China is the perfect place to end this incredible trip around the world. China makes you homesick. Ok…. Actually, China just makes us want to be anywhere but China. We even miss North Korea when we’re in China.
You can’t love every place you visit. Who would want to? Maybe sometimes the culture shock is more shocking (or gross) than you can get over. Looking back on this trip, we want to visit most of the places again, or at least see other cities in those countries. We want to see St. Petersburg in Russia, Mumbai & Goa & Kolkata in India, Hanoi in Vietnam. We want to see everything in Cambodia. As for China, well…. Shanghai and Hong Kong are convenient airport hubs…. maybe even a brief stop there one day.
So, with that, Ill try to make an objective list for why China is still a good vacation destination: 1: Beautiful scenic spots, 2: Ancient architectural marvels, and 3: The food is rich and varies significantly from your local takee-outee
And in the interest of fairness, here’s a list of why we didn’t quite enjoy it as much: 1: Unruly and unhygienic crowd behavior (and there are tons of crowds here), 2: Everything has been overly commercialized and “refurbished” (read: reconstructed) and the souvenirs are cheesy and chintzy, and 3: The food is rich and varies significantly from your local takee-outee (sometimes, your stomach just can’t take it anymore!). Continue reading Farewell China. We’ll miss your, umm…uhh…Peking duck?
Sometimes the most entertaining thing at a tourist site is not the site itself… but the tourists. This is certainly true in China. Just find a comfortable vantage point to observe the subjects in their natural habitat, behaving naturally, and you will likely be entertained by an array of both highly predictable and completely unpredictable behaviors. It should be noted that as a Westerner there is a distinct risk of altering their behavior via the Hawthorne effect. When they know they’re being watched directly, they will oftentimes scale down their routine. However, even this is unpredictable…. sometimes their behavior becomes even more absurd, particularly if they think you’re waiting on them to finish. One absolutely certain principle though: if a Westerner sets up a tripod, anywhere, at any time, no matter how empty the place, Chinese people will be attracted like flies to honey. Take the photo below for example. We were at a large monument (The Big Wild Goose Pagoda) in Xi’an and started taking terrible photos of the monument blocked by a tree, just to see what the locals did. Next thing you know, we were surrounded and they were taking the same photo! Continue reading Traditional Chinese Photography Poses
Starting to finish up some of the main sites in Beijing, and today we visited one of the bigger ones: The Forbidden City. It’s big, huge even, popular amongst foreigners and locals alike, and really, really crowded. We’ve started to fine tune some of our “crowd thinning” tactics for pictures though, and we managed to get away with way better pictures than we could’ve hoped for ahead of time. For reference, it doesn’t pay to get to these sites early in Beijing. The hordes of tourists flow in non-stop all morning and all afternoon. The point when they stop is as it nears closing time. A few photo tips…. 1) Move in the opposite direction of everyone else and backtrack to the best views at the end of the day, the ones that everybody already took photos at amongst the crowds. 2) Be aggressive with locals and befriend other locals to be aggressive on your behalf. For example, we let a family in front of us to grab some good pics and then took the pics for them. On older male then started yelling “Oy! Oy!” at anyone that got in the way of our view. Awesome. 3) Take it to the edge of closing time. The crowds are dissipating, and the sun is soft in the sky, so the lighting is better anyway. 4) Use the language barrier to your advantage with the security guards. They’ll use a nightstick on a local before you can say “Tiananmen Square,” but they’re really pretty shy and polite with westerners. Beyond all of that, it also helps that a lot (a whole lot) of Chinese tourists take absolutely terrible pictures with no concern whatsoever for people in the background. Often, we’re one of only a few people who seem to be really after grabbing pics at the postcard spots without random strangers photo-bombing our shots, doddling in the background. Continue reading Thinning the herd in Beijing
After several days in China, we have learned the secret to finding satisfaction with our visit. Always set the bar low, and expect waaaayy less than you are told you will get, and then when “it” happens, either it meets your expectation or you will be pleasantly surprised. By “it” I mean everything you can possibly do, or place you can go, or thing you think you might want to buy. For example, if someone says, “Oh, this fabric is 100% cotton,” or “100% silk” in your mid you must think “In China, 100% cotton or silk = 100% polyester.” That way, when you actually feel the fabric, you aren’t disappointed, and you know what you’re looking at. If you still like it, then start bargaining. Continue reading The Temple of Heaven
Crowds are virtually inescapable in Asia. Looking at professional pictures of isolated jungle temples or beautiful monuments without a soul in sight can awaken the inner explorer, dreaming of wandering alone through the sites in the pictures. When one actually makes it to the site, it’s usually a disappointment to find that other “explorers” have thought the same thing–and that actually, there isn’t anything new or unusual about your plans or visit. I say usually, because from what I understand, some cultures see the presence of crowds as a desirable thing, since it means they’re “in the right place” to see what they want to see. But unless it’s a concert or social event, us Westerners envision the pictures in “Lonely Planet” when we imagine what our vacation should look like. Sadly, the crowds in Asia don’t exactly match up with that ideal. So, you have two choices: 1) Deal with the crowds or 2) Find ways to “thin the herd,” so to speak. Mike and I have dealt with our fair share of crowds, but we’ve found a few key things that actually limit them. Generally, there are three factors that really minimize the numbers at an otherwise desirable location: Distance, Physical Exertion, and Money. If there’s a “near” option and a “far” option, the “near” option will almost always have more crowds. Also, of course, the cheaper and easier the activity is, the more uncomfortably crowded it will be. Continue reading Hiking the “Wild Wall” in China
As it turns out, Chinese people love “Chinatowns” so much that they actually have them in their own country. I mean sure, we’ve seen Chinatown’s in American and Canadian cities, even in Mexico. On this trip, we’ve seen them everywhere but Russia. We didn’t really spend any time at any of them because we figured we’d be seeing the real thing in China, right? Well, it turns out…. the markets here mostly look like any other old Chinatown. It got me wondering though, the Chinese are so good at creating counterfeit knock-offs (they even created counterfeit Apple stores here, WTF) is it possible that we’re actually traveling in a Chinese knock-off of China? These guys are pretty tricky, I wouldn’t put it past them. One good point on the Chinatown shopping…. You really don’t have to worry whether the cheap-o souvenirs are made in China, because you already know they ALL are! That keeps it simple at least. Continue reading Chinatown in China
The rain finally caught up to us. We’ve travelled through India and Southeast Asia during rainy season with maybe one hour (cumulative) of rain in our way. It was great. But today, it finally caught up with us and we had a full day of rain. Miserable, heavy, angry sheets of rain. I suppose it will help clear the Beijing sky, since the smog made it look like we were in Silent Hill when we arrived yesterday.
Anyhow, when all this rain started pouring down on us we were at the Summer Palace of Beijing. It looks and feels alot like the China Pavilion at EPCOT, with its carefully manicured lawns and picturesque architecture and serene scenes. On a nice day the palace grounds would be stunning, but on a day like today, we couldn’t help but worry about when the rain would stop! At one point, we went down into a little shopping area modeled after a Chinese market in Suzhou. When the rain came, tons of mud went gushing on to one section of sidewalk in this area. People were struggling to stay dry and keep their nice little white shoes clean, but it was all for nothing. Mike called it the “Summer Palace Mudslide.” Everyone at the park got soaked today. Continue reading Heavy rain in EPCOT Beijing
Step into your local Wal-Mart or Dollar Tree and you will find many imported “goods” from China. In fact, I can almost guarantee that you have at least several items around you at this very moment with a label that says “Made in China.” And how is that? I mean, yeah, we all know the quick answer: Cheap labor and business outsourcing, right? But have you ever stopped to think that maybe there is a little more to this? We’ve all seen what a well oiled (pardon the pun) machine a family owned Chinese take-out place is…and usually they do some brisk (and delicious) business!
Well, having been in China a few days, we’ve started to wonder how there can be so much blatant branding, advertising, and so many status symbols in a country that is supposed to be Communist! Doesn’t that basically mean it isn’t Communism anymore, except in theory? Continue reading For being Communists, they sure are good Capitalists.
Today we headed out bright and early for a day trip to Huangluo Yao village. The village is pretty much part of the Guilin sightseeing trifecta, along with a cruise on the Li River and several of the city tour sights. The main attraction at this village is the rice terraces built all along the side of a mountain. They have some real postcard-perfect scenery in the place, and from the books and postcards we saw in shops, it looks like a pretty amazing village year round. In winter, the terraces are covered in snow, which looks very interesting. Early in the spring, they flood with water, and sunrise and sunset pics reflecting off the water look really incredible. In the fall, the drying rice crop colors the scene gold. We’re here well into the summer though, and were met with lush green terraces, which was also very pretty. Continue reading The Longji Rice Terraces
A couple of years ago, while living in Miami for a time, we had the pleasure of making a pretty regular habit of Cuban cuisine. One of the Cuban offerings that really became a habit during that time was the coffee. Specifically, a beverage called a Cortadito. In the spectrum of Cuban coffee drinks, a cortadito falls right in the middle between the potent dark black colada served in little thimbles, and a cafe con leche, a light milky brew in a regular-sized cup. I’ve often referred to a properly prepared cortadito as the finest coffee beverage crafted by the hand of man. Needless to say, when I was in Miami, I drank a lot of them. One cortadito in the morning became one or two, and none at lunch became one…. ok maybe two…. and just maybe something after work. The point that I realized this was a problem was when Martha and I took a long weekend trip to Puerto Rico from Miami. I really had no sense of the drinkable-heroin habit that had evolved in a matter of months, but it was immediately apparent on that trip. The place we stayed at served us breakfast and “coffee.” Basically, it was steamed and sweetened milk with a dash of instant coffee for color. Hours later, driving through the bright green tropical countryside on our way out to the rainforest, the morning sun glaring through windows, an angry pounding headache began to emerge. A headache that nearly whited out my vision like some washed out photo from a point and shoot camera. This was a caffeine emergency. We pulled off the highway at the first little town, and sure enough, there was a little mom and pop “coffee shop” amongst the storefronts. Martha speaks Spanish, so I was basically like… “tell them I need a cortadito STAT!” Well, there was a lot of Spanish dialogue that ensued, and the guy still looked confused. I never heard the word cortadito used, so I threw that in there, assuming, it being Spanish, surely this guy with several thousand dollars of coffee-brewing apparatus behind him would understand. Instead, I got a confused and slightly humored look from him. Anyhow, Martha explained a little more and before too long I had, I guess, a Puerto Rican “cortadito.” Meh. I’m gonna make a rather broad generalization from our time there: Puerto Rico is not a place where coffee is appreciated. They may brew it, sure. It may be on offering, yes. But sweetened hot milk with brown coloring is not coffee, no matter what language you speak. There is no love in Puerto Rican coffee. Continue reading Puerto Rico is no Cuba… and China is no Vietnam.