Thursday, February 2, 2012

Superpower? Ok....

China. It's dirty. Really dirty. Get on the bus, somehow fitting a massive bag on your lap while studiously ignoring the blatantly pissed off middle aged Chinese woman on your right who has her own selection of bagged goods but who feels as though you might be over doing it. Try and decipher street signs and exit names by playing a matching game using a piece of paper you're clutching onto for dear life. Or attempt to communicate with the aforementioned woman on your right, who has already proven uninterested in your travels, and only manage to mispronounce the name of your destination and be interrupted by someone with a hacking cough who then proceeds to spit onto the floor of the bus. Dangerously close to your foot. Now, you still dont know where the bus is taking you, but you sure as hell hope the last guy you tried to communicate with was right on in pointing you towards this bus. Next the woman on your right decides to make a phone call to her offspring, but because the bus is so full, her husband is a few rows in front of her, so whatever shall they do? Solution: speakerphone. Easy. Now, you are not a mandarin speaker, but able to pick up on repetition, and they must have been yelling the same thing back and forth for ten minutes. Hopefully it was a productive conversation. You are dumped out of the bus eventually, in the middle of a main-looking road, with a divider down the middle, cars racing past, it's now after dark and so there a lot of lit up things and movement. A lot of movement. You try to show your hostel name to a cab driver who is jumping for your business in such a way that he is leaning on the hood of his car, smoking a cigarette and trying to motion you over. Alas, he doesnt understand your sad attempt to pronounce the street name or your exuberant gesturing. Welcome to China.
Our first stop was Yangshuo, a smallish town two hours outside of Guilin with the most unbelievable mountains looking like floating mossy covered teeth; jagged around the edges, not rolling and continuous. Its a tourist town for sure, and let that mean domestic tourists. Of course there are international tourists, but in china the amount of domestic travelers prevails. In any case, we were able to book a nice little hostel in advance, and upon arrival we realized that we were essentially VIPs. We had the place to ourselves. Needless to say we still stayed in the cheapest room, that being the 5th floor 8-person bunk room. It was as though we lived at the top of a very cold castle (no heat) and had a requirement of four beds apiece. The owner was a delightful man who offered us tea and rice wine and took awfully good care us. Before we left there he asked me to please rewrite his chalkboard list of tourist activities and I did so happily, and so I felt like I contributed to china. Perhaps not to the whole country, but certainly to one Chinese man. In Yangshuo, we began our affair with tea. Puerh, dandelion, rose, green, chrysanthemum, and so many more. We wandered in to a small tea shop one night and sat down with the owner and drank about a billion thimbles of tea. She taught us about tea ceremonies, and proper tea preparation, and tea distribution and tea taste. I think Sarah was floating on a cloud in paradise. We talked of tea pots and tea cups, and drank as drank and drank. I was beginning to feel very well hydrated. We returned to this very shop a second time, and made some purchases with our new found intelligence about tea, and to thank our new friend for her time and tea and information.
In Yangshuo, we also were able to take a cooking class, and a fantastic one at that. Being that we were traveling through China during low season, what might have once been a 15 person class became a semi-private lesson. Our instructor was cute as can be, and an awesome chef. Her English name was Jennifer. It used to be Hannah, actually, but her friends name was also Hannah so she decided to change it in order to avoid confusion. We met her at the market in the morning to get our groceries for the class and have a sort of personalized tour through the market. The Chinese markets appear to just always be open..24 hours. It was in this large place, reminiscent of a warehouse full of tables and tables and tables piled high with vegetables, fruit, sundries, nuts, raw meat, cooked meat, cages of live animals, tofu; the works. Along the sides are women sitting next to small individual fires with big low and wide buckets of snails (a specialty in Yangshuo). We sorted through the vegetables and picked our necessary items. On one side of the market is where you find the butchers with the live animals and it's a noisy ordeal and heart wrenching, especially seeing the live dogs and cats in their cages and hearing their whines. Jennifer let us know that it's not allowed to photograph the butchery. So we ambled out, laden with bags of vegetables and tofu and fish and chicken for Sarah, and eating the delicious sweet steamed bread that is common around china, and we found the car and headed to our class. The location was tres picturesque. We were right on the river, and it was about 11am so the lighting was awfully nice, and a table for two was set up on the balcony overlooking the nice view. We each had our own stations and sarah and i played copy cat through five delicious dishes which jennifer demonstrated and explained flawlessly. We made the exemplary Chinese eggplant, beer fish (a traditional Yangshuo specialty... I made beer tofu), cashew chicken (I used lotus favorite veg), bok choy, and stuffed mushrooms. It was a feast, and when coupled with a cold watery Chinese beer and the sunshine, you couldn't beat it.
Moon hill was our let's be active portion of Yangshuo. Its a popular very easy climb with an unusual rock structure atop it. It's like an extraordinarily tall flattened circular boulder with a giant hole carved out of the middle. Quite nice to look at. The "hike" up was maybe 30 minutes or so and there was a man made staircase the whole way... how very challenging. We made it up and were accosted by a Chinese woman selling water and coca cola who knew about three words of English and really wanted to take our picture for us and receive some money in return. A boy in a red sweater was rock climbing the underside of the moon hill rock structure and it looked very fun and also very frightening. He seemed to be enjoying himself. We took loads of photographs and enjoyed the spectacular view, then made our way back to our home on a bus/van type vehicle that was driving by and pulled over to wave us in for 3 rnb to get back into the center of town. Lovely. The Chinese girls on the bus thought we were funny. Maybe we are. I suppose you can never know yourself for sure. The next day was our bus, train, bus, bus trip to Jinghong. A fiasco or traveling and lugging things, and eating peanut butter crackers.

Saturday, January 14, 2012


As its been about a month since I was even in hong kong, I figure now's as good a time as any to write about it. after having been in Bali, stepping into an airport that was clean, and technologically advanced and bustling was like an ice bath. It couldn't have been more different, yet somehow I couldn't shake the feeling that I had accidentally taken some super fast plane and ended up in NYC. Lesson one: all major metropolitan cities are the same, just different ( much like the rest of the world, as ive learned...get to that later). Thanks to the college roommate of my parents' next door neighbor, and her family, Sarah and I could not have had a better experience in Hong Kong. We made it to their beautiful top floor apartment on the outskirts of the city just in time to see the sun setting over the ocean... and we thought we'd never again see a sunset like the ones in Bali...pff. Otis and Susan greeted us with big glasses of wine, veggies and dip, and the feeling we were at home with our families. Coming from the grimy inn in kuta, we were in absolute paradise. They have three little boys, Mason and Austin (7) and Harper (4 and a half). Possibly the most adorable children on earth. They were very excited to have new friends at home and we spent the night watching their totally awesome dance moves to flo rida, mj, and usher. These kids are going to be something big, with those personalities. The energy was so refreshing and revitalizing, having this beautiful family around us. Susan ever so kindly wrote us down in my infallible little notebook some suggestions of what to do and see in hong kong.
First morning: Dim sum attempt. So why not try and tackle dim sum the first morning in china? well turns out it can be awfully important to know mandarin. Starts off with Sarah and me trying to ask where the bus comes to, only to end up having a cab called for us. Ok, no big, sort of expensive but whatever, we'll deal. Next, we tell the cabbie "town hall dim sum" in central. So he instead decides that he likes a different place better for dim sum and drops us off at this seemingly random dim sum place somewhere in hong kong. So we go with it, what else can you do? We climb up some stairs and emerge into a linoleum floored, fluorescent-ly lit cafeteria full of people, reminiscent of elementary school lunch, and we are ushered to one of the many round tables, and we join the other five who are already partially immersed in their dim sum experience. Having only ever had dim sum at single pebble, I wouldn't say my experience prepared me at all for what was to come. There are people pushing steaming carts around, and more people shuffling about to gather around said carts in order to see what's offered. It's as though this might be the last food on earth or something, the way you can be pushed, elbowed and shoved out of the way. Our luck was spot on that day, however, for there were English speaking people at our table, and so a
kindly middle aged woman told us what each dish was. As a vegetarian... it's exceedingly difficult to know whether something is truly meat free, so Sarah was a tester. It felt like ten minutes the whole whirlwind time we were in there, people stamping our card and thrusting food in front of us, and washing our bowls and cups and chopsticks with boiling hot tea. We seemed to explode back out onto the street after, like a character being sent back into the real world after her journey through a wonderland of sorts.
We took to wandering the streets and beginning to understand the layout of the city. Everything is so damn clean, it's a tad unbelievable. One of the cleanest cities I've been to, and the polar opposite of the rest of China. We made our way through the Louis Vuitton and Gucci section of town, as well as the southeast Asian market section. One of the days we found our way to the peak tram. Hong Kong isn't really a place with loads of tourist attractions, it's mostly a city like any other, but this was definitely THE tourist attraction. We waited in an orderly line for our turn to board the tram, and when it only took about 3 minutes to get to the top, we sort of wish we had just walked... I had anticipated perhaps a bit
of a ride around for the views, but nope. We were deposited in the midst of this shopping mall on the highest point in Hong Kong and climbed up to the observatory with a 360 degree view of the city only to find Rolando Blackman hanging out right next to me with his girlfriend. We took some secret photos. The sunset was red and big and beautiful so we walked down to a little overlook, really a very insignificant location as it were, yet my cousin Shephard just happened to be in that place at the exact same time. Fancy that. So we exchanged shocked hellos and introduced our friends and chatted a bit and then went on our merry ways. It's sort of like a dream when things like that happen. What are the odds of being on a hilltop overlook in a huge city at the exact same time that your cousin just so happens to be on that exact same overlook? I'd say slim to none, but maybe odds are improving.
Otis and Susan were the best hosts we could have asked for and each night was full of wine and food and good old fashioned family fun. The boys loved having people to entertain and we loved being entertained. They kindly had insisted we stay with them for the duration of our stay in HK. Otis also helped us plan out the next bits of our China adventure. His travel agent booked us flights to Guilin, and he sorted out all of our bus information and gave us great insight and tips about traveling in China; not to mention allowing us to use his office/apartment in Shanghai instead of staying in a hostel. This family is a godsend, so incredibly thoughtful and in the most selfless of ways.
Our last night in HK we made a serious effort to make it to the waterfront on the Kowloon side to see the ever talked about light show. First things first, HK as a city has the most outrageous lighting. We were there around holiday time, so there were lights in the shapes of prancing reindeer, falling snowflakes, jolly santas, and then some... all on the sides of sky scrapers. It is so bright, brighter than NYC. Essentially every building has lights on the side of it. So, we figure the light laser show has got to be something awfully special. Turns out, it's a bunch of green lasers dancing about the sky and off of buildings, synchronized to a song that could have been in a dark scene of Fantasia. Really, not altogether too impressive. I think that letdown comes with the fact that the lights are already so wowing and effective, it's hard to go any bigger than they already have. Still. One hundred percent worth it to take the ferry over to Kowloon just to look at the city from the bank there. It's like the opening scene of a broadway musical.
The next morning we rose at 445, bright eyed and bushy tailed (as if), and Otis drove us to Kowloon to the bus station, and this began our journey into China.