Category Archives: China

Hong Kong: What Had Happened Was…

  

I loved all of your comments on the last few posts, though I couldn’t respond, they made me laugh all over again. I’ve added links to the pictures if you’re interested or at work with a free high-speed connection.

Hong Kong is like Manhattan x 100. Some things happened in Hong Kong that I just can’t even talk about. Not because it would compromise me you understand, but I’m protecting the people I was with.

I led a trip out to the Chinese Cuisine Training Institute (CCTI), which was amazing. CCTI is the elite culinary school in the region and when we stepped in the place you knew why. The facilities, head chef, cutie-pie chefs in training and fire, along with lots of amazing food made for a great afternoon of culture and cuisine. I spent the majority of my time trying to communicate with my Chinese chef partner and convincing him to let me turn up the flames on our dishes. We made a Sweet and Sour Pork and a Beef with Black Pepper Sauce. Yum, I mean like, make your eyes cross good. Like almost better than…nevermind. I think you get it. Anyway, I highly recommend a trip out to CCTI if you get a chance. And I’m falling in lurve with hot tea. There were dozens of varieties on display to smell and sample.

Hong Kong in general is pretty expensive but there are lots of knock-off markets, cheap deals on street food and lots of cheap beer. On the other hand, there was a LINE outside the damn Louis Vuitton store. A line people. Who has that kind of money?

Hong Kong is beautiful and the weather was cooler than we’ve had anywhere we’ve been so far except possibly south africa. Exempting the cooking class, we were in “dance” mode which turned into “karaoke” mode which turned into “who has the camera” mode. You know its going to be a late night when you go out for Chinese food at 10pm before hitting the club! It was funny walking around and seeing people carrying beers, winecoolers, etc and just sipping while they were strolling through the city blocks. This looked tempting, but I contained myself.

We ended up at a couple of different lounges hanging with locals who bought us fruity drinks, tequila sunrises and my favorite, whiskey with green tea (sounds terrible but it was nice and mellow). I went from singing my heart out to wondering how the hell the sun had managed to rise while we were laughing at ourselves (picture of aforementioned afro being groomed by G). There was nothing left to do except grab some early morning McDonald’s (yes, even in Hong Kong it was fabulous and necessary) and sleep a couple of hours before getting back into “adventure traveler” mode. Don’t judge me too harshly for having a good time. Sometimes you have to step out smelling extra good, with a little cash in your pocket and a terrible 80’s song in your heart. Yes, even me.

Beijing, China: Afro-licious

   

I decided not to buy these snacks (shrink wrapped chicken parts) before boarding my 22 hour overnight train to Beijing. Unfortunately I bought this (Diet Coke with Lemon) which tastes like a mix of lighter fluid and well…lemon. I really didn’t know what to expect of the train but I was woefully surprised when I realized that in China…they make things to their own physical proportions. So being 1.5 Chinese folks wide and about 3-6 inches taller I was in for a night of pure hell in terms of physical (dis) comfort. I had the last “hard” seat and there were no sleepers available. So I prepared myself for a long night of sitting upright with my legs crammed under a small table and a Chinese guy with the most awesome hair ever tucked up against my side. But here’s what happened:

The train was oversold so there were 13 of us in a space that “normally” would seat 10 people. I was the only American/non-Chinese person in a 200 mile radius. I hadn’t seen any of my SAS compadres in 2 days and I know 3 phrases in Mandarin (Hello, Thank You, You’re Welcome). I questioned the sanity of my solo travelling decision with no prospects for communication or company and a night with no sleep on the agenda. But, I ended up having the most hilarious time in my train car.

The Chinese are not a “warm and fuzzy” people. This at first took me slightly off guard being an over the top southern girl but I realized that if I lived with almost a billion people…I probably wouldn’t smile and say “hello” to anybody either, that’s a lot of grinning and waving. But the night on the train gave me the opportunity to observe the wonderfully warm, collectivist culture of the Chinese via two examples. First, in our car of 100+ people, 15 men didn’t have tickets for seats. So they were standing up, ostensibly for 15 hours. It never occured to me to proffer my seat to any of them but that is exactly what all the other men on the train did. All of the guys sitting in aisle seats would rise after a time and insist that a guy who was standing take his seat. Like they ordered them to sit down. There was no negotiation, no clock watching, no requests for someone to get out of their seats. For 22 hours I watched men who did not know each other, care for one another in the most basic way.

I was as you can probably imagine, quite the curiosity. Most Chinese people haven’t seen many, if any african americans and certainly none that are female, taller/larger than them and sporting an afro and settling into a cross-country train car like she belonged there. I got the normal stares and points and giggles (never mean spirited) that all of us of african american descent have gotten in Asia, but it didn’t bother me. I knew people were interested in my hair (huge afro at this point) and so I would bow and indicate that they could touch it and they did, which would send them and everyone else into a fit of giggles. Fun for them, fun for me. Breaking down cultural barriers one afro at a time (sounds like a t-shirt, no?). Plus, the guy sitting across from me was totally down with me stretching my legs out on either side of his to relieve my agony.

The second example of the warm Chinese spirit occured at dinner time. At about 9pm people started breaking out food from all sorts of places, one guy had drinks, another had some type of beef, someone else bought enough rice for all of us, and people started digging in. I was handed a pair of chopsticks and a spoon and via hand gesture, commanded to join in the food. Being my shy self I thanked them all, tossed in my ginormous bag of pretzels and a pack of gum, thanked the dude for the iced green tea, and joined them in the impromptu potluck. I should mention that only 4 of the 13 of us knew each other (two pairs of friends). So this was a touching moment for me, sap that I am.

After a while it emerged that two guys spoke a little english and a woman in our group of 13 spoke pretty good english. So the three of them served as translators. So while we sat up all night and I watched the guys play cards, someone would tell me the gist of what was going on in the conversations. They invited me to play cards, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out the game, so I settled for shuffling and cutting the deck for the guy who was losing. We talked about their culture (what they did and didn’t like), USA culture, movie stars, music, what we did for fun…the usual “getting to know you” stuff with a Mandarin twist.

After 22 hours, awake on a train (no rats this time!) I felt a comraderie with my seatmates and it must have been mutual because:

-Gabriel invited me to a wedding the next day (and followed through with the address, etc via e-mail)
-When it was time to get off the train there were hand clasps and smiles all around and one guy kept saying “they really like you”
-3 of the other 12 wouldn’t leave me until they deposited me at my hotel in Beijing, despite being tired, ready for food and a shower, they escorted me (literally) to my hotel
-I met up with the aforementioned 3 and 3 of their friends the next night to chow down and hang out
-Gabriel continues to e-mail me despite our language barrier, and my inability to attend the wedding (no formal clothes and a pre-booked day tour)

What I did in Beijing

1. After 3 nights of little to no sleep, sketchy hostel sheets and an afro and wardrobe full of cigarette smoke (they can smoke anywhere here in China), I checked myself into the very posh Beijing Hotel and rolled around on the very comfortable featherbed after a long shower.

2. The Great Wall. Amazing, inarticulable. Worth the 3 hour round trip drive but next time I will go to a less popular spot. There were thousands of people. It was like Disneyland on the 4th of July. But the pictures you’ve seen don’t come close to the spectacular hugeness and longness (i know they aren’t words!) of the wall. Its like when you see the Grand Canyon after only seeing pictures your whole life.

3. The Summer Palace. Set on a man made lake, it was a great way to cool off from clambering around the Great Wall and the architecture is amazing. The history had me totally engaged and wanting more.

4. Tianamen Square. Impressive in size but after 5 minutes you realize its just a piece of outside with an intriguing and important historical moment attached to it. It is framed by 4 important buildings though. 3 of which we couldn’t get into because they are renovating in preparation for the 2008 Olympics.

5. The Forbidden City. Large pictures of Chairman Mao and amazingly interesting history of this home to 3 Chinese dynasties. Over 9000 rooms, lots of Feng Shui and architectural elements and also about a million people visiting on the same day.

6. The Jade Factory. I didn’t like the fact that tour guides pretty much have to take you here in an attempt to get a captive audience to buy something. It reminded me of the rickshaw drivers in India. But I learned all about the different types of Jade, how to tell real from fake, how it is carved and polished and what they are used for, etc. Totally nerdtastic which you know I love. Then I said thanks and figured if they didn’t mind wasting my time without my permission, I shouldn’t feel bad about not buying something I didn’t want. Plus the cheapest thing in the place was $25 US for some knick knack crap. I still enjoyed it though.

7. The Pearl Factory. Same concept, same method of captive audience but again I loved learning all about the pearls, oysters, harvesting, real vs. fake, and I even got two tiny pearls for free!

Guanzhou, China: Beijing Dreams

 

I survived! Actually I thrived I think. Despite the sketchy hostel (with stains on the sheets!) and the traditional chinese mattress (imagine sleeping on top of your dining room table). I survived Guanzhou. I actually really enjoyed it. I ended up in Shiaman which is a little island/backpacker area. Despite the ramshackle internet room with the ancient computers and the loft that the semi-naked dude descended from giving me a scare. And I’ve never been anywhere that you could use the internet and then purchase a full-sized sword while you’re paying the bill!

A little about this lovably curious little place, Guanzhou is an area where many Americans and Europeans come to adopt children. There’s a US embassy, lots of businesses catering to these types of growing families and a pretty good chance that you’ll stumble across someone who speaks enough english to point you in the right direction. But I still don’t know what this sign is all about…Mexican siestas? Sad people of Latino descent? Sombrero store?

So after a night of red wine and pringles at the local 7-eleven with about 15 other multi-national knuckleheaded travelers, I can say that I am willing to go (almost) anywhere and try (almost) anything once. Katie and Jess (The Canadian sisters pictured in previous photo) scooped me up the next day and we wandered around. The park was full of locals playing hacky sack, dancing the tango (I swear I’m not making this up) and working out on these strange public exercise machines (think monkey bars and see saws with a health related twist).

We were near the canal so it was nice and breezy which made the walk around town pleasant. We checked out a huge church where there were some wedding photos being taken, the local statuary which was amazing, this one was my favorite, but there were quite a few stunning statues. I also found the greatest boot.leg. CD/DVD store on the planet and a place that sold pretzels and mini quiche to supplement my growing love for Chinese noodles and beef.

We worked up an appetite and stopped for lunch at a little place that didn’t look like it had a large crowd and despite the delicious food, we had to wonder if it was the Celine Dione CD that they were playing that kept business at bay? No matter to us, it was all about bottled water and fresh squeezed juices. We laughed and got to know each other over Indian, Chinese and European dishes that we shared without hesitation. Curries giving way to Cordon Bleu.

Both of them are amazing young women who have taken a 6 month sabbatical to travel Asia as they trace their father’s cultural heritage (they are half Chinese). We parted ways late afternoon so that they could catch their sleeper bus south and I could catch my train north. We hugged, traded e-mails and I made a tentative promise to meet them in Mexico later this year.

Unfortunately I couldn’t get a flight out of Guanzhou under $350 US, so I bought the last train ticket to Beijing leaving on an overnight 22 hour train. I guess this little independent side trip was going to go from bad to worse! I thought the train left at 8pm and fortunately I had to show the ticket to someone to ask which station I needed to go to and she pointed out that the train left at 6pm – crisis number 23 averted! I was also a bit proud of the fact that I had a regular sized back pack and my nikon d50 case, which meant that I was adhering to the backpacker moto (that I can never manage to follow) “never carry more than you manage at a dead run for a half mile and keep your hand free”. Score!

So I stuffed my newly acquired Blackeyed Peas “The Remixes” and the much talked about “Lily Allen” CDs next to the Chinese Hip Hop I had tracked down (not hard) and shoved pretzels and a ginormous bottle of water into my pack. I stuffed my towel into a stuff sack and strapped it to the outside of my pack and bid Guanzhou and its ill timed Trade Show Zai Jian (goodbye in Mandarin). But not before these students pulled me aside to ask me to complete a survey on the detrimental affects of beauty pagents on the self-esteem of Chinese youth. Because you know, that’s my area of expertise.

Somewhere In China

   

You see this monkey (pictured above)? I feel like that guy looks. CRAZY! I’m stuck between Hong Kong (AMAZING!) and Beijing (??). The ship docked in Hong Kong a few days ago, and everyone had the option of sailing with the ship to Qingdao or traveling overland/whatever and meeting back up with the ship before she sails to Kobe next week.

Er, guess which one I chose? Right.

I decided that after 3 months of traveling with 900 people (who I adore), I’d strike out on my own and see if I could get from Hong Kong to Beijing to Qingdao on my own. Craving the challenge of living out of a regular sized backpack and trying to navigate almost an entire continent with a wicked language barrier.

Now I find myself in some random metropolis dead in the middle of their major bi-annual Trade Show! I tried to get a room at the Holiday Inn because well…in the U.S. its like what $70 a night right? In China, not so much. They wanted $350 for one night! Granted it is the sexiest Holiday Inn I’ve ever seen. Stupid Trade Show!

So, I’m paying $70 night for a double room in a sketchy hostel and doing e-mail/trying to book tickets in the back room of a knick knack store on one of two ancient computers. There are exposed wires and extension cords EVERYWHERE!

The good news is that the Chinese LOVE McDonalds, 7-11 stores and neon lights. So if I squint real hard and blur my vision I can pretend I’m in Times Square or somewhere else where I’m reasonably sure things are going to work out okay.

PLUS! At 5 ft 6 inches I’m exactly average height for an American female, but I’m the shortest person in my family, but in China…being tall ROCKS!

Okay, I just met two Canadian chicks who said to meet them at the 7-11 in 45 minutes for beer, wine and to meet the multinational crowd of backpackers they hung out with last night. So, I guess that’s where I’ll be…at a random 7-11 somewhere in southern China, resisting sleep and praying for some transportation magic.

Wish me luck.

 ***Live Action Update (10 minutes later)

I’m sitting in the internet place and there’s a fairly low ceiling in here (maybe I’ll try to take a photo). Anyway, I just assumed that it was for extra storage, supplies, etc but I just heard some rustling and a grown man just climbed down from HIS LOFT BED naked from the waist up (in pajama pants), grabbed a mug that held a toothbrush and toothpaste (which I had noticed a while ago but didn’t think much about) and disappeared around the corner! You see that monkey’s face? Now add a look of surprise, the swemi-naked bed loft dude just reached over my head to turn on the lights and I can hear water running in the background. Lawd Jeebus. I’m outta here!

Pre-Trip Planning: Carnival…Here I Come!

     

My passport arrived with the Brazilian, Chinese and Indian visa pages/stamps. And in typical girl fashion my first thought was: “ooh, look at the pretty colors!” But the Brazilian stamp has my first name as Brian (not my first name), so we shall see what hilarity ensues as I try to get my Carnival on! Anybody want to contribute to my “bri.be the Br.azi.lian po.lice” fund?

I signed up for 3 nights of Carnival parade in Salvador. A bunch of people are going to fly from Salvador to Rio de Janeiro, but it was over $1200US and that wasn’t all expenses included! I had to drop close to $600US to sign up to march with three of the troops (a different group each night), but I think it will be once in a lifetime opportunity, and I can always go sit myself down somewhere if things get out of hand. I don’t do well in large crowds so we shall see how this goes, Carnival in Salvador is billed as the largest street party on earth, so you can see why I’m all over that yet a little wary. I figure if I can lean out of a small boat and pet a 16 meter whale, I can ease on down the road with a feather boa and a mardis gras mask on. Plus I was inspired by Adrienne’s pics from her trip to Trinidad & Tobago’s Carnival (where she met up with Karen of www.chookoolonks.com)!

So, travel blogging has resumed…more Pre-Trip Planning & gear pics to follow. I’m sure those of you who have been tolerating my general blogging in hopes that I’d get back to the foolishness I seem to get into on the road are breathing a sigh of relief. Thanks for sticking around. Having yall with me is half the fun.

T-minus: 24 days and counting to www.semesteratsea.com