Into Hong Kong

The 11-hour overnight bus ride into Shenzhen was our last memory of China. Different from the trains in several ways, and a nice transition between China and Hong Kong.

Sleeper bus to Shenzhen

Sleeper bus to Shenzhen

Not surprisingly, the carriage was full and the underbus luggage compartments so jam-packed that our backpacks only made it on due to the conductor’s brute force. But that’s where the familiar stopped. We have grown accustomed to the eating, drinking, shouting, and smoking on the trains, but stepped onto this bus to the sound of quiet, with the conductor asking us to please remove our shoes and place them in the designated bag. Jeff took his space on the top berth window bunk, while I was stuck with the top bunk in the middle aisle of the carriage. I think they assign small people to the middle. After fluffing my pillow and arranging my bag and shoes and self into position for the night, I was amused to find a seatbelt attached to the bed. I laughed, but there was a short portion of the ride where I put it to use in order to remain in bed while the bus took some sharp turns. During bathroom stops, passengers quietly tiptoed through the aisles off and on the bus. I kept waiting for a loud phone conversation or music, but the ride was peaceful and uneventful.

Anyway, our friend Terrence, has been generous enough to host us for our entire stay in Hong Kong. We’ve been spoiled again with the comforts of home, a refrigerator, a washing (and drying!) machine, cable TV, wifi, and an amazingly awesome view of the Hong Kong harbor and skyline (ok, the last one is not actually a comfort of home, just a pretty cool comfort). It’s been months since we’ve been able to stay with a friend, and while some of the hostels might be nicer than we expected, they can’t compare with the feeling of staying at a friend’s place and the benefit of their company and hospitality.

View from rooftop bar

View from rooftop bar

We have been in Hong Kong for a few days now. I like this place. Maybe not so much as a backpacker, but I imagine for vacation or business or residence, it could be great. I wonder if they need speech therapists here. I’m told they do. The tough thing about traveling through trendy cities is the effect it has on the small amount of vanity I have left. The skyline is gorgeous. The people are beautiful. The malls are ridiculous. Last night after a delicious Shanghainese dinner, we went out for a drink. We took an elevator up to the top of a high building, and when the doors opened to the rooftop bar and view of the city lights sparkling below, I actually gasped. Then I remembered to try to act like this is where I hang out every Thursday night. I’m feeling a bit like a country bumpkin, which I assume might be uncomfortable already if that was true, but despite being a “world traveler” (I guess I’m allowed to self proclaim that now?), I am also a city girl at heart. I don’t yet know how to reconcile these two people and respective ideologies, but I hope to find a way.

Posted: October 1st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Hong kong | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

For the Animal Lovers Out There…

Posted: September 23rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: China | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

When Macaques Attack…

So we decided to climb Mt. Emei. This is when my aversion to stairs really solidified, but already I digress. After walking up and down thousands of steps for about 15 kilometers, we reached the Qingyin Pavilion, a few kilometers after which is the Ecological Monkey Zone. There were hordes of tourist groups that day, so I was hoping to see a monkey or two. As we approached the entrance to the zone, vendors were selling bags of monkey food to those who wished to feed the monkeys. We decided not to engage in the feeding of wild animals and walked on. A sign posted near the entrance stated all the dos and don’ts involved in dealing with the monkeys, and there was a nicely written statement about how the locals and macaques have lived harmoniously together for years. Several meters past the sign, I spotted my first lone Macaque monkey walking across a hanging bridge. A few seconds later, a groundskeeper hit the monkey with a large stick of bamboo. “That man just HIT a monkey!” I exploded in astonishment and anger, as the monkey cowered and ran up into a tree. We were crossing the bridge as I continued on about this act of animal cruelty, when a mother macaque with baby attached jumped down and grabbed Jeff’s water bottle out of his backpack holder in one swift move. She then promptly bit open the bottle and enjoyed the beverage, sharing some with her baby, and dripping some down on us from her spot on the branch above. I looked around and saw macaques of all sizes all over the place-on the bridge, the railings, sitting on rocks, in the foliage. I also noticed that the groundskeepers who seemed to be everywhere, all had long sticks and slingshots. It was at this point I began to think that these macaques were too crafty for their own good. At the same moment, I spotted a very large male macaque walking calmly through the crowd of people. For some reason, he ignored all the people and their tangle of legs, bags, cameras, and monkey food and weaved his way straight towards me. As he came closer with no signs of slowing, I thought it best to show no fear. This was a wild animal after all-maybe a show of dominance would prove to him that I was not afraid and he would go away. Really dumb. I should have learned my lesson from the incident with the baboon on the car in Kenya, but apparently I have a thick skull. So, I yelled something, swung out my leg and kicked at him. Note that I did not actually kick him, just at him. Either way, he did not like this one bit, which I realized as soon as he bared his teeth and growled. The rest happened so fast, it’s all a blur. The next thing I knew he had leapt from the ground and was flying through the air. He jumped on me, the force of which knocked me over. Luckily, there was a large boulder to the side which I was able to grab on to as I screamed my lungs out. Jeff tells me that he was yelling by this point too and that he was preparing himself to fight the monkey, but at the same moment as all the tourists turned to see the commotion, the nearest groundskeeper appeared with her stick and chased the male off. Whew. I had escaped with barely a few scratches.

Looking all innocent

Looking all innocent

After that, it is safe to say that I did not enjoy the rest of the hike through the Ecological Monkey Zone. I tried to remain near any groundskeeper at all times, with their sticks and slingshots. And despite my indignation several minutes earlier, any time a macaque came too close (which was often), I found myself whispering to myself, “Get it! Hit it…hit it!!!!” which sadly they often did. Some of the ladies appeared to take a perverse pleasure in chasing the monkeys with their sticks, and playing games of monkey slingshot. Even though I was still a bit shaky from the incident, it made me really sad to see that several of the monkeys were a bit bloodied. I would like to think it was all nature, part of living in the wild, maybe a rivalry between packs, but I also think I know better.

A macaque monkey (not the culprit) and one freaked out girl

A macaque monkey (not the culprit) and one freaked out girl

Posted: September 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: China | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

On the Midnight Train to Guilin

For us, China will have been traversed by either bus or train. Other than the one sleeper bus to Shenzen, buses have been thankfully, fortunately mundane in nature. Trains though, have been the marathon in the rain…have been Mao’s Long March…have been like an elephant’s pregnancy. In other words, they have felt, um, rich in analogies.
There are four main categories of train—hard seater, soft seater, hard sleeper, soft sleeper. Hard seaters are what they are—plain seats, usually in groups of six sitting across from each other and separated by a small table. People overflow (overselling of tickets?) and have to stand in the aisles for the entire journey. Vendors move up and down the same skinny aisle selling spinning tops, packaged cucumbers, and herbal remedies. This is the mode in which China’s 1.3 billion people move around the country. It feels cramped and crowded with both luggage and people.
Soft seaters are the Arnold Schwarzeneggar to the hard seaters Danny Devito, or so we’ve been told since we haven’t actually ridden one. The chairs are supposed to be cushy, roomy, and recline. There is no overcrowding. I imagine there is a bottle of Chinese Grey Poupon next to each chair.
Soft sleepers we’ve been told are also the reloaded 2.0 version of the hard sleeper. Elegant and roomy, it’s like a hotel room on tracks. I hear it even comes with slippers and people change into pajamas in it.
The hard sleeper, by contrast has two rows of bunks, each three bunks high. Each set of six bunks has a small table on the floor level. And this set up is repeated over and over down the length of the car. There are no walls or doors separating you from everyone else’s snoring, ringtones, etc. Each bunk comes with a pillow and blanket, which are not washed after each use, but maybe after some usage…
A typical hard sleeper experience starts with us picking up our bags from the hostel luggage check, and going to the train station at 11:30 pm. Outside the train station are hundreds, sometimes thousands of people; touts working on new arrivals, some groups of people talking on benches and others with mats pulled out on the sidewalk sleeping next to their luggage. We enter the train station, pass the metal detector, and scan the signs to see which waiting room in the building we will be in. We find our boarding area and sit down, trying to glimpse other people’s tickets to make sure we are in the right area. People spit in the rows next to us and shirtless, shoeless men lay out on chairs trying to catch some sleep before they have to board and probably before they have to appear more presentable. A child pees between two seats, which surprisingly causes no reaction from the strangers in the two seats. 2-3 minutes before our train is scheduled to arrive, people seem to know to queue up. We wrestle into position. Women, teenagers, old men randomly, periodically push past us and everyone else in the queue in order to cut to the front. It is tolerated and accepted by all.
Then, at some seemingly designated time, we all push forward together. We’re caught up in a wave of elbows pushing out, shoulders maneuvering bodies forward until we get to the bottleneck that is the station attendant who hole punches each ticket. Then it’s off to the races. We, and everyone else, run down the hallway towards our platform number. People with small children or big luggage fall behind the able-bodied. As we are taking the steps two at a time, a woman loses her plastic jug of pickled something or other. It rolls ahead of her, then us as people are giggling. Then it explodes on the man at the bottom of the stairs in a burst of violet. The laughter stops, but people’s feet never do. The man looks back, shakes his head, and we all move on. I hope he doesn’t have to sit/sleep in those clothes, but I hope even more that he’s not in my cabin. Eventually we arrive, slightly out of breath, to our platform and have to quickly scan in which direction our car is. When we figure it out, we run towards it and see a minimob already fighting to get on. We enter into the group queue, which is no queue at all and push our way on. Once on the train, everyone is trying to find their bunk and find precious space for their luggage. I put mine on the rack, then go about the business of moving the bags near mine to make room for Mari’s. And once our bags are up, we can finally breathe.
People usually talk and sit on the bottom bunk till about 10 o’clock, when it’s lights out. No one changes their clothing, I hardly ever see a toothbrush make an appearance. But there is a lot of eating. From the moment the train lunges forward till it makes it’s last hissing stop, people are eating. I watched one grandma go through 2 drinks, a large pack of sunflower seeds, a bowl of noodles, 3 hard-boiled eggs, and some pastries in a 3 hour period. It’s like a picnic here.
After the lights go out, people generally settle in for the night. You just hope no one in your near vicinity is a bad snorer. My bunkmate turns out not to be, though he does decide to turn his cell phone/mp3 player on high and hold it out while he closes his eyes. Apparently he needs music to fall asleep and thinks I do also. Considerate of him, but he’s also put it on repeat, so the same song blares over and over. I pray he has a short battery life. People in the bunks above me move up and down throughout the night, readily using me to help prop them up to their bunk. I kick them off and they move on, neither of us caring.
The following day is usually filled with Mari and I moving between reading, taking naps, and staring out the window. People continue to eat. One man with dress shoes, dress socks, slacks, but no shirt paces by me continuously. His rhythm is only interrupted when he covers one nostril and blows snot out of the other onto the train floor. Over the next half hour I observe him spitting 3 times on the floor (and once out the window), cleaning his bellybutton and making those dirt worms roll off his body. I say, “disgusting” at him, knowing he can’t understand me, but feeling well within boundaries if he does. Mari comes back from the toilet to tell me it doesn’t work.
Eventually, the train thins out from the stops along the way and we grab seats along the windows, staring out to the constantly moving landscape. China’s rice terraces and crowded cities zoom past, as do the hills by Yangshuo, the Li river and mud-brick villages.

Posted: September 21st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: China | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

Facebook Status Update

In honor of Facebook, which has been blocked during our time in China, here are a few things that I have come to like, dislike, and am undecided about while in the great country of China….Facebook-style.

Mari has become a fan of….
1) Hostels in China – Contrary to popular and belief and all expectations, every hostel (and even cheap hotel) has been awesome. Surprisingly clean, as well as backpacker-friendly (with free wifi, book exchange, café/bar, free train/bus station pick-up, the works!)
2) Blue sky – never realized how much I love seeing blue, until going three weeks without (mostly due to smog and pollution as opposed to weather)
3) Street food – ‘nuff said
4) Signage in what has become known as “Chinglish”. Quite amusing. Here are a few examples: “Deformed Man Toilet” = Restroom for the disabled; “Slip carefully” = Watch your step; “Don’t stroke the works” = Do not touch.
5) Personal space – Not that I have ever NOT been a fan, but after spending any amount of time in lines/buses/malls/streets/etc. or having the lady next to me on the train put her nylon-clad feet all up on my legs and alternate that with using me as a backrest, I am all for personal space.

Mari has become NOT a fan of…
1) Spitting – especially in confined indoor spaces OR when point of contact is on or near my shoe
2) Long nails – Particularly long fingernails on men, and long toenails on women (this is not exclusive to China…just a general pet peeve of mine)
3) Macaque monkeys – see future blog on this subject
4) Censorship – I had almost forgotten some of the rights we have at home that get taken for granted. In addition to blocked websites, such as Facebook and YouTube, there are quite a few other websites that are not allowed/censored, but you only find out after waiting and waiting while it fails to load. Also, one of our fellow travelers gave us a copy of a banned book about China, but we have to hide the cover when reading in public places.

Mari has yet to make up her mind about….
1) Sleeper trains – entirely dependent upon one’s cabin mates and length of journey
2) Crotchless pants for tots – Not the cutest look, but functional.
3) The “half shirt” look – Men have no qualms about rolling up their shirts to expose the belly (and I have yet to see a six-pack). More power to them, I guess. It is hot, after all. But if they can, why can’t I??
4) Hot pot – so good, but soooo hot. Worth it?
5) Stairs (never had anything against them before, but they are everywhere….after climbing thousands of stairs, seeing them makes me cringe).

Posted: September 20th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: China | Tags: , , , | No Comments »


So far China has been a lot of things, and one that stands out has been the food. I think it is fair to say that we have run the gamut in terms of fine dining and cheap eats. And my taste buds (for the most part) are happy. Maybe one of the biggest challenges of travel for me has been the issue of food. It is not realistic to have aesthetically-pleasing, well-balanced, finger-licking good meals every day while traveling on a budget. But in some countries it’s easier than in others. China is one of these. So we’ve splurged and done the Peking Duck thing, which was and will be the most we’ve spent on any meal during this entire trip. Typically though, we’ve been more than happy with the awesome street food (my favorite so far, the spicy pork on giant skewers) and all the bakeries with their baos and sesame balls and dan tats and deep fried goodness. All for just a few cents! YUM. Half the time, we don’t even know what we’re ordering. We just point, pay, and wind up pleasantly surprised.

Quail eggs on skewer

Quail eggs on skewer

Last week we found ourselves on a side street in the polluted transit city of Shijiazhuang. The Lonely Planet states that there is no reason to go there, except to pass through, and unfortunately we could see why. Here were our food options for lunch: A California Beef Noodle King USA. A Yoshinoya/Dairy Queen (a common pairing in China). And several over-priced looking restaurants, one called Sushi Beef. Hmmmm. Or….a trip down a tiny, dirty, alleyway lined with food carts.

Food cart alley it was. No menus here. No English either. We walked slowly by each cart, some set up with as many as twelve different dishes in trays, looking for something appealing. We passed over the pig noses and vat of chicken feet. We slowed down in front of the next cart and started pointing. We got a heaping plate of three different dishes (an onion dish, a bean sprout dish, and a tofu dish). As there was no seating outside and no apparent eating area inside, I had figured we’d get a take-away container of sorts. So when I was handed the heavy plastic plate, I just stood there and did my best pantomime of “Where to eat?” It became evident that we were to go inside. Behind the food cart, past a heap of dirty buckets and trash were a couple of steps leading down around a corner. As I rounded the corner, I spilled an enormous amount of sauce on the concrete floor. I looked back apologetically, but even though they witnessed it, no one seemed to mind. I looked up and it became clear why. There was a pile of black dirt, about waist high on my left, heaps of debris, garbage, and old food on either side, and through the dump there were four tables in a dimly lit concrete compound. There was food all over the floor. No décor whatsoever. The tables and floor were covered in sauce stains (evidently both freshly made as well as days/weeks old). It was the kind of place where you just know you will see a roach or rat if you look hard enough. There were a few middle-aged men, sitting around and drinking, who stared as we entered. Toward the end of our meal, a fly dropped dead and landed upside down on our table. But the food was delicious. Really really good. The three dishes, plus two bowls of rice the man brought over, were 60 cents total. It was so good that I told Jeff I would consider coming back for dinner, but that I might have to eat with my eyes closed.

This week we tried hot pot in Sichuan the night we left Chengdu with our friend, Cat and her friend, Chris.  Luckily, their Mandarin is better than ours and although “not spicy” was not an option, we were able to order a safe selection of items for our pot.  It was HOT, but good.  The real deal.  Like shabu shabu, but with a giant pot of deep red spicy broth with a layer of Sichuan and chili peppers covering the surface, instead of plain boiling water.  A little intimidating, but I’m glad we got to try it.  Plus, it gave us an excuse to go for ice cream immediately after dinner to soothe the burning in our mouths.  Awesome.

Hot Pot and some fixin's

Hot Pot and some fixin's

Posted: September 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: China | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

Lost my Face

China is a shame based society. This I know. Being driven by the possibility of being shamed still wears on Chinese Americans. It’s engrained somewhere deep, untouchable; unlike so much else that has eroded away with the generations of American lineage. So even though China is 8 months and 16 countries into our trip, I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised that in the build up to it I felt different. It felt so…loaded. I was as anxious landing in Beijing as I had been when we first left for Mexico in January. I don’t speak a lick of mandarin, and fare barely better in Cantonese. But I should, right? I mean, if I’m Chinese, I must be able to speak it…Your parents/grandparents didn’t speak it to you growing up? What a shame…However, I was also excited for the opportunity to reconcile the China I’ve always pictured in my mind, to maybe even learn what it is to be Chinese and in turn understand what is still distinctly Chinese about me.
Beijing has been the perfect intro period for me into China. Beijing is the capital. Beijing is the Great Wall of China. Beijing is the Forbidden City…is great food…is stifled democracy…is where the servers are housed that censor the internet…It is…it is…it is…Everything that is good and bad with China revolves around this city. And with the crests and valleys of Beijing rode my own pride and shame.
Mari and I had decided before we had our first meal in Beijing that we were going to splurge and try the Peking duck. It’s one of our favorite meals back at home, and we couldn’t pass up having it in its namesake. We arrived at the famous roasted duck restaurant, nicknamed Old Duck, to a hive of activity. 5:20 pm and all of the tables and halls were already full. Two waiting areas were filling up and the hostesses were being swamped. Mari and I, still a little slow in giving up the concepts of a queue or personal space, made our way to the hostess to get a number. After 4 people pushed pass us, we accomplished our mission.
As we sat in the waiting area, other people admired the artifacts along the wall, played with their children, talked with one another. We stared at our number and tried to figure out how to recognize when they called us. We tried to remember the groups who were in front of us. We made regular eye contact with the hostess and gave her our confused looks. Finally, we noticed that the hostess had said something over the loudspeaker, and subsequently her looking around was going unanswered. And right when we were wondering whether to check if she had called us, “84” was shouted into the microphone. In English. Just for us.
Our table was in the middle of the lively restaurant, letting us see the chefs carve the ducks at nearby tables and feast on the culinary smells around us. We ordered (again in English) to our waiter, who did his best to communicate with us, even explaining that the sauce and scallions were part of the dish. When our Peking duck arrived we were practically salivating. Our waiter, placed the dish on the table, then offered to show me how it is eaten by making me my first one. I tried to tell him that it wasn’t necessary…that I knew how to eat my favorite meal…that of course I knew how to eat it—I’m Chinese! But then, why can’t you speak Chinese?
Instead, I smiled as he manipulated my chopsticks and spoon to make me my little sandwich and weakly told him “xie xie.” Surrounding tables looked at me, giving me their confused looks. And I had nothing to offer them in return. No answers, knowledge, or way of making them understand that despite my looking like them, I was clearly not. Somewhere, over the generations, something had been lost.

waiter showing me how to eat

waiter showing me how to eat

Posted: September 1st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: China | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

I Choose Ignorance

So far there seems to be a continuing theme and breach of Western etiquette when it comes to nose-picking. As in Kenya, here in our first few Asian countries, the act of picking ones nose in public does not elicit the same response as it would at home. Believe it or not, a person can actually be having a conversation with you while simultaneously fishing for something in his/her nostril. Without a tissue. I am having a hard time with this. It would be all fine and dandy, except that it is so commonplace, and with both men and women, that I have had to convince myself that none of those ladies whom I have witnessed with finger(s) in nose, have ever prepared or handled any of the food I’ve eaten. Yet another case where ignorance is bliss.

Posted: September 1st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: China | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »