Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Mighty China and 48 hours in Tokyo

From Beijing With Nan
Sweet hair style, right?

Pictures for this post:

Beijing with Nan

China had been a bit of a wildcard on my itinerary.  I had no idea what to expect.  After spending about four weeks there, I still don't know how I feel about the place.  I wish I had ventured out of the big cities further, because I didn't get a chance to explore the rural face of it.  All in all, it was a tiring but great four weeks.

My first impression of every place I've been is, of course, the airport.  And wow - Beijing's international airport is immense.  As you leave the gate you are immediately miniaturized in response to the football stadium-dwarfing terminal.  In some ways this was a common theme throughout my stay in China - the sheer number of people in some areas of the city completely overwhelms you.  This fluctuated quite a bit though - as we explored the Hutongs (small alleyways of the city) it was easy to say to yourself 'this is the capital city in a country of a billion people?' when, in the evenings, the crowds had cleared out.

Beijing is the first place I went, and where I spent the overwhelming majority of my time, so I will start with some of the highlights there.

My aunt Nan (whom I met at the airport) and I did lots of sightseeing together.  One of the most beautiful places we went was the Summer Palace.

An enormous former resort for the royalty, the Summer Palace is a town-sized establishment on the coast of an enormous lake.  The number of guided tours (it was a holiday, and many families from the country had come in) was almost absurd; all of them color coded and huddling together.  At one point Nan and I were a bit disoriented, and an elderly woman approached us, speaking in Mandarin.  We didn't quite know what to think, because we made it very obvious that we didn't understand a word she was saying.  She pointed to our map, and directed us which way we should go, still speaking non-stop.  I wondered why she kept on speaking to us in Mandarin, but realized I would probably do the same in English - there's something about intonation and inflection that you hope still gets across to the person, even if they don't understand the words.

The Forbidden City was another highlight.  In the center of downtown, and near our hotel, it was impossible to miss.

From Beijing With Nan
Outside the Forbidden Palace

Nan, her former student Katherine, and I had some amazing meals while we were there (the food, as has been a common theme on this trip, was one of the highlights of China).  Some things about the food I loved - there was a no-nonsense approach to dining out.  You got the restaurant, you were seated, the waiter stands there while you awkwardly fumble through the menu and point to a few dishes, and they are brought out within five minutes.  Sure, this probably means they are not cooked-to-order, but that's fine with me.  Typical meals would include an eggplant or tofu dish, a chicken dish, and a stir-fry, and they'd all be good.  The one thing about the food that wasn't so pleasant was whenever you got chicken, it would be served with the bone in and skin on.  I usually wouldn't mind this, but the skin was always a disconcerting yellow color (not crispy) with a thick layer of fat under it, and the bone would somehow comprise 75% of the stuff on your plate.

One of my favorite restaurants was a one called the 'Red Capital Club' was especially appealing.  It was in an old Hutong, with no signs or conspicuous lighting.  Inside it was a small courtyard and dining room, covered in Mao-era artifacts.

Nan and I saw a handful of other amazing places - including the olympic venus (Bird's nest and Aquatic cube), and the great wall.  The bird's nest was very cool - the architecture was hard not to admire even from a naive standpoint, and the great wall was incredible.  The pictures don't do it much justice as to the immensity of the thing, and my descriptions wouldn't do any better.  Check out the pictures to get a taste.

Leon and Chris Arrive

As Nan left, Leon arrived, and the next day, Chris joined from NYC.  I left them to their own devices for a bit to sightsee some of the things I had already seen, but we had some other great adventures.

From China with Leon and Chris
Chris, Leon, and some other friends pose on the Great Wall

Katherine invited us out with a dozen of her friends to a dark restaurant called The Elephant Inside.  If you haven't heard of this recent fad of dark restaurants, they are what they sound like.  You place your order at the front counter before being led into a completely pitch-black dining room by your waiters who, of course, wear night-vision.  Let me say right off the bat that the whole dark-restaurant thing is a ridiculous gimmick.  They probably charge five times what the food should cost, and cut costs elsewhere (like food quality, presentation, service).  However, I must say, it was a fun experience.  The food was awful, and they didn't really take advantage of their gimmick (why not use cool tables with slots or indentations to guide where your plate or glass is, instead of fumbling around for it with no idea where it is, or why not make food that is actually conducive to eating with your hands, instead of digging your hands into a sloppy stir fry, or why not...the list goes on).  But, it really did bring other things to your attention.  As I said, unfortunately, one of those things is actually the taste of the food, but it also makes you hyper-aware of who is around you, and what they are (or are not) saying.  It forces you to speak up, lest you be forgotten in the darkness, only to start talking later and be replied to with '...have you been there this whole time?'.

Anyways, other highlights were another trip to the great wall, meeting Leon's friend's friends, getting shirts and suits tailored for ridiculously cheap, and the insane Pearl Market.

From China with Leon and Chris
Us with Feifei, the great tailor

From China with Leon and Chris
Outside the Pearl Market (obviously)

I had been to the pearl market with Nan and Katherine to accompany them to buy some pearls, but when I went back with Chris and Leon, we decided to brose their other 'of-questionable-quality immitation' goods.  What ensued was particularly hilarious.  The bargaining there is out of another world, completely outrageous and laden with guilt-tripping, deceiving, and pressuring.  On multiple occasions we were grabbed and had to literally struggle free from vendors trying to sell us shoes and ties.  At one point Chris saw a pair of 'Adidas' he liked, and asked how much they were.  The dialogue went something like this:
Chris: 'How much for the shoes?'
Lady: 'For you I give special price!  Very special price.  You see sticker say $120?  I give to you for $105' as she punched that number into a calculator and showed it to us, as if that made it official.
Chris: 'That's more than the real pair cost!'  I'll pay $10.  As he punches in the 1-0, aware of how absurd the role of the calculator is.
Lady: '$10? You crazy!  Tell you what, I give you special discount' she cleared the calculator and typed in 95.  This went back and forth, her lowering her price incrementally down to about $70, until we said that was crazy and started to walk away. 'OK OK!! Here special price' as she cleared it again and typed in $20.  We told her $15 and she had a deal, to which she put on a really tortured sad face, tried once more to settle on 20, but gave in and sold it for $15.  The best part was as we were leaving, I complimented Chris's new shoes, which she overheard, and she came running over to me (right in front of chris) and said 'You want shoes??? I give to you for $10!!' to which we all burst into laughter realizing Chris overpaid.

From China with Leon and Chris
The insane Pearl Market

In general I am not in favor of bargaining extremely hard while traveling.  If you're buying something originally made by the street vendor/performer/artist, then obviously don't pay more than what you think it's worth, but too many travelers I've seen just by default go for the 'offer 1/4 of the price and don't settle for less than 1/2', which I think is blind.  The pearl market though, is a beast totally different than ordinary shopping though.  A churned-out factory scarf they first offered it to me for a 'very special price, just for you' for US$80, was brought down to US$2, and they probably still returned 400%.

We had arranged to take an overnight train to Shanghai, and by the time we got to the Beijing Central Railway station, it was clear we were no longer in the English zone.  Everything was in characters, and despite some difficulty finding which track was ours, we made it an enjoyed a very comfortable ride down the coast.

From China with Leon and Chris
The quirky/cool Shanghai Skyline

I had been told Shanghai had a different feel than Beijing, but I wasn't anticipating the degree of difference.  It's also an enormous city (17 million, the biggest in China), but the number of cars is a fraction of what the counterpart is in Beijing.  The bike traffic was incredibly dense, and my comment of 'I can't believe they don't get into accidents all the time' was withdrawn when indeed, on each of the three days we were there, we saw the immediate aftermath of bike-car collisions.

The city itself though was great.  We met up with a fellow poker player who was kind enough to show us around and introduce us to a big ex-pat community.  We were only in Shanghai for the weekend, but managed to fit in a fair amount of sightseeing and nightlife.  The highlight of the sightseeing was probably the French Concession District which is a cafe and art gallery packed few square blocks.

Before we knew it we were on a plane back to Beijing, and soon after, Chris hopped on a plane for JFK, I hopped on a plane for Tokyo, and Leon stayed behind to spend some more time around Beijing.

Tokyo (Round 1 of 5)

This would be my first entrance to Tokyo, of what will be five eventually (I am currently in my second).  I had just two days and two nights before I left for LA, so I tried to fit in some worthwhile sightseeing.

Tokyo is really a city where you can just hop on the subway, go anywhere, and wander around for a full day.  It truly immense (13 million), and is more of a conglomeration of dozens of mini-cities (each designated by a subway stop) than one big one.  Because I only had a couple days at this point, I decided to prioritize.  First, I would indulge my inner geek, and check out Akihabara (the electronic district), then I would embrace my social side, and meet up with some meetup.com activities.

From Tokyo
The buzzing Akihabara

Akihabara is like a different world.  I spent most of the four hours I had there inside of one, six-story arcade.  The arcades have a completely different feel than what we have in the states, though.  The first couple floors are completely dominated by silly claw-drop games (you know, the annoying ones that you try to drop a claw on a gift and bring it back to your box), which have all sorts of themes.  Above that, you reach the soccer floor (where people sit in rows at high-tech soccer games, playing together), the fantasy floor, the mech-battle floor (filled with person-sized pods with Omnimax-style screens that you enter to control your character), and an old-school game floor.  The demographic is diverse, ranging from 12 to 60, and it's fairly evenly spread.  Smoking is also allowed, and it was clear many of the mid-40's crowd there had just finished work, and was sitting down to a cigarette (or 10) and a game (or 10) of 'Wheel of Eternity'.
Found this clip on youtube, it's not my own:

From Tokyo
A group of guys play soccer, Akihabara-style

The next day I met up with about a dozen people (half american ex-pats, half other ex-pats) who rented out a small Mongolian restaurant.  The highlight of the night was a surprise performance by a Mongolian Morin Khuur player and throat-singer.  Throat singing is the skill where you are able to create overtones with your vocal cords to produce two notes, one base tone and one shifting overtone.  It is mindboggling.  

From Tokyo
The Mongolian performance

The next day I joined a few of the other ex-pats in a Hanami celebration which is where, to celebrate the bloom of the cherry blossoms, people gather in parks and have a picnic (usually drinking to excess).  This was pretty tame though, and was a nice "See you later Japan" Before I left for LA that afternoon for the month of April.

From Tokyo
Our group at Hanami in Yoyogi Park

Forgot to mention in the previous post, but I'm in Tokyo now.  I'm headed to Okinawa tomorrow morning to begin my south to north, tip-to-tip, 4-week bullet train journey of Japan which I am really looking forward to.

I'm not sure how my internet access will be when I get to Okinawa, and I won't be updating my blog tonight (cinco de mayo!), but I'll post soon describing my month in LA, and what I've been up to since I got back to Tokyo.

I hope everyone is doing well!  Comments/Questions encouraged!


Friday, May 1, 2009

Let's catch up 1/3

The mighty skyline of Hong Kong and Kowloon behind (Panorama, click for full effect)

OK! So - it's been a little while. I hope everyone has been doing well. I have a chunk of time to myself now and have no excuse not to update this blog. A quick note: the previous post had some HTML technical difficulties, but it should be fixed now (that was the post that started with Leon and my road trip on the south island of NZ, and ended with the rooftop cinema in Melbourne, Australia).

Last we left off I was headed to Hong Kong. This post will describe my time there (and Macau), then part 2/3 will describe Beijing and Shanghai (will be posted tomorrow). Finally, part 3/3 will describe my little time in Tokyo, and my month in LA (will be posted in 2 days)!  Right now I'm back in Tokyo - I'll be here for about a week, then I'm headed on a south tip to north tip 3 week trip of Japan.

Pics for this post:

Note for this post - not sure why - but Blogspot isn't letting me resize my images in the post.  Sorry for the obnoxiously large pics.

My expectations weren't very high for Hong Kong. I had heard from a bunch of people that it was cramped, noisy, smelled bad, and overdeveloped, and they were right. But despite all that, it has a charm to it, and I wound up really loving my week there.

Things got off to a great start in the city. Just the train from the airport to downtown was immaculate and fast, albeit a bit pricey. I won't go through play-by-play of what I did in Hong Kong, but I'll try to convey a general feel of the place.

One thing I can admit is that I got pretty lucky. Right away I connected with a few couchsurfers who made my stay infinitely more enjoyable. Olivia, a nonprofit film maker, Lane, a hedge fund programmer and traveler, Sapriti, a professional classical musician, and I met up for dinner and all hit it off quite well. Later that night I also met Carlos, a Guatemalan student studying in Taipei, and Jeff, a pilot living in HK. They all had amazing stories, and wound up guiding my stay quite a bit. Plus, they all spoke more Cantonese than I did (I didn't speak a word), so it was very helpful having them around. The food took some getting used to - everything is either really spicy or really fishy or both - but it was a learning experience.

I explored several of the city's neighborhoods on my own, and was really fascinated by their unique feel. The way small shrines have been preserved for hundreds of years, and are now tucked away in between massive skyscrapers and highways is sad and admirable at the same time. Each of the shrines I visited all had handfuls of people visiting them with a very tangible sense of respect and humility.

Huge incense swirls hanging from the roof in one of Hong Kong's many shrines

While the apartment complexes (absolutely enormous sprawling cement monstrosities) are ugly, much of the island's skyline is incredibly beautiful. They are so obviously proud of their architecture, and they have a right to be - some of the buildings are jaw-dropping. At one point I took the tram up to 'The Peak', looking over HK island's skyline, as well as Kowloon's (across the bay), and it is a really impressive view (if only it were less foggy).

I think part of what gives HK its attitude is just how cramped everything is. Hong Kong island is not big. In fact, most of it is hardly developed at all. It's just one small area of it that is built up to an outrageous degree that makes it seem almost absurd, like it is out of a sci-fi movie. The old fishermen boats on the harbor supplement this feeling, with their loud dirty 'putt-putt' engines rumbling next to high speed jet ferries to Macau and the other islands.

One of Hong Kong's shrines tucked away between skyscrapers

I did an all-day trip to Macau, which left me with mixed feelings. It had a cool historic district, but it was a bit too much turned into a shopping mall. The casinos were absurdly huge, and the residential areas seemed pretty miserable. However, the history was pretty fascinating, and it will be interesting to see how the area fares in the next decade.

Me in front of the facade of a destroyed church in Macau

Carlos and I took a ferry ride to a small island about an hour away from Hong Kong and rented bikes which was a lot of fun. It was a small enough island that we rode the circumference in a few hours. It was interesting to talk with him about Guatemala, Taipei, and photography. Apparently Guatemala was one of the first countries to recognize Taipei's independence, so an exchange program was set up for their students, which is how he happened to be there. He took a few pictures (I forgot my camera) that you can see here http://gallery.me.com/carlos.a.pascual#100636 Pictures 5149-5232 were from the island.

Besides those things, I managed to fit in a hike (45 minutes out on the subway and you're in the mostly undeveloped hills of Kowloon) with a number of other expat locals, and explored the night markets of Kowloon on my own. Overall I was really happy with my time in Hong Kong - it would be a place I'd consider living for a few months, maybe even a year - but I'm sure I would grow tired of the city and the culture past that.

Before I knew it, I had my concierge-prepared China visa ready, and I was headed to Beijing, where I would meet Nan at the airport.

I'll have part 2/3 up tomorrow!