bit too much fat for me to handle. The dish was served with huge black mushrooms, a thick hunk of tofu as well as a deep fried boiled egg. It was packed with a strong barbecue, smoky flavour. I’d only be able to handle one of these dishes every few weeks.

While walking back from my lunchtime adventure, I dropped through a supermarket to pick up some more face masks after the surprisingly positive effects of the Korean one talked about in the last blog.

There was quite a selection available. As I’m sure they are in Australia, face masks (or 面膜 mianmo as they’re called here) are all the rage. I came across some obscure ones, including ones apparently containing snail mucus, snake poison and sheep placenta.

It was to my dismay that one of my blood noses came while actually using a face mask, which caused a particularly big mess.

Day 83 (17th of May, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

For anyone who knows me well enough, they’d know that I’m the antithesis of a ‘morning person’. If I’ve ever seemed particularly chirpy in the early hours of the day, it’s likely because I’ve been awake for a while and have had a some time to ease myself into everything.

Today was not one of those days.

I really felt the fatigue in my 8am listening class, particularly since I couldn’t keep up with any of the content. Listening is a class which you need to prepare beforehand if you’re going to get anything out of it. With the exams approaching on Saturday though, I’ve been prioritising past papers over any sort of class preparation. So, it quickly became apparent that the next hour and a half would be useless to me. Thankfully, because this is a computer class, we’re all sat in booths across the classroom where you can easily dip your head and have a snooze. Lucky I’m not a snorer.

Reading class was a different story. I found the content more engaging and I was able to keep up without having to be prepared for that specific unit.

Besides tutoring, the rest of the day was spent procrastinating by organising further travel. I submitted my application to gain a Tibet Travel Permit (these are tightly controlled by the government – I have to agree to be on an official tour the whole time), and I received a good quote from Flight Centre for the two Topdeck tours I’m about to book. The price they offered me was $400 off Topdeck’s official price, which leads me to believe that they must sell a high volume to receive such a rate. What surprised me most, though, was how little advertising there was for it. It really took some digging through the website to eventually find it, and I wasn’t expecting a good deal.

I also found an app called ‘Hopper’ which uses years of data from airlines on all routes to predict price trends. The app sends me an alert when it predicts that a flight is at its cheapest. Based on the app’s recommendations, I booked my Chengdu to Lhasa flight today. I’ll explain my travel plan for Tibet similar to how I did for next week’s trip on another day.

After sending a few emails to organise all the trips, I brought myself to the Italian restaurant to study over a Peking duck pizza.

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I can’t believe how lucky I am that a restaurant quality pizza over here costs the same price as a sandwich at an Australian café. I can affordably eat out most nights and never have to worry about cooking my own meals.

I’m not looking forward to the day when that privilege ends.

I also bought a new street snack which I hadn’t seen before. I’m not sure what it’s called, but the only thing I can compare it to is strips of lasagne doused in spices and Chinese flavours.

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Day 84 (18th of May, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

I booked some more flights today. But again, to save the confusion, I will write a whole itinerary once everything is confirmed.

The rest of the day was business as usual in every respect. I churned through study as quickly as I could in order to get to bed early. I brought myself to the nearby café to do the majority of it.

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The mug couldn’t have summed up my feelings better: ‘born to golf, forced to work’.

(sarcasm)

For dinner, I bought pork jianbing (Xuzhou hamburger) on the way back to my room. It was excellent (Dad has fond memories of a similar meal during the family’s trip here).

To my frustration, just when I’d put a lot of effort into going to bed early, I couldn’t get to sleep until very late, negating all of my efforts. That’s life, though.

Day 85 (19th of May, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

I pushed aside the bulk of today’s study to focus on a full day of Chinese speaking practice. The speaking exam on Saturday has started making me nervous. It is of equivalent difficulty to my HSC Chinese Extension speaking exam, only this time I’m improvising everything rather than reciting rote learned passages which fit with a question. But, after much practice, I realised that I was more than capable of getting a good result, so the day ended with my mind at ease.

For lunch, I went out with the friends who I met last week. You’ll recall that I wrote about them in last week’s blog post. They were the ones who took a photo with me cupping my hands around my face for the ‘cute pose’. I invited my roommate and his Korean friend to the lunch in an effort to get to know them better too. We caught a bus to one of my favourite eateries nearby.

While at the bus stop, I spotted this high-schooler.

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I wonder if he knows what it means…

I got the official confirmation of my Tibet Travel Permit today and paid my money for the tour, so I decided to book most of the flights too. By coincidence, the application for my flight home to be funded by the scholarship was also granted today. I couldn’t be more excited to visit home for two or so weeks.

With everything confirmed, I can now accurately tell you my plans for the beginning of July. Excuse the poor English in some parts, I have copied and pasted bits from the tour description:

Friday 1st of July (Shanghai)
Transport: Train Xuzhou – Shanghai
Activities: Drop off luggage at friend’s house and pack a bag for Tibet.

Saturday 2nd of July (Chengdu, Sichuan Province)
Transport: Flight Shanghai – Chengdu
Activities: Eat spicy food (other activities TBC)

Sunday 3rd of July (Chengdu, Sichuan Province)
Transport: n/a
Activities: Eat spicy food (other activities TBC)

Monday 4th of July (Lhasa, Tibet)
Transport: Flight Chengdu – Lhasa
Activities: You will be greeted by your Tibetan guide once you arrive in Lhasa Gonggar airport or train station. From airport to Lhasa city is 68km, around one hour and half drive will take you to the holy city Lhasa; from the train station it is only 15km and takes 20 minutes by drive. Afternoon, have a good rest to acclimatize the high altitude. Overnight in Lhasa.

Tuesday 5th of July (Lhasa, Tibet)
Transport: n/a
Activities: Today is your first day of sightseeing on the high plateau, so we have purposely arranged only to visit Jokhang Temple and Potala Palace. Potala Palace is the worldwide known cardinal landmark of Tibet. The massive structure itself contains a small world within it. Mostly it is renowned as residence of the Dalai Lama lineages (Avalokiteshvara). Jokhang Temple is the most scared shrine in Tibet which was built in 7th century and located at the heart of old town in Lhasa. The circuit around the Jokhang called Barkhor Street is a good place to purchase souvenirs. Both of them are the focal points of pilgrims from entire Tibetan world, multitudinous pilgrims are circumambulating and prostrating in their strong faith. Afterwards stroll on the narrow streets of Lhasa old town to meet local people and visit their markets. A “Welcome Dinner” is arranged for today. Overnight in Lhasa.

Wednesday 6th of July (Lhasa, Tibet)
Transport: n/a
Activities: About 8km west of central Lhasa is the Drepung Monastery, once world’s largest monastery with about 10,000 monks. This day’s sightseeing begins with these white monastic buildings piled up on the hillside. Walking up to the hill is a pleasant thing, an easy break from the solemn ambience inside the halls and chapels. At the plat roof of hillside, you can have very good views of the whole Lhasa city and the distant mountains. Drepung is one of Lhasa’s two great Gelugpa monasteries, the other is Sera Monastery. Around 5km north of central Lhasa, Sera may not be as grandiose as Drepung, but is more serene surrounded by many small temples. The ‘Buddhism Scriptures Debating’ in Sera is very famous. Overnight in Lhasa.

Thursday 7th of July (Shigatse, Tibet)
Transport: Tour Bus Lhasa – Shigatse
Activities: After breakfast, you’ll first start the drive to Chushul, here you will cross Kambala Pass which is 4794m high, Kambala Pass will provide you the first sight of the holy lake – Yamdrok tso. Then drive down to the bank of Yamdrok tso Lake, it takes about half an hour driving along the beautiful the bank to the nearest town – Nangartse. After lunch, continue on Southern Friendship Highway towards west, enjoy the spectacular views of the snow-capped mountains, valleys and grasslands with the groups of nomads. En route we will stop at Karo la to see the holy mount Nyenchen Kangsar glacier. Arrival at Gyantse in the afternoon, in Gyantse, you will be arranged to visit the famous stupa – Gyantse Kumbum, the most stunning architectural wonder in Tibet, as well as Pelkor Choede. Afterwards drive to Shigatse, about 90km away from Gyantse, the drive will take about 1.5 hours. Upon arrival, check in the hotel. Overnight in Shigatse.

Friday 8th of July (Everest Base Camp, Tibet)
Transport: Tour Bus Shigatse – Everest Base Camp
Activities: Today, drive forward to Rongbuk via Lhatse and Shegar, cross over Gyatsola [5200m] & Gawu la pass [5250m], from the top of the Gawu la you will see the spectacular Himalayan Ranges and its glorious peaks of Mt. Makalu [8463m], Mt. Lotse [8516m], Mt Everest [8844m], Mt. Cho Oyu [8201m] and Mt. Shishapama [8020m] from Left to right, climbing down through numbers of switchback bends lead to the dry valley of Tashi Zom and then to today’s destination – Everest Base Camp. Rongbuk is the highest monastery in Tibet and is consisted by both monks and nuns, where is still a good point to see Mt. Everest. Sunset at Mt. Everest is another highlight of today if in good weather. Overnight at local tent guesthouse or Rongbuk guesthouse (dorm beds only).

Saturday 9th of July (Shigatse, Tibet)
Transport: Tour Bus Everest Base Camp – Shigatse
Activities: Get up early this morning, and if you are lucky enough, you will see sunrise at E.B.C. To hike from the Tent guesthouses community to the E.B.C, it will take you about 2 hours (8km). Or you can take the dedicated minibus (In winter season our driver will drive you up to Base Camp). Late morning or early afternoon start driving back to Shigatse. Overnight in Shigatse.

Sunday 10th of July (Lhasa, Tibet)
Transport: Tour Bus Shigatse – Lhasa
Activities: Morning, visit Shigatse Tashilunpo Monastery and the spectacular tombs of Panchen Lamas, sometimes it is crowded with local pilgrims. Afterwards drive back to Lhasa along the northern friendship way, marvelous landscapes and sceneries along the Brahmaputra River will accompany you all the way back to Lhasa. Overnight in Lhasa.

Monday 11th of July (Shanghai)
Transport: Flight Lhasa – Shanghai (via Chengdu)
Activities: Today, Lhasa airport or train station dropping off, the time to say your farewells to your guide and driver, end the trip.

Tuesday 12th of July (Shanghai)
Transport: n/a
Activities: Pick up bags from friend’s house.

Wednesday 13th of July (Sydney)
Transport: Flight Shanghai – Sydney

I’m pumped! I have very vivid memories of being in the boarding house only a year ago and speaking with my friends about all the things we would do in the year after school finished. We would use it as our motivation to push through the tough weeks of study. I specifically remember telling someone how much I craved the opportunity to take holidays almost on a whim, and to choose to go wherever I felt like at that particular point in time. I even joked that I could end up at Everest, not being wholly serious at the time. But here you are, it’s happened!

Day 86 (20th of May, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

Today was yet another day full of study for tomorrow’s three exams. During my breaks from hitting the books, I was able to secure my spot on two tours for August. I also booked one of the flights. So, I have another itinerary to present you! But, in the interests of spreading the love throughout my blogs, I’ll save this one for closer to the date. It’s a long read, anyway.

But what I will tell you is this: I’m officially going to Turkey for fifteen days, Jordan for seven days and Israel for four. Before I book my flight to Istanbul from Sydney, though, I’m heavily considering spending a week in Iran. I’m thinking that while I’m in the area, I may as well use the opportunity to see every (safe) country that I can. Iran is relatively cheap, too.

For those who have any concerns as to my safety, the Australian government rates Turkey, Jordan, Israel and Iran as “exercise a high degree of caution”. That’s the second out of four levels of safety. To put that into perspective, South Africa and Xinjiang Province in China are also at that rating, and I’ve travelled to both places in the past without problem. They both had a noticeable step up of political tension, but if you’re a smart traveller then the chance of getting into any trouble is slimmer than being mowed down by a car in China. And God forbid if I did get into trouble, all the areas I’m going are well serviced by the Australian government through their fully functioning embassies.

One of the things I’m looking at doing in Iran is living with a family of nomads for a couple of nights. There’s a reputable tour group which runs a program where you can do it, but they can’t guarantee it to me until the nomads get internet access which happens about once a month. At that point, the nomads will tell the tour group where they’ll be at a particular point so that I can join them there.

If that works out, that would easily be the most insane thing to happen on this gap year so far. I can only hope…

Day 87 (21st of May, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

HSK day today! I woke up bright and early for my morning Level 4 exam. The test went very well. I expected to pass comfortably, and I think that I lived up to that expectation. The only difficulty was being required to know so many characters off by heart and only having one opportunity to listen to each extract. Other than that, though, I’m happy with my performance. I noticed that in the exam room they had upgraded their blackboard. I would have upgraded it to a whiteboard myself, but instead they decided to add three more blackboards to the wall.

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My Level 5 exam was in the afternoon, so I had a few hours’ break for some lunch and a touch-up on my essential characters. The HSK 5 test was no doubt difficult. I’ll be very lucky to pass (60%), since in my practice exams with much assistance I was scoring around 55%. I’m not too disappointed with feeling like I haven’t passed, though, since I never really expected to stand a chance. Even my professors thought that I was crazy for trying. Either way, the whole process has taught me a lot about how to build your mentality to still give something a shot despite being seemingly hopeless. I’ll keep the blog updated when I get my results back in a month. Who knows, I could have just scraped over the line (although I doubt it). In the likely event that I don’t pass, I plan on taking this test again in Shanghai in October. Even if by then I wasn’t proficient enough to ensure a good mark, I could always do it in Sydney. A reliable source tells me that the Sydney HSK centre does their exams on computers, meaning that you don’t actually need to write any characters. You can simply type in their pronunciation and the relevant character will appear (which believe me, makes the whole test markedly easier).

Our exam clock certainly wasn’t as high tech as the one at Riverview.

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My oral exam was definitely harder than the past papers, but it was well within my ability. But, the most fortunate error happened in the exam process.

The exam is recorded over a computer and then sent off to the HSK centre to be marked. After my exam, I was fairly happy. It certainly wasn’t my best performance ever, but I had done more than enough to comfortably get a high level mark.

But, at the end of the exam, I couldn’t have had a bigger grin on my face when the teacher said, “I’m so sorry, the recording didn’t work. Would you be OK to do the exam again?”

I couldn’t believe my luck.

“Am I allowed to keep my notes from the last exam?” I asked, hopefully.

“I guess so, just don’t tell anyone this happened.”

So, I had another half an hour to brush over all my weaknesses and ensure that my second attempt was close to flawless. Needless to say, I also disregarded the advice of not telling anyone, and have happily included the story in this blog.

To celebrate, I knocked on the door of a Korean friend as soon as I got back to the dorm to suggest that we go out to dinner. Before long, he had rounded up some Chinese friends and went to the restaurant opposite the gym which I have blogged about in the past. The restaurant is a sort of ‘everything on a stick’ establishment, except that it’s very, very good.

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My favourite dish was the pork vein.

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The owner of the restaurant even started entertaining us during the meal with some guitar. He performed out a great rendition of the Chinese classic, “Moon Is Representative Of My Heart” (月亮代表我的心). It doesn’t sound quite as nice in English, but I assure you that the feeling behind the words is beautiful.

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Day 88 (22nd of May, 2016) – Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

I worked all day today in line with my change of plans to see a friend in Shanghai tomorrow. The students in the classes I taught were completely unengaged with the content  because of how hot it was. That also inflamed the behaviour of some of the bad kids whose parents clearly just take them to English classes as another form of daycare. I think that at some point in all of our lives we’ve had a foreign teacher who is much easier to ‘mess with’ than our other teachers, purely because they don’t understand the ins and outs of the local lingo. I definitely felt that today. You can only discipline a kid so much until your vocabulary runs out, at which point they start saying stuff which you don’t understand.

Either way, I’d like to think that I’m heavy-handed enough to control even the worst of classes. In most cases, that has proven to be true.

Today’s lunch break was the first time I have ever been able to truly relax and just read at this job. It was a pleasant change from the normal routine.

Later at English tutoring, I snapped this picture of one of my students wearing my sunglasses. We were learning about clothes and accessories.

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After the class, I hastily packed my huge hiking bag for my trip to Shanghai, Guilin, Yangshou, Longsheng and Suzhou. Before I left, Il Kwon snapped this photo of me. His photography skills are barely better than my own.

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My train was scheduled to leave at 8:45pm, so I jumped on a bus and arrived at the station by 7:50pm. After waiting in the ticket line for around twenty minutes, I finally obtained my ticket and moved into the station. It was only when my ticket wouldn’t let me through the gate that it clicked: I had gone to the wrong station.

I looked down at my ticket and almost cried as I read the characters: “徐州东” (Xuzhou East). That’s distinctly different from “徐州” (Xuzhou). I only have myself to blame, but I still think that the ticket vendor could have at least told me that I was at the wrong station considering there was so little time before my train was leaving.

I jumped in the first taxi I could find. He said that his meter was broken, which is always an excuse for ripping a foreigner off, so I hopped out and got in the car behind him to his anger. Upon telling the driver that I had half an hour to get to the other side of town, he laughed and said he’d only drive at such a dangerous pace for more money. The only reason that I agreed to pay the 60RMB ($13) was because I was convinced that this “dangerously fast pace” was the dangerously fast pace which every taxi already drives at. Sure enough I was right. The trip took exactly as long as it would have in a normal taxi. After striking up a good conversation with the driver, he outright admitted to me that he always drives at this pace, and charged me only 45RMB ($9.50). I thanked him, sprinted into the station and made it onto my train with only a minute to spare.

The glaring looks from the other commuters in the silent carriage were hard to face up to. They clearly weren’t too happy with a white boy wearing a backpack bigger than his own body stamping onto the train.

By the time I get into my Shanghai hostel it will be the early hours of tomorrow morning and too late to add to the blog, so I’ll have to write about it next week.

As always, I hope you’re all well, wherever you’re reading this from.

Until next time,
Xavier.

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2 thoughts on “HSK-ing

  1. Xave,
    Thanks for the update. WOW you know how to fill in the hours. You have given me a great idea, after seeing that Peking Duck Pizza (Looked fantastic). I am off to Domino’s for lunch (Cheaper Tuesdays).I would love to see Tibet & The Everest Base Camp. You can have Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Iran & the nomads to yourself, however I am sure you will have some great stories to tell us after the visits to these destinations later.
    Love
    G & P

    Like

  2. With all these travel plans you have going on, l was wondering whether you were behind the idea of the transit elevated bus idea- if so, l like it!

    Like

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