Sunday, October 24, 2010

Five nights in Hong Kong

Continuing from my last post as we departed China for Hong Kong...

10/12
Once on board, we settled in for the 2 hour ride to Hung Hom Station, Kowloon. After eating our noodles, we even managed to procure some draft beer from the dining car -- our excuse was trying to use up our Chinese yuan although we didn’t quite accomplish that! We had to clear immigration again when we reached Hong Kong, then got some Hong Kong dollars from an ATM machine before buying our subway tickets to East Tsim Sha Tsui. It was just one stop to our station and we followed the directions emailed by our hostel for the 5 minute walk to Chungking Mansions.
As we had been warned, the entrance to the “mansions” is packed with touts, mostly Indian, offering to sell you mobile phones & sim cards, watches, custom-tailored clothing, and rooms at guesthouses. We pushed through the crowd and got in line at the first set of elevators which we rode up to the 7th floor before realizing we were in the wrong section of the building. There are really no words to describe the layout of these buildings other than to say they are an absolute maze of money exchange businesses, shops, restaurants, and budget accommodations that look like a total fire trap to me! Not to mention there are plenty of shady characters hanging out waiting for an unwary tourist to take advantage of.
the guy on the right tried to sell Greg a "custom-tailored suit" just before I took this photo
After we got back down to the ground floor we found an information desk and got directions to the correct set of elevators for block D, which we then took to the 7th floor where we checked into City Guesthouse. Again, the process is about as unofficial as you can imagine -- all reservations are noted by hand in a large logbook and all payments are made in cash. We had to wait about 15 minutes for our room to be cleaned and when we were shown to our room (721), I understood how they were able to clean it so fast -- it measures about 10’x6’ with a 3’x4’ all-in-one bathroom which practically requires sitting on the toilet to take a shower! With the two single beds, the only open floor space is about 5’x2’ so it is really a quite cozy place. I guess we are lucky in that our room is in a corner and thus has windows on two walls so we get good natural light. And, with the outside temperature hovering in the mid-90’s with very high humidity, we are also thankful for an air conditioner! All of this for US$82.50 per night -- and this is considered budget accommodation and was one of the absolute cheapest places I could find. I even tried Couchsurfing but the host I contacted was already booked during our time here.
I'm standing in the corner of our room on the bed just to show how small our room is.
After sorting out where we would store our things (mostly under the beds), we double-checked our internet access -- free wifi and access to Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, Google Docs, etc. YAAAAYYYYY!! Then we headed out into the heat have a look around our neighborhood and get better oriented for our upcoming days of sightseeing. We walked along Salisbury Road until we reached the Star Ferry pier, where we stopped at the Hong Kong Tourism Board and got excellent advice & maps from the English-speaking staff. Then we continued along the promenade, with its great views of Hong Kong Island across the harbor, down the Avenue of the Stars, until we eventually spotted a waterfront bar where we settled in to drink some pricey beer ($60HKD or $7.75USD for .5 liter of Hoegaarden draft) and eat free peanuts. It was the perfect spot to relax & people-watch and we ended up staying to watch the sunset and buildings light up across the harbor.

We finally left the bar around 7pm and walked back into the bustling area near the mansions where we had dinner at Palki Indian Restaurant. There is a high percentage of Indians and Africans in this area so I figured Indian food should be pretty good and it was. We shared murgh sagwala, vegetable makhani, garlic nan & steamed rice and the total bill was US$23. Of course, we are accustomed to paying much less for a comparable amount of food in mainland China, but Hong Kong is an expensive city for everything!
We returned to the chaos of the Chungking Mansions and ascended to our room for a much needed shower and sleep.

10/13
We slept in today but for me that meant getting up around 9:30 while Greg stayed in bed until 11am. Our plan for the day was to get caught up on uploading photos and blogging then venture out in the late afternoon to have a look around the Mong Kok area. Part of our reasoning is influenced by the hot weather. With day time temperatures above 30C and high humidity, it makes sense to wait until it starts to cool off a bit before going outside. Plus most sights are open until fairly late in the evening so there is no need to rush to see them during the middle of the day.
We had accomplished a lot by 3pm as well as taken a break to have some coffee and eat our instant noodles. So we walked to the train station (less than 5 minutes away), bought Octopus cards (pre-loaded value cards that can be used on almost every form of public transportation as well as at convenience and other stores), and took the train 4 stops to Prince Edward station. From there it was a short walk to the Yuen Po Bird Garden and the Flower Market. While I did enjoy looking at all the birds for sale and listening to the sound of so many songbirds in one small area, it is kind of sad to see all these creatures trapped in their tiny cages. The flower market, which is really just a couple of blocks of almost nothing but flower shops, was very pretty to look at, especially all of the varieties of orchids. Prices seemed very reasonable and a lot of local people were purchasing fresh cut flowers as well as potted plants and other greenery. I also thought it was a bit funny that there was one very large shop dedicated to selling Christmas decorations.
We started walking south on Fa Yuen Street where we were surprised that the vendors at the open air market were not at all pushy in their sales tactics. It did appear to be a more local market versus one catering to tourists and I was happy to make a couple of small purchases: a reusable bag for 10HKD and a long lightweight polyester scarf to use in mosques or just as a decorative accessory for 15HKD. I spotted plenty of inexpensive gifts that I would have loved to purchase for friends and family but space constraints in my backpack prevented me from going crazy so I resorted to just taking pictures.
We continued south through the Ladies Market area and then down Shanghai Street. We eventually entered the Temple St Night Market where we stopped for dinner at Hing Kee, a bustling block of restaurants, all with the same menu but with separate indoor and outdoor seating areas. Wanting to try a local dish I ordered the fried oyster pancake (20HKD) for Greg & I to share as an appetizer and the chicken & taro in a clay pot (40HKD). Greg wasn’t feeling adventurous and ordered sweet & sour pork (40HKD). We also shared a couple of large bottles of Harbin beer (16HKD). Everything was freshly cooked and delicious with my main dish tasting a bit like chicken & dumplings -- a kind of Chinese comfort food. It was also a fun place to people- & food-watch as well.
After dinner we continued exploring the Night Market, where things got a bit more interesting when we passed through the X-rated section! As Greg had his eye out for Chairman Mao watches the entire time we were in China, I decided to buy him one and bartered with a street vendor for it and a deck of Mao playing cards. The asking price of the cards was 38HKD and the watch was 50HKD. After a few minutes of negotiation I walked away with both for 50.
We gradually made our way back to Tsim Sha Tsui, stopping at a bakery where I bought raisin walnut bread to have with my morning coffee and then at a 7/11 for our instant noodle bowls (which are more expensive here than they have been in China; 8.5HKD=1.10USD versus 3.5CNY=0.53USD). We returned to Chungking Mansions and settled in for the night.
10/14
Today we took the subway to Hong Kong Island. I wanted to take the Star Ferry, but the subway made more sense in terms of routing. We got off at Sheung Wan station and used the excellent free walking map provided by the Hong Kong Tourism Board to navigate our way around the streets lined with specialty shops selling ginseng, bird’s nest, and exotic dried herbs & seafood. I noticed that all the shops that sold sharks fins had their windows frosted so you couldn’t see inside and had “no photos” signs posted. From there we continued along Hollywood Road, gazing through the shop windows at all the fantastic antiques, particularly the carved woolly mammoth tusks. We also went inside fascinating incense-laden Man Mo Temple which is currently undergoing renovations and getting a fresh coat of paint.
We eventually arrived at the Central Mid-Levels Escalator, the world’s longest covered escalator. It is actually divided into more sections than I expected so you constantly have to step off, walk a few feet, then get back on. The escalator ascends through an area called SoHo which was filled with a wide variety of restaurants & bars although we did not stop. We rode all the way to the top and then had to negotiate a series of steeply inclined pedestrian walkways and stairs to eventually reach the western entrance of the Zoological & Botanical Gardens. As the weather continues to be quite hot & humid, we were feeling a little parched, so after looking at a nice variety of apes and other caged mammals we stopped to drink a beer as the sun was slowly starting to set. It is so nice to have this oasis in the middle of all the high rises, not to mention that entrance is free! After a short loop around the gardens and a peek at some of the birds in the aviary, we descended to the nightlife district of Lan Kwai Fong.
We quickly discovered that this area plays host to some great bars & restaurants where you can settle in for a few hours and pretend like you’re anywhere but Asia. Most places offer happy hour drink specials, another bonus in this expensive city. We chose Al’s Diner as our home away from home and easily passed almost 3 hours eating huge hamburgers with fries, drinking beer, watching 80’s music videos, and people-watching. We finally had had enough around 9pm and took the subway from Central back to TST, bought our instant noodles, and settled in for the night.
10/15
Today was a bit less adventurous; we again waited until late afternoon to get out for a walk around TST, covering the areas around Austin Road, Hillwood Road and Knutsford Terrace. After an hour or two of exploring, we decided to have dinner at a Guangdong style barbecue restaurant. I ordered the crispy skin roast suckling pig, roasted chicken livers and garlic broccoli to share while Greg had the barbecue pork.
After dinner, we walked to the harbour to watch the free Symphony of Lights show which happens at 8pm every night. We bought a couple of beers & some peanuts at a 7/11 and snagged seats at a waterfront table, then waited about 30 minutes for the show to start. It was fun to watch, if a bit anticlimactic. Afterwards we headed back to the mansions and settled in for the evening.

10/16
Per the recommendation of a friend as well as with some helpful information from Lamma Island.
We decided to take a side trip to Lamma Island today. First we took the Star Ferry from TST to Central Pier 7, then walked to Pier 4 where we boarded a ferry for the 30 minute ride to Yung Shue Wan. The typical tourist activity on the island is to walk from there to Sok Kwu Wan along the paved “Family Trail.” The path is about 3km long and, as it was the weekend, was filled with Hong Kong residents out for a stroll. The trail was also steeper than I expected so we got a good workout, but it still only took us about 1h10m to walk from village to village.
Besides the crowds, the unfortunate aspect of Lamma Island is the huge power plant visible for at least 2/3 of the trail. I, for one, would not be swimming at the beach with the plant adjacent!
 The highlight of our trip to the island and reward for completing the hike was eating dinner at Rainbow Seafood Restaurant overlooking the boat docks in Sok Kwu Wan. We ordered the 398HKD (for 2 people) set menu which included deep fried squid with sweet & sour dipping sauce, 2 small lobster tails with butter sauce, 2 scallops on the shell with garlic & transparent noodles, steamed whole jackfish, steamed bok choy, stir fried rice with pork & shrimp, fresh pineapple & melon, and jasmine tea. We also shared a bottle of Blue Girl beer. The sun set as we were eating so it was dark when we took Rainbow’s free ferry back to Central. By pure chance we boarded the Star Ferry from Central to TST just as the light show began, so we actually got to see it from the boat. A nice way to end our time in Hong Kong!
10/17
We checked out of the guesthouse at noon and walked about 10 minutes to a bus stop for the A21 to the airport. The bus is much cheaper than the train and involved less effort due to our location in TST. We only waited about 5 minutes for a bus, then the ride to the airport took about an hour.
Upon arrival, we were first told that our Royal Jordanian flight had been cancelled! We were directed to another service desk where the airport staff called the airline to confirm and determined our flight was actually not cancelled; however we could not check in until 6:30pm because RJ only operates the one flight from Hong Kong daily so their staff will not be on site until nearer the departure time. We could not go through security & immigration without a boarding pass and thus could not access the airside Traveler’s Lounge with my Priority Pass, which is how we planned to spend our time waiting for our evening flight. I attempted to talk my way into two other lounges with no success. At least the luggage trolleys were free so we didn’t have to haul our backpacks around!
We went upstairs to Level 4 where there are numerous restaurants plus a food court and decided to eat Thai food for lunch. It was really good and fairly priced, so that helped with my frustration over the check-in/lounge access issue. We eventually returned to the check-in area to await the RJ staff. I killed some time walking around and shopping (not buying) but was happy to note that 7/11 and Mannings (drugstore) both had the same prices and general merchandise as in the city center. The airport also has free wifi so that provided another alternative to waste away a few hours if you’re carrying your own laptop.
We finally checked in for our flight around 6:30, cleared security & immigration, and boarded a train for the short ride to the terminal. Then we had to walk a good 10 minutes to where the Traveler’s Lounge is located. As it was already within an hour of boarding time, only I went into the lounge as Greg would have had to pay $27 as a guest on my pass. It was nice to get out of the fray of the terminal, but the lounge was a bit crowded in the sense that there was too much furniture in the space. Nor was I hungry and thus did not take advantage of the complimentary hot meal on offer. I was also disappointed there wasn’t more portable snack food I could stash in my carry-on bag for later and had to settle for a few small sandwiches and a bottle of water.
Soon enough it was time to meet Greg at the gate to board our flight. Only then did we discover that it was not a direct flight to Amman but had a stop in Bangkok! So we had to endure a 2.5hr flight to Bangkok, wait in our seats for about 45 minutes while some passengers deplaned, the cleaners came through, then new passengers boarded, and then a 9hr flight to Amman. They served full dinners on both flights, but as it was already after midnight when we left Bangkok and we had eaten on the first flight, we opted to sleep as much as we could on the second flight. Of course, really getting any rest in a cramped coach seat is almost impossible so we were still quite tired when we arrived in Amman around 5:15AM local time. We quickly proceeded through the transit area and entered the Crown Club using my Priority Pass, where we were able to get a couple hours sleep in their “quiet room.”

Monday, October 18, 2010

CHINA or ME FIRST: Adjusting to the “every man, woman & child for themselves” mentality of a fascinating & challenging country

I wanted to briefly summarize my thoughts about China before continuing with my next post (on Hong Kong) and moving on to the Middle East region of the world. As mentioned throughout my five posts on China, Greg found this complex & massive country to be the most challenging yet. You can read his (very) long blog post to find out why:
http://glarowe.blogspot.com/2010/10/china.html

Because I had previously visited Beijing in 2005, I really wanted to focus on more rural China. When Greg & I were planning our RTW trip, we each made a list of all the places we wanted to visit without any limitations. Then we went back and edited our lists based on cost, feasibility, geography, climate, etc. and combined them to make one master list which we then used to plan our itinerary. As Greg’s only specific requests for China were the Imperial Palace/Forbidden City and the Great Wall, the remainder of our time there was pretty much left to me to decide. I reached out to friends who had either lived in China, had family there, or had traveled there extensively to get some personalized recommendations on places not to miss. Of course, I also read other traveler’s blog posts and message boards for the latest info & tips.

The cities/sights that were recommended most often, excluding Beijing & the Great Wall, were Xian (Terracotta Warriors), Huangshan (Yellow Mountain scenery & hiking opportunities), Suzhou (the “Venice of the East”), Chengdu (panda reserves), Three Rivers Gorge cruise, and Guilin (limestone peaks). I personally would have loved to visit Mongolia or Tibet, but the logistics for getting to those regions and our general time limit for the trip immediately excluded those options.

We didn’t actually start planning beyond Beijing until we reached the city on 23SEP. As we had booked five nights at our Beijing hotel in order to allow extra downtime for trip research, we thought it wouldn’t be a problem. However, we had not taken into account a number of factors that made the overall planning process more challenging and time-consuming than we expected: China’s National Week holiday from 01-07OCT when the whole country was on vacation; limited internet connectivity at the hotel (the only place we could access free wifi was in the hotel’s lobby, a busy, noisy, smoky and uncomfortable area to spend more than a few minutes much less several hours a day); restricted internet access (all social networks & many travel blogs were blocked as well as our pre-trip research which was stored online on Google Docs); and lack of English-speaking staff who could help us purchase train tickets or were far more interested in selling us packaged tours.

The holiday threw the first curveball as we tried to purchase our overnight train tickets from Beijing to Shanghai and quickly found out that all trains, day or night, were booked for the next 3-4 days. Of course, we could have gone directly to Xian, but based on some of the blogs I read, while the warriors are impressive, the whole experience of seeing them from above versus walking amongst them is a bit anticlimactic. I’m sure it still would have been “worth it” but it wasn’t a top priority for me anyway. So we ended up flying to Shanghai.

The bottom line is that as I looked into the practicalities for getting to & from each place on my list, it quickly became apparent that some places would be far more challenging than others. If I had been traveling by myself, I probably would have gone anyway, but when you are traveling as a pair, you always have to consider the other person’s well-being.

We ultimately balanced our time in China with a mix of big cities, smaller cities with notable scenery, and a few more rural areas. While it was definitely more expensive to sleep in Shanghai versus Guilin, for example, we ended up spending more money on sightseeing when we were “out in the country“. Still, our overall costs were minimal compared to everywhere else we’ve traveled so far. As always, we could have traveled even more cheaply by opting for hard instead of soft sleepers on the overnight trains, sleeping in dorms at the hostels instead of private rooms, and eating fast food instead of sit down meals most evenings. But the trade offs in peace of mind and possibly even overall health for a few dollars here & there are just not worth it for us.

We got lucky with the weather being not too hot and not rainy, but it was extremely hazy pretty much the entire 3 weeks we were in the country which made the sights seem a bit more "dull" in color & contrast. Other than Greg's case of athlete's foot getting worse and both of us having allergy issues in Yangshuo, we did not experience any major health problems despite not shying away from most foods (although I don't recall eating true "street food" at any point).

I am really glad we visited the places in China that we did manage to get to. It is not an easy country to love, but still warrants further exploration. For the budget traveler (ie, backpacker) who is accustomed to dealing with the day-to-day challenges of traveling in many parts of the world, there is no reason not to come (unless you have issues with the Communist government). For the less exposed, it is definitely not one of the first places I'd recommend to broaden your horizons. No matter what your budget, China has something to offer everyone and almost never fails to surprise, for better or worse!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

China Part Five: Li River & Yangshuo


10/10
Greg says that the town of Yangshuo is like the Gatlinburg of China. While I think that’s a bit harsh (after all, Shanghai had Madame Tussaud’s!) it is not entirely inaccurate. For the entire length of West Street, from the Li River pier to the intersection with Pantao Road, there are shops selling everything from local handicrafts (carved wooden “fortune frogs“ were one of my favorites) to t-shirts with witty slogans in Chinese characters (“do not beg to me, I have no money”). Restaurants & bars offer English menus, cold drinks, happy hour, even Western food. Plus you are accosted nonstop by salesmen & women with watches, knitwear, postcards & picture books, and even old fishermen with their cormorants on a bamboo pole who expect you to give them 5CNY to take their photo. We saw more non-Asians in our first 10 minutes off the boat than we have seen in the past 2+ weeks!
West Street, Yangshuo
But let me backtrack. Our 4 hour trip down the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo on 10/8 was scenic and mostly enjoyable. We were picked up at our hostel at 8am, driven to the Sheraton hotel near Elephant Trunk Hill Park where we transferred to a larger bus which was already filled with an assortment of foreigners, continued on to another hotel where we picked up a few more people, then finally reached Binjiang Lu Pier around 9:15. There we were herded through a shopping area where we had to wait briefly before boarding our boat. We were all made to sit on the lower level as we departed the busy pier but soon enough were allowed to roam freely around the tri-level boat.
following a convoy of tour boats down the Li River
Greg & I made the acquaintance of an Indian family who lives in Guangzhou and manages several restaurants there. They shared their masala chai and even gave us some snacks & tea packets as they were impressed by our RTW journey. After chatting with them for awhile, we climbed to the upper deck to experience 360 degree views of the surrounding limestone peaks. The weather was nice although still quite hazy and I enjoyed watching the water buffalo, fishermen (some with cormorants), ducks, butterflies & dragonflies.
the scenery in the background is featured on the Chinese 20 Yuan note
Soon enough it was time for lunch, served buffet-style. The food was passable considering we were on a boat and there was quite a variety of rice, noodles, meats & vegetables and even French fries, although the majority of dishes were fried. The boat staff also became more active trying to sell snake wine, cold drinks, plates of fried local specialties (small fish, crabs, snails) and even playing cards, post cards and picture books. For his part our guide Daniel was also pushing a 3 hour add-on tour of the Yulong River area near Yangshuo. As we had no way to reach our hotel until after 5pm (the road is apparently one way only until then) and the tour did seem like a good value based on my previous research, we eventually committed and forked over 200CNY each.
local delicacies
The remainder of the journey featured less limestone and more riverside activity. Greg & I lounged on the upper deck -- there were no seats installed anywhere outside so you had to sit directly on the metal floor -- until it was time to disembark in Yangshuo. There we made our way to the Buffalo Bar which is owned by the same people as our hotel. We stowed our bags then walked along West Street to the KFC, our designated meeting point for our afternoon tour. We had some spare time so we bought a couple of beers at a supermarket nearby and drank them while watching the local people attempt to sell their goods to wary tourists at inflated prices.
a beer break before our Yulong tour
Around 3pm our group boarded a bus for a 15 minute drive to the village of Yulong. There we split into 2 groups -- English-speaking & Chinese-speaking -- and walked around for about 30 minutes with our guides, learning about life in a traditional village and visiting the Dragon Bridge. Then we took the bus to another area where we transferred to something akin to motorized golf carts for a short trip to a small boat dock where we boarded 2-person bamboo rafts for a slow paddle down the Yulong River. We also got to watch cormorant fishing and even had a few minutes of “excitement” as our raft had to traverse 3 small dams.
cormorant fishing
Back on the golf carts, we got a close up look at a water buffalo tied up nearby then rode for about 10 minutes through farm land (mostly fruit trees, some rice and even some cotton) then another 10 minutes on a busy road where we were passed by all sorts of vehicles before we turned off to await the bus and the ride back into Yangshuo town. There Greg & I switched to a minivan which had been arranged by our guide, and circled back to the Buffalo Bar to pick up our backpacks, then made a quick stop at a supermarket for beer & instant noodles before heading down the riverside one lane street to the Li River Retreat.

We were cheerily greeted by the staff, all petite Asian women, who carried all of our "bigger than them" backpacks to our very large standard room. We settled in to drink some beer before venturing over to the hotel’s restaurant for dinner. We enjoyed our very spicy Sichuan-style chicken, stir-fried vegetables, and steamed rice then returned to our room to shower and get some sleep.
our room at the Li River Retreat - by far the nicest place we stayed in China
We spent all day Saturday & Sunday working on our Turkey itinerary and even talked to Mom & Ronnie several times on Google Talk to try to confirm our plans. We only ventured from the hotel to take a nice walk further along the river (away from Yangshuo) to explore the countryside. We have even eaten “proper” breakfasts (eggs, bacon, toast, etc.) the past two mornings as the hotel caters to Western tourists. But we continue to order Chinese food for our evening meals.
hanging out at the Li River Retreat
10/11
We’ve both been sneezing a lot again lately and have runny noses as we seem to be allergic to some of the blooming trees. It doesn’t seem to help that we take Claritin every day. Last night Greg had one of his “sneezing attacks” that can last for hours, even if he takes Benadryl. So we were both awake most of the night and feeling exhausted when the alarm went off at 7:30 this morning. But we had to get up, pack, eat our instant noodles, and check out of the hotel as the van to Yangshuo Cooking School was picking us up at 9:30.

We met our instructor, Leo, at the market along with the rest of the “students” -- a young couple from Manchester, England, 4 women from Byron Bay, Australia, and a middle-aged couple from England. We walked through the indoor market with Leo explaining the uses of previously unidentifiable vegetables & fruits as well as meats, seafood, etc. The market was fascinating and not too busy so we could have a good luck around. Particularly noteworthy were the live frogs, fish, eels, snails, etc. as well as chickens, ducks, rabbits, and dogs. Yes, dogs! Leo mentioned the live animals before we went in that section of the market and some of the group opted to skip that part and wait outside. Always wanting to have the most “real” experience, I chose to walk over to the dog section and along the way, saw a chicken getting its neck wrung. Then to the dogs, which were all the same furry variety, similar in shape & size to a fox. There were still plenty alive, in small cages, but there were also many newly dead -- they are hit on the head with a piece of wood and after they die are put into a massive pot of boiling water which removes the fur, then the insides are removed (something I witnessed) and they are cut up like any other animal or roasted whole. I also saw a goat’s fur being scraped off with a knife. Not for the animal lover or faint of heart, but interesting nonetheless.
vegetables at the Yangshuo market (the link to the graphic animal photos is embedded in this post's title)
After we finished touring the market, we got in a small bus and rode about 15 minutes outside of town to the cooking school, which is located almost adjacent to a lodging called the Outside Inn. Only as we were leaving (after cooking & eating) did we find out the purpose of the China Health Inspection vehicle that was parked out front: there was an outbreak of stomach illness recently that caused the hotel to be temporarily shut down!

The cooking lesson consisted of Leo first demonstrating the proper preparation of each ingredient for each dish and then cooking it in front of us. We did not take notes nor have written instructions, but had to pay close attention so we could replicate everything he did on our own. There were two female assistants who could help with any task and Leo was constantly circling the room as we cooked offering his advice and feedback as well. Our first task was to make the stuffed vegetables. This involved mincing some green onion to mix with ground pork & oyster sauce. We prepped a mushroom, cherry tomato, eggplant slices, and tofu ball then stuffed those with the pork mixture and placed them in steamer baskets which were then stacked high on a water-filled wok and steamed for about 30 minutes.
We then chopped all the remaining vegetables, ginger & garlic, separating them according to the dish they would be cooked with. We made eggplant with oyster sauce first which we took a break and ate, then made all of the remaining dishes one-by-one: beer fish, chicken with cashew nuts, and sautéed green vegetables. We carried everything outside to eat, along with some steamed rice & our pork-stuffed vegetables. It was quite a feast! The whole process took about 2.5 hours. It was extremely humid today and the temp was about 30Cor 86F but the “feel-like“ temp was 38C or 100F. So you can imagine how hot it was in the un-air-conditioned room with 10 of us cooking! Still, we had a fantastic time despite Greg having to blow his nose constantly (which also prevented him from doing very much cooking). Thus I got LOTS of extra practice! Even better, the total cost of the class, including one way transport from our hotel then back into the city center, the market tour, the food and bottled water/coffee/tea was only 140CNY per person or US$21. Yangshuo Cooking School
Around 1:45pm, we were driven back into Yangshuo where our bags were waiting for us at the Buffalo Bar. Still having time to kill before our bus ride back to Guilin, Greg & I made a walking loop of central Yangshuo and were surprised how few tourists there were relative to just 3 days ago at the same time. We even stopped by the bus station to purchase our express bus ticket and to time the walk to the bar to see if it was feasible to do with our backpacks (yes -- about 15 minutes).

10/12
The past 24 hours are a bit of a blur now. We did walk to the Yangshuo bus station and, of course, it started raining shortly after we left the bar so we had to stop and put on our backpack covers. We made it to the bus station by 5:45 when it really starting pouring with thunder & lightning. After a quick pit stop -- where I encountered the most un-Western toilets of our journey so far: there was simply a concrete trough running along the floor on both sides of the women’s bathroom with 4 ft high cinderblock wall/dividers (no doors) every 5 ft so you just stepped into one of small areas and squatted over the common trough -- Greg & I boarded the 18:05 bus to Guilin. We sat in the forward-most seats and thus had a direct view of the horrible driving conditions: pouring rain, total darkness (no street lights), bumpy road, and plenty of slower vehicles to pass throughout the 2 hour journey. Oddly enough, about 30 minutes into the trip, the driver turned on the movie “Shooter” with Mark Wahlberg (in English with Chinese subtitles) but we had never heard of this movie and found it pretty lame although it did provide some distraction from the crazy driving.

When we disembarked at the bus station in Guilin we thought we might get a taxi because it was at least a 15 minute walk to the train station. However I wasn’t sure how to avoid getting taken advantage of by the taxi driver so I asked someone, who turned out to be from Nigeria, if they could help us and he actually escorted us on foot to the train station himself as he had plenty of time before his overnight bus left for Guangzhou, an 8 hour trip compared to our 11 hour train ride. Safely settled into the VIP lounge (for passengers booked in soft sleeper berths), we were able to relax and drink some hot tea and eat a snack before boarding our train.

The train left on time at 9:23PM. Our 4-bunk cabin was even smaller this time than the last, but this “T” train seemed to be in overall better condition than the “K” train we took from Shanghai to Guilin. Greg & I went to bed pretty soon after the train started moving, while our Chinese compartment-mates chose to stay up until very late although they were courteous enough to leave us alone in the cabin while they went somewhere else to hang out. We both got a decent nights sleep and I got up around 6:30AM and sat outside in the corridor with a cup of masala chai, observing the morning activities of all the Chinese people traveling in our car (lots of teeth brushing, face washing, tea drinking & loud talking). I eventually climbed back up on the top bunk and did some stretches while trying to stay cool (it was quite warm & humid throughout the train), waiting for Greg to wake up for our arrival in Guangzhou at 8:30.
soft sleeper berth on a "T" train
Upon exiting the Guangzhou train station it was not clear where to enter the subway so we got directions from a tourism information office just outside the station. Once in the subway, we had to wait in line to buy our tickets from the vending machines. Then we boarded a busy Line 2 train and rode for a few stops before switching to an even busier Line 1 train which terminated at East Station. There we had to go through security before buying our tickets to Hong Kong and then passed through Chinese customs & immigration before boarding our 09:50 train. We actually made the cutoff for this train with only a minute to spare but the trains run frequently (the next one was at 10:35 I think) so the wait wouldn’t have been too long. We even had time to buy bowls of instant noodles to eat as our breakfast/lunch on the train.

China Part Four: Guilin & Longsheng Rice Terraces

10/6
It was a restless night with the jolting of the train, hard beds, opening & closing of our cabin door primarily by the chain-smoking mafia guy, and the smell of cigarette smoke wafting in through the air conditioning system. I stayed in bed as long as I could knowing we still had hours remaining in our 1519 km or 943 mile journey. I eventually got up around 8:30am and sat in the corridor with a cup of hot tea then moved into the dining car to eat some crackers and watch the rural scenery go by while waiting for Greg to wake up. He finally got up around 10am and we ate our prepurchased breads in the dining car until they chased us out to make way for the lunch crowd. We returned to our cabin and sat on the lower bunk watching the scenery (mostly farmland/rice fields) until it was time to eat our lunch of instant noodle bowls. By then the sister & brother were awake and also ready to eat so we shared the tiny table with them. Soon enough our car’s attendant came by to return our tickets and told us to be ready to disembark around 2pm. We were thankful she told us because there were no announcements in English so we had no way of knowing for certain when we would reach Guilin.
instant noodle lunch on the train
Upon arrival, we finally managed to buy our tickets from Guilin to Guangzhou from the station’s ticket office then walked about 15-20 minutes to our hostel. We checked in, tossed our bags in our room, then returned to the front desk to plan our sightseeing & travel arrangements for the next two days. About an hour later, we had paid for our Li River cruise on the 8th and were on the tentative list of people wanting to go to the rice terraces on the 7th. With nothing else to do and not wanting to venture very far from the hostel as we were tired from the train trip, we walked across the road to the shopping mall and had a look around for an hour or so. Having seen enough, we stopped by a supermarket on the way back to the hostel and bought some beer and snacks. We sat outside to drink the beer and were soon joined by a group of 20-somethings from Xian, students of the Chinese language who were enjoy the holiday break. One, from Ireland, was celebrating his birthday and his friends and the hostel staff had chipped in to purchase two very nice cakes. Luckily they offered to share with us so we had a delicious slice of white cake with blueberry filling and chocolate shavings prior to eating dinner in the hostel’s Bamboo Café. The reception staff had previously recommended the “beer duck” which I tried without hesitation despite the disclaimer that it was not deboned. It was delicious, but a bit messy to eat!
interesting exhibit in the shopping mall
While we were finishing our dinner, another couple who were also interested in the rice terrace trip stopped by our table to introduce themselves and discuss the timing. It turned out that they were flying back to Shanghai tomorrow evening so did not want to do the 5-6 hour one way hike from Dazhai to Ping’an. Their overall schedule and “wish list” fit ours perfectly so we happily agreed to make the trip with them. By then it was already 9pm so we headed to our room to take a much-needed shower and get some sleep.

10/7
I didn’t mind the 6am alarm this morning knowing it was for a good reason. We were basically ready to go by 6:30 but decided not to eat our instant noodles knowing that we had at least a 2 hour van ride ahead of us, most likely without any breaks. Pierre & Georgine were right on time at 7am along with our driver. We passed the time on the road chatting about their reason for being in Guilin (taking a holiday break from living in Shanghai as Pierre studies Mandarin and works on his PhD in Sociology with a focus on Christianity in China) and our travels. After plenty of passing slower vehicles and honking at pedestrians, bike riders & tuk-tuks, we finally made it to the ticket office for the Longji Scenic Area. We paid 50CNY each and had a quick toilet break, then continued on for another 45 minutes to Jinkeng parking area and the entrance to Dazhai village. There we spent some time negotiating with our driver as to when to meet us based on our proposed hiking route. Even one of the local villagers, who came over to offer us trinkets for sale, offered her opinion as to the needed time to hike the Golden Buddha Peak route. Thanks to Pierre’s good Mandarin-speaking skills we were soon on our way up the terraces.
Pierre & our driver discuss our proposed hiking route
It quickly developed from a leisurely stroll to a strenuous climb but we reached the second village area within 30 minutes. From there we made a wrong turn and ended up hiking on a balance-beam-width foot path through the very steep rice fields. After only being able to walk horizontally for some time and not vertically as we intended, we eventually doubled back to the previous village where we spotted a tour group coming down from above and thus were able to pick out the correct path to the top. There were a few signs in English, but they were not always located at the critical points of the path, so it was very easy to miss an important turn. Again, with Pierre’s language skills, we were able to get directions to the top from the villagers who were also using the same path.
backtracking on the narrow rice terrace footpath
We finally reached the first of the very scenic lookout points and stopped for a few photos and a quick fruit snack (Pierre & Georgine were carrying an assortment of fresh fruit: tangerines, clementines, passion fruit). Then we continued on even higher where we stopped at a more developed rest area and ate some beef jerky & peanuts that I was carrying, more fruit, and drank a beer that Greg bought from the mountain-top store. After that nice break, we walked to the end of the trail, which, if we had wanted to keep going, branched off to another area called "Music from Paradise." Checking our watches, we knew we had to start walking back down to meet our driver. Of course, it was less strenuous going down, but much harder on my knees. We took our time and arrived at the parking area right on time at 1:30pm.
the view from Golden Buddha Peak
The ride back to Guilin was similar to this morning: lots of horn blowing and dodging animals, people & other vehicles coming from all directions. It brought back fond memories of my time in Rajasthan several years ago! Otherwise the journey was uneventful and we were delivered safely to the hostel by 4pm. We relaxed in the Bamboo Café and ordered an early dinner while Pierre & Georgine ate some quick sandwiches then headed to the airport for their flight back to Shanghai. After dinner, we walked to the supermarket to buy beer then hung out in the courtyard for about an hour to be within range of the wifi signal before heading up to our room for showers and some photo-editing, writing & reading before bed.
our driver navigates the narrow mountain roads from Longsheng back to Guilin

Saturday, October 16, 2010

China Part Three: Suzhou & an overnight train ride

10/4
Today was our second full day in Suzhou. We arrived here by express train from Shanghai on the 2nd. Just getting to the train station was an experience as we had to take off our backpacks to go through security at the subway station, then ride the 1 line three stops to the main train station, walk for 15 minutes through a series of underground “malls” and passageways until we finally reached an exit, then had to maneuver past a bunch of touts and other people just hanging out to get to the entrance of the station. There we had to go through security again, then sit in a hot/un-air conditioned and crowded waiting area until they finally announced the boarding for our train less than 15 minutes before its scheduled departure time. The train was completely sold out so I was glad we had reserved seats, albeit in economy class, as it was less than a 30 minute ride to Suzhou. It’s almost laughable to watch the people pile into each other to be the first to get on the train, whether they have reserved seats or not! We observed that the train was going at least 175mph at some points of our journey and the scenery, what little we could see due to the haze, did indeed “whiz” by.

When we reached Suzhou Station there was another stampede to get off the train and out of the station, which we patiently endured as we walked to the taxi queue. There we were approached by many unlicensed drivers, but we held our ground and stood in line for about 15 minutes until we were finally “assigned” to a taxi with a female driver. We have only seen a few others during our time in China and I only wish I could have communicated with her in something other than sign language to find out what that must be like. Anyway she was a good driver and dropped us off as close as possible to our hostel for a fare of only 20CNY.
Suzhou Mingtown Hostel (our room has the window on the 2nd floor)
From there, the Gloria Plaza Hotel, we only had to cross a busy street and walk along the Ping Jiang canal a short distance to reach the hostel. We immediately liked the more “traditional” location & design of the hostel and were glad when they told us we could have our room for all 3 nights of our stay (as only 1 night had been confirmed by phone prior to our arrival). We did find our room, #1202 facing the canal, to be quite tiny -- actually the smallest room we have stayed in so far on our trip, measuring about 10’x7’ with a shared bath in the hallway just outside our door. But it is also very cheap, 150CNY per night, so we certainly can’t complain after paying more than twice as much in Shanghai (but for a much larger room with private bath).

We did not venture very far on our first evening in Suzhou as it was raining. We ended up drinking very large Stella & Carlsberg beers and eating Mexican food at the Southern Cross bar on the eastern edge of the Guanqian district which is only about a 10 minute walk from the hostel.

We also discovered that it makes for a restless night when two “large-by-Chinese-standards” American people try to sleep in a double bed that hardly fits both of us. Not to mention the top sheet barely covered both of us! Plus there was the almost constant noise of some type of vehicle (bicycle, rickshaw, moped, etc.) bumping along Ping Jiang road just below our window. I put in my earplugs after about 15 minutes! The next day we asked for another cover/blanket so we would each have our own.

We spent the day yesterday (10/3) roaming the streets of Suzhou. We walked all the way up Ping Jiang street to Dong Bei Jie, across Ren Min road and back down a side street to the Guan Qian area. There we wandered around for at least 30 minutes looking for the address where we had noted a train ticket office, hoping to buy our overnight tickets from Guilin to Guangzhou. We also stopped at a fancy watch store where we were able to get Greg’s watch shortened to fit his now smaller wrist. I don’t think he has lost much more weight on our trip, but he hasn’t gained any either so the watch was too big from when he was 40lbs heavier last year!


We finally found the CITS office only to discover they didn’t sell train tickets, only flights. But a lady there spoke decent English and drew out a simple map to a local train ticket office about 5 minutes walk away. We did locate that office as well, but they could only sell tickets to/from Suzhou. Tired from all the walking, we hoped to find a bar nearby to sit down & have a beer or two. But after roaming around Guan Qian and its side streets a bit longer, we ended up back at Southern Cross where we enjoyed our very large glasses of Stella & Carlsberg during happy hour (as they are buy one get one free!).

Then it was time to look for somewhere to eat dinner so we walked all the way down to Shi Quan street which I had read offered plenty of interesting options. Of course, we walked for many blocks before spotting the one restaurant I had noted we should try: Xinjiang Yakexi. They did have an English menu but descriptions were very simple (ie, fried lamb, roasted lamb, grilled lamb, etc.) so I wasn’t 100% sure what I was ordering but it turned out great. We had nicely spiced bite-sized pieces of lamb which I think was pan-fried, roasted green beans with garlic & chili peppers, and long broad noodles in a simple broth with sliced carrots. We also enjoyed complimentary hot tea, roasted peanuts & raisins. The total bill was only 61CNY or about $9! Quite full from the beer we drank earlier and the delicious meal, we walked the 20+ minutes back to our hostel and relaxed for the remainder of the evening.
one of the best meals we ate in China!
We got up late this morning (around 10am) after another somewhat restless night’s sleep but I think we were also tired from walking so much yesterday! We took our time eating our instant noodle bowls, drinking instant coffee, and also made our hostel reservation for Hong Kong.

We walked down Ren Min Road towards the “Grand Canal”, stopping in the Suzhou Library for a quick break and also browsing the Foreign Language Bookstore where we briefly contemplated buying a Lonely Planet Turkey guidebook but it was 200CNY or $30! Once we reached the canal, we continued along the waterfront path towards Ruiguang Pagoda. We ultimately decided not to pay the 40CNY to enter the nearby garden or the separate fee for the pagoda. As usual, after a few hours of walking we were ready to sit down and drink a beer somewhere, but it’s almost impossible to find a decent-looking bar! So we ended up walking all the way back to the hostel where we bought some beer & snacks from our neighborhood closet-sized convenience store and sat outside in the hostel’s courtyard by the fish pond. We also started a load of laundry as they have no dryer and our clothes need to air dry by the time we pack tomorrow morning.
the neighborhood convenience closet, I mean, store
The washing process took longer than expected because one of the cleaners at the hostel took out part of the load while it was running because she said it was too full. So we had to wait for the first load to finish and then start a second load… When it was all hung up to dry a couple of hours later, we were ready for dinner. We decided to look for a truly local place along Ping Jiang street and ended up in a dim sum shop located directly on the canal. The place was packed and featured communal seating so we initially shared our large table with a man & his young daughter (maybe about 7-years-old and another couple with one son about 5-years-old). They all eventually left while we were eating and were replaced by a husband & wife and a couple of guys.
enjoying a beer in our hostel's courtyard
The set up of the restaurant was quite interesting. After finding a place to sit, you notate on an order form which & how many dim sum dishes you want. You take that form and your wallet to the cash register where they ring up your order and give one itemized receipt to the kitchen and the other to you for the servers to use. Then you return to your seat and wait for your food. We waited about 10-15 minutes for our first dish to arrive; the crab dumplings were juicy and fantastic, followed by shrimp shumai, and some type of steamed bread with sesame seeds. All was going well until we received an unidentifiable dish that was sweet and gelatinous, like a dessert, which I definitely had not ordered. Eventually with the help of the other couple at our table, we understood that two of the dishes we had ordered had since run out so they were being replaced by other dishes. The problem was that this “other” dish in particular was nothing like what I had actually ordered. Anyway, as it did not taste bad, we ended up saving it for dessert and eventually got our other food: 2 orders of pork & leek potstickers and some spring rolls. Everything was truly delicious and very reasonably priced at a total of 46CNY or about $7. Note that we were the only non-Chinese in the place and I was glad for it despite the language barrier! We returned to the hostel with another couple of beers from our little neighborhood store and spent the remainder of the evening reading & writing.

10/5
I’m writing this while sitting on my top bunk on the overnight train from Shanghai to Guilin. We booked “soft sleepers” which is the best seating arrangement China Rail offers on this particular train. Still, we are sharing our tiny cabin with a solo middle-aged mafia-looking Chinese guy and a sister (upper teens) & brother (maybe 8-years-old) who are somehow allowed to share the same bed.
"K" train soft sleeper
We slept in again this morning until the alarm woke us at 9am. Of course, I was awake off & on throughout the night with the street noise and tossing & turning on the hard, table-like bed. We took our time packing our bags, eating our noodle bowls & drinking instant coffee, and even chatting on Google Talk with my mom about meeting her & Ronnie in Turkey in a few short weeks.

When we checked out of the hostel at noon, I asked the guy at the front desk to write out the words “Suzhou train station” in Chinese so when we hailed a taxi on the main street we would be taken to the correct location. That worked well, and we were at the station by 12:30 for our 14:31 express train to Shanghai. We killed time in the waiting area by watching other passengers and observing all the various packages they were carrying. I also wrote an offline blog post about crossing the 2-month mark of our RTW trip.

When it was time to board the train around 14:20 everyone had already started crowding around the doors that led out to the platform. As usual, it was push & shove to get through the ticket gates and then board the train, despite 99% of the passengers having reserved/assigned seats. We eventually got to our seats and settled in for the less than 30 minute trip back to Shanghai. Greg & I noted that our trained topped out at 332kph during the short ride -- quite speedy!

We did a better job of navigating from the train station into the Shanghai metro where we took the 1 line 11 stops to South Railway Station. There it was a bit more confusing as they had all the exits that led directly into the train station blocked off, so we ended up having to go outside, cross a busy bus zone, and have our bags x-rayed again to get back into the train station. Greg’s backpack strap got caught inside the x-ray machine which caused us to panic at first because the bag simply disappeared and we thought someone had run off with it. After several attempts to disentangle it from the machine, they finally stopped then reversed the belt which freed the strap. Luckily it was not damaged!
After that small fiasco, we bought some non-perishable food (instant noodle bowls, crackers, bread) from a small supermarket inside the train station then tried to find somewhere to buy hot takeaway food to eat for dinner on the train. Not having much luck, I inquired at the first class waiting lounge where we were told that it was time to board the train.
cabbage in the corridor?

cabbage on your plate!
Boarding was slightly less crazy than the usual mad rush and we settled into our cabin easily enough. Shortly after the train started moving, we ventured to the dining car, passing bags of cabbage in the corridor. The only people in the dining car were train staff, who appeared to be finishing their meal. No one offered to serve us anything so, using hand signals, Greg indicated to the kitchen staff that we wanted to eat. They motioned that a cart would be coming around with food so we returned to our cabin to wait. I took a short walk around and, after seeing the unenclosed hard sleepers (6 bunks) and hard & soft seats, was thankful for our cozy soft sleeper! With no sign of the cart, we returned to the dining car where we were successful this time in ordering some food: a chicken dish, a beef dish, some of the aforementioned cabbage (now steamed), rice and 2 warm beers. When I asked about getting any cold drinks, the “waiter” told us they did not have a refrigeration system on the train! The food wasn’t bad and we took our time eating our dinner. I was also glad to see other Chinese passengers eating the same food as us and was thus less worried about getting sick! We returned to our cabin where the brother & sister had already gone to sleep (it was only around 7pm). With nothing else to do but read or write, we retired to our bunks for the evening.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Observing the 2 month mark of our RTW trip

one seat for Greg and one seat for my backpack
As of 02OCT we have officially been traveling for two months. The time is definitely flying by but yet when you consider everywhere we have already been, it is also hard to believe we have seen all of these places (5 countries and too many cities to count) in only 9 weeks.

The trip is going well. We have not had any major problems although it has been difficult sometimes, particularly in China, to overcome the language barrier. We had to modify our itinerary slightly when the flight we had planned to fly standby on from Seoul to Tokyo sold out. But a confirmed ticket from Seoul to Hiroshima only cost $150 more than flying standby so it was not financially devastating. We also ended up flying from Beijing to Shanghai instead of taking the overnight train because everything was fully booked for several days. Again, we had to spend about $100 more per person than the train would have cost, but ended up recouping some of that money when our flight was delayed for 6 hours due to a mechanical problem and we each received instant 400CNY (about $60) cash refunds when we finally boarded the plane.

Both of us have been relatively healthy but my shoulders/neck ache constantly from the strain of carrying the backpack (which still weighs in at around 13.5kg plus another 7kg for my daybag) and also from the hard beds. My left knee, on which I had arthroscopic surgery many years ago, also aches whenever I have to carry the pack for long durations or when we are hiking on uneven terrain or climbing lots of stairs. We have both had some days when our allergies are more active and thus are sneezing or have runny noses but do not actually feel bad. We have also had head colds (2 for me, 1 for Greg) but have recovered from the worst parts within about 3 days. Greg has developed athlete’s foot which we were trying to treat with hydrocortisone cream that I was already carrying before it became worse. Unfortunately that did not stop the fungus from spreading so we went to a pharmacy in Suzhou and, after showing one of the staff his foot, were “prescribed” an etinazole spray.

We try to eat a balanced diet and to seek out the local specialties but at the same time are very careful that the food is fresh & thoroughly cooked. So often that means we don’t eat a lot of meat, vegetables or fruit. We have developed a habit in Asia of eating instant noodle bowls for breakfast as we always have access to boiled water, whether from an electric kettle in our room or from a larger system somewhere in the hotel/hostel where we are staying. As the sodium content of the flavor packets is extremely high, I usually only put half of a packet into the soup. We still drink a fair amount of beer as it is very inexpensive here (about $0.50 for approx 500ml bottle if we drink one of the major Chinese brands). We have also been using our Katadyn water purification systems since we arrived in Asia, although it really wasn’t necessary in Japan.
a somewhat unidentifiable meal
I know we both handle the typical travel stresses better when we are not on the road every single day and thus can “settle in” to one place for a few nights. This also gives us time to do laundry and catch up on writing & photo editing as well as to plan for our upcoming travels. We continue not to spend our time or money seeing all the recommended sights but rather only those that we are particularly interested in. Plus walking around and just getting a feel for a location is usually just as rewarding for me, not to mention free!
Greg ponders our trip in Kyoto (he was sick with a head cold when this was taken)
We have been able to stay in touch with our families via email and Google Talk and can either instant message or talk to them over our internet connection for free. This has been easier since we arrived in Asia where the time difference is only 13 hours so we usually connect in the morning for us & previous evening for them or evening for us & same day morning for them. As expected, we cannot access any social networking sites from a Chinese IP address, so we haven’t been able to stay informed about the latest goings-on of our friends & other contacts. Nor have we been able to upload & share our photos or blogs. This is not really a problem as we continue to write and edit our pictures offline and will make multiple posts as soon as possible.

I referenced trip costs earlier and generally we are staying on target with our budget. As always, we could certainly travel cheaper and cut costs in any number of ways, but for our own sanity & ability to endure the more challenging aspects of the trip, we are spending a few more dollars per day/night versus the absolute budget traveler. We have yet to stay in a Western hotel, have only eaten at “American” restaurants a handful of times, and have only taken a taxi when other options were either not available or truly not feasible and the cost was minimal anyway. We try to “do as the locals” whenever possible for a more authentic experience.

appreciating other religions is one way to "go local"

China Part Two: Shanghai & Expo 2010

9/29
This is our second night in Shanghai. We ended up booking a flight from Beijing on Air China for $181 per person. We decided to save money by taking the subway and train to get to the airport yesterday. That worked out okay, but the hostel staff did not give us good directions to the nearest subway station (just some arm motions) and we ended up walking farther than necessary and then had to transfer twice to catch the airport express train. Still, we had allowed plenty of time to get to the airport so we weren’t stressed and, in fact, we fairly impressed by the efficiency of the subways and train as well as good signage in English. One minor exception was that there was no explanation of which terminal to get off at for domestic vs. international departures but luckily when I asked someone else on the train they told us the correct terminal.

The flight almost didn't happen; a mechanical delay had us sitting at the airport for an extra 6 hours. We were scheduled to depart at 13:55. After hanging out in the boarding area for at least an hour with no explanation in English as to what was happening, we finally went up the Air China lounge which I entered free with my Priority Pass. They were a little more helpful there and promised to make announcements if there were any further updates. After about an hour I rechecked the desk and they suggested we could pay to upgrade to first class on another flight to Shanghai as there were no more economy seats available for the rest of the day. I was not interested in paying more money plus there was no guarantee our bags would be transferred. However, due to the layout of the lounge check-in area, I was able to “smuggle” Greg in unnoticed around that same time, so we both enjoyed some free food & beer while we debated our options. They finally announced boarding at 8pm. There was never any explanation of the cause for the delay, not that I really wanted to know, especially since we were flying on the previously broken aircraft.
"honorary" member of Air China's First Class Lounge at PEK
We didn't land in Shanghai until about 10:45pm and didn't get to our hostel until around midnight. The one "positive" thing is there's a new law in China that if your flight is delayed for more than four hours then you get a CASH reimbursement on the spot of 400CNY per person. That's $60 each and our tickets were only $181 each so I can't complain too much. Although instead of being able to take the cheaper public transport from the airport to our hostel, we had to take a taxi because it was so late and everything had stopped running. So that cost us an extra $20.

One more note about the Beijing airport. They had free wifi throughout the airport, but in order to use it you had to scan your passport or identity card at a special kiosk and were given a specific user id & password. This granted you 5 free hours of internet access. Never can complain about free wifi! They also had special drinking water machines throughout the terminal so you can refill your water bottle (with cold or hot water).

We spent our first full day (today) in Shanghai continuing our China research. After a few hours of planning this morning, we ventured out to the hostel-recommended travel agency to book some train tickets. Unfortunately this did not go very well, as the woman who was working the train ticket desk only spoke a little bit of English and did not seem very inclined to help us. We tried to get as much information as we could about train times, availability and prices, but decided not to purchase any tickets because of possible kinks in our itinerary.

We had spotted a Watson’s (drugstore) while looking for the ticket agency so, after several failed attempts to find a way down to its basement location, we walked into the adjoining Radisson hotel and an employee walked us to the stairwell without hesitation. Always nice to get good directions! We shopped for a few supplies then decided to eat our “main” meal of the day (after having our usual instant noodles for breakfast) at Burger King. That’s right; it was easy and we were a bit mentally fatigued from the challenges of travel planning! We savored every bite of our bacon & cheese Whoppers, fries & Cokes.
the American chains are well-represented in Shanghai
As we had already walked along the west side of People’s Square on the way to the ticket agency earlier, we decided to cross the north end and walk along the east side back to our hostel. We stopped in a small convenience store and bought our instant noodles for tomorrow’s breakfast and a couple of beers then roamed around the small street near our hostel to have a look at the pet markets before retiring to our room to drink the beer. While we continued trying to map out a viable itinerary for our remaining time in China we also did a load of laundry.

My first impression of Shanghai is of a modern city with only small pockets of the “old” city remaining. I know they spent millions to clean up the city for the this year’s World Expo and it shows. Even in the small area we covered on foot today we encountered tons of Chinese tourists, many carrying Expo souvenirs. After seeing all the hype, plus a little research online and the discovery that ticket prices are only about US$24, we are planning to go to the Expo tomorrow.

9/30
I hear the inside of the China Pavilion is very nice, but I wouldn't know as we couldn't get in!
We took subway line 8 from People‘s Square six stops to Yaohua Road then walked about 10 minutes to the Expo entrance. From there we mapped out some of the things we wanted to see then started walking on the elevated pedestrian walkway. First we went to the Iran Pavilion per Greg‘s request and only waited in line about 15 minutes; displays were mostly touting Iran’s technical developments (dams, nuclear reactors, medical devices) plus some arts (carpet-making, painting). Greg wanted to go to the Iraq Pavilion next but it didn’t seem to exist; ie was not in the location indicated on the Expo map. We then took the free ferry to the other side of the Huangpu River to see the “cases” where cities could promote tourism (as opposed to country pavilions). After walking to the back part of the expo, we decided to eat lunch at the Alsace rooftop beer garden. Next we went to the Xian region case which featured a 5 minute movie (all digital) and climbed around a Chinese gate-type structure with no obvious purpose. We walked a short distance to the Ningbo case which featured a lot of photos, animal & outdoor sounds via loudspeaker, and a butterfly garden where all the butterflies seemed to have flown away or were dead. I wanted to go into the nearby tent city but the lines were too long. So we walked to the Osaka case and watched another 5 minute video timeline projected as a “360 degree experience.”
an interesting video installation for Osaka, Japan
We took a free bus to the China Railway Pavilion where we watched yet another propaganda-ish video promoting the high speed rail lines throughout the country. They actually had ticket vending machines on the lower level of the building were you could buy train tickets from Shanghai as far as Nanjing. Next up was the Wudang Martial Arts Show at 5pm which was fairly entertaining although the Chinese tourists got bored with it pretty quickly. We caught another ferry back across the river to the European section of the expo. Here we encountered major crowds and long lines once again. We decided to walk around the all-outdoor Netherlands Pavilion because there was no wait. It was actually a pretty good representation of the country’s highlights. As the lines were too long at all the European pavilions we decided to check out the USA Pavilion which was also quite popular but they shuttled people through in a fairly organized, if herd-type mentality, with only about a 10 minute wait between groups. The whole “experience” was a series of three videos intending to show America at its best (community involvement, environmental protection, living your dreams, acceptance of all beliefs, equal opportunity, etc.).
The last section featured advertising by all of the big corporate sponsors and a large “souvenir” shop. We then walked to Europe Square and caught a few minutes of the Rock from Bavaria “Haindling” band before eating a budget dinner in a Chinese food court. As there were no bus stops in the direction we needed to go to catch the subway, we had to walk all the way back to Yaohua Road station and join the masses heading home.

I personally was disappointed with the Expo because I would have liked to tour more pavilions but the lines were too long (at least a 1 hour wait and sometimes several hours) or the sites too crowded to truly enjoy. Still, it was certainly interesting to walk around the Expo site, which is massive! As noted above, they do have free public transport (powered by hydrogen) within the site, however the bus stops were so widely spaced apart in some areas that they weren’t helpful. Also, the map shows “sightseeing bus” stops, but the only other passenger vehicles we saw were smaller golf cart-types and it wasn’t clear if they were free or even how to catch a ride on one. The ferries, however, were very useful except all the Asian tourists would literally run onto the boat to get the best spot on the outdoor deck for the less than 10 minute ride across the river. Also, we had hoped to eat dinner at the Czech Pavilion but prices were higher than expected; entrees were minimum 150CNY. Lunch at the beer garden was not cheap either: draft Budweiser was 30CNY, a glass of Alsatian pinot gris was 85CNY and a large Alsatian pizza was 80CNY. But it sure was tasty!!!

10/1
Happy National Day, China!
a young holiday celebrant
We spent the entire day on foot, walking down Nanjing East street to the Bund. Everywhere was packed with Chinese tourists, so many that we could hardly move! Also the weather has turned hazy & humid so it is not as enjoyable as the previous two days. We did manage to book some of our train tickets from the CITS office on the Bund but could not book them all because it must be within 10 days of travel and it was 11 days from our overnight Guilin to Guangzhou journey. As Greg & I both observed, there are always these “hangers on” in the ticket offices. At CITS, one guy was asleep on his desk, one guy was working (the guy who issued our tickets), and a handful of other guys were just hanging out with no obvious purpose.
there were a gazillion Chinese tourists in Shanghai!
We continued walking along the Bund and actually passed the main street I intended to turn on to head inward towards old town. Once we backtracked to Fuxing Road, the walk got much more interesting as we were clearly in the equivalent of Beijing’s hutongs: laundry hanging everywhere, all sorts of closet-sized shops, various obstacles blocking the sidewalk… As we crossed into the “old street” area we encountered the masses once again. It was almost impossible to enjoy the sights, sounds & smells of the old town because there were so many people. We wanted to stop and have a drink somewhere, but didn’t spot a bar. We eventually walked all the way back to the People’s Square area and bought Japanese-style pork cutlet on rice bowls from an upscale basement-level supermarket to take back to our hostel for dinner.
this is how we felt after a long day of walking and battling the crowds

*** China Parts Three, Four, Five, etc. coming soon!