Friday, December 18, 2009

Hong Kong and Shanghai, China

Day 1:

We land in Hong Kong! We usually get a "diplomatic briefing" with some advice from local US Consulate officials, but the guys who were scheduled to talk to us in Hong Kong didn't show up. We were docked in Kowloon at a shopping mall complex; the directions to get off the ship included stuff like "go down the escalator and turn right at the KFC". I went a-wandering with some friends who also didn't have any trips scheduled for the day, and we promptly found an ATM, got some Hong Kong Dollars, and took a ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong island proper.

We arrived at yet another shopping mall. We walked through it, went over a street on a raised bridge, and entered... a shopping mall. This pattern continued for a while. We actually traveled a decent distance like this. The malls differed in character. Some only contained designer clothes, while one was full of small, colorful, cheap Asian stores and stalls.

After wandering through the shops and finally reaching the streets, we followed signs to the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens. I wanted to see animals, and I got my wish. They had all sorts of birds, monkeys of all shapes and sizes, turtles, crocodiles, one giant snake, rodents of unusual size, and lots of lemurs. Fun times. Our second big stop of the day was Victoria Peak, via the tram. We walked along a mountain trail for a while, enjoying the view of the city, before doubling back and spending some time at Peak Tower, the mall at the top of the mountain.

After heading back to Kowloon at the end of the day, we wandered the ship's attached mall and stumbled across a video arcade. It was pretty cheap, and it had all sorts of cool games that we had never seen before, so we spent some time and money experiencing foreign geek culture. Lots of rhythm games.

Day 2:

The middle portion of my trip was dominated by the 4-day Guilin S@S trip. Guilin is a city on the Li River and is famously picturesque. It's the part of China immortalized in all the landscape paintings. The trip was especially nice because, like my trip to Hanoi, about half of the travelers in our group were professors or other adults. We also lucked out by getting a great guide (Alex) who grew up speaking English.

We flew out of the Hong Kong airport. I don't know if it was actually the biggest airport that I had ever seen, but it sure felt that way. They confiscated my sunscreen, which, combined with my wearing sunglasses, ended up leaving me with a raccoon sunburn. After an uneventful hour-long flight, we landed in Guilin, met Alex, and took a bus to the hotel. Dinner set the pattern for most meals on the trip: a family-style affair with rice, some style of pork and/or beef, and a bunch of mystery dishes.

Day 3:

Today centered around a trip to a rural village in the nearby hills. The hills around the village have been converted into terraced rice paddies, giving the area a distinctive look. The village is populated by one of China's many minority ethnicities. This helps to make Guilin and the surrounding areas a center for Chinese domestic tourism. We saw a lot of signs for things like "Photos with young minority women in festive dress" and "A place to enjoy the very original minority song and dance".

The village itself was on a hillside, and we spent the morning slowly going up the trail to the peak. The path was surrounded by stalls and merchants, and there were several decent-looking hostels and restaurants. The older ladies in our group elected to travel via sedan chair; they essentially hired two guys to carry them up the mountain in a chair on poles, like empresses. At one point we lost one of our students, but since he was the tallest guy in the village (pushing 7 feet) he wasn't too hard to track down.

That night in Guilin, a small group of students and I wandered around the area near the hotel. Alex pointed us towards the pedestrian-only street, where a night bazaar had been set up. It was essentially a row of stalls, several blocks long, featuring paintings, CDs, snacks, and all the little pieces of junk that we saw everywhere else. We also ducked inside a little cafe-ish place called Momacake and got some random pastries and beverages.

Day 4:

The day centered around a cruise up the Li River. Over a dozen riverboats left at about the same time, all run by different companies and jam-packed with Chinese tourists. The entire day was spent playing cards, eating lunch, and admiring the scenery. This is possibly the most picturesque place in the world. It was an overcast day, which was unfortunate, but even in those conditions the gumdrop-shaped mountains were pretty awe-inspiring.

We were dropped off in Yangshuo, a smaller town than Guilin and another big domestic tourism destination. The city is centered around West Street, a somewhat Western-influenced stretch of commerce. We had some time to wander up and down for a while before dinner and our big show for the evening. The show was called "Impression, Liu Sanjie" and was directed by the same guy who masterminded the Olympics opening ceremonies. I don't really know what to call it. It might be a dance, or an opera, but it's probably best to just call it a spectacle. It was dark by the time we arrived, so all we could tell was that most of the stage area was water. The show started with a spotlight on the main character, floating on a small raft in the middle of the stage. After about a minute, the previously-unseen mountains surrounding the area were lit up by colored floodlights and in the reflection on the water we could see a group of silhouetted boats rowing in a circle. It was pretty spectacular. Apparently this show runs twice a day and has been going strong for five years.

Upon getting back to Yangshuo, a group of students, one professor, and I went to Jimmy's Cafe and Bar on West Street. They served Western and Chinese food, but they looked a lot more confident about the Chinese food. We suspected that Jimmy didn't actually exist. Also, I discovered that in settings like that one, professors are happy to give frank opinions about their colleagues.

Day 5:

We had been scheduled to go on a bike ride this morning, but unfortunately the weather caught up to us and we got rained out. Instead we took a bus to see the Big Banyan Tree. It was a big Banyan tree and, we were told, was planted many centuries ago. Supposedly if you walk around it and make a wish, it will come true, so I'm glad I didn't sleep in. Our next destination was another picture-taking stop, this time of a rather underwhelming rock that looked like a rising moon under the right conditions.

We had a few hours of free time before flying to Shanghai to meet up with the ship, so I and a few others took the advice of one of the professors (who studied China and had visited several times) and got a foot massage. We picked the "Special Effect Ginger Flower Foot Massage" from the extensive menu, since they told us that it included a hot water foot bath, which sounded nice on a cold day. The hour-long massage was mostly for the feet, but also the back, neck, shoulders, and most of the leg. I was generally just really, really uncomfortable. My feet felt better afterward, but I didn't.

Day 6:

On our last day in Shanghai, some friends and I went into town to wander some more. I had already seen most of the sights with my parents a while back, so I was happy to just walk around. Luckily, adventure found us.

We got stopped by two younger Chinese people, a guy and a girl, who said that they were art students in town for a month for some sort of exhibition. They were very friendly and chatted with us for a while before inviting us to see their art, free of charge. They took us to the 10th floor of a tall bank building and into a room with a bunch of paintings on the walls and table. They took the four of us around the room and explained what each of the paintings meant and what the canonical symbolism was. There was a wide variety of styles, from ancient to abstract, though most was of a distinctly Chinese flavor. After a while their teacher, a man about 45 years old, came in and chatted with us a bit as well. They eventually mentioned that the paintings were for sale. That made me suspect that maybe all this wasn't legit, but their prices were actually a lot lower than we had seen elsewhere for similar paintings. I bought the smallest thing I could find in hopes of absolving my friends of any obligation, but two of them decided to buy as well.

It was only after we left that one of my friends revealed that it was an obvious scam. He said that he had seen the exact same set of paintings for sale several times in Beijing, and that the girl had claimed her teacher to be 89 years old before he walked in. As for why my friend didn't speak up *before* we handed over our money, I have no idea. Their explanations of the paintings were probably real, and I would have been happy with my purchase under other circumstances, but I still feel a tad bitter.

After that, we wandered the busy streets of People's Square and saw some sights. One friend wanted to see another video arcade that he had read about online, so we walked there and took a look. It was huuuuuuuge. The arcade filled an entire floor of a very large mall building. We all bought 100-yuan game cards (about $15) and spent a few hours in a technological playground. They had a whole set of games that were more like rides, where the seat would rotate and shift in reaction to the game. I played an automated tennis game, with real racket and tennis balls, inside a netted enclosure. There were also a ton of more standard arcade games that were way more advanced that most of the ones in the USA. For some reason, a lot of Chinese people stood around watching us play the games. It was fun.

Now I've got another day at sea before landing in Japan. I'm hoping to see four cities in four days: Yokohama, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Kobe. Then, I'm on my way back to the States. More news to come.

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