travel

Jan 18, 2012

Chengdu: The city to the north

Slideshow time

A street scene in Chengdu
The Chengdu photo album is here.

After a false attempt in October, we finally made it to Chengdu last week. And we were pretty much in love with it from the minute we got there. It’s a much bigger city than Luzhou (“very modern” all our students say about it), with a much more cosmopolitan flair. In fact, it’s known throughout China for its love of mixing of international styles. We could (and did) find everything from tacos to Indian food to spaghetti to cool local street snacks. And these were enjoyed equally by locals and ex-pats alike. (OK, the tacos were at a total ex-pat hang.)

It’s not actually that nice looking of a city; everything’s all grey and concrete, and modernization here tends to equal giant, sprawling highways and shopping complexes. But the spirit of the city has little to do with the horrible architecture.

It’s a city for relaxing and hanging out - almost a cafe culture, but with walls and chairs optional. Anywhere there is space to, people gather with friends to drink tea and chat or play cards and what have you. They do this in bars and restaurants, in the park, at little noodle stalls, on their front stoops, anywhere. It’s all about straight chillin’. And, from glasses of wine in the book store to cups of tea in the park, we loved it.

Jan 15, 2012

Universal truths

How much was your rent?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when two people who’ve lived in New York meet — even in China, even if one of them is a Chinese national — they must discuss real estate prices.

Jan 11, 2012

We Cheng-did it!

Pandas, pizza and a rock show

We’ve arrived safe and sound in Chengdu, the big city to the north of Luzhou. Activities planned: Pandas, pizza and a rock show! The hostel we’re staying in is the cutest, with art by local artists on the wall and dark wood distressed floors. We’re very excited for the week ahead.

Dec 28, 2011

Hong Kong: The MTR

Go underground with the Octopus!

Taking the train

One last post about Hong Kong.

One of the things we really loved about the city was the Metro system. It was clean, fast and convenient, and it looked very much like the London Underground. You could pretty much get anywhere from anywhere via public transportation.

The coolest part, though, was the Octopus smart card. Instead of swiping a Metro Card or using tokens, you just held your pre-paid smart card up to the sensor. You could also use the card to debit purchases at 7-11, McDonalds and other retailers. It was very convenient, and reminded us of the failed smart card program in New York. Catch up, New York, or we’re not coming back.

A crowded escalator underground
Check out a subway photo album.

Dec 22, 2011

Shenzhen: On our way home

Walking over the Chinese border

Emily, on the Shenzhen border
Here’s an album of photos from Shenzhen.

As I may have mentioned, it’s cheaper to fly back to Luzhou from Shenzhen - the city over the Chinese border - rather than going direct from Hong Kong. And the Shenzhen-Luzhou flight runs every other day at 7 am. So Monday evening, after picking up Peter’s passport, we crossed the border back into China so that we’d be ready to catch our Tuesday morning flight.

We took light rail from the center of Hong Kong right to the Lo Wu border checkpoint. A few stops before the checkpoint, a bunch of people swarmed on with huge boxes and burlap sacks. They started handing out items from the boxes and sacks that other swarmers grabbed and secured in their small luggage, making sure that nothing looked lumpy. By the time we reached the checkpoint stop, the boxes and sacks were broken down and out of sight, and everyone left one-by-one. It was extraordinary to see - out of the side of my eye, of course. This didn’t seem like an operation you wanted to get caught staring at.

The crossing itself was easy enough. We filled out departure cards on the Hong Kong side and arrival cards on the Shenzhen side. This particular border crossing is supposed to be the busiest, though we zoomed right through. It went much faster than our crossing the opposite way at Shenzhen Bay. As we were going through customs, we saw a school group doing the same thing - with 50 or so 10-year-old kids! I would not want to be a chaperone on that field trip.

Back in China, you’re immediately confronted with the grayness of Shenzhen. Customs empties out into a big paved expanse with the main rail and metro stations right there. It’s convenient, but ugly. Our hotel was in walking distance, so we walked. The scenery got a little better.

For dinner, we found another Mexican place: Amigos! They had an album of photos outside, next to their menu, showing people enjoying their food. While we were browsing, the host came out, dressed in a serape, to convince us that this was the place for us. We could hear some Australians inside having a good time. One of my travel rules is that you usually find Australians in fun places, so that sealed the deal.

The food was good enough - it was our last real cheese for the foreseeable future. And they had delicious sangria. It was a fun time when we weren’t expecting one, so that’s always nice.

We woke up the next morning at an excruciatingly early 4:30 am to get to the airport by 6. The less said of this, the better.

Dec 20, 2011

Hong Kong: The search for Mexican food

Spoiler: We find some

Our need for pizza sated, the mission Sunday night was Mexican food. We looked up a few places in Central that sounded good.

An awesome thing about Central district: It’s situated on a super steep hill, so they’ve built a giant 800-meter long escalator. There’s a break every block, so you can get off and on where you need to. It’s super cool.

The Mexican place we found was called something like El Taco Loco, and it was just the kind of disgusting cheese-covered junk food we were looking for. It was a super casual place, with tacos and burritos served in red plastic baskets, and it seemed to be super popular with the younger ex-pat crowd.

After eating, we hit up an English-style pub called Waterloo Station. Basically, we wanted to suck up all the foreign-ness that we could before we returned to China.

We found some terrible Mexican food!
Follow the full journey to find Mexican food.

Dec 20, 2011

Hong Kong: Out in Wan Chai

The wall of Scotch

Scotch at Nana's Thai restaurant

To finish up our last night in Hong Kong, we had a bar crawl through Wan Chai, one neighborhood over from the one where we were staying. Seedier spots mixed in with casual pubs and dive bars, and even on a Sunday there were a few people out and about.

Our first stop was Nana’s, a cute little Thai place that specialized in Scotch (pictured). We were a little sad that we had already eaten, because the food smelled so good. It was a funny place to find good Scotch - Nana’s was definitely pulling off a tropical beach shack vibe.

The next two destinations were English pubs: The Bulldog, which leaned toward sports bar, and Trafalgar Pub, also sporty but more refined with overstuffed chairs and dark woods.

At Trafalgar, where we were sitting on the balcony, it started to rain. It was late, and we were tired of spending money, so we called it a night. On the way home, we picked up a bag of pretzels (surprisingly hard to find over here) at the grocery store, and said our goodbyes to Hong Kong. The next morning, we would be picking up Peter’s passport and crossing the boarder back into China proper.

Scotch at Nana's
Check out our Wan Chai photo album.

Dec 18, 2011

Hong Kong: Big Buddha and Po Lin Monastery

And real live cows

Big Buddha in Hong Kong

Oh yeah! More Hong Kong posts.

Our Sunday in Hong Kong was spent on the island of Lantau. This is where the airport is. It’s also where you find Big Buddha and the Po Lin monastery. OK, technically he’s called the Tian Tan Buddha, but everyone calls him Big Buddha - he’s 26 meters tall, the worlds’ largest seated Buddha! And everyone also told us this was a must see sight.

We took a cable car up the mountain where he lives. The views were spectacular. It was hard to believe that such greenery was only a 30 minute subway ride from the center of the city.

At the top, we disembarked in this little “village.” The path to Buddha was lined with tourist shops galore, hawking everything from postcards to expensive jade jewelry. There were also a bunch of fast food options. Nearer to the monastery, they ask you to refrain from meat eating, so your opportunity to it was right there.

This is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city, so it was very crowded, but orderly and clean. There were bubble machines blowing bubbles everywhere, and some cheesey kid activities, including a movie starring a cartoon monkey teaching the value of sharing. It was all very weird and Disney-like.

It got a little less profane as we approached the monastery. Alongside the path, the scenery changed from commerce to Buddha’s soldiers. Signs asked you to respect the Buddhist way of life, which meant no alcohol, no smoking and no meat. I had a turkey sandwich in my bag, but as long as I didn’t flaunt it, I was fine.

The monastery is still in use. In fact, a large part of it is under construction. Inside, the temple, people were kneeling with their shoes off, praying to the deities on display. People had also left them small tributes of fruit and other snacks.

Buddha was at the top of a long set of stairs. He was big! He also afforded a nice view of the surrounding country side. On his chest was a large swastika, which was a somewhat surprising sight. Although later, we looked it up, and of course it’s been used as a Buddhist symbol for thousands of years. It signifies the Buddha’s heart, as well as good fortune. Nothing to do with the Nazis.

On the way back, we spotted a cow that had wandered into the “village.” The fake village is not far from many real villages on the mountain, and the cow must have come from there. At first, I thought it was a statue, until it moved.

We're on our way, in a cable car, up the mountain
We’ve got two full slideshows of photos from our trip. Check them out one and two.

Dec 5, 2011

Hong Kong: Breakfast in Victoria Park

Fruit and croissants in the sun

People lounging on the lawn in Victoria Park
Browse our album of Victoria Park photos.

Our hostel was right near Victoria Park, a lovely expanse of greenspace. Sunday morning, we grabbed some fruit and croissants (ah, bread products!) and had a breakfast picnic.

We weren’t the only people with this idea, of course, on such a sunny day. The park was packed. Women in headscarves were selling tarps for people to spread out on the lawn. People were careful to stick to the shade, and many groups sat under parasols. I’ve finally found a culture where tan isn’t cool! (This actually gets a little creepy when people tell me I’m pretty for being so pale.)

A little ways from where we ate, there was a shallow pool where people brought their motor boats to race one another. There were several older men who seemed quite serious about it. The pool was divided in two, with one section devoted to a more “just for fun” type of hobbyist. We joined the kids in their delight at watching the different little crafts whiz by.

Nov 30, 2011

Hong Kong: The Peak

Going up

The Peak gives a great view of the rest of Hong Kong.
Check out our slideshow of our pictures from The Peak.

Our Saturday night also included a trip up The Peak, a mountain that overlooks Hong Kong’s city center. I’m sure it’s pretty in the day, but at night the views are spectacular. We rode a tram up from town, and as you’ll find most places in Hong Kong, there was a giant mall at the top. We actually had to ask one of the ladies selling tickets if there was an outdoors up there, and could we walk around in it.

Of course there was. There was loads of outdoors, including nature walks and restaurants. We skipped the hiking, however, in favor of a drink on a terrace overlooking the harbor. That’s two terraces in one night.