We’ve crossed the official 2/3 point in our Chinese adventure and looking back on it, one of our best decisions was to prioritize traveling in China.  Since Chengdu sits near the geographic center of the country and the airport is a major regional hub, we have over 100 direct flights from which to choose.  Many of these are short (<2 hours) and frequent (many flights available per day), so we have found ourselves spoiled with options.

We haven’t gone outside of China for the last five months- all of our recent trips have been focused on exploring this beautiful country.  As we did in the US, we’ve been visiting the biggest and most well-known national parks in China.

Jiuzhaigou (or “Nine Village Valley”)


This park is like a dream world.  Two valleys converge into a third and the main draw of all three are the sparkling crystal clear blue lakes and waterfalls.  The preserved fallen trees in the water add to the mysterious landscape and make you feel as though you’ve stepped into a different land, and everywhere you turn has picture-perfect images of mountains, trees and Pantone Aqua blue lakes.  Apparently, the best time to visit is autumn, when the trees change color and add to the mystique.  The best comparison I have to this feeling was our visit to the Yellowstone geyser area, which felt like a different planet.


From Chengdu, we took one of the most terrifying 45 minute flights of my life to get to Jiuzhaigou (Jo-jai-go).  To give you an idea of the terrain between Chengdu and the park, even though it’s only 150 miles as the crow flies, the driving time is over 8 hours on a good day.  The starting elevation of the Chengdu airport is about 1500ft, and the planes land at one of the highest elevation airports in the world at 11,300ft.  All of these factors combine to make a flight that’s fairly notorious for being extremely bumpy, and I was certainly white-knuckled for just about all of it.

We chose to stay at a Tibetan homestay recommended by Lonely Planet called Zhuo Ma’s Homestay.  It was the best decision of our trip and certainly a highlight of our time in China.  Our adventure arriving into the airport and how we actually got to the house should really be the subject of a separate blog, it was all so comical.

We got up at sunrise to have salty fried eggs and Tibetan bread with yak butter tea, and got to the park at 7:00 am based on advice from friends.  Thankfully, we arrived before most of the tourist groups and got one of the first buses up the valley and started the long, slow and beautiful walk back down the valley.  This allowed us to really get into the park and see everything, though it did take most of the day to explore on foot.  We ended up walking more than 25km (about 15 miles) that day, all downhill!


Here’s a link to our photos on Flickr.  Yes, the lakes have giant  trees preserved in them, and they are really THAT blue.  What a gorgeous place, and seemingly unknown to those outside of China.  Should you ever find yourself in the Sichuan province and you’re looking for some spectacularly unique scenery, head to Jiuzhaigou and be awed.



The greatest attraction about moving to China for me was to experience a different culture and learn a new language. I wondered if by living in China this year, I would be able to learn enough to do things like talk to Chinese friends at work, have a job where I interact with Chinese organizations, or to simply order Chinese food back in the United States using Chinese.

Would I be able to walk into the local Chinese restaurant and say:

Hello sir. I would like to order the General Tso’s Chicken. Yes, also a box of white rice. No, I don’t want fried rice. Also an egg roll… And of course I want fortune cookies!

Today, 7 months after moving to China I have definitely learned enough to be kindergarten conversational and have some entertaining and simple exchanges. I’m curious now to see how much more I can learn in the time I have left.

Sadly… learning to place my meal order above won’t be happening while in China. In China there is no General Tso’s Chicken. I haven’t seen any egg rolls here. Chinese restaurants do not have fortune cookies. I will need to learn these Chinese words back in the United States.

On the other hand, I can say:



The translation would be:

Good evening boss (good form in China)! This evening I think I’d like to order one of your specialties. I’ve heard your Dan Dan Noodles are very popular. Both hot and numbing spices, and extremely good! Please give me 1 order to go. I not only need that dish, though, I also need to bring other stuff back home with me for my family. I think they would like the Peking Roast Duck. What? You don’t have it? Haha, my mistake, I should have known because you have a Sichuan restaurant. Anyway, I want 3 orders of steamed dumplings, 1 bowl of fried noodles, 2 boxes of rice, and also your Ma Po Dou Fu (specialty tofu dish here).

I have another question: Do you have ice cream? You’re out, but you’re saying the store next door has it? Awesome! After paying here I’ll go there and buy 1 tub of ice cream. Correct, 1 tub. I know it’s a lot, however my cat loves it. Anyway, altogether how much is it? 300 US dollars, way too expensive!!! Although I am really hungry, so I’ll give you 300 dollars. See you next week!

For the above Chinese text I didn’t use any Google translate or reference a dictionary. It’s certainly a weird conversation (albeit similar to what I might say in English), but it’s pretty cool to be able to string some thoughts together and write it out.

We ordered our Chongqing Hot Pot in Chinese! 我们点了重庆火锅用中文!

We ordered our Chongqing Hot Pot in Chinese! 我们点了重庆火锅用中文!

Generally speaking, given the time and a patient non-dialect speaking partner, I can now communicate a lot of what I’d want to. And interestingly, I can actually read and write more than I can speak since I’ve spent a lot of time learning Chinese characters (plus having the benefit of time to think about what I want to say and digest what’s written in front of me). My biggest weakest (in my opinion) is my listening ability, which obviously has a huge impact on my ability to have a conversation.

All that said, in the next couple weeks I plan to write a couple more blogs to describe the following:

Learning Chinese Curriculum (the last 7 months)

  • What books, classes, apps, and online resources have I used
  • How long have I studied with a guess on hours
  • My assessment on each of these resources and whether I’d recommend them

Learning Chinese Plan (5 more months in China to go!)

  • What current resources I plan to double down on and continue to use
  • What other resources are available that I haven’t used, that I currently would like to try out
  • Additional blogs and useful websites for researching how to learn the language

Learning Chinese Results (post-mortem in December most likely)

  • What are my results, including quantification with HSK Chinese Exam
  • What have I learned and what would I recommend
  • What’s next – how I’m thinking about studying and practicing Chinese after leaving China

Finally… in each blog at the end I’ll post up my current Pleco Flash Card Stats so you can see a few snapshots on how fast/slow I’m going.

Pleco Card Statistics: 2014年7月9日

Total Cards: 3,337 (currently practicing on approximately 2,200)
Total Card Repetitions: 22,508
Average Repetitions Per Card: 10
– Per Day: 194
Average Correct: 74%
Total Cards Learned: 1,949
– Per Day: 16

Note 1: Pleco is one of the more popular apps for learning Chinese with a fantastic dictionary, flash cards, and a number of other useful features. I’ve heard of other apps having better flash card and memorization systems, but I am a simple man and like the integration of the dictionary and flash cards. 

Note 2: These statistics are for the total number of cards repeated and learned, and should not be confused with words or Chinese characters. A card can be 1 Chinese character. A card can be 1 Chinese word (multiple characters). A card can also be a phrase or technical term. There are also a few duplicates.

Note 3: I am not currently practicing on 3,337 cards. This card count includes all of the cards I’ve created as well as all the cards from HSK levels 1-5. I also just began practicing on the HSK 5 deck of cards — which is a massive 1300 cards — so my total set of practiced cards is about 2,200. 

Authors Note 1: we were supposed to spend this three day weekend in Jiuzhaigou National Park, which is supposed to be one of China’s (and the world’s) most visually stunning natural landscapes. Our flight was cancelled the day before, though, so we decided to go to Shanghai.

Author’s Note 2: We made this trip in March 2014. I actually wrote the whole blog in March also… I’ve just been slow to upload and add the pictures. At this point… we’ve actually now visited Jiuzhaigou too. 🙂

Friday 星期五

We had a few goals visiting Shanghai: 1) Stroll along The Bund, 2) Take some great pictures of the skyline, 3) Go on a food tour, 4) Go to some kind of show, 5) Eat some really great western food that we can’t get in Chengdu, and 6) Relax.

On the first night, we learned a bit about the size of the city on our 1.5 hour odyssey into the city from the airport (largest city in the world with 24 million in the city-proper). We started on the subway, and then (mistake) got off midway to take a cab the rest of the way. I’m not sure what we were thinking… I don’t know where we were, it took us awhile to get a taxi, and it’s a huge landmass and A LOT of people. So we had fun getting the cab and then it was still a long drive in.

We stayed at the Hotel Indigo on The Bund (basically the Shanghai river walk). It was a gorgeous hotel with a modern/trendy style with great amenities (skyline views, rooftop bar and steakhouse, close to everything). The staff were also awesome with everything, from general customer service to touring tips. They even helped us rent the two neon colored bicycles parked out front!


Inside our room at Hotel Indigo – swanky!

Friday evening recap 星期五晚上总结: Long trip in from airport, Checkin with complimentary tea, Cocktails at Rooftop Bar, Dinner at CHAR Steakhouse (yum!), Sleep. Friday was good! 很棒!


Skyline view, check!

Saturday 星期六

We got up early and headed to our 10am Shanghai Dumplings UnTour in the French Concession. This foodie tour is highly rated for a reason: our guide Monica stuffed us with dumplings (Jiaozi 饺子) of all kinds, including Shanghai’s Xiao Long Bao 小龙包 “Soup Dumplings”. How do you make and seal a dumpling that has soup in it? So simple! They make them by cooling and gelatinizing the soups into cubes that can then be loaded into the dumplings, sealed, and cooked (resoupified) for dumpling munching perfection. Delicious!

This UnTour provided even more than expected, though, because not only did we go to like 10 places and get stuffed beyond belief, but we also had a Dumpling cooking class midway through AND a Chinese wet market tour! Just wait until you see us again in the U.S.A., we’re going to take our new knowledge and make Texas Chili Dumplings! 🙂

On a tangential note, we also saw our fair share of old Chinese hipsters and heard about the Accidental Chinese Hipsters blog. Funny stuff and worth the time if you’re bored.

For the rest of Saturday we…

Rode the ferry across the harbor: Not as cool as Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong, but still fun to rush onto the boat with a thousand Chinese friends. It also only cost 2 RMB each (.30 cents).

Then, we climbed 100 floors to the World Financial Center Observatory!


Three superscrapers! We went to the top of the one on the right.

They say this is the highest public observatory of any building in the world. There was actually a super long line too, so funny story… while queued up we called the phone number listed for purchasing their “VIP Tours”. We found we were able to skip the line, have a personal 2-on-1 tour with our own photographer + grab a lot of cool perks and gifts for just 150 RMB more ($30 more per person). The only catch – they were out of VIP English tours so we had the tour in Chinese… But from my perspective that’s a bonus! I get to practice my skills AND Emily is dependent on me!  Great deal! We would highly recommend it!


After the 100th floor we were off to see “The Best Show in China”: Shanghai Circus World’s ERA Acrobatics Show. We went to this super cool acrobatics show that included seeing six dudes riding motorcycles around in a cage at the same time! Check out a trailer video here.

Finally… we closed out Saturday by feasting at one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants: We were able to get an 11:30 pm reservation (no typo), and enjoyed our experience at the French Mr. and Mrs. Bund restaurant.

Sunday 礼拜天

We took it a little easier on Sunday. We rented the neon bicycles in front of out hotel and explored The Bund and several bicycle accessible areas of Shanghai including super packed tourist areas like People’s Square and the famous Yu Yuan gardens.

Having already checked Steakhouse and French Restaurant off the list, we were still missing Italian food. We had made our early 8pm reservation (definitely early compared to 11:30pm) at Goodfellas Italian Restaurant on The Bund. From the homemade pasta to the wine and desserts, this was our favorite meal and a great way to cap off our last evening in Shanghai.

Shanghai: Definitely an amazing city! 上海肯定很棒城市!你们马上应该去上海旅行吧!

While I’m away at the office all day, Bruce has been keeping himself busy by learning how to speak, read, and write Mandarin (that’s his homework above – he wrote it all!). Understandably, Mandarin has a fairly steep learning curve in the beginning with learning characters and speaking in syllables rather than letters and words. He’s committed to several private tutoring classes each week in addition to taking a five-days-a-week course at Sichuan University.

One of the major benefits of the immersion into Chinese culture is that we have opportunities to try out our Mandarin skills many times a day. I do confess however, that my speaking abilities are limited to basic numbers and phrases like ‘excuse me’, ‘nice to meet you’, and ‘one big bag, please’ (very useful while shopping!)  though I can understand a bit more when it’s presented in context. For example: waitress walks up to the table and points to my empty tea cup and asks me a question. All context indicates she is asking me if I want more tea, so I reply with a confident ‘dui, xie xie.’

Bruce, on the other hand is becoming very conversational. Currently he’s talking with our taxi driver about the following topics:

  • We are from the US, but we live in Chengdu.
  • We’ve lived here for six months and we will leave in December.
  • It is hot in Chengdu
  • The southern US is also hot right now.
  • I am his wife, and he thinks I’m very beautiful.
  • We will eat Sichuan food (dry pot) tonight for dinner.
  • How his wife thinks that he’s a ridiculous, funny person.
  • Asking the cab driver what his favorite restaurant is.
  • They discuss the foreigners in Chengdu and Bruce points and says “The American Embassy is over there.”
  • He thinks that Sichuan is the most beautiful place in China.
  • In particular, the driver confirms to Bruce that the Sichuan women are “spicy” (a well known affectionate term referring to their independence).
  • Then Bruce tells the driver that I am writing all this down for our blog website. The driver laughs.
  • Our apartment is to the right, please stop here. Very good!

Remarkable, yes?