Monday, November 3, 2014

A Love Letter

Dear Shanghai,

You and me, it was love at first sight. You offered me new opportunities, a new culture, a new country. I had never lived more than 4 hours from where I grew up and frankly, I was scared out of my mind. But you dazzled me from the moment I stepped off the plane. Your beautiful skyline, your delightful foods, and your endless possibilities.

You've taught me so much over the past three years. Sure, sometimes you made me feel awkward and out of place but you also showed me that I'm stronger than I ever thought possible. You forced me to try new things and embrace new cultures. You even convinced me to eat pork again.

You haven't always treated me the best. There was the case of e.coli and numerous bouts of food poisoning. And sometimes you made it toxic for me to breathe. Other people didn't always understand my fascination with you or my ability to look past your faults. But I thought those flaws gave you character. The spitting, shoving, and public defecation. Those were just your ways of asserting your independence. Your unwavering lack of interest in conforming to others' standards.

And through it all, I loved you. Your weird smells, your bustling streets, your cultural differences. I learned to embrace them all. Heck, I even started to do some of them.

But now Shanghai, it's time to move on. You'll always hold a special place in my heart, one that I didn't know was empty until you came along. I hope this isn't goodbye forever. I hope I come back to you. But life happens and it might be awhile until I see you again. I hope you won't forget me. Because I will never forget you. You've changed me, and it's for the better.



Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Hiking Huangshan or How I Made Myself Sore For 5 Days

When Matthew and I realized that our time left in China was limited, we began scheduling lots of weekend trips. One of those trips was to Yellow Mountain, or Huangshan.


Before heading to Huangshan, I wrongly thought that Yellow Mountain was a single mountain. But in reality, Huangshan refers to an entire mountain range in southern Anhui province.

There are literally hundreds of peaks and thousands of ravines in the Yellow Mountains, 72 of which have been named. Heavenly Capital Peak (1800m), Lotus Flower Peak and Bright Summit (1841m/6040ft) are the three major peaks, all rising more than 1,800 meters (5,900 feet) above sea level. That means that at times, I was standing next to a cliff that dropped down over a mile. For this heights adverse gal, the trip was often harrowing.


We arrived Friday night and spent some time exploring Tangkou, the town situated at the bottom of the mountains. That took about 10 minutes because Tangkou is TINY. With more time than we knew what to do with, we took the suggestion of our hotel and headed to the hot springs to relax for a few hours. Heaven. My only regret is that we visited the hot springs prior to ascending the mountain and not after. But soaking in a pool of hot water scented with wine and coconut milk wasn't a bad way to spend a Friday night.

Early the next morning, we joined the masses in line to take the buses into the park. As Huangshan is a national park, the only way to enter is on foot or via the National Express bus. We arrived at the Yungu Cable Car or Eastern Steps and then rode the cable car to the top. I don't remember much of the 12 minute cable car ride, though Matthew claims it was beautiful. I had my head between my knees and was trying to ignore the Chinese people pointing at the foreign girl who was freaking out. Like I said, I don't do heights.


After nearly meeting my death (I'm sure the cable cars are totally safe, but it FELT like I was going to die at any moment), we spent a few moments getting our bearings and then began the hour long hike to our hotel. Some of the best views on Huangshan are sunrise and set, and staying on the mountain meant that we could enjoy them.


We arrived at our hotel only to find there was a small snafu with our room, as in they didn't have one for us. But we were able to sort things out and received free accommodations in the single sex dorm rooms. Not what we had planned but it just added to the experience. We dropped off our bags and started off on another hike.


We then spent the next five hours going up paths that looked like this:


And down stairs that looked like this:


It was beautiful, thrilling, and at times terrifying. The guard rails were only often knee high and a small stumble could send you tumbling over the side of a mountain. Thankfully, while there were thousands of other tourists with us on the mountains that day, the crowds thinned considerably once we were away from the cable cars. At one point, we hiked for over an hour without seeing another soul.


Our original plan had been to watch the sunset at Fairy Walking Bridge, but once we made our way there, we knew there was no chance we would want to hike back the same way in the dark. We instead headed back up the trail, closer to our hotel and settled in for the show.


We could see the masses of people sitting far away on Bright Top, but enjoyed our empty spot along the trail, even if the sun disappeared behind a mountain before it reached the horizon.


As the darkness began to settle, we headed to our hotel for showers and much needed food. We had managed to skip lunch amid the hotel mixup and were famished after over 6 hours of hiking.


Staying in the hostel section of the hotel meant that we had little choice as to when we awoke the next morning. At exactly 4am, the lights in my room came on and everyone began to prepare for sunrise. We slipped on some thermals (despite wearing shorts during the day) and joined the masses en route to Bright Top. Why isn't there a photo of the sunrise in this post? Because there wasn't much of one. Thick fog and crowds of people meant that we couldn't even get close to seeing the sun come up. Back in our rooms, we showered and prepared for another long day.


We spent the next five hours hiking down the Western Steps of Huangshan. While Saturday had given us blue skies and beautiful views, Sunday proved to be wet and foggy. But it meant the trails were fairly empty and the temperatures were moderate on the way down. Around noon, we arrived at Mercy Light Pavilion and happily jumped on a bus back to Tangkou. As our flight to Shanghai was not until much later that evening, we checked into a hotel for showers and an afternoon nap. After we devoured a bowl of noodles that is.


Afterwards, we realized we had walked over 13 miles/21 km, mostly on stairs, over the two days on the mountains. I consider myself to be in fairly good shape (I teach 2 spin classes and run an average of 15 miles a week, plus I'm about to run my third 1/2 marathon in a year), and I have to tell you, Huangshan was no joke. While I never felt unable to make it, I was sore when we woke up on Sunday. And I was even more sore Monday morning. In fact, I found it hard to go down stairs even on Thursday. But the views? Well, they made everything worth it.

Monday, October 13, 2014

5 Excuses For Being A Bad Blogger

I realize I'm been a bad blogger the last few months. When we first moved to China, I was posting 2-3 times a week. I'm lucky if I manage 2-3 posts a month lately. So why the decrease in content? Here are my totally valid but still lame excuses for why I've been absent.

1) I got a job. I was unemployed the first few months here which meant that I had lots of time to edit photos and write entries. Now I work, a lot, which leaves me with a lot less free time to talk about myself online.

2) I got a life. I also didn't have any friends or hobbies when we moved to China. But now I've got a thriving social circle and have enrolled in numerous classes throughout the city. So when I'm not working, I tend to spend my time with friends and family.

3) I got lazy. Did you know it takes a lot of time to be this witty online? Seriously though, a blog entry usually takes me a few hours to pull together between the photo editing, writing, and coding. Some days, I'd just rather snuggle my cat and watch Scandal on Youku.

4) Things stopped feeling strange. When I first moved to Shanghai, everything was new and exciting. But sometime over the past three years, my life here began to feel normal. I often don't look twice at things that would have been perfect blog fodder back in 2012.

5) I'm leaving China. We always knew our time in Shanghai was finite and we've come to the point where it's time to say goodbye. It's hard to write about a place you are leaving when you aren't quite ready to say goodbye. So instead of staying inside behind a computer screen, I've been out making the memories that I plan to take back with me to the motherland.

You may be wondering what does this mean for D2D? Not much right now. I still have tons of things to tell you about. There are trips (like a weekend in Hong Kong, a climb up Yellow Mountain, and a glorious return to Cambodia)  as well as daily musing (matching t-shirts anyone?) that I still want to share. My computer is loaded with photos just waiting to be uploaded.  So have no fear my friends, I'll still be around for awhile. You didn't think it was that easy to get rid of me, did you?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How to: Use Didi Dache

Kristin December 2013: I hate taxi apps. They are ruining my life.

Kristin September 2014: I looooove taxi apps. They are the best thing ever.

Yes, that's right. I'm totally switched sides and am now addicted to using Didi Dache to get around Shanghai. I'd be hanging my head in shame if it weren't for the fact that I'm sniping taxi cabs off the street on a regular basis now.

The main reason I resisted the taxi apps for so long was because my ability to read Chinese characters is pitiful. However, Didi Dache is fairly straight forward and easy to use. You must be able to speak basic Chinese to use the app. Fair warning.

You can use Didi Dache to book taxis in advance or as needed. This tutorial will simply cover booking a taxi for immediate use.

Step 1: Download the app from the app store (available for both Android and iPhones)

You'll need to search for it using the Chinese name so either change your phone's language to Chinese or simply copy and paste the Chinese name (滴滴打车) into your search box.

Step 2: Register your phone

After you download the app, you'll need to sign up for an account. This simply means inputting your phone number the first time you open the app. If it doesn't automatically ask when you open the app, click on the person icon in top left corner.


After you enter your phone number, press the button immediately to the right of your number. Within seconds, you'll receive a text with a confirmation number in it. Enter the confirmation number as shown below and then press the button marked 开始 (Begin).


Step 3: Call a taxi

Yes, you are all ready to call your first taxi! The home screen will display a map showing your location (the blue dot) and the location of taxis in the area around you using the same app (the little taxi icons). Your address is technically listed in the middle, after the characters 我在, meaning "I'm at...". However, you can ignore this and state in your message where you are located. Make sure you know your current location as well as where you want to go. And yes, you must say it all in Chinese.


Press and hold the orange button with the microphone icon on it, located at the bottom on your screen.


The screen above will pop up, recording your voice. This is where you need to state your location (example: Wǒ zài Huaihai Zhong Lu Sinan Lu) and where you want to go (example: Wǒ yào qù Yueyang Lu Dongping Lu Lùkǒu).

When you are finished, release the microphone button. You will be brought to the following screen. If you press on the blue dot, you can listen to the message you recorded. If happy with it, press the orange button on the bottom on your screen. If you want to record again, press the < button in the top left corner. At this stage, you can also decide to leave a tip if you would like by pressing the ¥ icon. I usually do not.


Step 4: Wait

You screen will display how long you have been waiting in addition to the number of taxis that have received your message. If your wait time is long, you have the option of adding a tip again.


Step 5: Confirmation!

Fairly quickly, you should get a response from a driver. The following screen will pop up, showing you the license plate of the cab, the driver's rating, and a phone icon if you would like to call your driver. 


Step 6: Jump in your cab

Make sure you are in the location you specified to the driver. You can view the location of your driver on the screen and should look for the license plate number on the car. Your cab driver may call you so keep your phone out. Generally they just want to confirm your location. 

Step 7: Enjoy your ride

Technically, you can pay for your fare using Didi Dache but that gets more technical than most people want. When you ride ends, simply pay as usual. If you feel like it, leave your driver a review.


While it might seem complicated at first, using Didi Dache is quite simple. Try out my steps above and let me know if you have an easier time catching taxis in Shanghai.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Grasslands Extreme Marathon

The first weekend in July, fresh off a trip to the US, we boarded a plane with some friends for the Grasslands Extreme Marathon in Xiwuqi, Inner Mongolia.


Getting there was a bit of an adventure, so I'll save that for another post. But the half marathon itself? Well, that was also rough.

I should start by saying that Inner Mongolia is simply stunning. We left Shanghai among some intense pollution and grey skies. Inner Mongolia had none of that. Blue skies, fresh air, and rolling hills. Yes, I said hills.


Simply put, this was not my race. Having trained on the flat roads of Shanghai, I was challenged by the constant change in elevation. Additionally, it was hot. I don't do hot well. Previous years had seen more moderate temperatures, but the day of our run was quite steamy. This course isn't one for personal records, and I certainly did not set one that day.


But the scenery was beautiful. At numerous points along the route, we were greeted by sheep, cows, and horses, all seemingly immune to the race taking place around them. 


For someone who usually runs in the city, seeing endless green in front of me was a nice change. However, it also meant limited water stops and non existent bathroom facilities. For most of the race, the only spectators were the previously mentioned cattle.


Despite a less than ideal personal time, I enjoyed the Grassland Marathon. Would I do it again? Probably not, but it was a nice way to see an area of China that I otherwise might have missed.


Interested in taking part in the grasslands marathon? Registration is already open for the 2015 race.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Shanghai Supper Club

Last Saturday, Matthew and I were thrilled to be a part of August's Shanghai Supper Club.

Tonight's special #shsupperclub #shanghaieats #fields

What exactly is SSC? You can think of it as an underground foodie group that meets monthly around the city, each time boasting a new location, chef, and group of people. Founder Camden Hague started the club last fall and previous events have brought together graffiti and Mexican food as well as burgers and a skate park. For each dinner, Camden invites ten different people, each of whom brings one guest. The result is an eclectic mix from Shanghai's expat scene. Our dinner included well known faces from the F&B scene, teachers, and an adorable engineer (that would be my husband).

Shanghai Supper Club #shsupperclub #midsummernightsgreen

This month's event was held in a beautiful lane house, owned by Shanghai native and chef Anthony Zhao. The intimate setting had us laughing with other guests like old friends in no time and left me with some serious kitchen envy.

photo courtesy of Fields

Fields, an online grocery store, sponsored the evening. Looking to highlight their fresh produce, Fields partnered with chef Kimberly Ashton of Sprout Lifestyle to create a healthy vegan meal that left even the meat eaters at our table satisfied. Though I did miss the alcohol (Kimberly opted not to have any served in order to keep in line with her principles for healthy living).

Ending on a high note #shanghaieats #shsupperclub #midsummernightsgreen #parfait

While the food was good (not surprisingly, my favorite dish was dessert), the company was even better. We heard fascinating tales, met unique individuals, and even received a hot tip on where to buy the best coffee smoothie.

Want to join an upcoming Shanghai Supper Club? Fill out your information here and cross your fingers that Camden invites you to her next even in September.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Hua Mulan Temple

During my trip to Henan in April, our hosts were kind enough to arrange various activities at night for the volunteers. We ate massive meals, sang karaoke, and were even treated to a visit of the Mulan Temple. While interesting for most members of our group, I was ecstatic. You see, Mulan and I have some history.

Disney came out with the movie Mulan around the same time that I started taking Tae Kwon Do classes. I was well past the princess stage in my life and quickly latched onto this dynamic character who just happened to practice martial arts like yours truly. I even threw myself a Mulan themed birthday party that year (Yes, I was entirely too old to be this obsessed with a Disney movie. I pretended it was ironic at the time, but yeah, I was totally into it.). I remember reading that the movie was based on a Chinese story but knew little else at the time. Year passed and my obsession with Mulan faded, though I might still have my Mulan and Shang Barbie dolls. Shut up.

Shortly after moving to China, I made Matthew watch Mulan. It was amusing to see our new country through the eyes of Disney and yes, I still found the music catchy. Though the movie also made us cringe at some of the poorly pronounced Chinese names.

So when our hosts in Henan announced we were visiting the Hua Mulan Temple, this girl pretty much lost it. I was beyond excited.


For those of you unfamiliar with the story of Mulan, here is a refresher for you, based on the famous poem Ballard of Mulan.


During the Sui Dynasty (581-618), a man by the name of Wei brought home a lily magnolia tree from the nearby mountains and planted it in front of his house. Ten years later, when the tree finally began to blossom, his wife gave birth to a girl. The baby was named Lily Magnolia (or Mulan in Chinese).


Mulan’s father was a soldier and raised Mulan like a boy. She not only learned weaving and embroidery from her mother, but also practiced martial arts, archery, and fencing with her father.

The emperor sent out a decree to form an army and draft recruits from all over the land to put down the hostilities along the northern borders. According to the decree, all male adults were to register, and that included Mulan’s elderly, ailing father. As Mulan thought of her father going to war, she knew he would likely die. But if he refused to go, he would be branded as being unpatriotic. Mulan’s brother was still too young to enlist, so Mulan made up her mind to disguise herself as a man, and take her father’s place in the army.


For 12 years Mulan served in the army and received numerous honors. After the war ended, the emperor wanted to award her an official position, but she declined and asked for a good horse instead as she wished to return home to her family. Her wish was granted, and the emperor also sent an envoy to escort her home. Her parents were overjoyed to learn of their daughter’s return,  but when they saw a general riding toward them, they didn’t recognize their own, long awaited daughter.


After Mulan changed into her female attire, it was her comrades' turn to be stunned, for the warrior who had fought side by side with them for 12 years, turned out to be a woman.


While the famous poem ended on a high note, other versions of the story have a less fairytale ending for Mulan.  In those stories, when Mulan refused the high post offered by the emperor, he had her detained at the court. To express her strong protest, she hung herself. In author Chu Renho's novel, Sui Tang Yanyi, the emperor summons her to be his concubine. Again, she hangs herself in protest. Disney clearly went with the poem's ending.


So was the temple all I hoped it would be? Not really. Apparently the original temple was quite grand with over 200 buildings covering an area of 10,000 square meters. But that temple was destroyed in the 1940's and now only a small memorial sits in its place. While it did not quite live up to my expectations, I did enjoy visiting the hometown of one of my childhood heroes. And I got to take this picture.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Stepping Stones Rural Volunteering Tour

I watched as one boy in my class debated over what to do. I had asked him to draw a picture of what he wanted to be when he grew up. All around him, the other students were busy copying pictures out of their textbooks. Police, teacher, farmer. His brow furrowed, his tongue slowly crept out from between his lips. Then his hand began to move as he stared down at his paper intently.

After a few moments, I glanced over at his work. At the top of the paper, he had written pilot, simply copying the words from his book. But underneath, he had written the following, "I want to be a pilot when I grow up. I want to fly to the stars". An elaborate spaceship was drawn underneath, complete with a self portrait of the artist himself inside.

By the end of class, the paper lay discarded on the floor. I picked it up and asked the student if he wanted to take the picture home to show his family. He shook his head no and stated that he didn't need it. As the students left the room, I wondered about this student and what his future would hold. Would he become a pilot? Would he even have the chance? Or would his dreams simply fall away, discarded, much like his picture?


In April, I traveled to Shangqui, in rural Henan Province with Stepping Stones as part of their bi-annual, week long volunteer teaching tour to underprivileged schools. What followed was one of the best experiences I have had thus far in China.


Stepping Stones works with volunteers to teach English in Shanghai’s migrant schools and community centers, reaching over 4,000 students in 20 different migrant schools. They also regularly take groups of volunteers to teach English to children in rural schools outside of Shanghai. This is what I had chosen to be a part of.


We traveled by train to Henan, a province located in central China. Henan is the third most populous province in China, sending out millions of migrant workers every year to urban areas like Shanghai. This means many of these children are growing up with their grandparents, only seeing their parents once or twice a year if they are lucky.


In many rural schools, the standard of English teaching is particularly low, especially oral English. In China, English is one of the three core elements of the Chinese school curriculum, along with Chinese and Math. A student’s grade in English is one of the key criteria for entry to higher education, making a basic command of English critical to a child’s life chances.


The majority of migrant children do not make it to senior high school, and only a small handful are able to attend university. It is the goal of Stepping Stones to help these children from rural areas to attend senior high school and university, and thereby improve the future prospects of rural families.


A friend of mine had volunteered for a trip the previous year and recommended the experience to me. While I work in education, I had no direct teaching experience. However, the Stepping Stones coordinators ensured me that all I needed was a positive and enthusiastic attitude. And a command of the English language.


The students were amazing. Kind, attentive, and eager to learn. One the first morning, a group of my sixth grade students skipped their break and asked me to practice vocabulary with them instead. 



At the end of the day, I was presented with flowers picked by the students and hugs farewell. Do I think my few hours with these students greatly improved their English? No. But I know that I gave them a positive first introduction with a foreigner, provided them with fun lessons in English, and reminded them people care about them and their future.


Want to join the next volunteer teaching tour to Henan this November? Contact Gloria at or check it out at
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