I finally retired in December of last year at the age of 64. Of course, I wondered how I would fill the time. But, so far, that has not been a problem. We went to Panama for a bit over a week in February, and at the beginning of April, I left for China for two months of language immersion study.
I had certain criteria for selecting a program:
- Individual instruction
- Location in a city on the mainland, but not one with lots of Westerners
- Individual lodging (not with a family)
After searching the Web for a suitable program, I contacted Konall Cultural Exchange. They offer 4 hours per day of individual instruction — all in Chinese. I stayed in a hotel right above the classrooms — talk about convenient!
The school is located in Shijiazhuang, about 1½ hours southwest of Beijing via direct high speed train. The metro area has about 10 million people, and is a world apart from Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, or Guangzhou. I saw very few other Westerners during my stay in Shijiazhuang. I had breakfast in the hotel each day, and lunch at the school. For dinner, I went to various restaurants — mostly ‘street restaurants’ typical of provincial cities in China.
I walked around the city quite a bit and discovered that it is a very pleasant city. It has lots of beautiful parks and interesting shopping areas, including street markets as well as high-end stores in malls. There are traditional ‘hutong’ dwellings as well as multiple high-rise apartments and office building. After coming back to Washington, I feel like I live in a small town!
After studies were completed, I went for a few days to Tianjin (travel arrangements by firstname.lastname@example.org) before traveling back to the US.
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After arriving at the Beijing airport, I took a shuttle bus to the Beijing West train station. It was quite a long ride! I had some trouble finding the hotel. The bus stopped on one side of the station and it turns out that the hotel is on the other side. As you can see, the station is humongous. Luckily, I was able to ask some police (in Chinese) where the hotel was. Next morning, I walked to the station, where I found out that only 'special' lines would accept foreigners to enter the station through security. No one seemed to know where they were, but I eventually found one. They needed my passport. Note that my ticket (which I got through the travel agency) is specific to me and has my passport number on it. I was the only Westerner in the train waiting area.
In Shijiazhuang, I stayed in this hotel - on the third floor. The school is on the second floor. My teacher is shown above. There were four students there when I attended: one from Canada, one from the Netherlands, me and a young woman recently graduated from US high school, who had been adopted as an infant from China.
Food! Did someone say food? My breakfast was at the hotel, where they served Chinese dumplings, zhou (a type of porridge), stir-fried vegetables, tofu, and eggs. Warm soy milk was the beverage. The school provided lunch, which was always different. Typical of Chinese lunches, it usually had some rice and/or noodles, thin sliced meat and vegetables. For dinner, I usually ate at nearby restaurants, but I do admit that I went once each to Pizza Hut, KFC, McDonald's and Burger King (the only 'Western' restaurants in SJZ). I usually ate at a table on a sidewalk, ordering from a menu that luckily had pictures of the food. But sometimes, I just asked (in Chinese) for certain items. They would typically ask 辣的吗？(spicy?) There were a surprising number of Moslem restaurants in SJZ. Some of the men there would wear a cap, but I never once saw a woman with a hijab.
If you are male, it is pretty well expected that you will have a beer with dinner, even at the Moslem restaurants. Men often also drink 白酒 (baijiu) which is a clear distilled liquor (I did not like it). In fact, one of my lessons was about how Chinese men never order a cola for dinner, only drinking it when working and can't drink beer. (To order cola with dinner is seen as effeminate). I never once saw tea or coffee served with any meal.
Since this is a blog about trains, I made a point of taking a few pictures of them. As I mentioned above, I took a high speed train from Beijing to SJZ. While there, I rode their new subway quite a bit. I was very impressed by it. Extremely clean, fast, reliable and convenient. I wish that Washington's subway was a nice. One day, I took a bus to a nearby town to see some temples and a reproduction of the mansion in the 19th century Chinese novel 红楼梦 （Dream of Red Mansions). I rode the train back to SJZ. At the end of my studies, I took the high speed train to Tianjin where I stayed for a few days. While there I also rode their subway. Also quite impressive, and with quite a few lines. From Tianjin to Beijing is not far, but I took the high speed train. I would recommend buying your train tickets in advance from a travel agent. You will need to provide them with a copy of your passport. Note that if you are going to China, only certain hotels will accept foreigners. You must register with the police at each location you stay. A travel agent will take care of that for you, and the whole process will be transparent to you. When I stayed in SJZ, however, since I was on a study visa, the school had to register my presence with the police.
Here are some pictures of the trains and subways that I saw on my trip, starting with the SJZ subway:
Now the subway in Tianjin. It is just as clean, but is older. Note that they use a plastic disc for their proximity readers on entry. At exit, you deposit the disc in the turnstile.
Now some images of the train from a nearby town (正定）to SJZ. It was a long distance train, but this trip was only about 20 minutes for me.
Going from SJZ to Tianjin was on a high speed train in first class. Very nice! Tianjin has two train stations. The SJZ train came into the new one, which is enormous. The train to Beijing leaves from the older train station. Pictured below are the new Tianjin station, the SJZ station, the executive section of the train, the interior of the SJZ station and pictures at the olderTianjin station.
Here are some pictures of the trains that I saw along the way from SJZ to Tianjin. I also took some pictures to show the ties and general track conditions.
I have lots of pictures of SJZ and the mountains near it. I thoroughly enjoyed my stay there and was never at a loss for things to do. Each night, there are groups of people doing exercises in the park, such as speed walking, synchronized dancing, etc. Also people singing and playing instruments, both traditional Chinese ones and Western saxophones. I even joined in some of the exercise groups for older people! I also did a lot of walking around the city - to its various parks, which were very nice, with lakes, canals, roses, sitting areas, exercise areas, etc. There is a word-class museum in SJZ, which documents northern Chinese history. I spent an entire day at it.
On weekends, I often went to the mountains, visiting the world's longest glass bridge, a 'stone village' about 1,000 years old, a temple built over a chasm (from about 700 AD) and nearby mountains reachable by city busses.
Tianjin is a port city. It was a 'concession' city, which meant that several nations established their own sections there. As a result, there is still a considerable amount of architecture resembling a Western style there. Most of those buildings were built in the 1920s and early 1930s. The Astor Hotel has been there since the 1860s, with President Grant staying there as did President Hoover, who earned his wealth there in China. The home of the last emperor of China is also in Tianjin. Like SJZ, it also has beautiful parks. So much to see!
I took some train videos while in China. That will be another blog posting on www.trainphilos.com!