Monday, August 27, 2007

Hong Kong

So, I realize that updates are long over due and I apologize. I've been keeping quite busy over here, but will try to start updating now as I don't want to leave everyone back home out.

Let me start by saying that Hong Kong is truly a great city! The government ad slogan here is "Hong Kong: Asia's World Class City."

Imagine taking Manhattan and maybe Boston and placing them on a small patch of a Hawaiian island and then replacing the accents with more melodious sounds of Cantonese and the Queen's English. That is Hong Kong in a sentence, though the city warrants much more than that.

Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region (SAR) is actually made up of a few different islands and a small peninsula off of the mainland (the New Territories and Kowloon). Janet and I are staying on Hong Kong Island (the main island) on a peninsula known as Stanley. From here it is about a 30-minute bus ride to Central, which is located on the other side of the island and is the main financial district that is comprised of all the big buildings that make up the famous Hong Kong skyline.

Some major differences that I have experienced so far in Hong Kong are:

  • no spitting
  • much less smoking
  • people are great at queuing
  • a huge emphasis on cleanliness, including bathrooms always stocked with soap
  • a large western influence, with many people speaking English
  • much more expensive than the mainland!

Coming to Hong Kong after being on the mainland is a little like returning to the west. Even the grocery stores here have an excellent international selection. The first store I went into, I spent about 30 minutes wandering the aisles in amazement after seeing items like Florida Natural Orange Juice, Taco Bell Salsa, a huge variety of cheeses and many other items that you might find back home along with a number of other international products you probably would not see in a Publix or Winn-Dixie.

Having arrived before most other people, Janet and I spent most of our free time trying to take in as much of Hong Kong as we could. We visited Lantau Island, home of the world's largest sitting bronze Buddha (every place in Asia seems to have some type of largest Buddha as a claim to fame) and Hong Kong Disney, which I didn't actually visit but did see a ticket station in the MTR (subway) station (tickets about $50USD).

On the following day we went back downtown, but took the people escalator (a series of escalators taking you about halfway up Victoria Peak) and I was excited to find a Krispy Kreme and stopped in for a "hot now" glazed donut. We rode on a tram the rest of the way up the peak, the highest point on Hong Kong island. The observation deck on the peak offers an excellent view of the island and surrounding areas (see my pictures). While there, Janet and I had lunch at Bubba Gump's and I thought it was a bit funny to see menu items such as Lt. Dan's BBQ Chicken and Jenny's Lemonade in Hong Kong.

On Saturday, I visited a bookstore. One of the most exciting things about Hong Kong is that one of the stipulations in the return to China is that Hong Kong will retain to a large degree its autonomy for 50 years from the 1997 handover. An important part of this is a relative freedom of press and speech, so you can find most any book and Internet sites are not blocked (so thankfully I've finally been able to upload photos again).

Another important aspect of Hong Kong's autonomy is that its economic system can remain the same. Hong Kong is consistently rated as having the world's freest economy with a laissez-faire capitalism (little govt. intervention system). There is a very simple tax system with the top income tax rates being currently set at 16% and the per capita GDP ranks 14th in the world (ahead of Canada, the U.K., Germany and Japan, among others).

After making a find at the bookstore, I took the MTR over to Kowloon where Janet and I explored the excellent Hong Kong Museum of Natural History. The museum traces the history of Hong Kong from its geologic formation to colonial rule under the British, to the return to China and is worth a visit. After the museum, we where excited to stumble upon an Outback Steakhouse and couldn't resist treating ourselves to a Blooming Onion and dinner.

Later, we made the short walk to the Avenue of Stars where we were perfectly positioned to watch the Hong Kong Symphony of Lights. The Symphony begins every night at 8PM and is a show coordinated between a number of the big buildings in Central (across the water from Kowloon), with a few boats in between shooting off fireworks. The buildings flash their neon lights and lasers and it makes for quite a fun show.

I know that this entry has been drawn out, but I think it brings everyone up to speed with what has been going on in Hong Kong. This morning, Orientation Week began and I'll try and include more about that in my next update. Also, if you have not yet checked, I have put up a number of new pictures and the link to the site is over on the right of the page.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Arrived in Hong Kong

Just to let everybody know, Janet and I did make it in safely to Hong Kong on Monday afternoon.

We took a flight from Chengdu to Shenzhen, where we caught a ferry to Hong Kong island. Once there it was just about a 30-minute cab ride to where we are staying on Stanley.

Yesterday it was raining for most of the day, so we spent most of the day inside a few shopping malls, one being the International Finance Center Mall, located at the base of 2 IFC, Hong Kong's tallest building.

The weather today is nicer, so I'm going to end the update here and take advantage of the nice day to explore and take pictures. At some point I'll try and sit down and type out some of the last two weeks (which I am quite behind on by now) and give everyone more details.

In the meantime, I have uploaded some new pictures for everyone to look at - .

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Sandwich, A Sandwich, My Kingdom for a Sandwich!

Just one more note of praise on the food in Chengdu!

For lunch today, Janet and I found a Subway that had just opened in downtown Chengdu and enjoyed our first sandwiches in nearly 7 weeks. It is funny because I wouldn't realize that I would miss sandwiches so much, but there is really nothing like them here (which makes packing a lunch much more difficult). While I think my turkey sub was actually ham, it was tasty. My combo meal was rounded out with a bag of "Italian Red Meat" flavored chips, which taste oddly like spaghetti sauce.

Many Chinese people that we have spoken with seem to think that all Americans love sandwiches (though the are sometimes confused on the difference between a sandwich and hamburger) and maybe compared to them we do.

This evening, it was back downtown to Brick Oven Pizza where we enjoyed a Pizza and a Caesar Salad. Good salads also happen to be in extremely short supply over here. It is funny to think about the foods that are commonplace back home but seem exponentially better when you miss them and can find them abroad.

A Trip to Panda Mecca

Janet and I woke up early this morning in order to make it to Giant Panda Breeding and Research Center right outside of Chengdu.

The price of admission is around $4.50 USD and is probably the most fun thing that you can possibly do for $4.50.

The first thing you will notice about the Center is that it is probably the nicest zoo in all of China. Unfortunately, most zoos here keep their animals in small, dirty cages and can be a depressing site. Here the pandas are kept in very large yards that are full of trees, plants, and climbing structures designed for them. You want to make it to the morning feeding session, because at other times of the day the Pandas may be sleeping in parts of the yard that are too far away to see. There are no bars here, but rather a moat and hedge that keeps you out and the Pandas in.

The complex itself is also very large and required a long walk from the entrance before we were near the first Panda enclosures. As we rounded one bend, Janet and I were very excited to see our first Panda, sitting about 15 feet away and steadily chowing down on bamboo.

A few feet away was a second yard with a different Giant Panda enjoying his morning feast, which was prepared right next door at the Panda Kitchen (see pictures of the signs once I can upload them). Other funny signs were "posted" by the Pandas reminding me to "be quiet because we hate too much noise." Walking around the different Panda habitats, Janet and I quickly saw 6 Giant Pandas, enough to double the number of Pandas that we had seen up to that point (having also seen 6 in the U.S. so far).

A little later, I heard a chorus of "ooohs" and "aaahs" and rounded the bend in the path to see the "Panda Kindergarten" which had 6 or 7 young cubs climbing around and wrestling with each other. The yard might easily be the cutest acre on Earth!

Adjacent to the kindergarten is the Panda nursery where we were able to see (but not take pictures of) two newborn cubs in incubators.

Following a short Panda Movie and a few other Panda yards, we probably saw 20-25 Giant Pandas and also a number of Red Pandas as well.

It all made for a very fun and Panda-filled morning! I think both Janet and I were excited to finally see Pandas after being in China for a month and a half and are already planning a trip back before we leave Chengdu.

If you ever in Chengdu, the Giant Panda Breeding Center is a must see!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

A Brand New Day

This morning Janet and I moved into a new room at our hostel, Sim's Cozy Guest House and are excited. I think both of us are feeling much better after a night's sleep and taking a shower.

The hostel is surprisingly very nice. They seem to have anticipated every need a traveler might have and provided for it. We have clean bathrooms, a courtyard garden sitting area, computer lab, bar and restaurant, movie room, travel office and more. The best part about it is the extremely friendly customer service, which in my experience, has not always been the rule in China.

Janet and I sat down this morning and started to plan out our itinerary for the next few days, beginning to pick rooms and found out information about travel arrangements. Things are going so much better today!

In the afternoon we walked to the "Culture Street" area of Chengdu where we were pleasantly not harassed by vendors. Signs at the entrance warned in both Chinese and English to not harass the foreigners along with a host of other rules, that were more often than not worded in the silly English translations that people generally refer to as "Chinglish." Right off of Culture Street (which is a 3-minute walk from our hostel) we paid 5 Yuan to enter the Wenshu Monastery.

From the helpful map that the hostel provided for us, I discovered the route to Pete's Tex-Mex restaurant and decided that this was too good an opportunity to pass. On the bus ride to the restaurant, I meet two Canadians that had been backpacking in China for the past few months. I told them about our tedious 35-hour train ride and they told me about how they had not been able to get train tickets out of Beijing so they had taken 90 hours worth of bus rides over the past week on the way to Urumqi, a remote desert town in the extreme west of China.

After discovering that we were all headed to the same restaurant, we all decided to dine together. Since they had already been in China for a while and too many sites, Janet and I were able to glean some helpful information from them and learned that one of the pair, coincidentally also named Scott, had previously taught English in China for two years. The other of the pair, Justin, was almost out of money and planning to return to Canada in a few weeks to try and get a job in a diamond mine for a few months in order to earn more money for his next big trek. It was quite an adventurous lifestyle and interesting to exchange stories about our time in China and joke about the scams and hawkers of cheap wares at tourist spots.

The restaurant itself was an ex-pat haven. An oasis of Mexican food in the middle of China. It was fun to look around and see all of the other "white" people at the tables joking with each other and relieved to find tacos, burritos and chips and salsa. Though I'm sure I could have found better quality Mexican food in Tallahassee, in Chengdu my Texas Burrito seemed like a little taste of Heaven. Before leaving, Janet and I joked with the backpackers that we would see them there later in the week, and we very likely may run into them if we go back. If you ever happen to find yourself in Chengdu and in need of a break in food, I would recommend Pete's Tex-Mex.

Tomorrow morning, Janet and I are going to be headed to the Giant Panda Breeding (大熊猫) and Research Center and are very excited! I'm sure that there will be an album full of cute Panda pictures up on my webshots in the next few days, so be sure to check it out.

The 35-hour "express"

It turns out that getting train tickets to leave Beijing is a much harder task than I would have imagined. Despite the fact that I had inquired about getting the tickets 10 days in advance, I did not physically have them in my hand until 11:30PM on Saturday night, just 8 hours before we were scheduled to leave for Beijing and then Chengdu the following morning!

Having not been able to get the soft sleeper bunks, Janet and I settled for a "hard" sleeper (6 people, tiny room) on a 32-hour train for Chengdu. Once I finally boarded the train, the anxiety of not having the tickets and the tight timeframe for getting to Beijing and then across the city to the station settled; or maybe it was the Kenny G version of the Titanic theme song that was playing when we boarded that calmed my nerves...

At first the ride went by quickly and Janet and I kept entertained by reading and playing cards in our cramped bunk. For meals we had really conveinent Ramen Noodle bowls. The Ramen here comes in a big cardboard bowl that includes seasoning and a fork and all you have to do is add boiling water. It seemed like an easy and fun meal, though 35 hours and 5 Ramen bowls later, I was sick of them, but that is getting ahead of myself.

In the evening, Janet and I sat in the hallway of the car and talked with a Chinese man for a while. We found out that he was an engineering teacher in Chengdu and excited to be able to practice speaking English. He explained that he had taken English classes while in school, but not having a chance to practice speaking much since then, his spoken English was not very good. We were happy to speak with him for a while and tried asking questions about what we should do while in Chengdu. As he struggled to answer, I couldn't help but think that it was frustrating that two educated people could barely communicate. He clearly had much he wanted to say and I had many questions to ask, but our language barrier limited us to only the most basic of conversation.

A little while later, it was time for bed. I climbed up into my top bunk (with just enough clearance above me to roll over) and went to sleep to the steady sound of the train rolling along over the tracks.

In the morning, I woke up at the late hour of 7:40am to a jazzy version of What Child is This? I was excited to see a completely different landscape outside the car window. We were now rolling along through the mountains. The train ran a course alongside a river that also meandered its way through the mountains, occasionally winding away from the tracks for a while before moving back closer on the next bend. Periodically we would pass a small village nestled between the tracks and the river and mountains on the far side of it.

Chinese people were gathering in the hallway eating and reading. Some would cluster around a table of men playing Chinese Chess, with everyone offering commentary on each move. Unfortunately, the fun was short lived.

For some reason, I'm not quite sure why, our train was delayed and we came to an abrupt standstill on the tracks. For four hours we sat there in the same place as the people inside the car became steadily more anxious. Kids were running through the hallway, younger children starting to cry and everybody growing more frustrated by the minute. Once the train finally started moving again, it was relieving, but by this point, the romantic notion of train travel had died and my mind was only concerned with getting to Chengdu and getting off!

We did eventually arrive in Chengdu around 10:30pm (all of China is on Beijing time, there are no time zones) and rushed through the hordes of people who were waiting to meet someone at the station. Once we made it to our hostel, a short taxi ride away, we discovered that our room had been given away since we missed check-in and we were stuck in a dorm room without A/C!

It was a long, unglorious trip into Chengdu that reminded me of my first day in China. After getting off the flight and arriving in a smog-filled Beijing and then a subsequent three-hour bus ride to Tianjin, I was horrified at the thought of being in China for the next year. After a good night's sleep however, I was much better and I expect that this time will be the same as well...

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Not All Who Wander Are Lost (Hopefully)

Tomorrow morning I'll be leaving for Chengdu on a 30-hour train ride! I think Janet and I are finally going to get the tickets tonight. I've learned that traveling in China is exponentially more complicated than traveling in the United States where you can just hop in your car and find the nearest interstate or book bus or plane tickets online.

Here, you usually can only get a ticket in the city that the train leaves from, so our travel agency had to send a person to the Beijing train station to physically get the tickets and then return with them. Despite trying to get the tickets a week ago, they were apparently not being sold until only two days before the train leaves. I think Janet and I have both been very anxious about being able to get the tickets, travel halfway across the country and arrange to have our bags shipped to Hong Kong (where we will meet up with them later)!

I know once we get to Sichuan (四川) it will be worth the effort and I'll feel much better once Janet and I board the train tomorrow morning. I'm hoping to visit the Panda Breeding Center in Chengdu, home to about 60 Giant Pandas, and many other outdoor sites such as the LeShan Buddha, Emei Shan and Jiuzhaigou National Park.

Since we will be out traveling, I probably will not have regular updates for the next couple of weeks. We are currently planning to fly into Hong Kong (香港) and will probably try and arrive on either August 22 or 23; our visas expire on the 23rd and the train ride is 3 days long! Once there, I know I will have many new things to post and hopefully lots of great pictures to share!