September 13, 2008

Semester at Sea - Hong Kong and China

From my journal........

This has been a long week for me and the longest time I have spent off the ship since we began our voyage in January. .

Last Sunday we arrived in Hong Kong. It is the tallest city I have ever seen. The buildings are so tall that in order to look at them you need to practically break your neck. We actually docked on Kowloon Island which is right across the water from Hong Kong Island. Side note – Hong Kong is actually over 200 small islands, with Hong Kong Island being the big one. Anyway, I hopped onto the city orientation with Kaycee and had a blast. We went to a tea museum and to some back ally markets. We stopped at a financial center where all the Philippino maids had the day off and were picnicking in a giant mass in the open bottom level of the financial center. I thought that was a little odd but it was neat to see them on their only day off. We ended at Victoria Peak which is the main tourist attraction in Hong Kong. It is a mini city on top of this really high mountain and it overlooks all of Hong Kong and most of Kowloon Island. The views are unbelievable. We took this tram up to the top and were nearly vertical. It was such a steep gradient. Kaycee and I decided to get our own transportation back to the ship and stay the rest of the night on top of the mountain. We were so hungry and decided to eat at this great restaurant where we could have some traditional Dim Sum. We ate outside and had this amazing view of the city. It was perfect and really relaxing. Kaycee ordered Dim Sum and I ordered off the menu. They put Kaycee’s dinner in front of me and we thought it was what I ordered although it didn’t look like it. I ate it but spit it out figuring it was meat and it was. Oh well, part of the adventure. And as you will find out, it is not the only time that happened. Unfortunately I am so confused by the thousands of conversion rates we have had that I thought the lunch would be a bit cheaper than it turned out to be. We spent $80 on lunch! Oops! But it was yummy and the view was great. Then we went shopping. Things weren’t as cheap as we expected but it was amazing shopping nonetheless. The people were so nice too. They are all excited to see us.

The next day Juliette and Susan and I decided to go to Beijing. We went to the travel agent in the morning and bought our plane tickets. We had a great deal. The ferry to Shen Zhen in mainland China, the flight and 2 nights in a really nice hotel was only $250. Not bad. We left around 1pm to catch the ferry which was some kind of jet ferry. It was so nice. The inside looked like a huge airplane. There was a big TV screen and a bar and cushioned seats. And it went so super fast. It was really cool. We got into Shen Zhen and took a free van to the airport. Once we got into the airport we realized that our English speaking days were over. Luckily I had purchased a Lonely Planet book which had some characters in it and I had also brought along a picture map where you just point to a picture of a toilet or a taxi or whatever and you can get what you need. Our flight was delayed and when we finally got on I had the window seat and Juliette sat next to me. Susan was in the middle section across the aisle from us. Shortly after take off I saw the sun set from the air. It was so pretty. Really unbelievable, as everything has been on this trip. However, the fun ended there. We got caught in a humongoid sand storm and had massive turbulence the entire 3 ½ hours. Dinner service was suspended about three times and the seatbelt sign stayed on the whole time. The woman next to Susan puked in her dinner tray the whole flight. She had barf bags in her hand yet barfed in her dinner. I saw it once. It looked like soft serve vanilla yogurt. So nasty. Joking aside, it was the scariest flight the three of us had ever been on. It is funny the things you think of when you think you might die though. Juliette was worried about who would get her stuff from the ship. I was cursing that I hadn’t gotten my pictures developed yet and Susan was praying her last memory of life wouldn’t be of the woman next to her throwing up. Kind of funny how your mind works when you are scared. We were never so happy to land. It was all part of the adventure though, and now that we are safe it is pretty cool to say that we got caught in a sand storm. When we got off the airplane we were hit with a blast of cold air. We knew that the temperatures would be pretty chilly but we also heard that the day before the temperature had reached 98 degrees. I was sooo happy to feel cool air. We have been in the tropics and deserts and thick humidity for the last three months and I could not have been happier to wear pants. Of course Susan is from Arizona and Juliette from the Bahamas, so I was the only one who was happy. We took a van to our hotel which we were all a little worried about. When we were booking it, we told the travel agent our price range and she said that would get us into a 3 star hotel and that they weren’t very nice and we should consider staying in a 5 star. We took the 3 star and she said she gave us the best one she could find but all the others were dumps was basically what she told us. Our hotel turned out to be on one of the most famous streets in Beijing and around the corner from Tiananmen Square. It was called the Taiwan Hotel and it was gorgeous. It only cost each of us $25 per night. Not too shabby. We arranged a Great Wall tour for the next morning and passed out.

Our tour guide for the Great Wall was named Crystal. That was obviously her English name. I have no idea what her Chinese name is. She looked really young. Maybe a few years older than us, but you know how the Chinese age. She was probably in her 50s. We were in a small tour group which was nice. There were these two Chinese men with us and me Juliette and Susan. We went to pick up two more people at another hotel. These two really nice Indian men. While we were in the parking lot of their hotel our driver tried unsuccessfully to back out. The car behind him kept beeping and he completely ignored it. In other countries like India and Vietnam beeping is the norm and your attention is only called when beeping halts. But in most of China, as in the US you beep to say ‘Get out of my way!’ This driver apparently was not attuned to that custom. We backed right into a taxi cab. So after surviving a harrowing flight we had a minor car accident. We got to watch the two men fight about how to handle it and after about 45 minutes or so, our driver paid the taxi man and we were on our way. All part of the adventure. It was pretty cool. Our first stop was at a Jade Factory where we watched how they make jade products. It was cool and I splurged and bought one of those globe things where all the countries are made out of different semi-precious stones. It even has a clock at the base. It is really pretty and I have wanted something like that for a long time. I thought this was the perfect time to make that purchase to commemorate my journey circumnavigating the globe. I was proud of myself to for talking the lady down almost 50%. Next up was the Great Wall. We were all so tired from all of our traveling that I dozed off in the van and woke up as we were approaching the mountains and I saw the wall winding around them. It was one of the coolest ways I’ve ever woken up. It was windy and chilly at the Wall and Susan and Juliette bought hats and scarves. I wore a t-shirt. We climbed all the way to the top and I bought a little medal saying that I climbed to the top and had my name engraved on it. It was really steep. Much more of a difficult climb than I expected. It took us nearly an hour. We went to Badaling which is a popular spot to visit the wall and we were lucky that hardly anyone was there. We got the wall almost to ourselves. Some people on the Semester at Sea trips went to a part of the wall where they got to take these sled things down the mountain. I am so jealous. I was really proud of us though. The two Indian men on our trip didn’t even climb it. They took the tram. We rule. After the wall, we went to lunch at this place called the Friendship Store. It is apparently a huge tourist stop because it was huge and packed and we ran into some of the Semester at Sea trips there. It was good to see our friends for a little bit and then be on our way. Lunch was so good. There were about 8 of us at a table and in the center of the table was a big turntable so that we could serve ourselves without reaching and fumbling for plates. Chinese food in China is a lot lighter than Chinese food in America. Our next stop was the Ming Tombs. It is this big underground burial place for the Ming Dynasty. It was pretty cool. Our last stop for the evening was at a Traditional Chinese Medicinal Center. We met with some Chinese doctors who explained to us some differences between Eastern and Western medicine. Then they told us that they make a diagnosis by feeling your pulse in your wrist. I kind of rolled my eyes but Juliette wanted a try. I knew that she has some serious problems with her menstruation and she is anemic. The doctor took her wrist and in about 5 seconds he told her she was anemic and had a very irregular menstrual cycle. All of our jaws dropped and we were raising our hands like Horseshack on Welcome Back Kotter for our turn. So for my turn the doctor took my wrist and said ‘you get frustrated easily’. True although I would like to think it is something I am working on improving. Then he looks at me and touches my face and tells me he has some pills to make me prettier. Great. Basically what he is saying is that I am an ugly bitch. Why couldn’t I have health problems????? I guess it is good that I only had surface problems. I, of course, bought some of what I have named ‘ugly pills’. I have to take 15 pills two times a day. The look like rabbit pellets. I have about 1000 pills so hopefully they will work. We’ll see. Afterwards, our guide took us back to the hotel and we asked her to help us arrange a trip to the Peking Opera. It cost about $20 and after an argument with one taxi driver we found a taxi driver who took us there and we had second row seats but no one was in front of us. The theater was really ornate. We sat at tables and had tea and snacks as part of our ticket. The opera was cool. There were two shows. The first was more like an opera and the second was an opera/acrobatic show. Of course, the entire thing was in Chinese but there was an electronic message board above the stage that translated about half of the play into English. However, the stories were useless translated because their customs are so entirely foreign to us so while you can read it you don't really understand it. You just sit there with your mouth open, eyes squinted going 'heh?' After the opera our tour guide arranged to have her friend (whom I suspect was actually her boyfriend) bring us to a local restaurant so Susan could try some famous Peking Duck. It was really nice of her because we didn't have to pay for the ride. The restaurant was extremely local. We were the only people in there but luckily the menu had some basic English translations. I ordered bean curd in house sauce which ended up also having chicken in it. Of course, I didn't realize this until I had eaten a sizeable portion of it. The staff were obviously amazed by us. After we got our food, they all stood around the table and just stared at us. It was really quiet and they just looked. I felt all this pressure because while I can use chopsticks successfully I kind of invented my own method to make it work. In America we eat what we want how we want it. But in China when I wanted to wrap my bean curd in this fun little pancake thing Susan had to wrap her duck in one of the waitresses slapped my hand. Can you believe that? She actually slapped my hand! She corrected my error and put my bean curd back and gave me a piece of duck to put in the pancake. I guess that is the Chinese custom and I am sure she was trying to be helpful but seriously…Sometimes it is nice when people don't speak English because then you can complain to your friends and as long as you say it in a neutral tone, they are none the wiser. After dinner we went to bed so that we would be rested up for our last day in Beijing.

We made our train reservations for that night. We got a hard sleeper (which isn't hard at all, actually it is pretty comfy). It is basically a door-less compartment with six bunks, three on either side. Very similar to the overnight train we took from Paris to Switzerland for those of you who were on that trip. The ride would be 15 hours but left at 7pm so I didn't care cause I could sleep. It only cost us $40 which I thought was great. Anyway, our first stop was The Forbidden City. We walked there since it was pretty close to our hotel. It is so huge. You think that you have gone through it but you realize at that point that you have just gone through the gates. The architecture is pretty amazing and apparently it was built to make the Chinese people feel small. Most of the buildings are not the original but are replicas because of fire damage. I think, though that the replicas were constructed in the same way as the originals. I will have to check on that though because I am not totally sure. There were a ton of student artists all over the place trying to get us to look at their artwork. I was sucked in and even bought a painting the first time but resisted the second, third, and 200th times. I also realized that people will pee anywhere. I was about to do the same when I realized their public bathrooms had doors but practically no walls. What's the point? Parents were pulling down their kids pants so that they could pee on the stairs of a historical site, on the lawns of a temple (coincidentally they were right next to the bathrooms) and even in a potted tree on the main shopping street. Anyway, the day was perfect. It felt like that first warm and sunny day after a long winter. It was breezy and nice out. We took forever at the Forbidden City and had to literally jog the perimeter of Tiananmen Square. We never did see Mao's body which I hear is preserved in some kind of glass coffin in his mausoleum. But the square itself was amazing. It is a lot bigger than I thought it would be. It just seemed like a fun place to hang out. Lots of people were there flying kites and enjoying the weather. Hard to believer that only 13 years ago people my age were being crushed by tanks and shot and beaten in that very spot. After our mall walk of Tiananmen, we wanted to go to the Temple of Heaven Park. Juliette was wiped out and went back to the hotel but Susan and I kept on like Energizer bunnies. The park was beautiful. Really peaceful. We relaxed for a bit and then tried to haggle with a taxi driver to take us to The Summer Palace. By this time, it was 4pm. Our train left at 7, which meant we had to be back to the hotel and ready to leave by 6 and we still had only eaten a granola bar all day long, which we split. We thought that the Summer Palace was only 7km outside of downtown Beijing but apparently we were wrong. An hour later we were still in the cab and needed to turn around. We never got to see the Summer Palace but had a productive and fun day anyway. We made it back a little after 6 and were running really late. I had to eat McDonalds because it was the fastest closest thing. We almost missed our train with only about 5 minutes to spare. I felt like I could have used those frustration pills right then. Because we were late I had to sleep on the very top bunk which I didn't mind because it felt very private. I lost my ticket stub which had gotten thrown into the trash along with my McDonalds junk and almost had to pay for another ticket when I braved digging through the garbage to find it. Luckily I didn't have to dig too far. I passed out at about 10:30pm when the lights went out and didn't wake up until the ticket lady poked my with her stick that looked like something used to tend the fire at about 8am. I slept well like I always do in moving vehicles. It was yet another adventure to get out of the train station and to find the ship in Shanghai. When Juliette and Susan stopped to use the bathroom (for once it wasn’t me!!) a group of locals gathered around me in a circle as I attempted to ask the way out. Thank God for my international translator! Just point to a picture of a taxi and they will take you to it. Our taxi driver could not understand English and there was apparently something wrong with the directions that were given to us to get back to the ship. We weren’t aware that without our landing cards, getting into the terminal would be a little bit difficult. We stopped at the customs building outside of the terminal, where once again, no one spoke a word of English. Finally one employee was located who knew bits and pieces of English and the taxi driver selected me to go with him and talk to her while Juliette and Susan waited in the cab. She thought that I was trying to meet some friends on the ship but I tried to get across that I lived on the ship, it was my home and I desperately needed to get back on it. I wasn’t sure if it had arrived yet but knew that it should be there. This went on for a good 15 minutes and then I saw our Bursar, Jim walking with his wife. He must have thought I was insane because I started screaming his name and jumping up and down. We finally made it onto the ship and had a good shower and some lunch before heading out to see Shanghai.

Shanghai is SUCH a cool city. It reminded me a lot of London, actually. We walked around Nanjing Road which is the main road in the city where all the shops are. It was so cool. Juliette needed to use the email for longer so Susan and I went off on our own just to walk around the city. We saw a lot of the city and it was fun just to walk around. There are so many people just walking the streets. Kind of like in India but these are just normal people, they aren’t homeless. The great thing about Communism is that there are very few, if any, homeless and beggars. These were just regular people shopping. I found it hard to believe that China was actually Communist but I guess it is a market driven Communist country and actually wants its people to succeed so there is a lot of materialism. It is really interesting. Later that night we walked around a strip near the ship called The Bund. That was a name given to the strip because of the French influenced architecture or something like that. It is really pretty and is where some of the best views of the city are.

The next day I did an International Student Exchange with Chinese students from Jiao Tong University. It was so much fun. Our day began with a trip to the Shanghai Museum which was pretty cool. There were only 10 of us on the trip so it was a nice small and intimate group of people. After the museum we went to the university and the students showed us around before we had lunch on campus. It was a nice lunch, buffet style. I really like real Chinese food, but even here you are hungry 15 minutes later. Then we went sat on the lawn and drank soda and talked to the students. They were so cool. They taught me some characters which turned out to be useful. All the students get to pick their own English names since it is hard for us to say their Chinese names. They are so funny. One student chose the name Silver and one student chose the name Keanu (like the actor). My favorite was Wang. The campus was gorgeous. It was a perfect day out too. Really sunny and cool just like a perfect New England fall day. Students lay their sheets and comforters out to dry on the lawn on sunny days. There isn’t as much of a threat of theft in China as there is in the United States. We then went to visit the Jade Buddha Temple which was neat. I saw monks which was very cool. I didn’t go in to see the actual Jade Buddha because you had to pay but the temple itself was pretty. After that we went back to the university for dinner. This was a sit down dinner. They bring out all the food to a turntable on the center of the table so you can rotate instead of having to reach over people, getting your sleeves in their food to get what you want. I tried eel. It was frightening. Dinner was so much fun. The students laughed at our attempt to eat French fries with chopsticks. Then……we went to a Chinese acrobatic show. It was one of the coolest things I have ever seen. These people can do anything. I wish I could describe it but it would just sound silly. I took pictures though and maybe those will do it justice. The building it was so super cool too. The architecture in this city is amazing as is just about everything else. After the show, which truly brought chills down my spine, the students took us back to the ship. I am so glad that I had that opportunity. We all exchanged email addresses and hopefully can keep in touch.

The next morning I slept in and waited for Kaycee to return from the Foreign Service Exam. When she got back we went back out to do our final bit of shopping. She made me buy some shoes to wear for the Ambassador’s Ball as I was strictly forbidden by both of my roommates from wearing my teal Teva flip-flops with my custom made black halter cocktail dress. But my ‘Nam wound is a nice accessory. I really like the shoes and didn’t have to spend too much on them. They are heels though. I always felt that I was too tall for heels but since Kaycee is a good head taller than me, she said I could get away with it and that I am not really all that tall anyway. I am a little worried though since walking on heels is a challenge when the room is still let alone when we are fighting the 20 foot waves of the Pacific. We almost caused a store brawl between sales people when I decided I might want to buy shoes from another section of the store. It all worked out well in the end though. Then we went to this open market. It was so majorly crowded. We wanted to get some more DVDs but couldn’t find them anywhere. Suddenly, a man from out of nowhere appeared asking us if we were looking to buy DVDs. He led us to a dark ally where we quickly changed our minds and set out to find them somewhere else. We kept walking through the market. The Chinese like to push. They also like to spit. I hate that. Spitting is SUCH a pet peeve of mine. Then we were approached by a woman who asked us if we were looking for DVDs. We felt safer for some reason following a woman. It must be illegal to sell pirated stuff in China. It wasn’t in Vietnam and that made everything so much easier. Anyway, there were other people there too and it wasn’t quite as dark of an ally and we weren’t far from the main road. We were a little nervous when we heard police sirens, but were too excited over finding some really great movies. Kaycee looked through every single one while I stood outside the little room and waited for her getting rained on. It was slightly drizzling. Although when we finally left the ally, it wasn’t raining at all. NASTY! We finally went to Subway to get some dinner and headed back to the ship.

Shanghai was probably one of my favorite cities on the trip. I am not sure why but I just got a great feeling from being there. The buildings are really impressive and there are so many lights; the whole sky looks beautiful. Next stop is Japan.

Hong Kong pictures:

China Pictures:

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