Monday, September 26, 2011

China highlights

At long last, Brian and I traveled to China.

We went for our Chuseok vacation. China! A large, diverse country... the most populous...the oldest continuous civilization on Earth... ridiculous amounts of history, culture, nature, cities, was exciting to even contemplate, and truly exciting to be there. Of course, Chuseok vacation is only a few days long, so it was a brief trip. We selected two major cities, Beijing and Shanghai, for our introduction to China. The minute we stepped on the Air China plane in Pusan, I saw the red-with-gold silk of the flight attendant's shirt inches from my face and heard the telltale plucky musical notes. I turned to Brian and said, "It totally feels like we are in China now." The instantly China-invoking music is what you hear at every Epcot Centeresque evocation of China, only this time it was really a Chinese entity playing it.


Day 1: Going to Beijing
Upon arrival at the airport, I watched from the airplane window as baggage handlers loaded boxes and boxes of something into cargo holds. "There go the Wal-Mart goods," I thought to myself. Our first day consisted of travel, eating in airports and planes, reading Chinese newspapers (in English - the papers for expats, I mean) and a long walk to the City Walls courtyard hostel. Because it is very close to the Forbidden City, it is not very close to a subway stop because they haven't built/can't build underground underneath the Forbidden City. Makes sense. I got my first glimpse of a lit up Forbidden City building as we neared our accommodations. We were also staying extremely close to the Hou-Hai nightlife area, and we stepped out for an introductory drink. I instantly fell in love with this scene: in the middle of Beijing, a lake surrounded by bars, lanterns, restaurants, music, clubs, cute pedestrian stone bridges, people walking talking selling things, and so on.

Day 2: Beijing's Sights to Behold
All anyone could jabber about Beijing before we got there was the pollution and traffic. Sigh. They do the same thing with Los Angeles and Washington D.C. sometimes, too (two of my favorite U.S. cities). Look past it, people. We rode the bus to the Summer Palace area, which definitely slowed to a crawl in the congested area of small, crowded streets but also allowed us to see a lot of Beijing streets, malls, the zoo, universities, and so on from our bus windows, giving us a nice taste and feel for the city. We had lunch at a famous dumplings restaurant, then spent the afternoon at Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City palace. I think Tiananmen Square was one of my top two must-do destinations in China, along with the Great Wall. It's just SO famous and historical and symbolic and human rightsy and interesting. I couldn't believe we were actually walking there when we got there.

After a brief happy hour drink in our hostel courtyard -- really, this courtyard hotel thing is a must! -- we headed for cocktails at the rooftop bar of the Emperor Hotel, overlooking the Forbidden City and the other lights of Beijing as evening fell. Stunning! If you don't stay at our City Walls Courtyard hostel, stay at the Emperor Hotel instead, just for the view from that rooftop bar. After that, we ate amazing hot pot, which we figured out as we went along, and then we went north for another little pilgrimage to the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube, which if you don't instantly remember then I have to question both your sanity and just what the heck you were doing in August of 2008! The best Olympics since 1984, easily! Brian and I had so much fun watching from our Brooklyn apartment three years ago: Shawn Johnson, Michael Phelps, and everyone, really. And now we got to see the spot where it all went down. Our last stop for the night was a walk along Ghost Street, a sea of food, red lanterns, and people milling about enjoying them.

Day 3: The Wall Is Great
Obviously, one goes on one 's first trip to China and one is excited to see the Great Wall. We chose the Mutianyu section, where we spent a couple hours hiking, taking pictures, and marveling at the fact that we were actually at the Great Wall. Oh, also I did cartwheels on the Great Wall, because why not? It's big. It's wide. It's long - even though the idea that you can "see it from space" is kind of silly. It's so important! And the mountains are so beautiful! It was fun to climb and trek around the watchtowers and take the toboggan slide back down the mountain. The Great Wall, as Brian and I talked about while there, is one of the two or three biggest, most famous, most significant and recognizable places to visit in the entire world, up there with the Pyramids in Egypt, we suppose. Wonderful! We rode in a van with our little tour group and then all had lunch together, a meal consisting of various Chinese dishes spun around the lazy Susan in the big round table.

Back in the city, we had our regular evening chill-out drink in the courtyard and then dined on famous Peking duck (have I mentioned I am not a vegetarian in East Asia? I am really looking forward to getting back on the vegetarian train in 2012.) We then enjoyed strolling around the nearby brightly lit street of thronging people and modern shops (as in, Gucci, not someone selling a Mogwai), as well as the other nearby street of a million snacks for sale including snakes, scorpions and various animal body parts. Finally, we went back to Hou-Hai, my new favorite nightlife area in the world for some lakeside music and bar-hopping, capped with a final drink at a tiny rooftop bar.

Day 4: Get Me to Shanghai
We were going to fly from Beijing to Shanghai at 10 a.m., but we missed our flight and ended up spending a lot of time in the Beijing airport that day. Oh well - at least there was a Starbucks. There was also, I might add, a place to use the Internet where Gmail took sooooo painfully slowly long to load that we thought the connection was crap until we loaded a different web page and it took about half a millisecond. Ahhh, good ol' Google's war with China! Finally, we flew to Shanghai and beheld yet another amazing city. Our hotel was an actual, business-y friendly hotel, complete with concierge and doormen and all that, and I must confess it felt wonderfully luxurious after the hostel (although it didn't have a cute courtyard and 30-cent beer!) Speaking of beer that cost more than 30 cents, for our first Shanghai night we headed to the clouds - the Cloud 9 bar on the 87th floor of the awesome and tall Jin Mao Tower, which is right next door to the also awesome and even taller Shanghai World Financial Center. While we sipped our drinks, we gazed at the view of the nighttime city, although the view was occasionally obscured when a CLOUD WENT BY, only to quickly reappear, until the next cloud went by of course. Oh, don't mind me, I'm just sitting up here in the clouds having a peach cocktail.

Besides having our heads in the clouds, we immediately knew we were in an international, mega-cosmopolitan, worldly city because we suddenly a)had French news from TVMonde 5 on the hotel television and b)encountered service industry personnel who - gasp! - expected tips. Man, does spending time in Korea/Japan/even Beiiing spoil you with that whole no-tipping thing. Some of my strongest memories of returning to the U.S. from Korea in 2006 are the outrage I felt in bars after ordering a bottle of beer: I just paid for this! Why do I have to peel another dollar bill off of my stack?!

Day 5: Possibly the Coolest City in the World
Shanghai was a mix of foods, drinks, cuisines, skyline, the most spectacular architecture, interesting buildings every time you turned around, shopping, history, rivers, streets, people, subway, parks, you name it. We did our little walking tour along the Bund (including "Back Bund") and learned about historical buildings by the Brits, French and others who ran the city with their international concessions back in the day. We sipped coffee and tea by the water, watching a flotilla of coal barges pass by on their way to the harbor, while tourist boats darted in between. We ate. We visited the site of the first meeting of the Chinese Communist Party (Mao et. al.) We ate again. We loved the park. We loved the pond in the park. We loved fruit smoothies at the bar by the pond in the park. We had another amazing view from a rooftop bar for happy hour, this time of Pudong and the super-tall skyline as dusk fell and the place lit up. We shopped. (It's true: even I shopped in Shanghai.) We ate again. We could get used to this.

Day 6: Back Home to Korea
We got up early to head via high-speed Maglev express train to the airport for our quick Shanghai-Daegu return flight. Did I mention the high-speed train that takes you from the city to the airport in 8 minutes? Like the Heathrow-Paddington Station high-speed train, but maybe even faster? When is the U.S. going to figure out that this is the answer? ("Never!" cry the corporate oil emperors.) We knew we were heading back to Korea when ajummas started shoving into us at the boarding gate. I left China eminently satisfied and already plotting my return trip. Which, oh yes, there will be a return trip, because I have a double entry visa.

The best:
  • Rooftop bars
  • Beijing nightlife
  • The Wall That Is Great
  • Every time you think "Man, 100 yuan?!" you just have to remind yourself that's still really only like 14 bucks.
  • Me, every time we drank tea, talking about "all the tea in China."
  • Brian joking while we ate that if we didn't finish everything on our plate we could think about the starving children in China - next door! (Our cliche-derived snark is endless, really.)
  • Shanghai. Just, everything about Shanghai.

The worst:
  • Only me being so dumb I didn't learn any Mandarin language. So lame of me!I can sort of recognize the characters for Nii-hao and that's about it.
China! China China China! Those two cities really exceeded my expectations. And mind you, I did not have low expectations. But Beijing and Shanghai have got it going on!

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