Asia China

Chengdu: Pandas and Painting

A highlight of my trip to China was being able to visit my friend Keri in Chengdu!  She’s teaching English there, and she let me stay with her for a few days and showed me around.  For the first night, we got street food near her apartment and explored the markets near there.  The butcher stalls were fascinating, with rabbit heads, intestines, and buckets of blood.  There were even live turtles being sold at the market.  Keri told me that some places sell live chickens and will cut off the heads in front of you when you buy them.  The street food was good, we picked sticks of whatever we wanted and then they grilled them.  There were also quite a few potato dishes, which I am always here for.

From there, we headed to a “paint and sip” event which included both ex-pats and locals.  I painted a scene from Looney Tunes and drank lots of wine, and we went out after with some of them for more food.  I had a great time, and it was so nice to be able to meet some of the locals.

The next day I got a full tour.  We headed into the city, starting at a lovely park.  Keri and I tried one of the beautiful caramelized designs – look at the butterfly below!  There was also a koi pond where people could feed them using some sort of fish-food bottle mechanism.

We headed over to a glitzy mall afterward.  Keri tells me it’s a place where a lot of locals go to get pictures taken.  People took our pictures too.  It’s fairly common for Chinese people to take pictures of tourists – while I was in Shanghai trying to get a selfie in front of the skyline, I realized I was in someone’s shot and went to move, only to have her motion that she wanted to be in a picture with me!  We went to lunch at an amazing French place.  The bread was delicious.

That night, Keri took me to a Sichuan opera show!  They had puppetry, animal shapes in shadows, dancing, and something called face switching.  They were wearing masks, and they would raise fans up to their faces and have a different mask a second later.  There was one part where the man changed the colors of his clothes about six times in a row, and I still have no idea how he did it.  It was fantastic to see local Chinese arts.

The next morning, Keri had to go to work.  She sent me off to the Panda Conservatory, which was high up on my list.  I got to see so many giant pandas!  The babies were especially adorable.  They had red pandas there as well, including an area where they were only separated from the path by a chain link fence.  While in that area, I turned around and found one on the path with me!  It probably passed within two feet of where I was standing.

I met up with Keri again after work and we had a last dinner before I headed to the airport.  It was so amazing to have Keri show me around and tell me all about the aspects of Chinese culture that she’s experience since she moved there.  I learned about how they plan their cities far in advance and pay people to live in the developing areas, and what it’s like to work there.  It was a great way to end my time in China!  Hopefully she and I will be able to meet up again soon for more adventures in Asia.

Asia China

The Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an

When I arrived in Xi’an, I had exactly one priority: see the Terracotta Warriors.  I met up with the driver I had arranged and headed an hour outside the city to the archeological site.  It’s amazing to walk into what looks like an airplane hangar and find it filled with life-sized statues of men and horses.  There are three buildings, and they show the archeological dig at various stages of completion.  The most famous pictures are from the main one, which you can see below, and then there’s a museum that shows some of the soldiers up close.  They also had an Egyptian museum.  I think they were going for the parallels of Egyptian tombs and what happened here, although that wasn’t made clear in the messaging.  After I had seen everything there was to see, I headed back into the main room one more time to bask in the incredible feat before heading back to meet my driver.

And then, the driver took me to my hotel.  Except it turned out it wasn’t my hotel, because they had no record of my reservation.  They were very nice about it, giving me tea and water and letting me use their phone to make arrangements.  But it took about two hours to get everything sorted out and make my way to my new hotel.   Between the wasted time, my new hotel’s less central location, and the fact that Xi’an’s air quality was listed as “hazardous,” I didn’t get to bike around the city wall or walk through the Muslim Quarter.  I pretty much ended up just walking around a bit near my hotel and going to bed early.

Hopefully some day I make it back to Xi’an.  The little bit I saw outside of the car window and the train made me wish I had gotten the chance to explore it the way I wanted to.  But at least I got to see the Terracotta Warriors!  They’ve been on my list for ages, and I’ll never forget standing in that warehouse-sized building and staring into the faces of that statue army.

Asia China

Fantastic and Futuristic Shanghai

I left Beijing early to take a train to Shanghai.  While I lucked out with air quality for most of my trip (except Xi’an), this train ride was my first glimpse into the horrible pollution that exists in China.  I looked out at the sun rising behind the clouds of smoke, and it took me a few minutes to recognize that it was in fact the sun.

Getting into Shanghai, I could immediately sense how different it was from Beijing.  Much more modern, of course, but also a wider variety of cultures mixing together.  My first order of business was to check into my hotel, which was amazing!  It was about a block away from Nanjing Road.  I had splurged on this one and was absolutely blown away.  They even did chocolate on the pillow, which, in my opinion, is the true mark of a luxurious place.

The first picture is the view from my window.  My first stop was the Bund to see the famous skyline, undoubtably the coolest one I’ve ever seen!  From there, I explored Nanjing Road, which had gorgeous shopping malls.  There was one that had a series of spiral escalators.  I’d never even contemplated that a non-straight escalator could exist!  Shanghai truly felt like the future.

The next morning, I got up early and headed to Yuyuan Garden.  I was there before it opened, technically, which gave me time to explore the area first.  I LOVED Yuyuan Garden.  Truly one of the most magical places I’ve been.  I’ve heard it’s rather touristy, but because I was there early, I was probably the fifth person in the garden, and I felt like I had it to myself for at least the first hour and a half or so.  It’s full of hidden passageways and staircases, which are of course my favorite thing, and every area represents a different style of traditional garden.

As it started to get more crowded, I went temple hopping in Shanghai.  First I visited the Jade Buddha temple, followed by the Jing’an temple.  This let me explore a few other neighborhoods in Shanghai.  The ironic part of the Jing’an one is that it is right next to a mall, and from many angles you could see a large Old Navy sign in the background.

From there, I headed to the French Concession!  It’s such a cool neighborhood.  The first street I walked down was half small hipster boutiques and half Chinese food shops.  Then I ended up in a residential area that had plenty of international schools and hipster beer bars.  I made my way over to the Propaganda Poster Art museum.  Strangely enough, it is located in the basement of an apartment building, so you just have to follow the signs and you come to a tiny museum lined with most of the remaining propaganda posters from the Mao era in China.  For probably obvious reasons, China has destroyed many of these, and this museum is the only one of its kind in the world.  They provided context for each time period, and it was really interesting.  I bought a replica of one that shows one of the few ballet performances that were allowed while Mao was in power.

That night, I headed to the Bund again to see the skyline at night.  It truly is spectacular.  The Shanghai skyline feels like someone saw the Jetsons and then decided to make it real.  I wanted to just stare at it forever.

For my last morning in Shanghai, I had a nice leisurely breakfast at the hotel.  I tried dragonfruit for the first time and liked it quite a bit!  Once I checked out of my hotel, I headed over to the financial district.  There’s a walkway over a good portion of it and I headed over to a nice park, where I had great views of all of the skyscrapers.

I spent part of the afternoon at the Oriental Pearl Tower, which offers amazing views of the city and has a museum about Shanghai on the bottom floor.  It was great to get a sense of the history of the city.  They went through its origins, from an old port city to colonization and later modernization.  One interesting aspect of museums in China is that they have stores in between the exhibits…. they’re excellent at the “exit through the gift shop” method.

I took a night train to Xi’an that night, which was an adventure.  At the end of my time in Shanghai, though, I had fallen in love with the city, and I would absolutely love to go back!

Asia China

The Great Wall of China

I was so excited to visit the Great Wall!  This is my second of the Seven Wonders of the World, and no offense to Italy, but I found it a lot cooler than the Colosseum.  I ended up climbing between twelve watchtowers, which according to my phone, was about 5.6 miles and 172 flights of stairs.

I didn’t want to try to figure out public transit to Mutianyu, so I booked a bus tour.  They picked me up at my hotel.  I ended up sitting by two Dutch guys on the bus and hung out with them for most of the day, which was fun – we talked a lot about cultural differences between the US and the Netherlands, and they taught me all about overtourism in Amsterdam and speed skating.  I convinced them to sled down the Great Wall and they convinced me to climb more watchtowers than I would have.

We took a ski lift up and then walked along the wall for about two hours, from there, we headed back and took an alpine slide down the mountain, which was awesome.  Part of the time we had to go slow because we were behind a kid, but I would still highly recommend doing the sled ride down.

Our tour included lunch, so I had rice and potatoes as well as cucumbers and carrots with a spicy sauce before we headed back to Beijing.  It was a great way to ring in the New Year!


Asia China

Harbin: Ice Sculptures and Siberian Tigers

From Beijing, I took a night train up to Harbin to go see the Ice Festival!  This was the first time I had ever been on a night train, and it was my first long distance train trip in China.  This particular train station had no signage or announcements in English, so I got there early so that I could observe and ask around if needed.  It turned out to be pretty straightforward.  While hoisting myself up on the top bunk was an adventure, I ended up sleeping very well as the train rocked me gently back and forth.

I had hired a driver in Harbin, so I met up with him in the train station.  He didn’t speak any English and I didn’t speak any Chinese, so we communicated through Google Translate.  He drove me into the city to pick up all my tickets for the day and I got my first look at Harbin.  The architecture blended Chinese and Russian styles, with some buildings including Cyrillic signs with the standard Chinese.  I was blown away at the size of some of the apartment buildings, which were absolutely massive.  It was also brutally cold while I was there, at -10 F and a “feels like” temperature of -24 F.

Our first stop was Snow World, where there were giant sculptures made out of snow.  Some were still being constructed, and there were galleries of smaller sculptures that were designed by students for a competition.  It was cold in a way that I have rarely felt before, and I often had to find a building to go inside to warm up so that I could feel my legs again.  Still, the sculptures were stunning.  I think their snow version of the Temple of Heaven was nearly the size of the real one.

From there, we headed to the Siberian Tiger Park.  I had researched this before I came and saw online debates about the ethics, although for the most part it felt like the night safari my family and I did at Disney World.  Except the bus had a cage over the top and the animals were all tigers.  I couldn’t understand what the guide was saying, but at one point people started passing up money.  Eventually, I understood that they were buying live animals to feed to the tigers.  A small Jeep-like vehicle came into the enclosure and tossed out live chickens, which the tigers killed and ate in front of us.  After the bus ride was done, we went to a sort of caged walkway.  Some people bought meat to feed the tigers through the cage, although to me that was the part that did cross the line ethically so I just watched.

After the tigers, we went to a local Chinese restaurant.  My driver was confused about my vegetarianism and struggled to find dishes to order.  We had lunch with another Chinese guide, Toby, and tour participant, Sharon, who is a South African teaching English in China.  She had also lived in Oman and Bahrain to teach English.  We talked about traveling and China over our food.  Lunch was interesting.  I tried a corn soup (great), a dried tofu pasta dish (meh), a tofu stew (good flavor, weird texture), and the potatoes from a chicken and potato dish (delicious).  I also tried a Harbin beer that was developed by the Soviet Union, which I liked quite a bit.  Food was served family style.

After lunch, we headed to Polar Land and I watched the sea lion show.  They had a walrus that danced, played the harmonica, blew a balloon, whistled, and did sit ups, which was quite impressive.  Then the sea lion came out and did very impressive jumps and caught rings thrown by the audience.  It was a quick trip, because I was anxious to get to the main event: the Ice Sculpture Festival.

It was incredible!  Possibly the most magical place I’ve ever been.  They had built a Colosseum and Duomo out of ice, and castles with turrets and slides.  Many of the buildings were designed after famous Chinese buildings.  All of the lights changed color, creating stunning designs.  I met up with Toby and Sharon there, and Toby told us the whole festival was constructed in 15 days!  They have to wait until the river is cold enough to harvest the ice, apparently.  The whole thing was completely worth the effort it took to get there.  After the festival, I went back to the train station so I could catch my sleep train back to Beijing.


Asia China

Beijing: An Introduction to China

My trip to China started when I landed to the Beijing Airport and went to an ATM, where I found out that I couldn’t get any money.  I tried all of the ones in the airport and talked to the information kiosks, and when neither of those worked, I stood in front of the ATMs for a while and cried until another traveler took pity on me and let me Venmo him for cash so I could get to my hotel.  After Facetiming with my bank for an hour at midnight and about six more ATMs later, I finally found one that would accept foreign cards and managed to withdraw the money I needed for the trip.  It wasn’t exactly the beginning I was hoping for.

Once I sorted out all my money issues, I set about visiting the Forbidden City.  I ended up hurrying through it a bit, because it was a frigid morning and despite its moniker “The Palace Museum,” the visit is entirely outside.  Still, it was amazing to see the scale of the palace that the emperors used to live in.  The rooms were intricate and beautiful.

After a long and cold walk back to the metro from the North Gate, I continued my visit through the landmarks of old Beijing.  I went to the Lama Temple, which is an extensive Buddhist temple, and watched as people burned incense.  They had these magnificent statues of giant gold Buddhas.  Across the street from the temple, there was an area of hutongs.  Beijing used to have more of them, as that was the traditional way people lived there, but many have been torn down by now.  It reminded me a lot of the Latin Quarters in old European cities, with twisty and narrow labyrinth streets.  It felt invasive to wander through them, where people were still clearly living, but it took me a while to find my way out.

For the afternoon, I headed to the Temple of Heaven.  Ironically, I just saw the “Disney-ized” version of this in Epcot a few weeks before this trip.  The Temple of Heaven complex is a lot more extensive than I thought it would be, with a portion where they used to prepare animal sacrifices and a park.  My favorite part was walking through the Long Corridor, where a bunch of Chinese people were playing cards and some sort of checkers game together.  While walking through there, I got my first taste of being a white tourist in China.  One guy wanted to take a picture with me and a security guard came up to shake my hand.  I had seen this behavior as a tourist in Russia, but it’s strange to have strangers want to take pictures with you.

I also visited my first grocery store this evening, which was a bit of an adventure.  I don’t read Mandarin and most of their labeling didn’t even have pictures that made it clear what the flavorings were, so it took me a while to settle on the types of snacks I wanted to try.  From there, I headed on a night train to Harbin for the ice festival and spent the next day there.

When I got back to Beijing, my priority was the Olympic Park!  I have always loved the Olympics, and the 2008 Beijing Olympics was an amazing spectacle.  Who can forget the drummers, all in perfect unison?  I was beyond excited to be there.  Curiously, the Water Cube (where Michael Phelps won all those medals) has been transformed into half water park and half mall.  There are restaurants and shops, and if you go up to the top floor, there’s an art gallery.

From there, I headed to the Birds Nest!  I splurged for the “VIP” ticket, which meant I could go to the walkway on the very top of the stadium.  They were using the stadium to host a winter festival, with some snow sculptures and gentle slopes for kids to slide down.  It was great, and I spent much of my time there in disbelief that I was actually there.

I had an early dinner that evening at my hotel, the Howard Johnson.  Something my parents found absolutely hilarious, since it was historically a Midwestern chain hotel.  Because I was there before most people would go to dinner, I was completely alone in the restaurant, which was a wild experience.  I did get to finally try Chinese wine, which was something I had wanted to do since I first went to that convenience store and found that their main label was Great Wall wine.  It was pretty decent for the price point.