Today marks one year of unemployment for me…
Our first couple hours in Shanghai were rough, but it feels good to back in mainland China. After our comfortable overnight train from HK, we pulled into (dry) Shanghai. After clearing immigration and customs, we took the metro to the hostel we’d decided upon. But after (sweatily) walking a few blocks from the station, we learned that the guesthouse had closed down. With no other budget options in the area, we walked back to the station and headed to hostel listed in our guidebook. After more walking with our packs we arrived at the hostel, only to find that they were full. Luckily, there was another hotel just around the corner. It was windowless and had black wallpaper, but it would do.
After checking in and showering, we immediately headed out to explore. We soon found ourselves on a wide pedestrianized commercial street, Nanjing Road. It was super crowded with Chinese tourists, but it was an interesting place to walk and take in the city. Skyscrapers and high end hotels were visible in every direction. Joylani commented that most of the buildings looked futuristic, if not a bit like spaceships. I must admit that walking around Shanghai does make you wonder if you’re a Jetson. Trams shuttled lazy tourists up and down Nanjing Rd. Besides the crazy architecture and crowds, one of the first things I noticed was the pollution. The sky here is continually grey and there’s a visible haze even when looking at buildings not to far away. But it wasn’t suffocating, like I’d heard, so I didn’t mind it too much. Walking the city, I realized that its at least as developed as most cities at home and probably cleaner (pollution excluded). Its very developed and very cosmopolitan. Domestic and international brands all have superstores throughout the city, while the city’s young immerse themselves in the thriving economy working in its growing economy and fueling its consumer aspirations. It contrasts quite a bit with fast-paced HK. Although the financial center of mainland China, it’s a much more relaxed and pleasant place than HK. Part of it’s the city layout with its typical (and appealing) Chinese focus on space, while part of it may be mentality too. Despite our difficult entry into Shanghai, it’s a pleasant enough place.
sunny day in Shanghai…fyi, its smoggy not overcast and the umbrellas are to provide relief from the heat….pretty gross, huh?
Yesterday we boarded a train that took us from Hong Kong all the way to Shanghai. We’d learned from our first train ride in china to bring plenty of food. (It can be a long walk to the dining car, and the train food that periodically gets rolled by is not very tasty.) So we brought a small stock of instant noodles, bread, and newspapers (brain food). After boarding, we found our section of the car, shoved our big bags under the lower bunk and hung our bags of food on a wall hook. All right, I thought, we are ready to go. Another man came and sat in our compartment only to be chased out a few minutes later, by the guy who actually held the ticket for that bunk. Argued out, actually. He seemed to be pretty serious about this train ride. My suspicions were confirmed as he unzipped his suitcase and methodically began to take provisions out and place them on the table. Bowl of noodles. A paper cup for tea. A small roll of toilet paper. And a couple cans of beer (extras remained in the suitcase for later). It looked like he was setting out a nightstand at home, only this was a train.
On another note, entering China via a train from Hong Kong was a breeze compared with the Vietnam/China border. No questions, no book inspections. Just a quick scan of our passports and a stamp back into China. It’s nice to be back.
Matt and the “Friendlies,” everyone’s favorite mascots…
We spent all day yesterday walking too much in circles around Hong Kong. (I say too much because I was wearing a pair of lousy rubber slippers as my sneakers had yet to dry from yesterday’s puddles and this morning they were emitting a funky smell.) Matt said Hong Kong is like a big mall. In a way it’s true, particularly of HK Island where there are many shopping centers and everything is connected by elevated walkways and escalators (convenient in the rain), making one building feel like an extension of another.
Splashing our way through downpours and puddles we took a rambling route through Hong Kong Island stopping at almost a dozen different places in no particular order. And now we have seen a lot, but I am tired of those rubber sandals.
Yesterday was a really long day. Like I mentioned in my previous post, we have a pretty basic room and even that’s a euphemism. On the one hand, it keep us out exploring the city. On the other hand, it can get tiring to just be out all day. We began our morning checking out the Hong Kong Museum of Art, which I’m counting on Joylani to write about. Afterwards, we took a ferry across Victoria Harbor to Hong Kong Island. From the ferry terminal, there were elevated walkways to Exchange Square, kind of the center of the aptly named “Central” district. We explored inside the nearby International Finance Center, which had malls and shops on the lower levels. Besides realizing more and more how expensive everything was (even at the grocery store), I got a feel for HK work life. There’s a lot of foreigners all around, ostensibly working for the major financial firms. But its busy, busy, busy. People are all walking somewhere. They eat and talk while they walk, rather than sit or stand around. It’s a very fast-paced place. Joylani said she doesn’t feel relaxed at all here. One interesting thing is that many of the buildings are connected by elevated walkways. I mean, I think you could walk for miles without going on the ground. You could just from building to building, mall to mall via walkways. And in fact, there’s even a 800 meter escalator that takes people up a hill in HK (see first photo). It runs through a busy commercial district and you can just get on and off every 50 meters or so. While kind of weird, it was useful in going up the hill from Central. We stopped off for some lunch and then continued up to the end, from where we walked to Hong Kong Park.
Joylani with HK island skyline behind her
one of the many Star Wars-esque walkways that criss-cross HK
checking out rainy HK from the Observation Deck of the Bank of China building
It had been raining all, so the park wasn’t much fun. But we stopped in at a Tea Museum. Before this trip, Joylani and I were both tea lovers and I think this trip has almost turned it into a hobby. The tea museum is the latest in our education. It was a small museum, but well presented. It had everything from ancient tea-related antiques to displays on how tea and tea-drinking has evolved. It’s a bit of a boring thing to write about, but ask us if you want to know a few tidbits about tea history. After the tea museum, it was back down the hill to the HK (name here), which overlooks the harbor and Kowloon on the other side. It was kind of a disappointment, as it was still raining and overcast and viewing access was restricted by a convention that was going on. We were pretty tired by this point and snacked a bit. If this is starting to sound like a list of things we did, it kind of felt like that too. We headed up the hill again and took a tram up to “The Peak,” from where amazing views of HK could be had. But again, it was still overcast and raining and so our view was nil. Just a big expanse of grey clouds. I was pretty disappointed, because seeing the view from the peak was the number one thing I wanted to do in HK. Discouraged, we headed back down the mountain and ate before returning to our little cube of a room for the night.
two photos, very different, but both quintessential Hong Kong
Today we left Hong Kong. The train to Shanghai runs every other day, so it was either today or day after tomorrow. We both could’ve stayed another day in HK, but two more days was stretching it. We had originally planned to stay two or three full days, but our one full day was enough for us. Hong Kong was interesting in a few ways, but I feel like about it like I did about Singapore: it’d be a nice place to work or live, but isn’t that great a place to visit (although I doubt I’d ever want to live in HK). Everything from accommodation to food was insanely expensive (close to US prices). Perhaps things could have been different though. It rained continuously the whole time we were there, which not only made exploring less comfortable but limited (HK Park) and denied (The Peak) our attempts to see some attractions. On the other hand, it’s still a city with shopping and sightseeing the main activities. I didn’t really dislike HK (in the sense that I disliked Vietnam), but I it fell well short of my expectations, given that it was one of the cities I was most looking forward too. For the foreseeable future, I think I’ll be content to just read about the goings on in HK in the WSJ.
Hong Kong. Its one of the cities that I’ve most wanted to see on this trip. Its history and modern political/economic dynamics interest me, the food’s supposed to be good, and the skyline unreal. Plus, its the center of the Asian financial world (up there with Tokyo), so that makes it more interesting as well. We took a bus from Guangzhou, which stopped at immigration midway for us. The ride from Guangzhou to Shenzhen and then across to HK didn’t take too long, but once in HK we were greeted by a pillar of the developed world: traffic. We sat in gridlock on the highway for over an hour. Eventually, we got dropped off at a metro station in Kowloon. The first thing I noticed was English; oh how I’ve missed it. People asked us if they could help us, signs were in English, newspapers and magazines were in English, and I was already thinking about how we could easily read menus and order food later.
Travelling in developed, English-speaking places is not perfect though. Bombay, KL, and Singapore have been some of the most expensive, worst-value rooms we’ve stayed at on this trip. But Hong Kong takes the cake. We headed to the Tsim Sha Tsui, an commercial center at the southern tip of Kowloon, with a lot of budget options. Bypassing the usual “hourly rate” hotels, we ended up at Mirador Mansions, one of several ultra low-budget places. Like its more infamous cousin up the street, Chungking Mansions, Mirador is a towering (probably over 15 stories) block of decrepit concrete. Its an eyesore in the midst of modern HK and its tenants seem to be mostly African and Indians. Some online reviews I read described the ground floor as looking similar to a UN refugee camp. The building houses dozens of small guesthouses and hotels, so we headed up to the 14th floor and began working our way down. We looked at a few places and eventually settled on what we agreed was the nicest place: a bed in a small a room with about 2 feet of space on the sides of the bed, with a tiny attached bathroom. Luckily, it was the cheapest too, at 200 HKD (25 USD). The only worse value I can think of are the hotels in NYC.
The upside of having a crappy room is that you spend all your time out in the city. So after arriving, we quickly got back out and wandered the busy streets of Tsim Sha Tsui. With some of HK’s nicest hotels, the area had a lot of swanky luxury-brand stores, but it also had neon-sign filled little alleys with hole-in-the-wall restaurants and shops. It was raining all day, but that made it all the more interesting. I think you get a better feel for places when the weather is bad. You just see how normal people live and how life is, without all the tourists and sightseers that are so prevalent in nice weather. Despite the rain, HK was packed with people shopping and working. Bus stops had lines and often people had to wait for a second bus before they could board (despite the fact that the buses were double-deckers). Walking without getting our eyes poked out was another challenge as we tried to navigate the umbrella-filled streets. For the most part, Hong Kong felt a lot like any major American city. It is busy, wealth is prevalent, English was spoken. Another thing that made it seem more like home, was the liberal culture. It wasn’t as liberal as European norms, but HK is perhaps the least conservative place we’ve been since then. Billboards and advertising were noticeably more provocative. It made me realize just how conservative everywhere we’ve been has been. On a somewhat related tangent, HK is such a contrast to mainland China. The media is objective, web access is uncensored, and from the time immigration stamped us in there’s been a less uptight feel about certain things.
We also checked out the waterfront, which I was pretty impressed with. For one, unlike most ports, the water was relatively clean. Looking across Victoria Harbor, the skyline of Hong Kong Island was amazing. The sheer number of skyscrapers was hard to comprehend, but even more so was the fact that they were built up into the hills too. Super tall and skinny apartment and office buildings filled in all the space between the dominating bank buildings. We couldn’t even see most of the buildings though, as they poked through the rainy cloud ceiling. After dinner, we returned here to see the spectacular city lit up at night.
(i think the dark cloud looming overhead makes this look like a scene from Batman or something)
After the longest train ride ever (no books, no food), which was the middle of our three day journey to get to Hong Kong, we arrived in the city of Guangzhou. It was dilapidated. The station was crowded. Smoggy, hot. What I saw was how I had pictured China before arriving (but had yet to really see until that moment). But further into the city the shambolic image dropped away as new buildings and a shiny subway took the forefront. I was excited to be in Guangzhou as it is in Guangdong Province, commonly known as Canton back home. Many of the Chinese abroad are from this region, thus the food and other aspects of the region are more familiar to Western eyes than other regions in China. This province also happens to be where my Chinese relatives are from. After several helpful emails back and forth from my Auntie and Uncles about the family tree, I was still unable to figure where exactly the town my family came from is located, but just being in the region was nice. (My family moved from China to Hawaii over a hundred years ago in the late 1800s.) I paid more attention to the landscape at the end of the train ride, wondering if the place before me was where my ancestors had lived. Now in Guangzhou, I wondered what they would have thought about how China has modernized.
After checking into our hotel, Matt and I headed out in search for food. We made it as far as two steps outside our hostel where we sensed it was a little dark out for the time of day. Looking up, an ominously black rain cloud loomed overhead. I ran back upstairs to gather raincoats and our umbrella. As we started walking down the street it began to rain, and then pour. Luckily, the city had nice roads and decent drainage—Southern China is actually have a big flooding problem with the rains, but where we were in the city, all the drains were working well and the build ups of puddles didn’t seem too bad. (Though we did have to watch out for splashes from the side as cars drove by.) We went in search of a market and found what I recognize as similar to the China towns back home. Food every few stops (we picked up some baozi and mochi, apples and yogurt), convenience stores, snack shops, and cheap clothes. The ubiquitous umbrella (good for sunny and rainy weather) made its appearance hanging outside of shops for sale, and also in the hands of just about everyone walking on the streets as they completed their final errands of the day before going home to dry out. This morning, on our way to Hong Kong, our bus took us past a Lamborghini dealership, yet another sign of the prosperity and drive to flash it around that is spreading throughout China.
From Shangri-la, we took an overnight bus to Kunming. Upon arrival at 6am, we went to the train station and bought two tickets for that morning’s 27-hour train to Guangzhou, in Guangdong Province. The travel wasn’t too bad. In fact, travel is quite comfortable in China, if not a bit expensive. The worst part of the 40-plus hours of continuous travel was the lack of English reading material. There was no English newspapers to be found in all of Kunming and all we had between the two of us was an old The Economist, which I’d read cover to cover already. We were also ill-prepared in the food department, as we had assumed that the train would have plenty of food vendors hopping on and off at stops, as well as long stops at which we could grab some grub. No so and hence the reason why many families carried boxes or bags of instant noodles onto the train with them.
The one upshot though was that the train was nice. It was incredibly clean (very China), had good climate control, and was quiet. The hard-sleeper class that we rode in was hardly hard, with soft bedding, fluffy comforters and pillows. Additionally, our 6-bunk compartment only had one other person in it, a Burmese guy named Hakeem. I felt kind of bad for him, because Chinese passengers stared at him as they walked by. He was a Muslim and dressed in traditional South Asian Muslim clothes: lungi, kurta, a circular cap, all with a long beard. We were lucky to be in the same compartment with him as he translated a lot for us. He helped us find the food car and even bought us some fruit to eat at the end of the day. After Joylani fell asleep, I sat up and talked with him for awhile. He’s travelled Asia pretty extensively too, although he mentioned only to places where Islam is. We talked about India and Malaysia, among other countries we’ve both visited. He told me about his Haj trip and showed me the compass I saw him use everytime before he got out his prayer mat. He even gave me some pan, which I quickly chewed and spit. He sells handtools in China and he asked me where in America would be a good place to sell handtools. Not the typical person or conversation I would have expected on a Chinese train. But as Paul Theroux wrote in his famous book “The Great Railway Bazaar,” “I sought trains, I found passengers.”
And so the long journey was not as bad as it could’ve been. For the most part, it was comfortable, and we met a kind fellow passenger. Next time, we’ll have to remember to bring our own instant noodle so as to avoid the awful train food. After two weeks in cool Yunnan and two days on AC’d transportation, stepping off the train into Guangzhou was like stepping into a sauna. Not only was it hot, but it was way more crowded than Kunming. I could see how Guangdong is the most populous state. Guangzhou is hotter and more crowded than anywhere we’ve been in China so far, but it is more modern too. We took the efficient metro from the railway station to our hotel and city bustles in the way that big cities do. Everyone’s told us that Yunnan is totally different, so I guess its time that we see what the rest of China is like.
Besides the monastery and horse festival, Shangri-la has been a nice place to hang out. Its not a big city like Kunming, but its modern. And it’s a tourist destination for sure, but a million times mellower than Lijiang. The surrounding scenery is nice, the food is good, the people are kind. Most women still wear traditional garb, which includes a wreath of bright pink yarn worn atop their heads, along with lots of silver and bead jewelry. Not much to report really, just a nice place (even if not the mythical location of its namesake).
You see it on their arms, in their ears. The first time you see one, a quick scan of the accessories shows where they have been so far. If you see them a second time, their arm moves a bit slower under the weight of one more bracelet. Meet the backpacker chicks and their ever expanding silver collections. Sometimes it’s not quite real silver. Sometimes, even when you look for the real stuff you just can’t find that 92.5. But it doesn’t matter. If it’s silvery, chunky, cool, it’s going on that wrist to add the assortment. I must admit: it is tempting with shop after shop offering appealing looking jewelry at lower prices than boutiques back home. Besides, what better way to remember your trip than with a piece of jewelry? I’ve made a few purchases in the last couple weeks myself. Lijiang and Shangri-la have been particularly alluring with their abundance of silver shops hawking various assortments of real and costume jewelry on every alley and corner. At the horse racing festival I went for a bracelet, doubtful if it’s real silver, but it did appear to be of some hardy silver-colored metal. I bargained, did the walk away (part of the fun) and came away with my prize. That night visions of bangles and earrings danced in my head. I awoke with plans to buy more to take away with me. I probably would have bought more while in Shangri-la, but it was too cold to shop.