Saturday, July 05, 2008

Sheep Skin Rafts

In a recent bit of desert-themed traveling with Nissa, we visited Shapotou, a place that could only be described as a "desert theme park" outside of the small city of Zhongwei, Ningxia province. Shapotou is an area of natural beauty where the desert meets the Yellow River, and naturally has been turned into a ticketed tourist attraction outfitted with a zip line, camel and horse riding, sand dune sledding, dune buggies, a ski lift, and sheep skin rafting. We opted for the sheep skin rafting, which is just as bizarre as the name implies:

So for 80 yuan (around $11) each we had a river-rafting experience that would probably give PETA a heart attack. We enjoyed it, but I have to say the little inflated arms were a bit creepy.

Your days are numbered, sheep...

Fun at the Park

Now that summer has arrived in Zhangye the weather has been beautiful (if sometimes overbearingly hot), and there are few better places to enjoy the outdoors in the city than Ganquan Park (entrance seen in the above picture). Before coming to China, I had a pretty predictable image of what a "park" is: shady trees, couples taking leisurely bike rides, picnic tables, excitable dogs, and quiet. Most Chinese cities have at least one park, but they tend to have a uniquely Chinese spin to them.

At our park, there is everything you might need for a relaxing day out in nature: whack-a-mole, shoot-the-balloon games, an artificial lake, paddle boats, artificial rock sculptures, a basketball game, archery, fishing, copies of the David and the Venus de Milo, lamb kebabs, men playing loud drinking games, music, a carousel, a haunted house, bumper cars, a small roller coaster, and a zoo. In other words, it's not really a place you go to listen to the chirping of the birds, but it's fun in it's own unique way (I wouldn't recommend the zoo though, which might be more accurately named the Prison for Animals). It's a nice place to have a cold beer and sit under the (artificial) shade, but not a place to walk your dog or take a bike ride. Dogs are not nearly as popular in China in the first place, and bikes are for getting around and carrying things like your groceries, your new computer, or your girlfriend. When I tell Chinese people that at home we put our bikes on our car, drive 15 minutes to the park, ride around the park for fun, and then drive home, they think that it's hilarious. In over two years in China, I have also never seen a Chinese person running for fun, even on the track on our campus.

But my favorite park activity is something that I had heard about in China, but not seen here until this year. It seems to be called buxing qiu in Chinese, or literally "walking ball." The idea is that you get inside a giant inflatable ball which is then sealed and put out to float around in a pool of water. You then have five minutes to walk, roll, or flop around in your giant tethered hamster ball, to the great amusement of onlookers (in this case the little girl's mother, who kept shouting "run! run!"). A couple of pictures:

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Resources for Learning Chinese

For those learning Chinese out there, I thought I would mention some of the most useful resources I have found for learning the language.

By far my favorite Chinese lessons. The lessons focus on spoken Chinese and are in podcast form, so they are meant to be downloaded and listened to on your computer or mp3 player. Each lesson focuses on a pre-recorded dialogue, which is listened to and then discussed and explained by the two hosts (one native English speaker and one native Chinese speaker). The lessons are divided into five levels, so they suit any level of Chinese learner, and the topics are a good mix of the practical and the interesting. I particularly like ChinesePod because the lessons are well-written and teach Chinese the way Chinese people actually speak it (I'm amazed by the number of Chinese learning materials that fail at this), the hosts are personable without being over-the-top, and they've created a community around the website. By this I mean there are discussions around each lesson on the website where users can leave comments and questions, and the hosts of the lessons and other employees will personally answer your questions. The lessons themselves are all free to download, but you need a paid subscription to get the extra materials (including the written transcript of the lesson dialogues). I'm familiar with some of the audio lessons you can buy at the store (Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone, etc.) and have not been particularly impressed with them.
My favorite online dictionary. I particularly like the example sentences and the great tool for looking up characters by drawing them.
Another online dictionary that is actually aimed at Chinese people learning English, but is also great for seeing the words you look up used in example sentences (all with English translations).

A useful site for reading Chinese, in which you can copy and paste several sentences of Chinese text and have them "annotated," meaning that you can see the definition of each word or phrase when you hover the mouse pointer over it. Much quicker than looking up each word in the dictionary individually. The only downside is that for words that have multiple meanings, the site makes the best guess of the meaning relevant to the sentence and shows you only that definition, so if it guesses wrong you are going to have to look up the word in the dictionary anyway.

Oxford Starter Chinese Dictionary
The first dictionary I used, which is great for the beginner as it includes examples and notes about how to use words, lots of information on measure words, and sections devoted to things like talking about "time" or "musical instruments" in Chinese. Apparently there is a new version called the Oxford Beginner's Chinese Dictionary, which I'm sure is worth checking out. The dictionary I use now is the confusingly named Pocket Oxford Chinese Dictionary, which is excellent but not at all pocket size. All of these dictionaries use simplified Chinese characters.

Reading and Writing Chinese
A great reference book for learning characters, as it does the best job of any book I've seen of actually explaining the logic and meaning behind the characters. Be sure to pick up the simplified character version for mainland China and the traditional character version for Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Intensive Spoken Chinese

The first textbook I used, and an excellent beginner's textbook for learning the spoken language (the characters are included as well, but not emphasized). The first book in a series, which is followed by The Most Common Chinese Radicals and Rapid Literacy in Chinese. The last two are also recommended, and the series is widely available for a low price in the foreign language bookstores of large Chinese cities.

New Practical Chinese Reader
A five-volume series of textbooks that I have encountered through my Peace Corps coworkers, who have been supplied with the books for their language training. I haven't had the chance to use the books much myself but I've liked what I've seen. I'm not sure that they are available in China, and I haven't been completely satisfied with any of the more advanced textbooks I have bought here.