Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Beijing, China

The first thing we notice is that Beijing is NOT like the rest of China. Taxis are metered, trash is in the cans, and people seem to spit and smoke less. (Still, the Olympics will definitely be a fiasco, more on that later). In about 4 days, we check off all the must-sees: The Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, and of course, The Great Wall. (The Great Wall is normally a 2.5 hr drive from Beijing, depending on your starting point, but our driver Joe made it in just under 2 despite a huge traffic jam by utilizing both the the left lane and bike lane, despite oncoming traffic and pedestrians).

We were also lucky to make a new friend in Beijing, Ivy, a friend of Ben Wigger (thanks, Ben!) She was able to answer A LOT of questions we’ve had about China, namely, why is Chairman Mao remembered as such a hero after causing the Cultural Revolution? (In the ‘70s Mao decided steel production was the future and forced everyone, including the farmers, to work in steel factories. And because there was no one left to grow food, 20-30 million people died. He’s also responsible other policies that don’t make tons of sense, like the one-child policy). Mao’s picture is EVERYWHERE, on t-shirts, watches, key chains, in restaurants, etc, and Chinese people line up every day to visit his mausoleum in Tiananmen Square. Ivy says people have mixed feelings about Mao, but he’ll always be remembered for uniting China.

Ivy (Chinese name Shenshen) also tells us a bit about her life and what it’s like to live in China...

She was born in 1980, the year the one-child policy went into effect, so she doesn’t have siblings. (Now parents can pay 100,000 rmb, or $12,500 USD, to the government for the second child, but that’s a lot of money on a Chinese salary). Her father was an artist, but when he was forced to work in a steel factory during the Cultural Revolution, he got sick and died. She works full-time at the Beijing Evening News as a graphic designer, but works too much and is looking for a different job. Interestingly, she works a normal U.S. 40 hour week and considers this a heavy load! Some day, she wants to leave China and live in a country where she can have lots of kids, but this means she’ll have to leave her mother behind, who is a widow now and will live alone. Obviously, it’s so sad to hear all this, especially as I only check in with the government on April 15!

I travel with a group of English teachers later who tell me the One-child policy has really negative social implications, ie most of their students are “little emperors” because their parents give them everything and don’t make them do their homework. As a result, the kids don’t learn anything and the teachers are held responsible.

Before leaving Beijing, I buy a Chinese laptop, which could prove to be a huge mistake but it’s really cheap because in China, you can negotiate prices on everything, even at the mall. I also see my first fat Chinese person at KFC, the West’s contribution to China (hey, I was only there getting coffee. I hit my quota on green tea a few weeks ago).

I'm looking at airfare to destinations in southern China. Beijing is WAY too cold…

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Xian, China

China is experiencing the worst weather it’s had in about 50 years. Most of the east side is under heavy snow cover, and the entire country, even the southern parts that are always warm, are feeling the chill. Plus, Chinese New Year, also known as The Spring Festival, the biggest holiday of the year, and everyone is traveling home to be with their families. The holiday + bad weather combo makes travel even more of a mess with more delays and cancellations than usual. Flying is the best way to go now, as domestic airfare isn’t that expensive relative to the American dollar and a few planes have seats left.

It seemed too good to be true when, still determined to spend a few nights in a small town, we found cheap first-class flights to Wuhan in the Southwest. We were enjoying VIP treatment when some sort of disturbance broke out in the front cabin, and the two men in front of us started yelling at the flight attendant and shaking their fists towards the cockpit. And as neither Derek or I speak Mandarin, it took us a long time to figure out what was going on. Finally, a flight attendant announced in broken English, after several announcements in Chinese, that the flight was diverted due to bad weather and we were landing back in Hangzhou. Damn! We were so annoyed to have traveled all day for nothing that we booked a ticket to our next must-see stop, Xian, to avoid getting stuck somewhere in between.

Xian is the third oldest city in the world, after Alexandria and Istanbul, and also the fabled beginning and ending of the Silk Road. It’s on China’s central Plain, in the northwest area of the country. We came here to visit the Terra cotta warriors, a life-size clay army that was discovered in 1974 by a farmer who was just trying to dig a well. Now thousands of warriors have been discovered in the area, and the excavation is still in progress. The warriors were originally buried with weapons to protect Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emporer, in his afterlife (his mausoleum is nearby). Rumor has it Qin Shi Huang then killed the hundreds of slaves who helped build his warriors, to ensure the army’s location remained secret. The army is a must-see for anyone who is going to China, and the Chinese have dubbed it “the eighth wonder of the world.” The site is about 45 drive minutes from Xian, although the tour took all day, as most Chinese tour packages also include a visit to the guide’s sister’s neighbor’s silk factory, or her niece’s teacher’s jade emporium, where of course all items are for sale and shopping is highly encouraged.

On our last night in Xian, we walk along the city walls wearing all of our cold-weather gear, just to see if we need to buy more layers before hiking the Great Wall next week. Afterwards, we ditch the hostel and check into the Sofitel, one of the only five star hotels in Xian, mainly because I can’t remember the last time I was warm. (As Derek said, we’re either “penthouse or outhouse.”) It doesn’t seem like anyone in China turns on the heat. In Alaska, I always dressed warm outside, but was able to remove my layers inside, because it was always heated. Not so in China. People wear their parkas everywhere. Either heat is too expensive or the Chinese are a heartier breed.

Regardless, I really like Xian. It’s historic and modern city, with temples and pagodas beside malls and street vendors selling knock-offs. Everyone is walking around outside, all the time, and the town seems very busy and alive.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Hangzhou, China

We just arrived in Hangzhou, which is just a few hours outside of Shanghai. We were VERY excited to leave the big city for a small town. As it turns out, Hangzhou is a small town only by Chinese standards, which means about six million people live there!

Its so cold here that I have to buy a coat. It's my lucky day when the only parka in my size (XL) is also red (which means "happiness," and the Chinese wear A LOT of it) . People seem to be staring at me less, perhaps its because I just blend in so well with the parka, or because this town is more geared to tourists with five-star resorts and hi-end stores (Ralph Lauren, Versace, etc) where locals could never afford to shop (not that I can either).

Thursday, January 31, 2008


I was really confused on our taxi ride in to Shanghai, because our hotel was near the river, but we never saw any water. As it turns out, we just couldn't SEE the river under the heavy smog cover. At least in Hong Kong, the smog appeared to lift in the evenings (hard to get a clear day shot). I didn't expect the air quality to be great, but was still unprepared for the amount of air pollution. I really just can't convey how bad it was. The river is not very wide, maybe a few hundred meters, and you still can't see any of the buildings on the other side. And the boardwalk is still packed withlocals just out for an evening stroll. Is this a clear day for this city? Is anyone else concerned?

The really funny/sad thing is that people are still taking pictures against the city backdrop. We end up paying a camera man 10rmb to take our picture too, just to see if he's going to digitally enhance it to include the city skyline. We take seven pictures, each from a different angle. He even takes a few twice. Of course, they all look the same – me and Derek in a big wall of smog. The only pictures I have from Shanghai. And only a small percentage of people are wearing facemasks. I don't think I would bother either if I lived here. I heard somewhere that living in Beijing is the equivalent of smoking 70 cigarettes per day, and wonder if that's better or worse than Shanghai.

But, other than the pollution, I really like this city. It's jam-packed with people spitting, rusted bicycles, taxis doing u-turns in intersections, shops blaring club music and nothing is orderly or works properly. Shanghai is too disorganized to put on any sort of tourist front, so it just comes across as “real life.” Plus, I'm enjoying my new-found celebrity as the biggest white girl in town. People slow down and stare at me -- not just passing glances, but long stares that often include dropping everything to watch me. Of course, it may also be because I'm bigger than just about everyone, usually at least 4-5 inches taller than most of the men.

It also turns out our hotel lounge is THE place to be at 3:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, as we were invited to sing "anything in English” by a group of 30 Chinese karaoke buffs. Of course, there were no English words or music, but here's our attempt at an acapella “Livin' on a Prayer” duet.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Hong Kong

So, I’m catching up on this blog a bit – it’s been hard to get online in China. Either the internet cafes are few and far between, or really expensive. It seems the “Great Firewall of China” really exists! I’m getting used to seeing a pop-up screen with Chinese characters (which I can’t read obviously, but assume mean “page unavailable”) redirect my search to government-approved sites. Even Wikipedia is blocked.

I arrived in Hong Kong a few weeks ago, and met my friend Derek from Seattle. We stayed in a teeny-tiny room in Kowloon, which is directly across from Hong Kong Island.

The city is much smaller than I thought it'd be. Isn't Hong Kong called the “New York City of the East”? It seemed to have a vibe more similar to Vancouver, BC, (kinda quiet with tons of shopping malls) and was not exactly screaming “China.” Which makes sense as it was not a part of China for so long. We took the tram to the top of Victoria Peak for a birds-eye view of the city, then wandered around the harborfront (with Hong Kong's version of Hollywood's sidewalk of stars, and a statue of Jackie Chan).

I had also heard Hong Kong was a hot-spot for cheap electronics and spent a few days looking for a new laptop (which I never got, they didn't seem that much cheaper than New York. Need to find a new source on Hong Kong). We still had fun though, but I'm really looking forward to Shanghai in a few days... it’s supposed to be China's answer to Hong Kong, whatever that means!

P.S. I also want to take this moment to send a quick note to my folks: Dad, I’m totally safe traveling with Derek. Check out this picture of what happened when we ran into Bruce Lee at the Victoria Peak Tram.... (ok, so he’s a wax figure, but check out how tiny he was!)

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Ubud, Bali

I'm writing from Ubud, Bali, which is in the center of the island and slightly southeast. It's hard to believe I've been here almost three weeks now, although Lisa (my old college roommate) and her husband Alec just left yesterday for Vietnam...

I met with the town's medicine man today: his name is Ketut Liyer and he claims I'll live to be 102 years old (although he said 101 earlier in the conversation, so maybe he likes me and decided to throw me an extra year). A woman just wrote a book about him called Eat Pray Love. It's not actually about him but he's a major character. Now he' s telling me that if I write a book to make sure he's in it. Obviously, he's been getting a lot of business... If any of you write a book, I'm sure he'd also like to be in it, also.

Ubud is a really unique town, not on the water, but built around Hindu temples and rice patties. Every family has their own temple, and most of them have been converted into guesthouses or restaurants, or guesthouse/restaurants. Indonesia is still in its rainy season though, so Ubud, not the coastal towns, is the place to be. I was on Nusa Lambangon for New Years, an island off the southeast coast, and we luckily had perfect weather until 11:59 on New Year's Eve when a tropical storm hit. Although we made the best of this also, as the restaurant owner herded us into the kitchen and brought out his finest champagne.

I am leaving Indonesia in a few days, and will be really sad to go. It's an absolutely beautiful island (except for Kuta, which is overrun with tourists and gross) with palm trees and lush foliage and geckos and stray chickens and dogs, very tropical. Plus, the people are so friendly. The three of us rented a car for a few weeks (which was umm... just $5 per day) and locals would knock on our windows at stoplights to ask where we were going, and where we were from. They weren't trying to sell anything, they were just friendly and curious. I rented a bicycle a few days ago to ride through town, and everyone (old men and women, kids and babies) shouted out hello, and a few people tried to give me high fives. quite the greeting! I sorta felt famous.

The other funny thing about Bali is that every local thinks Lisa and I are identical twins. We're about the same height and both blond, but people here really get confused...

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Merry Christmas from Bali!

I'm in Sanur with Lisa and Al, and despite the tropical setting, its not as hard as we thought to get in the holiday spirit. Or maybe that's because of the santa hats that we've been wearing all day. We splurged on a nice holiday dinner (almost $10 per person) at a place where all the servers were wearing hats like us. After dinner, I was invited to sing with the band... kinda scary, for those of you who have shared karaoke moments with me.

Merry Christmas!!

jen (aka jennifer lopez, as everyone here keeps calling me)