Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sending the Chinese Year out with a Bang

My time in China, much like Japan, was nonstop and packed with things to do. On day 1, Amanda and I woke up early enough to try to catch the sunrise, but due to all of the smog and bad weather, it was too cloudy to see anything. The ship docked in a river at the heart of Shanghai which was as wide as our ship is long, but luckily our captain has been at this for 35 years, so we made it through with no problems. As soon as we were docked, we were all rushed off of the ship because the entire ship needed to be cleared through customs before people could get back on. A while back, a group of people created a Beijing trip that mirrored the SAS trip, but for half the price. Our flight left Shanghai at 7 pm, so we had the day to explore.  Not knowing our exact plan, Cassie, Kayla, Pahbitra, Heather and I packed our bags and left to walk around The Bund, a famous part of Shanghai. When we all realized we didn’t want to spend any money, and the majority of things to do cost money, we decided to head back to the ship for a free lunch. We realized we were all still exhausted because 2 days wasn’t enough time to recover from Japan, so we went back to our cabins and took a short nap. Once we were all regrouped, we walked to the “coolest street of China” which had a lot of different types of shops and street vendors. We had to factor in the hour subway ride to the airport, so we didn’t have much time to shop around.

There was a huge difference in the train system of China than the system in Japan. In China, it didn’t matter if the train looked full; people still shoved their way onto the cars, whereas in Japan passengers waited if it was too full. In Japan, the train was silent, whereas in China there were TVs blasting advertisements and people talking loudly. When we got off the train at the airport, we ran into a Chinese woman who was with her friend. Her ticket was not being accepted by the machine, and there was no way for her to get through. She was screaming angrily in Chinese when we were starting to go through. First, the woman tried following Pahbitra through, but she was too slow and the bars shut before she could get by. She then wrapped her arms around Lisa and tried to sneak through that way. When she realized that wasn’t going to work either, she crawled under the bars on her hands and knees. The funny thing is she was there for a while and made quite the scene, but no one bothered to help her. By the end of it, none of us could contain our laughter. There is no way to accurately describe the situation, but it made for a funny and memorable story.
At the airport, our plan was to meet up with Phil, Lisa, Matt and Raj who all had field labs and would be cutting it close. We still had time to kill before our flight left, so we got some Subway because fast food Chinese didn’t sound appetizing. The problem with any of the food that we ate was we had to be extremely careful with what we ate. We were told in our pre-port meeting that the water was dangerous and would give us travelers’ diarrhea. (It also scared us so much, we walked away from the meeting positive we were going to get scammed and have all of our money stolen, get travelers’ diarrhea for weeks, and have severe health issues after breathing in the smog in Beijing* More on that later).  I didn’t want to risk anything, so I left out all vegetables aside from pickles on my sub.

When we boarded the flight we were happy to see we were all sitting next to each other, and we waited to see the rest of the group get on. About 5 minutes until take off, Phil and Lisa boarded the plane and assured us Raj and Matt were right behind them, but they stopped at the bar really fast to take some shots. We kept watching the door, and when it finally closed Raj and Matt were nowhere to be found. (Matt later described running to the door as it was shutting, and he said that it was like a movie where they give a big motivational speech and the flight attendant lets them on in the end, except the flight attendant didn’t let them on).
Once we landed, it was around 10 and we were met by our tour guide Flora, who wouldn’t leave the airport until Raj and Matt’s flight came in because Raj was the one who booked the tour. At this point, we were all very angry and their stupidity, and were even contemplating making a pact not to talk to them. The Beijing airport was clouded with smog, and the Wi-Fi was spotty, but we lived through the next hour and a half until Raj and Matt came through the terminal. Exhausted at this point, we walked to our “magic bus” and were taken to the hostel. It dubbed the name “magic bus” because it always showed up out of the blue when we needed it. Obviously, there was communication with Flora and the driver, but to us it seemed like magic.
We arrived at our hostel about 30 minutes after leaving the airport and I was very surprised in what Kayla booked for us. I had never stayed in a hostel, and the only image I had of one was from the movie Hostel, so I was pleasantly surprised when I didn’t notice any torture devises around. It was a quaint, 3 story building on the corner of a busy back-street filled with different shops and vendors. It looked like a country cottage bed and breakfast, which put me at ease. The room we stayed in had 8 beds (4 twins and 4 bunks,) and because we were still angry with Matt and Raj, they were forced to sleep in the top bunks.  Alix and Dana caught a later flight out and ended up getting to the Hostel about an hour later than us. Lisa, Alix and Dana had a separate room, so in total there were 11 of us.

Flora told us she was picking us up at 9:30, so we were up around 8 to give us enough time to shower and grab some breakfast from the cafĂ© downstairs. I am so glad we booked a guide because if I learned anything from Japan, it was to travel in small groups or you won’t get anywhere. We were already struggling to get ourselves ready, but luckily we had some guidance. When we got to Beijing the night before, it was about -3 degrees Fahrenheit and very smoggy. To give you an idea, as we were landing you couldn’t see the ground until the wheels touched it.  We were all terrified the trip would consist of cloudy pictures and unpleasant weather, but luckily when we woke up all the smog was gone and it was a beautiful day. It was around 20 degrees when we left the hostel and there was snow on the ground, but we were just happy we could see things.

Our first stop was to Tiananmen Square which is the largest square in the world (so we were told. Cassie says Wikipedia says otherwise) Much to our dismay, all of the buildings and museums surrounding the square was closed on Mondays, and the Forbidden City stopped selling tickets to enter before we got there. Flora was quick on her feet and switched some things in the itinerary around, so we planned to come back on the fourth day. Our next stop was to the Silk Factory, which felt like it was on the other side of town, but it probably wasn’t that far away. Beijing is a HUGE city, and I am not sure what we would have done without the bus and guide. At the silk factory, we learned that there are single cocoons (which they use for making the clothing and scarves) and double cocoons (which is used to make the bedding). They showed us the process of making the silk comforters, which use up about 70 cocoons to make up one of them. It was really neat to watch how it was made because for Christmas, my mom got me a silk comforter, and now I can appreciate it more because they are all made by hand.

After the factory we went to a restaurant and had our first authentic taste of Chinese cuisine. Their meals are all family style with a giant lazy Susan in the middle. Our favorite dish of the day was a chicken with sweet glaze and pineapples. For as much food as was brought out, we were all members of the clean plate club because we were so hungry and it was so good. Also at the restaurant, we all had our first taste of the squatting toilet. (Most Chinese bathrooms do not supply toilet paper, so remember to pack your own if you go!). The toilet was probably the low-lite of my day and was altogether awkward and uncomfortable.

When we left the restaurant, we rode to the north side of town to see Beijing’s pride and joy, the “pander” bears, as Flora liked to call them. I have never seen pandas so rambunctious and playful. We watched one for a solid half hour who was running around his outdoor exhibit, climbing the tree and playing with toys. When he climbed the tree, he situated himself, squatted, and took a dump. He then climbed back down, checked out his handiwork and kept playing.
Great Panda Bear

After watching the panders for a while, we left the zoo to go to the Summer Palace. The spot we were at was across the man-made lake and had a great view of the Palace. Raj has been taking jumping pictures in each port, so we all lined up and took one with the palace behind. Apparently, the jumping picture is a new concept to the Chinese, because every other spectator who was there became fascinated with us. These people weren’t your average spectator either. They had super high tech and fancy cameras, and kept taking pictures of us jumping, which eventually led to stalker status photos of us just talking. We felt like celebrities and didn’t mind them all, even when one man started grabbing our arms individually to take a jumping picture with him. They were all so excited to show us the pictures they took; it was hard to feel anything but flattered. 

Summer Palace

Once we left our paparazzi, we went to the Pearl Factory and learned about the Dragon Lady whose Palace it was. She had the lake man made so they could harvest pearls for her. The white pearl symbolizes purity, the pink represents happiness, the purple is for romance and the black is meant for power. We also learned that each oyster can hold roughly 20 pearls. We left the factory, but not before buying a few pearls first ;)
Back at the hotel, we went to dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant that also served Chinese. We had a smattering of food, including deer knee thanks to Matt. On the plate, there was a choice between chewy cartilage, mystery meat or pure bone. I tried to be adventurous and have a little bone, but as soon as I heard the crunch I backed out. Back at the hostel we got Wi-Fi and I was able to FaceTime with my parents and P. Because of the “Great Firewall of China,” all social media sites were blocked, but it was nice to use the wi-fi to iMessage some people.

The next morning we were up and out by 7:30 so we could get to the Badaling part of the Great Wall. It was a little overcast and freezing cold, but we were all too excited to care. Our first stop on our way to the wall was to a Jade factory. We saw how people carved the jade which was interesting, but it surprised me that the jade was significantly more expensive than the pearls. We hopped back on the bus and continued driving until we got to the Great Wall.

I cannot put into words how breathtaking the Wall was. We were all completely awestruck upon arriving, and no picture can do it justice. It was so beautiful to stand on the wall and overlook snow covered mountains and the seemingly endless line of wall. I never realized just how steep the wall was, and there were sections that felt like you were climbing up a 90 degree angle. This makes sense, because the wall was built on mountains, but for some reason I always thought it was flat. The engineering behind the Wall confused us because some steps would be 4 feet wide and then the next could be ¼ of a foot. The depth of the steps also fluctuated, so it was an adventure in itself to climb to the next tower. Flora gave us 2 hours to climb the Wall, and we split into 2 separate groups- the hikers and the picture takers. For those of you who don’t know me, I severely dislike hikes, so you can bet which group I was in! We kept a leisurely pace, and stopped to take pictures every 20 feet or so, and our group made it to the 6th tower before we decided we should turn around so we could get back in time.

Great Wall - North Side
Great Wall - South Side

After the Wall, we drove to lunch and had an almost identical looking meal as the day before (Our favorite was still the chicken.) We then drove to the Ming tombs and saw the Ding Ling tomb, one of 4 of the emperors tombs that were open to the public. Getting there, we had to cross an archway that symbolized we were in hell, because they believed the bodies resided there. The tomb was massive considering the lack of tools they had to build, but because of tomb raiders none of the artifacts inside were real. There were also piles of money thrown everywhere because they believe their afterlife should be just as lavish. Coming back through the archway, the men had to step with their left foot, girls with their right, and say “I’m back” to symbolize we had returned from hell.

We were then back on the bus and on our way to an acrobatic show when we pulled off on the side of the highway to take pictures of the Birdsnest and Water Cube. It seemed like an odd place to jump off the bus, but Flora assured us this was the best place to get the entire structure. After getting a few jumping pictures while dodging the cars, we continued to drive to the show. When we got there, I was surprised at the seating arrangements. It was in a theater you would find in the states, but the middle section where our seats were was completely empty. The side seating on either the right or the left was packed with Chinese spectators. We all thought it really odd when another American couple came and sat in the middle, too. We weren’t sure if this was because tourists are generally willing to spend more money on tickets or because we were Americans we should have been separated, but either way we had the best seats in the house. Before the show started, there was a mix of country music and Lady Gaga playing which didn’t seem to fit with the staging, but we went with it. I started to see why acrobatic shows were so awesome when the acrobats came out. The way that the girls could bend and twist seemed unnatural and made us almost uncomfortable, but it was like a car crash where you just can’t look away. It was a really fun thing to watch, and I’m glad we had the chance to go.

After the show we went to a restaurant that would serve us the original Peking duck. The chef came out and carved the duck in front of us, and then showed us how to dip the duck in a sauce and fold it up in this pancake with onions. This was probably my least favorite meal because the duck was super greasy and the rest of the food wasn’t that great either. We made it back to the hostel and walked around the shops on the street. The boys ended up buying traditional Chinese shirts, which I’m sure they will never wear, and a few of the girls got some souvenirs too.

Unfortunately that night, I had my first (and hopefully only) taste of food poisoning. I was up most of the night, so the next morning I was exhausted when it was time to pack up our things, check out of the hostel and get back on the bus. By the time we got to the Forbidden City, I was feeling better meaning it was only a temporary thing which I was happy about. The Forbidden City was neat to walk through, because we had the chance to see so much of it. Some of the structures were the original ones, and some had been rebuilt because of a fire in 1900. The worst part about it was that it was all walking outside, and the wind chill made it feel like it was -10 outside. Aside from the cold, we had another beautiful day.

Forbidden City

We were then taken to Hutong which is one of the oldest parts of the city for a homestay lunch. We lucked out because our chef was the grandson of the man who cooked for the last emperor in the Forbidden City. Because he was taught by his grandpa, our chef made excellent food and the meal and by far the best one we had. The best dish of the day was a veggie ball covered in a sweet honey glaze. The “Emperor’s Dish” as it was called was his specialty, and we could all tell why. Unfortunately, we were unable to get the recipe, but it would be worth a second trip to China just to eat them again.

After lunch, we were taken on a rickshaw ride through that part of town, which I could have done without. The temperature, if anything had gotten colder and the wind picked up so it was a miserable 20 minutes of riding around a residential district (it also apparently smelled like a sewer, but I was fortunate enough to miss out on that) Back on the bus, Flora gave us all bracelets that were red ribbon and symbolized happiness on our way to a tea ceremony. There, we learned how to prepare 5 different types of teas, and we were able to test out all of them. My favorite was the “Dragon Lady” tea, and I would have gotten some if I were a more avid tea drinker. (I know my dad is, but these weren’t in individual tea bags which posed complications, so don’t think I’m a horrible daughter for not getting him any either!)

After the tea house, we were driven to the airport where we had to say our goodbyes to Flora. Once we got through immigration, we had about 2 hours to kill and decided to get food. We all kept a close eye on Raj and Matt in case they wanted to repeat what happened in Shanghai. When we got to the terminal, we were driven to the plane and the strangest thing happened. Once the doors of the bus opened, people were full on sprinting to the plane in order to get their seat. Granted, it was cold outside, but I have never seen that happen before, so we all thought it was pretty funny. Still tired from the lack of sleep before, I slept for the majority of the flight from Beijing to Hong Kong.  Once we got there, the boys parted ways because they wanted to “slum it” and try to sleep in the terminal or on a park bench. Luckily, the girls were all on the same page and booked a hostel. It took a while to get to the hostel because we had to take a bus that didn’t accept any Yuan which was all we had, so that posed some complications. But, we eventually caught the last bus that was leaving thanks to Kayla and Cassie sprinting through the airport to get Hong Kong Dollars for us to use.

By the time we got to the hostel, we were too awake to go to sleep, so we utilized the free wi-fi before eventually falling asleep around 3 am. The next morning I woke up at 9 so I had time to FaceTime with my sister and parents before we had to check out. After checking out, we walked to the ferry that would take us to the ship where we were able to dump all of our winter clothes (in time for another free lunch) and change into something cooler. Hong Kong was in the 60s and 70s the entire time we were there, which was a nice change.

Not knowing exactly what to do in Hong Kong, we walked the streets for a while and found some good sales because of the Chinese New Year. We got back to the ship around 6 for dinner and then showered and got ready for a night on the town. We met up with Ben, Nicole and Rebecca, so Cassie and I went with them to a bar called the “Top Floor” to get a drink. Raj and the rest of the boys booked a room at the Ritz for the night (because Raj gets great discounts for hotels). The Ritz has the highest bar in the world, the Ozone Bar, so we went there to meet up with them. We ran into a bunch of SASsers, and hung out for a while. The drinks were way overpriced, but at least I can now say I had a cocktail at the highest bar in the world.

We caught a taxi back to the ship and made plans with Ben to travel before we went to bed. In the morning, we hadn’t set any alarms, so we woke up at around 9. Cassie and I went into the terminal to use the wi-fi before getting back on the ship for lunch and meeting up with the rest of the group. We all decided we wanted to see the Big Buddha, but we would be cutting it close to on-ship time. Cassie and Julia went to the ladies market and the rest of us headed out to see Buddha. The train to get there took an hour, and then there was another half-hour gondola to the top. The timing gave us about 15 minutes to run to the top, snap some pictures and run back down to catch the gondola. It was rushed, but we made it happen and got back on the ship right before a huge group of people came on, which would have made us late if we left any later.

Big Buddah

All in all, I enjoyed my time in China. It was a busy trip, but we were able to see so much, and I am so thankful for Flora. Without her, we would have a very difficult time touring Beijing, and wouldn’t have had nearly as much fun. I noticed that the people in China were generally less friendly and less helpful than they were in Japan. Also, after driving around the city you can understand the stereotype that they are bad drivers by American standards. They really aren’t, and I give them a lot of credit for being brave enough to drive there. The Chinese are very superstitious, as we learned. 8 is their lucky number, red is a lucky color, and these two things were associated a lot with their everyday lives. Apparently, 2013 is the year of the snake which is an unlucky year, so not that many people are getting married, either. It was so interesting to come from one culture and completely switch to a new culture in such a short amount of time. I love this because I can compare and contrast each culture to the last. I can’t wait to see what Vietnam has to offer.

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” - Maya Angelou

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