Tuesday, August 10, 2010

China Vacation

I'm finally home from China!

Last Sunday, I flew to Shanghai with my friend Sarah for a week-long Chinese excursion. After traveling all year, both of us are pretty confident about getting around a foreign country. That being said, I have no idea how most people travel through China on their own. China was amazing, but shockingly difficult to navigate.

After landing in Shanghai, we decided to take a bus from the airport to our hostel. I have a feeling no foreigners ever take the buses. After struggling to figure out which bus to get on, we had no idea how to buy a ticket, and once we boarded the old, squeaky duct-taped-up bus, we were the only tourists. No one on the bus spoke English, and we were confused the entire ride into the city.

We spent our first day in Shanghai battling sweltering heat while eating delicious food, touring People's Park, The Bund, Nanjing Road, the World Financial Center Observatory, and eating dinner with a friend of mine from Wake who now lives in Shanghai. Shanghai was really bizarre. One third of the city looked exactly like Vietnam. It was slightly run-down in a charming way, there were motor-bikes zipping around, and fruit stands on the street. The other third, by the Bund, looked like Europe with towering European style buildings facing the river. The final third looked straight out of the Jetson's. It's futuristic, shiny, and even the employees at the World Financial Center wore uniforms that were quite comparable to those in the last Star Wars movie. I enjoyed the day in Shanghai, but I would never want to spend more than two days there. We were not impressed.

And this is the Shanghai skyline... the Jetson's part if you will

Nanjing Road

The Bund... The European part

Shopper's Paradise

Our second day in Shanghai, we spent half our day trying to procure train tickets to Beijing. After failing for hours due to getting lost and unfriendly Chinese train depot workers who refused to sell us tickets, success was ours with the help from the nice concierge from the Radisson at People's Park who took pity on our sweaty appearance and desperate countenances.

The second half of our day went downhill rapidly as we attempted to get a bus to the small town of Zhou Zhouang. Zhou Zhouang, "The Venice of the East," is a small canal city a few hours outside of Shanghai. Because it is supposed to be very touristy, we decided to go late in the afternoon, stay the night in a hostel we booked in advance, get up early to tour, and head out by lunch the following day in an attempt to beat the day tours. This was probably the best idea we had all week. Anyway, we exited the subway near the bus station only to be greeted by pouring rain. Combined with the heat and what seemed like thousands of pushy Chinese tourists, it was unbelievably steamy. Sarah and I both had our bags with us, and we did not yet have an umbrella. After pushing our way through the rain and crowds, we finally reached the outdoor bus counter. Although the woman spoke no English, we finally got tickets headed to Zhou Zhouang. The "bus" was actually an oversized van. For the second time in two days, I'm pretty sure we were the first foreign tourists to attempt this trek. The bus looked like it was about to fall apart, it was hot and crowded, and Sarah and I sat exhausted and soaked with rain in the back.

Zhou Zhouang was absolutely worth our trip. The city was stunningly beautiful with bright canals, red lanterns, and tons of little shops selling all sorts of touristy goods. I bought a fan which I'm pretty sure was the best dollar I've ever spent. The funny thing about Zhou Zhuang was that we never saw another Western tourist the entire time. When I heard the town was touristy, I had assumed with foreigners, but I think they meant only Chinese. We spent the first evening enjoying a great Chinese dinner by the canal and the next morning just walking through the narrow canal lined streets. By the time it started to get hot and crowded, we were on our way back to the bus station to head back to Shanghai.

That evening, we headed to the Shanghai train station (again in the rain) and sat in a huge, leaking room which was packed with tons of Chinese. While we waited, beggars walked the aisles, and a small child came over and laid on my lap. Despite being cute, he was soaking wet, and I had to get him off of me. Fortunately, the hotel encouraged us to not take the cheapest train class (I'm pretty sure we would have died of misery) and we were in a sleeper car. The room we were in was tiny with 2 sets of bunks in it. Sarah and I took one bed, and two Chinese men entered and took the other bunk bed. Being the planners that we are, we brought some Oreo's and a bottle of wine with us on the train. The men on the other bunk looked pretty scared of us, and I am pretty sure they weren't too excited to be with the only two foreigners on the train. Especially wine guzzling, oreo-inhaling foreigners. The train was clean, and the bunk was soft though, and all of us in the room fell asleep fairly early. Unfortunately, I was woken up in the middle of the night by the man on the lower bunk across from me snoring loudly. He was sprawled on his back wearing only tighty-whities, and I wasn't sure if it was appropriate to wake up a stranger especially when a language barrier blocked me from nicely explaining why I woke him up anyway. After about half an hour I decided I had to do something, but I didn't want to touch my snoring roommate. I eventually took the lid of the metal trashcan and dropped it loudly like a cymbal onto the trashcan which was right next to his head. I then immediately dropped back down and pretended to be asleep. Problem solved.

The train depot in Shanghai was insane

Upon reaching Beijing, we spent the day trekking around the city in the rain. We had a delicious lunch for less than a few dollars and walked around Tiananmen Square, a shopping street, and hit up Wangfujing Food Street where we munched on candied fruit, dumplings, noodles, and skewers of different Chinese foods.

Tiananmen Square

Snake on skewers at the Wangfujing Market

The following morning, we were up early and headed a about three hours outside of Beijing to see the Great Wall of China. Our hostel runs a tour on a remote section of the wall. The wall has turned to rubble in places, and in other spots it is completely overgrown with brush and terrifying large insects. The only people we saw all day were the twenty other backpackers on our hike. The views from the wall were spectacular, and even though the uphill parts were steep and intense and the downhill parts were scary (think sliding down loose gravel), the day was amazing.

The rest of our time in Beijing was spent touring the Forbidden City (which I would like to note is not Forbidden any more- hence the thousands of sun-umbrella weilding Chinese tourists who will bumrush you without second thought in order to beat you through the palace complex), The Temple of Heaven, The Summer Palace, and the Silk Market. The Silk Market was a large four story complex full of knock-off goods. I can't even articulate how much stuff is crammed into the building. The entire building is in complete chaos with people haggling, people shoving, and vendors yelling at passing shoppers ("Hey lady! Lady! Silk Tie-- you want? Lady! You want?"). Under the drone of flourescent lighting, the entire thing is enough to make anyone go crazy. My favorite part of the afternoon was watching an altercation between an Indian tourist and a Chinese vendor. The Indian woman kept shouting at the Chineses woman, "They say you crazy!! I am not crazy! If I am crazy it because YOU make me crazy! You make me crazy!" Sarah and I only stayed for a little while. I am not a threatening haggler, and I don't really want a knock-off handbag anyway.

Hi there, Mao.

Temple of Heaven

Overall, China was great, but it was not what either of us expected. It seems to be way behind Korea in organization, cleanliness, and tourism. Throughout the week, a common theme of our travels was that everyone wanted to take pictures of us. Families would send their children up to us and say "Photo," before beginning to snap away. Often, they might ask us to use our own cameras as if we wanted pictures with them. Other families seeing this would then send members of their family up from children to grandparents. One photo was never enough - we had to stand while every member of the family took individual shots with us. We would literally just have to back away.

This is the first picture we were asked to take, and at this point it was still amusing. As my friend Sarah says, the conversation with the man went something like this:
Chinese man: Ahh! Hello! Take picture?
Sarah & Andie: Errr, okay, sure.
Chinese Man: Okayokay. Take picture.
Sarah & Andie: Ummmm, yes. (we wait for him to take a camera out of his murse)
Chinese Man: (Motions for us to use the camera wrapped around Sarah's wrist.)
Sarah: Oh! You want to take a picture with us using my camera?
Chinese Man: Yes, yes.
Sarah: But it's my camera.
Chinese Man: Okayokay.

Another common theme in China is that everything is surprisingly dirty. The first day we were in Shanghai eating our delicious lunch, a COCKROACH crawled down the wall and across our table. I thought it might have just been our restaurant, but I'm pretty sure everywhere we went had a roach issue. Beijing, moreso than Shanghai, was really filthy. I had just stupidly assumed China would be like Korea or Japan, but I was shocked to see so much trash in the city.

The bathroom habits of the Chinese was also quite interesting. Children in Beijing will just go wherever they are standing. I saw numerous squatting children all over the city. Even more interesting was the non-potty trained babies who do not wear diapers. The kids (who happen to actually have bottoms on) have bottoms with slits cut around their crotch. How this actuallly is successful I'm not sure. Anyway, the babies apparently squat too. In the public restrooms, there were often only squat toilets. I've come a long way in my ability to use a squat toilet (the first time I saw one in Thailand, I actually SAT on it because I had no idea what it was. GROSS.), but these were horrible. Not only did they look like they had never been cleaned, none of them even had doors. One row of squat toilets would face another row of squat toilets so that you actually just had to face someone across from you. I just wanted to shout at people, "Stop staring at me because now I can't go!," but my ability to speak Chinese is unfortunately limited to Hello and a poorly pronounced Thank You.

All in all, China was fascinating, and I am so glad I decided to go before I left Asia. The country has so much history and has a lot to offer tourists (even if it is all difficult to get to without a tour). Most importantly, China made me really appreciate Korea and how amazing the Korean people are. I definitely picked the right country to live in for the past year!

I have two weeks left in Seoul, and I am going to be spending all my time with friends - eating Korean food, shopping, and seeing all the sights one last time before we go home.

1 comment:

  1. My, what a superb vacation you had there. Those pictures say so! :)