Sunday, June 27, 2010

Let's play "Find the Foreigner"!

Joe came home the other day with a print of his school's staff photo for the yearbook, and as soon as I saw it I started to laugh. He's like a giant gorilla next to all his Japanese colleagues. Check it out. (Click it to see a bigger version.)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Macau: High rollin'... for a moment

Macau's MGM Casino

While in Hong Kong, we took a day trip to Macau, which is kind of like the Las Vegas of the East. Macau, like Hong Kong, is a special administrative region of China and essentially functions as its own country. It was a Portuguese colony up until it was handed back to China in 1999 under an agreement that it would remain autonomous for the next 50 years.

Now Macau's bread and butter is gambling. I've never been to Las Vegas, or stepped foot in a casino, so this was a first for me. After a one-hour ferry ride from Hong Kong, we got off the boat and directly onto a shuttle bus that took us right to the heart of the casino area, where there were all sorts of glitzy looking buildings.

Is that a Rolls Royce?

We walked around a couple of these places and the opulence blew me away. Chandeliers, flowers, water fountains, shiny everything. It all oozed money, money, MUH-NAY!

Joe and I agreed that he could play with $100 at the blackjack tables. Once it was gone though, he had to walk away. He chose to take his chances at the Wynn casino, seen here during one of its mesmerizing water fountain displays.

I just about choked when I saw the minimum bets at the blackjack tables. There were one or two tables with a minimum $10 bet, but no one was budging from those tables, so after waiting around for a while Joe finally took a seat at a table with a $20 minimum.

Five minutes later, the money was gone. He got up and walked away. Neither of us was really upset — I assumed we'd never see that money again, and I think he did too — though I felt a little stunned about how suddenly it evaporated. A hundred bucks. That'd've been a helluva nice dinner. Of course it was tempting to plunk down some more bills and play a little longer, but you know the next $100 would probably disappear just as quickly as the first.

Ah well. It was a nice experience anyway.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Hong Kong: The street markets

Residents of Hong Kong's goldfish market

Out of all the sightseeing we did in Hong Kong, my favorite places were decidedly low key, and free: the street markets scattered throughout the city. In our time there we made it to a goldfish market, flower market, songbird market, jade market and some random fish, fruit or clothing markets we passed along the way.

The goldfish market consisted of a long street of fish shop after fish shop selling goldfish (of course), a variety of other fish, lizards and baby turtles. Some shops pre-bagged the goldfish and hung them up on the wall, making for some nice window shopping.

For goldfish on the go

Look at these fat prickly guys!

We went through the goldfish market on the way to the songbird market, a small park where we found lots and lots of birds in little orange cages, and some in those charming kind of hanging cages with the rounded tops.

This guy was feeding the birds grubs with some chopsticks. I thought that was cute.

The bird garden was interesting, though I can't say I'm a big fan of birds in cages. We didn't stick around too long as all those birds gathered in one place also just felt kinda dirty.

My favorite market of all was one that wasn't one listed in any of the tourist brochures, though, and that was just a standard food market located in an old building off a busy street. Peering into the wide open first floor I spied some fresh fish and decided to poke my nose in and see what else was in there.

It wasn't long before my jaw was hanging open.

This was not just fresh fish. Ooooh no. This was Fresh Fish. Exhibit A:

These suckers are still alive. How do I know?

Because they were sliced open and we could see their hearts still beating, that's how!

More fish:

This was just the beginning. Not only was this place a fish market, but it was also a meat market, with butchers right there slicing up huge hunks of meat — and not letting anything go to waste.

Don't miss the goods in the background here, either.

Ox tail? Or cat toy?

One section of the market housed a bunch of live chickens. We watched as a worker removed one from the cage, held it just so and slit its throat before dumping it into a large funnel to drain out the blood. I grew up in Ohio so I've been around my share of livestock, but this was something I'd never seen before and it left me a bit stunned.

Last but not least... ever seen these in your local grocer's deli?

I looked around for a display of large black cauldrons, but alas there were none.

Toads, brains, fish hearts and chickens with their heads cut off... without question the most unforgettable part of Hong Kong.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Hong Kong: Glamour and grime

Hong Kong skyline at night

Hong Kong skyline by day

The above two pictures do a lot to illustrate my feeling about Hong Kong. In many ways I felt it was a city of total contrasts — luxury and wealth side by side filth and decay. At night, Hong Kong's skyline was dazzling. I've never seen such a long coastline of neon skyscrapers. By day, a haze of pollution muted that view. A completely different feel.

In some places in Hong Kong, everywhere we turned we saw luxury brand name stores selling extravagant goods with price tags to match. Not far away would be beggars with horrible deformities plunked in the middle of the sidewalk, collecting coins.

There's not a lot of mid-range accommodation in Hong Kong. You either stay at a super cheap hostel or a much pricier hotel. We stayed in a cheap hostel in the Kowloon neighborhood — truly an armpit.

We arrived late at night and emerging from the subway into our neighborhood I immediately felt overwhelmed. Lights, people, buildings everywhere. It took a while but we finally found the large, old building housing our hostel. Something in the block surrounding the building smelled like rotting corpses and I had to fight to keep from gagging. Inside, we took a slow elevator up past a number of other hostels located on different floors. Thankfully our room turned out to be clean, though also the size of a prison cell — barely big enough for two slim single beds and the tiniest bathroom known to man. I wish I had taken pictures of this but I forgot. The shower head was mounted on the wall directly in front of the toilet so that I literally could have taken a shower sitting on the pot. If I stood sideways in front of the sink I had literally an inch of clearance between my hips and the sink on one side and the wall on the other. Settling into this room, we knew we were in for an adventure.

The next morning, in the daylight, we saw the views from our building:

It is safe to say this was truly the most decrepit building I had ever been in.

On the street I marveled at the juxtaposition of old and new.

It struck me that Hong Kong actually fit the image in my head of China. Crowds, heat, tall buildings, lights, dirt, street vendors everywhere. Strange that Hong Kong should fit that image even more closely than China itself.

I wish that I had taken the time to take more photos around our building, but I didn't. Here's one shooting across the intersection by our hostel though.

And a couple more of the neighborhood street markets:

To be continued...

China Trip: Xi'an

From Beijing, Joe and I took an overnight train to Xi'an, home to the famous Terracotta Warriors. Hate to say it, but Xi'an was probably the low point of our trip. While we enjoyed some of the sights there, worries about safety definitely put a damper on our stay.

We splurged on a private room on the train, which was nice for the privacy, but despite paying a premium for the pleasure the air conditioning was broken and the beds hard as rock.

The moment we got off the train, locals started aggressively hounding us to trade our old train ticket for an English map. When we refused, they offered to buy it from us — most likely so they could attempt to later resell it to unsuspecting tourists at a "discount." Probably our first clue that this place was a little shady.

Once we'd checked in to our hostel we struck out to find some lunch, only to have one of the desk clerks hurry out the front door and chase us down to issue a warning: Best to wear your backpack on your front and keep your hands on your camera at all times, he told us. The pickpockets are very slick and will open your bags and swipe your things before you know it. A couple weeks earlier, another hostel guest had had his camera stolen off his body.

Needless to say, this left us feeling a little unsettled. A short time later we stopped in the bank to exchange some currency, and Joe set his SLR camera on the counter next to him. When the bank employee spotted it he gasped a little as though he was surprised to see someone carrying nice electronics and told Joe "Oh, sir, be careful of your belongings!" Our discomfort grew.

Consulting our Lonely Planet as we began sightseeing, we again saw a note warning that Xi'an is notorious for its pickpockets. And again, walking in an underground passage beneath a busy intersection, we saw signs on the wall warning us to watch our belongings — in only English. By this point Joe's paranoia was spinning in overdrive. Every time he saw people looking at us he worried that they weren't just looking out of curiosity, but to determine whether they could steal something.

That made it hard to relax, but we tried to enjoy what we could.

The Terracotta Army of course was the main draw and the reason we made the jaunt to Xi'an. Some history (thanks to Wikipedia): Back around 210 B.C., the first emperor of China took the throne and ordered the construction of the Terracotta Army and his mausoleum. Around 700,000 workers were enslaved to construct the army, which included some 8,000 warriors as well as chariots, horses, officials, acrobats, strongmen and musicians. This army was supposed to help the emperor rule another empire in the afterlife.

The main pit

These warriors are life size and generally stand around 6 feet tall, with each having unique facial features and even different hair styles and uniforms depending on each soldier's rank.

They were discovered by some farmers in 1974 and excavation continues to this day. It is considered one of the most famous archaeological finds in the world.

I enjoyed seeing this but I have to be honest; I was a tad disappointed. It seemed a little over-hyped to me. I expected something that would really take my breath away, but it wasn't quite that imposing. But still really interesting nonetheless.

Probably my favorite part of Xi'an besides the Terracotta Army was the Muslim Quarter, where we went first to eat some lunch and ended up sampling several Muslim treats as well as some gyouza (Chinese dumplings). Many gastronomic delights.

Muslim Quarter

Numerous roadside vendors were selling a selection of dried fruit, cheap, colorful and delicious.

Giant legs of lamb and some other mysterious spicy dish

Nothing wasted here.

Straight from the nest?

And a few last photos of other sights from around the city:

Bell Tower, built in 1384.

Big Wild Goose Pagoda, built in 652.

Pyramid replica by the side of the road on the way to the Terracotta Army.

Birds hanging out in the park.

And last but not least, we left Japan but we did not escape the Engrish. Saw this lady walking through a park:


Sunday, June 13, 2010

China Trip: The Great Wall

Joe and me on the Great Wall of China

Of course one of the highlights of our China trip was our visit to the Great Wall.

Though the Great Wall once spanned more than 8,800 miles, it is no longer in one piece. Parts of the wall have crumbled and broken down, but certain sections are accessible to tourists. We essentially had two options to see the wall while we were in Beijing: either go to Badaling, the closest and most easily accessible section of the wall (and thus most crowded), or take a tour offered through our hostel to hike between a couple sections that were further away, but more beautiful and less crowded. Joe wanted to go to Badaling. I wanted to do the hike. Guess who won.

And thus we were up at 6 a.m. waiting for the tour van to pick us up. The itinerary: drive for three hours to the Jinshanling section. Hike for four hours to the Simatai section. Have lunch at a Chinese restaurant. Drive three hours back.

The stretch between Jinshanling and Simatai amounts to six miles, but the hike takes four hours because the wall is steep and crumbling in sections, requiring hikers to use both hands to safely navigate. All that effort came with a reward however — the mountainous terrain made for spectacular scenery.

When we went, there were numerous trees covered in apricot blossoms, which I at first mistook for cherry blossoms. If you look at the pictures above you will notice the blossoms dotting the hillsides. This picture of the blossoms was my favorite though:

One of the older, disintegrating towers:

So now I will make a confession. About an hour into the hike, at the base of a very long incline and looking at the wall snake up and down, up and down the mountains, the tour guide gave us a choice. We could either continue the hike along the wall, or we could take a shortcut down through a valley that would cut out a portion in the middle and get us to Simatai faster, leaving more time for photographs. The group split in half — half wanted to continue on the wall, and half wanted to take the shortcut. Joe wanted to do the shortcut. I stared up at the long and steep hill. My motivation for doing this trip was more about wanting to see the scenery than sweat my way through a challenging hike anyway, I reasoned. And the scenery didn't look like it would change much from what we'd already seen. I caved. We took the shortcut.

On one hand I kind of regretted that. On the other, it gave us the opportunity to see some things I hadn't expected. Living in the shadow of the Great Wall were poor farmers raising goats and crops on terraced hills.

Now that's a room with a view.

This old man's back was permanently bent into this position.

Terraced fields

(Photo by Joe)

Finished! View of the wall from the restaurant where we ate lunch. (Photo by Joe)

Parts of the trip did not go as planned... The drive there and back took four hours each way, not three (with no stops). The gas station we stopped at just before starting the hike had the most primitive bathroom I have ever used: a large concrete room with holes where you do your business out in the open — no stalls, no running water, no toilet paper, nothing — just go and let it drop down a concrete chute. A Dutch couple who came on the trip actually brought their 1-year-old child — who was sick, and who we suspect gave his cold to Joe, who later gave it to me. And from the time we started the hike, we were followed by Chinese hawkers. They sweetly offered to take our picture in spots and always offered us a hand to get over rough patches, and then literally begged us to purchase exorbitantly priced souvenirs after following us for three hours. All stuff that left a bad taste in my mouth.

But hey. We got to see the Great Wall of China. It was breathtakingly beautiful. Really can't complain. The whole time I couldn't help but think "I can't believe I'm actually on the GREAT WALL OF CHINA!" Surreal, right! What an amazing blessing.

Here's a slideshow of some more photos, for those who are interested:

Great Wall of China