Skip to Main Content
Mobile Menu

Broncos Abroad

Navigating Chengdu with no language skills

I have been settling into Chengdu and exploring the city over the last couple of days and I wanted to share more information about the USAC program in Chengdu as well as how I am managing in a country where I do not speak the language.

The panda is big in China, and especially in Chengdu.

The panda is big in China, and especially in Chengdu.

First, I cannot say enough about how wonderful the USAC program is run in Chengdu. Our tireless Resident Director, Wentao, and her hardworking program assistant Jiajing, are amazing. China can be a difficult country to settle into, here in Chengdu not many people outside of students on the campus speak English. This can add a few challenges to getting settled and set-up in the city. Both are always available only 2 floors down from me in the International dormitory and can be easily reached with a messaging app if any students have a question, emergency, or simply want to share something we discovered in the city.

The day after our arrival we had orientation, in which Wentao and Jiajing provided a great overview about China and gave us each a small booklet with famous attractions in Chengdu along with their addresses in Chinese and English as well as the addresses of our dorm and apartments in English and Chinese. This is helpful so that when we take a taxi we can show the driver the Chinese address. They also gave us a small laminated sheet with a few requests about food (for example, “I do not eat meat.”) and some popular dishes in Chengdu written out in both English and Chinese. This will certainly come in handy at restaurants. During orientation we also had the chance to get our bus/subway cards set-up. Jiajing and another English speaking USAC helper took us to a nearby newsstand where we purchased our bus/subway card (only $4), and then to a store where we could load the card with money (the bus and the subway cost about .45 for each ride). Without someone explaining to me how this works I do not think I could have figured this out on my own. Now, instead of always worrying about having coins on me to pay the bus or subway fare each time I ride, I can simply tap my card like the local Chengdu residents. Next up was a scavenger hunt. We were divided into small groups and given a famous Chengdu landmark to visit, take a picture at, and then return to a prearranged meeting spot. I felt that this was a helpful push to try riding the public transportation and navigating the city on your own (or at least with 2 other people to share the challenge with). Now that I have rode both the bus and subway I feel confident navigating alone.

Now, some initial observations and survival skills about China. Food is cheap, like really cheap here. If you are budget conscious there is no better place to study abroad then in China. The picture below of wontons in chili oil is what I had for dinner a few nights ago and it cost $2.25, the night before that I had a bowl of beef noodles that cost me $1.05. A more spendy Sichuanese dish will set you back $3-4, and last night I “splurged” for a salad and soda water at a western restaurant which ran just under $7!

Wontons in spicy chili oil.

Wontons in spicy chili oil.

Now, how you might wonder do I manage to eat at all with zero Chinese language ability? To be honest, it is not always simple but I have developed a few methods and rely on a few apps that make my life a bit easier. The first two nights here I was intimidated about entering a restaurant. The menus at the nearby restaurants are all in Chinese and none seem to have the picture menus (allowing me to point). I knew from my map that our campus is located nearby a famous walking street called Jinli that has loads of food vendors and many famous Chengdu street food specialties, so I headed there. Once there it was very easy to walk up to the vendor, check out what they are selling and then simply decide what I want and point at it. I even did a little research ahead of time on the internet to decide what sounded good (or was not too far out of my food comfort zone) and when I saw it, I went for it. This YouTuber has a number of videos and the one below showcases a number of dishes on offer at Jinli, near campus.

As I mentioned above, I also use apps which have helped me out quite a bit. One of the apps I use, I can type in my request in English and it translates it to Chinese. The translation is not always perfect, but it usually works, and when it has not worked, I make the request more simple. For example, when I tried to order the wontons in chili oil my initial request, was something like “do you have wontons in chili oil,” was not understood, so I just typed in the word “wontons” and showed the man. He nodded that yes, he had wontons. I then added “in chili oil”, and he nodded yes, he had that. Problem solved. Now, this app is not helpful if the person replies to me with a question in Chinese. There are apps that you can speak English into, they translate and speak out in Chinese. This also allows a Chinese person to respond in Chinese which is then translated back into English for you. I need to get one of these apps. Another app I use, uses my camera feature to scan Chinese characters and it displays the English for me. Again, not perfect, but I can get the gist (usually) of what some menu items are.

Below are a couple of shots from my strolls through the city. Another helpful survival skill in not getting hopelessly lost is using your phone. The google map GPS works even with my data turned off and no wifi, so I always know where I am. I also downloaded an app called before I came and downloaded the Chengdu map in case Google maps did not work. This too has an active GPS locator and therefore always has interesting site and landmarks noted.

Tianfu Square

Tianfu Square

A walk along the river.

A walk along the river.

Exploring Doi Suthep and Bhubing Palace

Doi Suthep

Doi Suthep

Unlike Bangkok and the other parts of southern Thailand that I visited in the past weeks, Chiang Mai strangely feels like home in one significant way: To the west/northwest, a large mountain looms over the city. The relative flatness of the jungle landscape of the southern coasts and the level urban sprawl of Bangkok felt foreign, but the presence of Doi Suthep (doi = “mountain” in northern Thai) feels comforting, reminding of me the cities of my adult life whose skylines are dominated by mountains—Reno, Tucson, and Boise.

Bhubing Palace

Bhubing Palace

Our first days with the USAC program have been packed with an assortment of field trips and tours, and we’ve managed to see quite a few of the sights and sites around Chiang Mai. One of the highlights was traveling this past Saturday up to the top of Doi Suthep, to escape the city and also to visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and Bhubing Palace near the summit of the mountain. Our rod daeng shuttled us up the winding 9+ mile road to the top, where the elevation is nearly 5,500 ft.

Our first stop was Bhubing Palace, which is a residence of the Thai royal family, built in 1961. Here the royal family stays during seasonal visits, and they also use the Palace to entertain State visitors from abroad. Built at such a higher elevation than most of Thailand, the Palace grounds contain extensive gardens that feature temperate-climate flowers and plants that can’t otherwise grow in the tropical heat of the rest of the region—including roses.

After a walking tour through the Bhubing gardens, we next visited Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a Buddhist monastery first constructed in the 1380s and still very much functioning today. To reach it requires an ascent up a long (300+ steps) staircase flanked by naga serpents, and the temple grounds surround a stunning golden chedi (or stupa), a spire that supposedly houses relics of the Buddha. (For more on the story of the founding of the temple, read an article from Sacred Destinations or Thailand Visitors) Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a sacred site of Buddhist pilgrimage, and we learned that at Chiang Mai University it is tradition for the incoming freshman class each year to walk up the mountain (11 kilometers) to pay respects and make merit at the temple.



Southwest University for Nationalities

Our group has arrived in Chengdu! We were settled in our various accommodations, some of us, such as myself are staying in the international dormitory, while other students opted for shared apartments a short distance from the university. Afterwards, USAC had a bus take us to Carrefour (a French equivalent to Walmart) to buy any last necessities for our rooms or apartments.

I find the dormitory to be much nicer than any dorm room I ever had as a college student. I have my own bathroom too.

My dorm room on the 11th floor.

My dorm room on the 11th floor.

The university, while accepting all students has traditionally been a university for the 55 ethnic minorities of China. It is evident walking around the campus that the university is diverse. Chengdu in general is home to a large Tibetan population, and the university is located in the neighborhood of Wuhou, which is Tibetan. The streets surrounding the university are filled with Tibetan restaurants and stores. I would guess that every 5th person I pass on the sidewalk is a Buddhist monk.

View from the 11th floor of the international dormitory.

View from the 11th floor of the international dormitory.

What has struck me the most walking around the campus is the life and buzz of activity taking place. The basketball courts are filled with students, as are the badminton courts, the ping pong courts, the pool, and the track and field. On my first night in my dorm room, I glanced out my window and down to the track and field and I was stunned. There were probably around 400 people on the field and track. Some were walking or running the track, others were kicking balls on the field, or doing sit ups, or just lounging. It was amazing. So, last night I decided to incorporate a few turns around the track into my daily routine in an effort to do what the campus locals do in the evening.

Badminton courts on campus.

Badminton courts on campus.

Basketball courts.

Basketball courts.

The other thing that has stood out to me while strolling campus are the people that make up the campus community. Our resident director explained to me that in China the university is home to many people, both faculty, and former faculty. So, not only do you see students walking about campus, you see faculty, former faculty, as well as grandparents who often live with one of their children and help raise their grandchildren. This university is truly a community.

Southwest University for Nationalities.

Southwest University for Nationalities.


Agur, Euskal Herria

On my last night in the Basque Country, I reflected on the past five weeks. It has been an amazing adventure which I will always treasure.

I set out to learn about Basque history, culture, and language, and what I learned surpassed my expectations. Prior to my arrival, I had some basic knowledge, but it was mostly in bits and pieces. I now have a deeper understanding of how all those pieces fit together.

Basques were pioneers in many areas of civilization: shipbuilding, fishing, wine, cider, ironworks, and agriculture. Though it continually evolves, they maintain their identity as one of the oldest civilizations, and the one that has stayed in the same place. Some current traditions date back centuries, if not further. They are proud of their heritage, identity, and culture. I learned much about all aspects of their history and culture, and I have a desire to continue learning more.

I am grateful for this opportunity. The knowledge I gained is invaluable, and will help me better work with students and faculty in Basque Studies, as well as the local community. Special Collections and Archives have extensive books, journals, and collections related to Basque history and culture, and I now have a better ability to help researchers utilize these collections. And when we have researchers from the Basque Country, I now can speak a few words in their native language.

Thank you to Boise State and USAC for this wonderful experience!


Welcome to Chiang Mai, and Welcome to USAC

Angkaew Reservoir

Angkaew Reservoir (Chiang Mai University)

I’ve finally arrived in Chiang Mai, and I’ve finally begun the USAC program! It’s been a whirlwind week and a half leading up to this, which I will share more about in a future blog post, but for now it feels great to get settled and to meet the Chiang Mai University USAC staff and my fellow study abroad students—all of whom are delightful on first impression.

This morning began with an early (7:30 am) meetup outside the USAC student dorm, which is about 2 blocks from my apartment. We gathered outside the 7-Eleven there (yes, there seems to be a 7-Eleven every few blocks here), and then piled into rod daeng (red taxi buses) that took us to campus. The CMU campus is only a few blocks from where we’re staying, but it’s a big one—sprawling with buildings and roads, but also quite wooded with a lot of green spaces—and our shuttle tour took about 40 minutes. If the humidity allows, I can see a lot of opportunity for early morning runs or walks along the roads and paths, including around the scenic Angkaew Reservoir. Compared to the high desert landscape and climate of Boise State, I’m immediately struck by how lush, tropical, and green everything is here. And it’s absolutely breathtaking.

Dhamma Hall

Entrance to Dhamma Hall (Chiang Mai University)

After our campus tour, we all gathered in the Faculty of Political Science building for a welcome session and orientation. About 50 students are attending this summer session, from universities all around the U.S., and the collective nervousness and excitement among everyone reminded me of the fun vibe at the start of a new semester back home. There were introductions from the super-helpful Chiang Mai USAC staff – Jum, the director, and Siri and Mali, her two program assistants – and then presentations from several CMU officials, including a Vice President and a Dean.

Following the morning orientation session we ate a tasty buffet lunch outside. If only campus food in the U.S. tasted half as good! (More on that later: The food here deserves a blog post – or three – of its own, so stay tuned.) We then all hopped back in the rod daeng to go to a local mall for a few hours, where many students had the first chance to outfit themselves with anything they needed. I picked up a cheap cell phone for making local, Thailand calls, along with a few other basic supplies for the apartment. I’ll say more about money in a future post, but things here are often shockingly inexpensive. (For example: In USD, my pay-as-you-go Thai phone plan costs about 3 cents a minute, and at dinner tonight my entree was about $1.40.)

View from apartment

The view from my apartment balcony

Our final stop of the day, on our way back to housing, was at a uniform shop. Yep – that’s right. Students in Thailand, regardless of age or level, wear uniforms while in class! This wasn’t any surprise, as I’d known this for a long time, but it was still something of a shock to the system to pile into the store and actually try them on: White, buttoned-down short-sleeve dress shirts and black slacks. These are the type of clothes I’m used to wearing as a professor in the U.S., but I guess I was hoping that the uniforms would be a little more light-weight; the heat and humidity here are already bracing enough wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and it’s going to be quite an adjustment walking to and from campus and classes in those clothes! But like everything else, that’s just a part of being in a different place and a different culture: adjusting, making do, and getting used to new things. As they told us this morning at orientation: “Be open to everything, yet attached to nothing.” Wise words.

All told, it was a fun and eye-opening first day with the USAC program, and it has me looking forward to the opening events and tours over the next several days. . .



Hutongs are narrow alleys or lanes and in Beijing there are very few left as the traditional courtyard residences which make up hutong are torn down for new development. I will not get into whether or not this is a good or a bad thing, as I believe that this topic is hard to have a true grasp on as a foreign visitor and one not personally tied to the issue. Regardless of the changing landscape in Beijing, I have greatly enjoyed walking down numerous hutongs and observing the life and activity happening in them. Below are two hutongs near the hotel we are staying at, both are primarily residential.

Dali hutong near my hotel in the Dashilan Residential district.

Dali hutong near my hotel in the Dashilan Residential district.

Shitou hutong street

Shitou hutong.

According to the hutong Wikipedia page, hutongs were first established in the Yuan dynasty (1206-1341). During the Ming dynasty (1368-1638), the use of hutongs expand and hutongs residents lived in particular areas based on their social status. Aristocrats were permitted to live closer to the Forbidden City, on the east and west sides, while the commoners, merchants, and artists lived to the north and south. After the the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949 the hutongs residents changed, and residences that once housed one family were subdivided to house numerous families.  While there is some desire on my part to romanticize life in a hutong, the reality is that the residences are old, really old in some cases, and many lack bathrooms. In all the hutongs I have wandered through, all have public restrooms on almost every street for residents’ use.

Public Restrooms

Public restrooms.

Some hutongs are undergoing extensive renovations with new boutiques and bars and restaurants emerging alongside the older residences.  In the area where the two hutongs pictured below are located, it is clear that the neighborhood is changing rapidly.

New wine and tapas bar in Ju'er hutong.

New wine and tapas bar in Ju’er hutong.


Residence in Mao'er hutong.

Residence in Mao’er hutong.


Traveling to a foreign country means exploring new foods as well as new culture surrounding food. Food and experiences are very important in the Basque Country. People care both about quality of food, and it is often the center of socialization.

A unique feature is gastronomic societies. These are groups, historically men but women more recently are allowed to be members, that meet regularly to cook, socialize, and have competitions. Traditionally, women were the head of the household and in charge of most everything, so the societies grew as a way for men to get together on their own. Some societies are closed to the public, but others allow people to pay for the experience. A group of us were lucky enough to participate and enjoy the delicious food.


The meal experience in a restaurant, and in people’s homes, is different than in America. Basques savor both the food and the entire experience, therefore take a few hours for a meal. Courses are served one at a time with plenty of time for socializing in between. Thanks to Boise State Basque Studies faculty Larraitz and Nere, I went to a couple restaurants with this wonderful experience.

food: fishfood: saladfood: dessert

The other major food are pintxos (tapas). It is typical for people to go get pinxto and wine at multiple places in an evening. On Thursdays, neighborhoods have pinxto pote. During the recession in the late 2000s, people reduced how much they frequented taverns and restaurants. To encourage people to go out and socialize, areas started pinxto pote which is reduced price pinxto and wine (usually 2 euros for the pair).

food and a glass of wineMan with wine

Though wine and beer are very popular here, there are also many cider houses. The cider is kept in incredibly large barrels and streams quickly from the spout. People line up with their glasses and try not to let any drip on the floor. Combined with a several course meal, it’s a wonderful experience.

Barrels of ciderTwo men drinking cider from barrels food

First day in Beijing

12 hours and 4 movies later, I arrived in Beijing, China. I sailed through immigration (you must have a visa to China) and customs and quickly located an ATM. During my first attempt at withdrawing money the  ATM kept asking me for a local phone number, which I do not have and I had a minute of panic thinking “Oh no, what if the Agricultural Bank of China is the only ATM machine in the airport, how will I get any money out?” I decided to keep looking and sure enough there was another ATM. ATM’s in China all have an English language option, so no worry about trying to navigate Chinese characters. With money in my wallet, I decided to opt for a taxi ride to my hotel (versus taking the subway or shuttle), it was late, I was very tired, and I thought I could see more of the city from the taxi. USAC had sent me an arrival guide with detailed instructions about my options for getting into the city. The info included how much each would cost and where to find each transportation option. They even included a subway map and a map of the streets around the hotel, so if you walked from the subway station to the hotel you could find the hotel easily. Using the arrival guide I knew to follow the signs for taxis, which are also written in English. I found the taxi line and queued up waiting my turn. The arrival guide had also given me the address of the hotel in both English and Chinese, so when I got into my taxi, I showed the driver the address in Chinese. The taxi ride took about 30-40 minutes, during which I intermittently fell asleep. When I woke up at one point, I noticed we had made it deep into the city and we were driving in Tiananmen Square.

Tiananmen Square at night.

Tiananmen Square at night.

Soon after, we pulled up to the hotel and I paid my taxi driver. In the end, my roughly 35 minute taxi ride cost $15. I checked in at the hotel, dropped my bag and went next door to a little restaurant for a quick bite before I went to bed. The restaurant had a menu with pictures and with English descriptions under the Chinese so it was easy to order. I had delicious pork and scallion dumplings and then called it a night.

Today I woke up and met my USAC group for a day of touring Beijing. Our first stop was Tiananmen Square, which can hold up to 1 million people. Needless to say, it is a large square. From there we entered the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City was built between 1406 and 1420 by a Ming emperor and saw 24 emperors live and rule from within it’s walls up until 1912. The Forbidden City is quite large, about 178 acres, so our group spent a while wandering around. My favorite parts of the Forbidden City were found off the main path of visitors where I found a few quiet courtyards. From the Forbidden City we were bussed to a restaurant for lunch, before setting off for the Temple of Heaven. The Temple of Heaven was constructed at the same time as the Forbidden City and used by Ming and Qing emperors for religious ceremonies of prayer to heaven. Set in a large park the Temple of Heaven complex is five times larger than the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City.

A quiet courtyard in the Forbidden City.

A quiet courtyard in the Forbidden City.

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests in the Temple of Heaven complex.

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests in the Temple of Heaven complex.


The beautiful terrain in the Basque Country allows for a variety of outdoor activities, whether surfing, hanging out at the beach, walking around various towns, or hiking. I spent a lot of time walking around various places, but went on two extended hikes.

The first was part of a USAC excursion to the Pyrenees. We hiked from Sara (France) to Zugarramurdi (Spain). It had recently rained and was overcast and a bit muddy, but beautiful nonetheless. Part way through the hike was a short wall which more or less marks the France/Spain boundary. We passed some farms where we saw sheep and cows.

Rocks along walking pathView of forestOpen land farm

The second hike was from Donostia to Pasaia, along the Bay of Biscay coast. In some places, mountains meet the ocean so the land is undeveloped, and this hike was up Mount Ullia. There were several paths with directional signs, but they also marked the paths with various colored stripes as guides. It was a gorgeous setting, and it seemed that every turn brought on a new and beautiful view.

Bay of Biscay coastHiking pathBay of Biscay coast

Summer Solstice

Before the Basque Country was Christianized, the people followed many pagan traditions. Some of these centuries old practices still exist today. One major event that combines both the pagan and religious rituals is celebrating San Juan’s night, which coincides with the summer solstice (the shortest night of the year).

The principal characters are the sun, the fire and the water, and the bonfires that are ignited this night ward off evil for one year. Men, women, and children spend part of the day preparing bonfires. According to tradition, jumping over a bonfire on San Juan’s night cleanses and purifies a person and burns their problems away.

It was great to witness this tradition that is not prominent in the US. There were many bonfires around Donostia. My friend and I went to the one in the neighborhood of Gros, on the beach. Before the huge bonfire was lit, many children put their year’s school papers around it (it was the last day of school). Other people also placed items. There was Basque music and dancing prior to lighting the main bonfire.

Also during this time all along the beach groups of people lit dozens of small bonfires to jump over. We participated in the jumping part of the ceremony, which saying the traditional Basque words, which essentially is to tell evil to go away and to welcome good things for the next year:

San Juan, San Juan heldu da
Sorginan begia galdu da
Galdua bada, gal bedi!
Sekula agertu ez baledi!
Gaxtuak harontz, sorginak harontz eta onak honontz
zirt zart!

Crowd of people on San Juan's night Big Bonfire on San Juan's nightFires lit along the beachJumping around the fireJumping around the firefireworks