Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Travelog: Shanghai

While Beijing was all about historical attractions, Shanghai was a luxury escape.  It may have been because we were constantly on the move in the capital city, but by the time we got to Shanghai, room service was calling our name.  We didn't come to China for this?!   We reminded ourselves that it was ok to give up a few hours of sightseeing for a little R&R, which made all the difference.  By the afternoon, we were refreshed and ready to take on the big city.

Finding a balance when traveling is always key.
Our hotel was the perfect backdrop to relaxation and we couldn't have asked for a better view of the skyline from our room.

First stop, The Bund.  This promenade along the water is in the heart of the city and a widely popular tourist destination.  There is plenty of eclectic and historical architecture to look at along the way!

While walking past the popular Oriental Pearl TV Tower, we came across this elaborate traffic circle where a pedestrian roundabout was built above the street. Random?  
The most hilarious fail of the trip was The Bund Sightseeing Tunnel.  It's like Shanghai didn't have enough tourist attractions, so they built this super cheesy tunnel to entice travelers around the world to visit (not!).  Essentially, it's a slow-moving tram that flashes lights and plays 'Back to the Future' music as you scoot along in a carriage with other naive tourists.  Major fail…but we got such a laugh out of it, that maybe it was worth the rip off.
To give you an idea just how fast Shanghai has grown over a 20 year period, these two images compare the skyline from 1987 to 2013.  We found Shanghai to be highly westernized and a major modern city.
My favorite part of Shanghai, though, was exploring the streets of Old Town.  The first part of our walk was down a street to the tea markets.  I got my fix of China's signature green tea with almost every meal!
The image of an older woman making homemade dumplings stacked ten bamboo steamers high is one of my standouts of the trip. In the second picture, this woman is spraying down all the produce to keep them from wilting in the scorching heat.
Walking down this hectic residential street, we also saw everything from fresh vegetables and grains, to sleeping babies, to bicycles stacked high of unknown goods, and antique sewing machines. 
The most bizarre thing we came across was this "pet shop".  Men gathered around selecting the "perfect" cricket, which is a symbol for good luck in their culture.  
We ended our walk at Dongtai Road Antique Market, which is full of junk, treasures, and random finds. Right up my alley!!  And thanks to my patient husband for letting me do my thing as I sorted through miles of dust and history.   
Where's Waldo? By Waldo I mean the Texas Tech nutcracker perfectly placed among the junk.  Yes, junk.  We survived the scorching hot day and miles of walking, but just barely.  Do you see me hugging the hotel in relief when the day was all said and done?!  
Food diaries.
Lots of fish, dumplings, peking duck pancakes, and afternoon refuels!  We couldn't resist the DQ blizzard to make us feel a bit at "home".

Our short visit to China gave us even more reason to want to visit less popular tourist destinations and reminded us that we have lots of the world left to see!  Speaking of traveling, my sweet friend from college and nursing school is visiting us with her best friend for the next week or so.  So far, we have had an amazing time and hit all the must see attractions.  I can't wait to show you their time with us!  Personal tour guide at your service….

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Travelog: Beijing, China Top 5

Take this post as a timesaver for when/if (you really should) visit China's two biggest cities, Beijing and Shanghai.  Per usual, I spent days on end researching the top sights, transportation tips, trendy and authentic restaurants, local markets, and everything in between to prepare us for the different culture we were about to immerse ourselves in.  The same tidbits kept popping up like little red flags...Crowds! The scams! The language barrier! Questionable food preparation!!  O boy!  I was so anxious to test them out for ourselves (luckily not the food poisoning part).

Not even five minutes into touching Chinese soil, red flag red flag!!  You know the scams I was talking about, well apparently black taxis run rampant trying to rip off naive tourists.  I specifically had an escape route to avoid them while leaving the airport (following the tips of knowledgeable guides) by getting in the official taxi line after passing the many posers.  Even then, we were still escorted to a fake taxi that didn't want to run the meter and instead use the "fixed prices approved by the government".  Once he pulled out the rates sheet, we were shocked to find that he was trying to charge us seven times more than what was standard (and we had read that if they pull out a fixed price sheet, don't believe it because there is no such thing).  I tell you this story because it's a great example of why traveling prepared can save you time, money, and frustration.  We ended up saving US $80 by aborting that taxi by the way.  

Now on to the fun stuff.  Out of all the places in the world to visit, everyone keeps asking "Why China in particular?". Firstly, since R was fortunate enough to travel around Asia as a child, we always wanted to go back and experience the continent together with a different perspective now that we are older and have a greater appreciation.  Secondly, we knew it would be more convenient to travel to from Sydney and our time here is running out.  The flight was still ten hours, but that's nothing new for us these days.  More than anything, we find it important to experience different cultures and I can definitely say we gained a greater understanding and appreciation for the Chinese people. 

Our Top 5 of Beijing:

1. The Great Wall
Being one of the main reasons for wanting to visit Beijing in the first place, this was the highlight of our trip.  The Great Wall is at least an hour drive from Beijing city, and instead of doing a cheesy tour bus, we booked our own driver and explored the wall by ourselves so we weren't rushed for time.  Once we got to the base, a ski lift took us up through the mountains to the starting climb point.  We were supposed to go down the longest luge slide I have ever seen, but it started sprinkling as we were leaving and they shut it down for the day.  It's times like these that remind me I am still married to a child…R was so bummed that the "once in a lifetime" luge experience would never happen.
There are three main parts of the wall that have been restored and are open to visitors.  Most tourists travel to Badaling, which is the closest section to the city and the most visited part by far.  Wanting more of an adventure, we traveled a little further through the countryside to the Mutianyu section.  There, we found a much steeper trek with less tourists in our path.  Mutianyu's position allowed for breathtaking views between the lush green woodlands and mountains and you couldn't beat the smaller crowds.
It's all in the detail to realize the historical significance of this place…the ancient brick, boot imprinted steps, and cannons positioned to defend.   In the bottom middle picture, you can see a section of the wall in the distance that has not been restored and has bushes filling the steps path.
We were surprised to find just how steep and windy the walk actually was.  In the top left picture, R is pointing to our starting position (all the way up there at the tallest peak!).  It was surreal to look back at our journey and we couldn't imagine how exhausting it must have been to build the structure through the mountains and forest.
My best piece of advice for visiting this historic landmark…go early and on your own!! We literally only saw two people for the first hour we were walking the wall.  It was an unforgettable and surreal experience to have the wall all to ourselves and the morning was so peaceful as the fog settled so perfectly between the mountain peaks…well worth the painfully early wake up call! 

2. Summer Palace
Summer Palace was the largest luxury escape for royal families to relax and entertain and is now a World Heritage listed sight.  UNESCO described it as "a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design".  The grounds were very extensive and had everything from a little village to grand buildings to a massive lake. 
Like the Great Wall, we didn't realize that it was such a climb.  The main feature is Longevity Hill where the focal point, the Tower of Buddhist Incense, stands three stories tall. 
Beyond the temple and detailed halls,  be prepared for a steep walk down through the rest of the grounds towards Kunming Lake.  Look at those stairs!
The best way to end our tour of the Palace was being able to retreat in a paddle boat on the water.  We are so glad we rented one, and for only $10/hour, you can't beat the price!  Too bad (or lucky me) that I couldn't help R paddle because I was wearing a dress.  

3. Markets
Panjiayuan Antique Market.
Loads of beads and jade jewelry, art, pottery, among other things.  The energy was exciting and I'm sure you could walk away with some interesting articles if you had all the time and money at your disposal.  We did not, however.  But it was still fun to browse.  
Wangfujing Snack Street.  
Think exotic street food and crowds galore…where you can find scorpions and starfish on a stick, baby duck heads, dry ice drinks, candied grapes, and everything in between!  This was one bustling street that reminded us of our cultural differences.  Loved every minute of it!
Gui Jie or Ghost Street.
Over a hundred restaurants line this long street, but that wasn't the main attraction in my opinion.  The sea of red lanterns hanging above the walkway continue to follow you for as far as you can see down the brightly lit street, and you can't help but feel a little bit luckier.  This was what I pictured the busy city streets of Beijing to be like thanks to hollywood movies.  We had a delicious food experience and I give the ambience five stars (duh). 

4. Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square
The Forbidden City was the imperial palace where the emperors and their families lived.  It was also the political center of China from the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty, dating back to the 1300s!  I loved seeing the traditional Chinese architecture that has influenced so many other structures worldwide.
We opted for an audio tour to work our way through the large complex.  So much history here!
The wood and stone details were so intricate.  
With the summer heat in full swing and the many miles walked before noon, we definitely worked up an appetite for an authentic Chinese lunch.  At every meal, we found ourselves staring at the locals to see if we were using our utensils correctly and how the heck to eat noodle soup properly with chopsticks and manners (not possible by the way).
Across from The Forbidden City is Tiananmen Square.  It is the third largest city square in the world and the site of many important events in China. As you can see, there were so many people visiting this site and everyone had to pass through a metal detector and bag check.  The main attraction is the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, where his body is embalmed and displayed to the public for viewing.  Unfortunately, we showed up fifteen minutes too late to witness this…and visiting hours are very strict and limited in the summer months.
R is standing in front of the Monument to the People's Heroes and I am posing with a sweet girl who asked to take a picture with me.  No, I'm not that cool.  Apparently this is a very common practice for Chinese who live in smaller towns and rarely see Westerners.  We were warned that this would happen, but we didn't realize just how many stares and sneaky pictures would come our way!  It was quite startling at first to have "all eyes on you" while packed like sardines on the subway, but we started to play along with the locals and enjoy the experience. The school kids really got a kick out of saying "hello!" to us, and if we responded, they would run off giggling.  

5. Spontaneous Adventures
Hot pot for dinner and a talented show of acrobatic performers afterwards.  We were lucky enough to find the theatre with no English signage and the written address in Mandarin by asking about every tenth person that walked by on the street.  One lady was nice enough to escort us a few blocks to our destination.  Lucky us!  
Clutter and crowds started to overwhelm us, but we always saw interesting things walking around.
A random dog in the street reminded us of my sisters dog, Presley (without those scary teeth)…but when I went in close to take this picture, it snapped and started barking at me.  Instead of walking away, I drew even more attention to us by screaming and running off.  While we got a few laughs by the locals nearby, I literally thought those fang teeth were coming for me. I swear!  
One afternoon was spent collecting some knock-off goods at the Silk Street Market.  Score!
We found it common that restaurants would offer patrons sunflower seeds while waiting for a table…R loved it!
Beauty among the smog.  A peaceful morning for a local fisherman.  
Crazy crowds in the subway...so much so that we would fear the doors slamming in on us because there was nowhere else to move inside the carriage.  Rookie mistake when R forgot he had a backpack on and it got stuck between the doors…good thing I was able to pull him in while toppling over a few others with my fast reflexes (not really, but I did act fast under pressure thankfully).  
Who knew that a chopsticks shop could be so fancy and have so many choices?!

Next week I will write about our adventures in Shanghai and my overall thoughts on China.  This has been a great way for me to reflect on our travels over the past year and we have another busy year of destinations coming up!