Hewitt School Trip

Saying goodbye to the Shanghai skyline

March 28th, 2010

We began our last, beautiful sunny day in Shanghai with a trip to a wholesale clothing market.¬† The incredible size of this market is difficult to describe, but suffice it to say that you could probably spend weeks walking through the many giant buildings that make up the market and you still wouldn’t see everything.¬† We concentrated our efforts on one of the smaller buildings and had the chance to use our finely-honed bargaining skills to pick up some new clothes, shoes, and accessories.¬† Markets of this size also remind us that so many of the clothes that we usually wear (and many other products we use on a daily basis) are made in Chinese factories.

After shopping we had a special treat: a visit to China Prep staff member Ann Liu’s parents’ home.¬† Since Ann is Shanghainese, we have learned a lot about local life from her stories and insights, and spending time with her parents gave us additional perspective.¬† We visited their home inside of a middle class apartment complex, and Ann’s mom cooked up a feast of dumplings that everyone enjoyed.¬† When we finished eating, we took a tour of the neighborhood and discovered what can best be described as an adult playground.¬† Chinese senior citizens are very active people and often participate in daily low-impact exercise.¬† This can run the gamut from tai chi to line dancing to stretching to exercises on machines that look like they belong in a children’s playground.¬† We all had the chance to try several of the exercises and to walk around on the stones in the playground that are designed to massage your feet.

We returned to the hotel for some early packing and to ready ourselves for a celebratory night on the town.  When many Chinese teenagers and adults want to go out for fun, it is common to do karaoke.  A group of friends (or business associates) will rent a small room within a karaoke building and spend the evening or sometimes all night singing, hanging out, and snacking.  We had the opportunity to try this activity out ourselves and were surprised to discover how nice the rooms are and that they come with multiple microphones, tv screens with the music videos, and even a couple of tambourines.  For the next couple of hours we took turns serenading each other with our favorite American tunes.  Ann Liu debuted her professional-quality skills with a few Chinese numbers that made us wonder if all Chinese people are born with natural singing talent.

For our last dinner, we tried cuisine from Yunnan province, an area in southwestern China.¬† This was a very fancy place with chic decor and of course, tasty dishes.¬† We cleared almost all of the plates and true to form downed two full orders of broccoli.¬† We still aren’t sure how the cooks make that broccoli so delicious, but it’s been a trusty staple throughout the trip.¬† The girls also really enjoyed several of the chicken dishes and a special pancake with spicy sauce.

In a stroke of luck, tonight was the first night that the Bund re-opened for walking after renovations.¬† Since it was so close to our restaurant, we walked over for incredible night views of Pudong, including the Pearl Tower, and to snap some pictures of the skyline.¬† We can’t believe that just recently we were all the way up in the pearl itself.¬† This was also a great way to cap off a wonderful stay in Shanghai and to celebrate the end of the trip.

We are currently back in the hotel packing for the flight home tomorrow, and everyone can’t believe how fast our trip has gone.¬† We will be sad to leave Shanghai, but most of us hope to have the chance to return and explore China again in the future.

Beauty, brains, and brawn: Shanghai edition

March 27th, 2010

Brantley joined us for the morning for a visit to the Yuyuan Garden and surrounding area. En route we all learned more about the history of Shanghai, and how unlike Beijing, our new city of exploration has a relatively brief history as a major city. We also discussed in more detail how the foreign concessions came about and what they actually were like. It is interesting to think about these little mini-worlds existing within Shanghai back in the day.

Brantley and Tracy also introduced us to the concept of a Taoist garden, since this is the style of Yuyuan. Taoism emphasizes harmony with nature, and so people with means and interest constructed these refuges in a very deliberate style to give the visitor a sense of his or her natural surroundings. We especially liked all of the door and window frames built within the garden that literally “frame” nature. Some of the girls were also crazy about all of the coy and other fish that populate the ponds. After exploring the garden, we had a chance to shop in the surrounding bazaar. We ate lunch in a noodle restaurant where we each had the opportunity to choose our own style of noodles. This was a fun change from family-style eating and the sesame noodles were especially popular.

Following lunch we rode the bus to Taikang Road, a hip area filled with cafes and small boutiques. This is the kind of place trendy Shanghainese might hang out on a weekend afternoon for shopping or visiting with friends at one of the many small restaurants. The girls had a fun time wandering this area and looking in the many interesting artsy stores that carry everything from teapots to photography to clothes. The group then shifted gears and attended a kung fu class in a nearby martial arts school. Although the movies make it look effortless, the girls (and Senor) discovered that kung fu is a lot of work!

For the evening, we ate dinner and then explored the Xin Tian Di area of the city. Xin Tian Di is located in the former French concession and has traditional architecture unique to Shanghai. In recent years this section of Shanghai has transformed into a hot spot for some of the fanciest restaurants in the city, and it has a very trendy environment. After a spin around the area, we finished off the day with an activity that is a very fun part of Chinese daily life: hair washing. Many women enjoy going to their local hair salon regularly to get their hair washed. This involves the obvious but with a wonderful head and sometimes shoulder and arm massage. This was a great treat to the end of the day and we have added it to our list of reasons why China is one of the best places to visit and to live.

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Free falling in love with Shanghai

March 26th, 2010

Today we started our first day of Shanghai exploration with a visit to the Shanghai Museum, home to an excellent collection of bronzes, calligraphy, and traditional clothes from different regions of China.  Immediately on the bus ride over, we were impressed with the stunning Shanghai architecture.  The museum itself is shaped like a ding, an ancient bronze vessel used for wine, complete with designs that cover the building matching patterns etched onto this famous bronze object.  After an introduction to the museum, we all had time to explore the floors ourselves and shop in the very nice gift shop (presents to family and friends forthcoming).

We then walked to the nearby Shanghai Urban Planning Museum.¬† We learned about the history of Shanghai and its foreign concessions, which provided some historical background to the architecture that graces the skyline of Puxi, the western side of the river.¬† This museum also had excellent information about the Shanghai World Expo, including a video with images of many countries’ exhibition halls.¬† Our favorites included Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and of course the centerpiece, China.¬† We have all fallen in love with Haibao (meaning ocean treasure), the expo mascot, even if he does look like a cross between a blue Gumby and toothpaste!

After a swank lunch at a trendy restaurant nearby, we boarded our bus and took the tunnel under the river to head to Pudong to visit the Pearl Tower, an iconic symbol of modern Shanghai.¬† When we ascended the elevator, we couldn’t believe the incredible clear views of the whole city.¬† As if that wasn’t enough, we walked down one floor to another observation deck that has a glass floor.¬† Although some of us were momentarily terrified, everyone was brave and we now have some amazing pictures from our visit that make us look like we are floating above the city.¬† We also got to view the skyline from inside the Pudong Hyatt.¬† It is amazing to think that 15 years ago, none of these buildings even existed.

The third afternoon activity consisted of shopping at a huge mall in Pudong, and the girls couldn’t have been more enthusiastic.¬† They were surprised to discover many of the brands that they like at home are in China (Uniqlo, Zara, H&M, Sephora, etc.) and had a fun time shopping in Chinese brand stores as well.¬† The China Prep staff continues to be impressed with their zeal for shopping and stamina for souvenir hunting.¬† We then ate dinner in a fancy restaurant in the mall, and then hopped on the bus to cross back over to Puxi.¬† In order to view the Pudong skyline, we went to the top of a Puxi building that has magnificent views of the Bund and all of the newer buildings across the river.

After a full day, we were ready to return to the hotel for rest in order to prepare for the next day’s activities, and of course, more shopping.

Warriors and bright city lights

March 25th, 2010

We checked out of our fabulous hotel this morning and hopped on the bus for a trip to the outskirts of Xi’An and the home of the famed Terracotta Warriors.¬† We learned about the emperor who ordered the warriors to be created and his extreme type-A personality in addition to his many contributions to Chinese culture.¬† Although the warriors sounded impressive, it was tough for everyone to grasp how amazing they are until we entered the first excavation pit.¬† Since each one of the life-sized warriors and horses is unique, it was amazing to see their sheer numbers.¬† Row after row of warriors stood guard in front of us, and we couldn’t believe that their discovery was entirely an accident while locals were digging a well.

Today was also a great time to visit because we had the rare chance to glimpse the archaeologists at work in what our guide dubbed as the “warrior hospital”.¬† We could see shattered torsos, legs, and armor laying out on a table and watched as experts dug through the piles to find missing pieces.¬† In a nearby station, several archaeologists were at work piecing together all the parts with small paintbrushes.¬† Watching all these experts at work really brought to life how extensive their work really is and how far they have come to have restored so many warriors already.¬† We all felt that even if we saw nothing else in Xi’An, this was definitely worth the trip.

After a brief lunch nearby, we continued on the bus to a “cave village”.¬† Throughout China there are around four million people who build their homes in the side of caves.¬† We had the opportunity to walk through one such village and visit the home of a family.¬† It was amazing to see how they had constructed their home within the side of a cave, adding a door and windows to the open end.¬† In order to keep warm in the winter, they sleep on top of mattresses on stone beds that are heated underneath with a fire.¬† This home was great for us to visit to compare and contrast city and apartment living that we have seen on the rest of the trip, and also to remind us that there are still many people in China today who live in very simple homes with very little money.

Before leaving Xi’An, we also visited the ancient city wall.¬† We rented bicycles and took a brief spin around the top of the wall, which is about as wide as a narrower road in New York City.¬† For those who were new to biking, we rode on a tandem bike, which was lots of fun.¬† Kelly and Ryan rocked this mode of transport and now claim that they simultaneously balanced 10 other tourists on their head while making dumplings a la the bicycle act in the acrobat show we watched in Beijing.¬† Unfortunately, they didn’t get it on tape.

After a two hour flight, we finally arrived to our final destination of Shanghai.  We are excited to be here and already feel like we are in an entirely different place.  On the ride in from the airport we had excellent views of all of the new buildings constructed for the upcoming World Expo.  They are all lit up in the evening, so we were really lucky with our timing, and we were all impressed with the magnitude of their construction and looking forward to learning more about the Expo.  As a special treat upon arrival to the hotel, we ordered in pizza from Pizza Hut to compare and contrast it with U.S. pizza and to reward ourselves before we set out tomorrow on our last few days of China adventures (this time around).

Goodbye Beijing, hello Xi’An!

March 24th, 2010

Today we said goodbye to Beijing.¬† After our last breakfast in the hotel, we rode to the outskirts of the city to visit the Summer Palace.¬† We toured around this summer refuge for the royal family and experienced magnificent views from the top of the hill.¬† We wandered through the world’s longest painted corridor, with over 14,000 paintings (recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records) and learned even more about the Dragon Lady, Empress Cixi.

After lunch we headed for the airport and had some free time to wander before our flight.¬† Everyone was impressed with the size and architecture of the terminal, which was built especially for the Olympic game visitors.¬† We then boarded the plane for the two hour flight to Xi’An.

Our first impression of Xi’An is that it is a very different kind of city from Beijing.¬† Although there are still plenty of people and lots of traffic, the buildings overall are much lower and construction is still ongoing for the city’s first subway system.¬† On the ride into the city we learned about Xi’An’s historical role as a part of the Silk Road.¬† We also discussed some of the main cuisine differences between all areas of China, and we looked forward to trying some of the dumplings and wheat dishes famous in Xi’An.¬† We got our first glimpse of the Xi’An city wall and arrived at our hotel just outside the wall’s western gate.¬† If we thought we had it good in Beijing with the hotel, everyone was even more impressed with our new digs (complete with two tvs per room!).¬† Some of us, author included, have decided to move in permanently.

We settled in and then ventured out for a walking tour of the Muslim district.  Our dinner location was a dumpling restaurant just inside the city wall famous for all variations of this specialty.  Favorites included the fried dumplings and the steamed vegetable dumplings.  With full stomachs, we took a turn around the night market for some souvenir shopping and people watching and then returned to our hotel to prepare for the next day.

As a side note, our group’s Chinese skills continue to improve.¬† Most everyone has counting and basic bargaining down, and the girls are skilled at saying hello and introducing themselves to new pengyou (friends).¬† We’ve started to learn a bit about the structure of Chinese characters, and everyone’s had a fun time learning a few and spotting them throughout the day on buildings and signs.¬† Romance language students were ecstatic to discover that Chinese requires almost no verb conjugation!¬† Stay tuned for further updates about our Mandarin abilities……

Walk like an emperor (or a Chinese high school student)

March 23rd, 2010

Today we started out our day in style with a trip to Tiananmen Sqaure. ¬†We discussed the influence of Soviet architecture and learned about the important buildings that surround the square, including the entrance to the Forbidden City. ¬†Many of us were shocked to learn about imperial court structure, including the political relationships between the emperor, his advisors, eunuchs, and concubines. ¬†We also enjoyed deciphering the symbols that dominate design within the palace. ¬†For instance, the dragon symbolizes the emperor and the phoenix symbolizes the empress. ¬†These designs can be found throughout the palace in the form of painted decoration on doors and buildings and statues. ¬†Our group also ran into a class of Chinese elementary students on a field trip, and everyone had a chance to practice all the Chinese we’ve learned so far.

For lunch we tried Sichuan food, a cuisine from China’s southwestern region that is known for its spicy dishes. ¬†Everyone especially enjoyed the Sichuanese dessert of mantou (buns) dipped in sweetened condensed milk. ¬†Broccoli with garlic remains a favorite, as does eggplant. ¬†Everyone has gotten used to eating our meals family style and our chopstick skills have definitely improved even since the first day.

After lunch we boarded our bus for the 798 art district, an interesting area that used to be filled with factories and has been transformed into modern Chinese art galleries.  Since Chinese contemporary art has exploded in popularity in recent years, this is an important place to visit.  We took a spin around the area together to view some of the factory buildings that still have communist slogans painted on the walls, and then everyone had some free time to enjoy the galleries, shop in boutiques, and sit at one of the many cafes.  The girls have also been excited to use their new Chinese skills to make all kinds of new pengyou (friends) while we walk around Beijing, and 798 was no exception.

The highlight of the day was a visit to Capital Normal Attached High School, a Chinese school in Beijing where students receive a joint diploma from Capital Normal and from the Dwight School, a private school in New York City. ¬†To achieve this, they must complete a dual curriculum that includes AP coursework (in English) in addition to their regular Chinese classes. ¬†Almost all of the students in the special program of this high school that we visited will attend American universities, so they also work to prepare for the SAT and college applications. ¬†These students are exceptionally bright and hardworking, and they were extremely eager to speak with the girls and learn about each others’ lives. ¬†We spoke to the school’s vice principal, took a tour of the campus, and then had some time to talk in small groups with 10th and 11th grade students. ¬†We then ate dinner with some of the students in the school cafeteria. ¬†The girls had a fabulous time and many of them even asked if we could go back the next day! ¬†This was a great introduction to the Chinese education system and also a wonderful chance to interact with Chinese peers.

To close out the evening, the group attended a performance of Beijing opera. ¬†Before the show, we were able to visit the downstairs area and watch performers applying their make-up, which is particularly impressive in this traditional art. ¬†No one knew exactly what to expect, but we had a great time watching several mini-operas as an introduction to opera, and we were impressed with the artists’ multi-faceted skills including make-up, singing, dancing, and even some martial arts thrown in during the fight scenes.

Tomorrow we will visit the Summer Palace, and then it’s off to Xi’An! ¬†Although we are excited to see the Terracotta Warriors and visit a new city, we will be sad to leave Beijing and the sites that first welcomed us to China.

Great Wall and sweet rewards

March 22nd, 2010

Today we set out to conquer the Great Wall! We visited Mutianyu, a restored section of the wall that is about 1.5 hours outside of Beijing. After climbing many flights of stone stairs, we arrived at the top for great views of the wall and the surrounding areas. Stay tuned for some amazing pictures!

We enjoyed walking around for a while before descending the wall in style in toboggans/alpine slides. For many of the group, this was the best part even though some of us went too slowly and got stuck midway. We picked up some great souvenirs at the bottom and ate a tasty lunch in a nearby restaurant. On the ride back to Beijing, we stopped at the Olympic village and got a bird’s eye view of the bird’s nest from the top floor of a fancy hotel across the street. It was amazing to see in person the buildings that many of us watched during the Olympic games.

We then returned to the city and attended a Chinese acrobat performance. We were all really impressed with the amazing flips, pyramids, bicycle tricks, and other amazing feats during the show. For dinner, we tried food typical of China’s northeastern region, including more delicious dumplings and a crispy fish dish.

To close out the day and reward ourselves for the hike, we all got to try Chinese foot massage. This was perfect because although it is a ‚Äúfoot massage,‚ÄĚ they actually massage your whole body, too. With our feet and bodies feeling totally relaxed, we were ready for sleep and returned to the hotel.

Markets, temples, and duck, oh my!

March 21st, 2010

Today we set out on our first full day of our trip. After filling up on the breakfast buffet in our hotel, we took our bus to Panjiayuan, also known as the dirt or antique market. This special market is open only on weekends and was historically one of the best places to buy Chinese antiques. En route we learned the basics of bargaining, how to ask how much something costs, and maybe most importantly how to say something is too expensive. Tai gui le!

After shopping around and practicing our bargaining skills, we headed to the Temple of Heaven. We reviewed the most recent dynasties and learned how the emperor used to visit this temple to pray for good harvests. Many of us were surprised to discover that the Temple of Heaven includes one of the most iconic symbols of China in its grounds. We also enjoyed wandering through the park attached to the temple and watching Chinese locals line dance, play music and games, sing, and chat with friends.

For lunch we feasted on Peking duck. Although some of the girls were a little hesitant to try it, almost all of us thought it was pretty tasty. We learned that you wrap a piece of duck in a small pancake like a tortilla and then add plum sauce and cucumbers.

In the afternoon we wandered a street called Nan Luo Gu Xiang and discussed hutong, the traditional neighborhood structure of Beijing. We all took a relaxing ride on rickshaw pedicabs through the neighborhood and then ate dinner in the home of a family living in one of these historic structures. The mother taught everyone how to make dumplings and we were able to taste our own creations along with her delicious cooking.

After a fun-filled action-packed day, we were all ready to return to the hotel and rest up for our next challenge…..the Great Wall!

We have arrived!

March 20th, 2010

After the long flight, the group arrived safely in the Beijing airport and met with the China Prep team as they exited customs. Although everyone was sleepy and slightly confused about having consumed many, many meals on the flight, the group looked great and was excited to be in China.

We boarded our trusty group bus and headed back to the hotel to settle in and clean up before heading out for our first exploration of the city. Our destination was Wangfujing, a commercial thoroughfare in the center of the city that includes malls, restaurants, and a night market.

We ate our first meal in China at a nearby restaurant and got a crash course in cultural differences in Chinese eating culture. Food is served and eaten family style, there is a lazy susan in the middle of the table, and there are many, many dishes. Favorites for the evening were the eggplant, a new kind of Asian mushroom, and the fried beef dishes. We washed everything down with chrysanthemum tea and went out for an evening stroll.

We had the opportunity to visit an atm to take out money and several of the girls were shocked to discover mid-transaction that they could not ask for money values using USD! After a quick lesson in the exchange rate, everything was solved and we headed to the famed Wangfujing night market. This area boasts food stands with everything on a stick ranging from beetles and starfish to squid, which we enjoyed viewing from afar.

After the market we returned to the hotel for some much needed rest in preparation for tomorrow, our first full day in Beijing.

Trip departs March 19th!

March 5th, 2010

Eight students and two teachers from the Hewitt School will be traveling to China March 19-292010.  Special thanks to Isabelle Toussaint, the Hewitt organizer and lead chaperone.

Stay tuned for daily descriptions and pictures of our adventures!