Stranger Danger

A few days ago in the Chinese media there was a news article about a foreigner fainting on the subway in Shanghai, and instead of someone coming to help him, or at least going to get help, every single person in the train disappeared like a fart in the wind, leaving the man laying on the floor. The whole thing was caught on CCTV and circulated widely in the news, garnering much public discussion and condemnation.



People asked, is it just because he is a foreigner? If this happened to a local, would everyone still have run away? Others speculated that they weren’t willing to help because of fears of new disease outbreaks, like Ebola and MERS. But if a Chinese person collapsed, say, on the subway in Toronto, would a similar thing happen? Or is this just par for the course in China?

The fact is, in China getting involved can be risky business. There have been numerous news stories in the past few years about good samaritans who stopped to help a stranger in need and ended up getting forced to pay their medicals bills or even being held responsible, even though they did not cause the accident.

Earlier this year there was a BBC story about someone who stopped to help an elderly man who appeared to have been hit by a motorcycle, and after taking him to the hospital and even paying his bills for admittance, the elderly man’s family began stalking the good samaritan, demanding more money, and harassing him until it got to the point where the good samaritan actually killed himself because he couldn’t take the pressure anymore.

Sounds insane? I agree. But that’s not as insane as the shocking story from October 2011 where a two year old girl got knocked down in the road, and was left there to die while more than a dozen people passed by and stopped and looked. Oh, and to make matters worse, a few of them actually DROVE OVER HER, AGAIN. If you haven’t seen the video, please take my advice, and don’t watch it. Especially if you are a parent. It’s just too disturbing to try to comprehend and will make you sick to your stomach.

These kinds of things don’t only happen in China. There was a very famous case in New York where a woman was getting stabbed in the street and screaming for help. 38 people witnessed it from their windows but none came to help her or call the police. Not to mention a recent story in the news (again in New York) where a man fell on the subway tracks and stood there begging someone to help him. No one did, and the train killed him. But, a freelance photographer did have time to take out his camera and snap a picture. Enough time to take a picture, but not enough time to reach out a hand and save a human being’s life. What is this world coming to?

Some say this is the curse of life in a big city. In a place where no one knows your name and no one really gives a damn, are these incidents more likely to happen?

That may be part of it, but I’m not convinced.  Tokyo is the biggest city in the world with 30 million people, but if you were in the train station carrying a baby, and stood up at the bottom of the stairs with a big suitcase, you would never wait more than 10 seconds for someone to offer their help, guaranteed.

In Japan, I’ve also witnessed the exact opposite of what happened in the train in Shanghai. We were once in a car, sitting at a red light. A mother on her bicycle with a small child in the child seat started to cross the road, and lost her balance. She fell onto the street, and her daughter and her bags went tumbling off the bicycle. Within seconds, no less than four people had jumped out of their cars to help her get up. “Daijoubu?” they all said, helping her up, and picking up her spilled belongings. She looked especially bewildered to see two gaijin — me and an Indian woman — amongst the group of good samaritans, asking her in Japanese if she was all right. But then again, Japan is Japan, and perhaps cannot be compared to anywhere else on this planet.

Here in Hong Kong, there have been many instances where I’ve been absolutely shocked at the general apathy people display towards the needs of others.

Once in the airport, we had one baby, two suitcases, one box, and one fishing pole, all piled on to the trolley. Well, except the baby, obviously, who was attached to me in the Baby Bjorn. My husband went to pop in to the 7-11 to get some cold beers for the ride home, and I kept on walking, slowly, pushing the trolley towards the bus terminal. Next thing I knew, it lost balance and it all fell off on the floor. Lots of people were nearby. A guy on his cell phone looked over, made eye contact with me, and turned around. Another guy who was finishing off a smoke stubbed out his cigarette, stepped around me, and went on his way. Take a wild guess how many people eventually came to help the woman with the baby strapped to her chest? How many? A BIG FAT ZERO. Surprise! Bet you didn’t expect that.

My friend Laura told me she was jogging the other day and took a misstep, and ended up falling flat on her knees on the road. She got quite hurt and was bleeding profusely. “Not one person came and helped me up!” she said incredulously. “Everyone looked and gaped, but nobody came and even said, ‘are you okay?'”  I’m not sure why she was shocked — that sounds like par for the course to me.

And just yesterday, another friend had a similar incident; she exited her office building, but as the floor was wet from the rain she slipped and fell straight on her ass. She said six people were standing there at the exit, smoking, and while they all turned and looked at her, not one said ‘are you okay?’ or came to help her up.

What is it? Is it just a foreigner/local thing? A language thing? A cultural thing? A distrust of strangers? Or do people really just not care? I asked myself, what would happen in Trinidad? I think if someone fell down walking on Frederick Street in Port-of-Spain, a few people would come to help you up, and probably say something funny to you to make you smile, or if you’re cute, maybe give you some lyrics.

I’ve noticed, however, that things are a bit different here in Mui Wo (population: approximately 6,000). The pace of life here is slower, and people get to know you more easily because you see them every day of life, so you’re not just another nameless soul taking up space on the sidewalk.

One night I heard a knocking on the door, and when I went down I saw it was my Chinese neighbour with her six year old daughter, Ella. They were standing there smiling, holding a tupperware container. “I made a Chinese cake,” the mom said, “and Ella wanted to give some to your baby.”  How sweet is that? I’ve never had a neighbour give me cake before in all the places I’ve ever lived. Since then she has also given me fruits and other tasty things to eat, and I’ve given her  many things in return.

In the local wet market, the woman who runs the fruit stand doesn’t speak much English, but loves kids, and insists on giving Lynn a grape every time we go shopping. Sometimes she also gives Lynn a really disgusting tasting cracker, and I simply don’t have the heart to tell her no thank you, so we take it anyway and smile. I suppose in a small town, it pays to be nice to your neighbours.

If you want to read some other bloggers’ thoughts on some of the other things that can make Hong Kong a sometimes unpleasant place to live, be sure to check out HONG KONG SUCKS, a hilarious blog that deals with everything from the treatment of domestic workers to the curiously popular habit of people clipping their nails (and toenails) on public buses.

In the meantime, if you happen to be in China, try not to pass out in public. Remember, you’re on your own!


Scam City – How to Not Get Ripped Off in China

When you travel, you should always be careful about what you do, who you talk to and what you agree to. After all, you are an outsider in a place you’ve never been before, you don’t know where you’re going, you may only be there for a few days, and there are always a few lowlifes who have no qualms about taking advantage of your vulnerable position as a hapless, ignorant, trusting tourist with pockets full of money.

I’ve encountered a few scams before too and have become the wiser for it. So today I thought I’d share a few of the typical scams that tourists face while traveling in China (though I don’t mean to pick on China, this kind of thing can happen in other Asian countries too!).

1. The Tea Scam — If you should ever find yourself visiting some famous attractions in China, do not talk to any smiley faced young people claiming to be ‘art students’. Here’s how the scam works: they come up to you and pretend to be keen on practicing their English. They ask you a few questions, where you’re from, what’s your name, are you married, tee hee hee, cute giggles. And tourists, not wanting to be rude to the locals, go along with it. They then invite you to a ‘tea house’ to go drink tea and talk some more. The tea arrives, you guys chat, whatever. But when the bill comes, it’s for hundreds of yuan. As a reference, you can buy a bottle of beer in China for 6 yuan. So just remember, art students + tea drinking = scam.

2. The Hotel Scam — You’ve just arrived at 3am, you’re tired, sweaty and possibly a bit jet lagged, and of course you don’t know where you’re going. So you get in a ‘taxi’ and give them the address of the hotel where you have a booking. Next thing you know, you’re outside a different hotel! Here’s how it works: the taxi drivers pick up some confused-looking new arrivals, call up their cousin/brother/auntie who runs a hotel, and says he’s bringing them some customers. The hope is that you will really decide to just stay at the hotel instead of insisting on being taken to YOUR hotel, so that he can get a commission. If you refuse to stay, you sometimes get left outside holding your bags and looking for another taxi, which is why at 3am some tourists just give in and stay at the damn hotel!

3. The Bike Scam — If you’re taking a taxi somewhere, be careful before opening the car door. While in Beijing I was getting out of a taxi, and after paying the driver I opened my door, and WHAMMO!   an old man on a bike — who should NOT have been riding in the street anyways — slammed straight into the car door and went flying off his bike. This trick is apparently to make you feel so bad that you give the old man some money, or, even worse, give both the taxi driver AND the old man money for damages. So make sure to look out behind you before you get out the cab!

4. The Great Wall Scam — Do not engage in conversation with any locals when you go to the Great Wall of China. Trust me, they do not genuinely want to know where you came from, how old you are, or how long you are staying. And they are talking shit when they say, “You are so beautiful!”  (some tourists will fall for anything). Most importantly, under no circumstances should you EVER give them your backpack to carry, no matter how heavy it is. There are lots of villagers who live along the Great Wall and walk it every single day, as fit as mountain goats. They start to follow tired-looking tourists and offer to carry their backpacks. Beware, they will expect a lot of money for this and they are very persistent. They will follow you for a good 20 minutes or more, trying to see if they can make some money off of you. Do NOT talk to them!

5. The Bus Scam — This is related to the Hotel Scam. Once while traveling in Sichuan province, I was on a bus with three other friends, all of us clearly tourists (i.e. a group of nervous looking whiteys clutching maps on a bus full of locals). The bus was supposed to go straight to the bus terminal in the town we were heading to. Instead, the bus suddenly stopped on the side of the road, and the bus driver signaled for the four of us to get off. He kept repeating the name of the town we were going to, so we figured we needed to change buses (and what the hell do we know?). We got off the bus on a dusty road with nothing but brick factories. Within seconds, a taxi pulled up, and started saying the name of the town we were heading to. We had no idea what to do but to get into the taxi. The taxi then drove a few minutes up the road and took us to, ta-daa! a scam hotel. Lucky for us, our REAL hotel was just around the corner.

But what can you do? Never leave your hometown to avoid these things? When you go to someone else’s country and don’t speak their language and don’t know the layout, you have to just go with the flow, I suppose. Sure, anything can happen. You’ll probably get ripped off a few times. Chances are nothing really bad will happen to you (though I have to admit I have heard about a New Years Scam in Thailand where someone jumps out of their car and… well… I won’t scare you…)  But in general, these scams are minor inconveniences during the journey of exploring a far away land. Which is probably a small price to pay in the end.

Ah yes, adventures in Asia. It’s never a dull moment. Just remember, keep your eyes open, and your wallet closed!

It’s all worth it in the end!!

Solo in Xi’an

There is a 311 song that goes, “If you don’t have someone to do it with, it’s not worth doing.”  After my recent adventures in China, I have to now say I whole-heartedly disagree!

I know a lot of people who swear by travelling alone. They say it gives you a chance to do what you want to do, choose how you want to spend your precious time, and not have to worry about whether your travel companions are bored/tired/hungry/broke. Also, it lets you meet new people and fellow travellers who are doing the exact same thing as you.

There are a lot of places I have wanted to go to and haven’t simply because I had no one to go with me at the time. This time, I decided to not be so lame, and just do it. After all, I had a perfectly good China visa that I had to take advantage of. So with Laura’s prodding I chose Xi’an, one of the ancient capitals of China, home of the world famous Terracotta Warriors, and an easy 2-hour domestic flight from Nanjing.

As promised, Xi’an turned out to be a very tourist-friendly place, with the majority of the attractions in walking distance of each other. Xi’an is an ancient walled city, and the walls are still intact, which means that once inside the heart of the city, everything is close by. I arrived in the early afternoon, dumped by bags at the lovely Han Tang Inn, a quaint little hostel in a central location, grabbed a freebie map, and headed out to a nearby attraction, the Muslim Quarters, an easy five minute walk away from the hostel. Getting around was easy, as they have signs well laid out in English for the tourists, and a lot of tourists there certainly were.

The Muslim Quarters were just amazing. The area is so vibrant, so full of life and action. It is also about 1000 years old, which means the Muslim Quarters and its occupants have been around for a long time. Suddenly the people looked different — whiter skin, brown hair instead of black, brown eyes, deep-set eyelids. Historically, the people who settled in this community in Xi’an moved east into China through the Silk Road, and stayed for ten centuries, building up a community amongst the dominant Han Chinese. It is amazing that today, the Muslim Quarters still has a very different atmosphere and feel, serving traditional Middle Eastern styled food, though of course adapted a little bit to Chinese tastes and food availability.

Delicious freshly baked bread with sesame seeds

Both men and women in the Muslim Quarters wear traditional head covers


Of course, no trip to Xi’an would be complete without a tour of the famed Terracotta Warriors. The story of how this tomb came to be is quite fascinating. The 8,000+ statues were built for Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who became the very first Emperor of China in 246 BC. He is credited for uniting China into the vast country it is today. Emperor Qin also built the Great Wall. I have no doubt this man was absolutely mad. Anyone who builds both the Great Wall and an 8,000-strong terracotta army is definitely a bit crazy. Our tour guide told us that the Emperor also used to eat mercury, since this is what the workers used to preserve the colour of the army figurines. Like I said, absolutely mad. The Emperor also killed every single worker who was forced to work on this insane project of building a super army to accompany the Emperor into the next life safely when he passed away. They say that is the reason why every single face of the 8,000 warriors are different — the slaves who were brought in to build them built their warrior in their image as they knew that once the work was done they faced certain death. And indeed, each face is different, and the clothing is different, and the shoes are different.

Shot of the third tomb, the biggest amongst three.

The most famous statue is of The Kneeling Warrior — the first one to be pulled out of the earth completely intact and with no damage

Horses at the ready. The Warriors in the background have no heads because the bodies are hollow and the heads were added last. These have no heads because the Emperor died and work stopped on the army.

After a hard day viewing the Terracotta Warriors and eating delicious Xi’an food, we returned to the hostel and I immediately ordered a few beers. There were many nice travellers around, and that’s the wonderful thing about hostels. All you have to do is sit down in the common room, order a beer, and the next thing you know five people are chatting with you about where you are from, where you’ve been, and where you are going. I was mostly amazed at how young a lot of them are. There were 19-year-olds travelling alone or with friends across Asia for two months during their Gap Year. There was a guy who had taken the Trans-Siberian Express train from Moscow to Beijing and was headed ultimately for Lhasa, Tibet. There was Greg, a very friendly British guy who seemed to have some bad luck on his travels and kept getting ripped off by unscrupulous taxi drivers and ‘art student’ scam artists. There were five young Indian guys who were medical students and on vacation, and from the looks of the shots they drank at 10 am, having a hell of a good time. Ironic that all this time I was worried about going somewhere all alone, when there are so many other people just like you doing the same thing.

On my last day I did something which I thought was a particularly good attraction in Xi’an — biking along the city walls. Because Xi’an has an intact city wall, someone came up with the bright idea of renting out bikes to tourists. The entrance is at the South Gate of the city walls, you pay a small entrance fee, and the bicycle hire area is up on top. I ran into someone I had met at the hostel and we ended up cycling together. It took about 90 minutes, and the bike place rents the bikes out for 90 minutes, so I guess we went at a pretty average speed. A word of warning — the bikes are not in good condition and the wall is quite bumpy so the bikes take a real beating. Try a few of them before you choose your bike!

And they’re off….

Beautiful building at the South Gate

So in retrospect, I wish I had started travelling ‘alone’ much sooner because it showed me that going it by yourself is not so bad at all. In fact you meet so many nice people you are never really alone, unless of course you stay in some big, cold, impersonal hotel or something and never venture outside of your room. I would definitely do this again and stay in a small hostel and enjoy being a solo member of the travelling crowd. There were no problems with transport, I didn’t get lost, I didn’t stumble somewhere unsafe and get robbed. In fact, I had a wonderful time, I met really nice people and saw some amazing Xi’an attractions. This solo trip also helped build up my travel confidence, as I have no doubt that I could do this in another country. It is a wonderful feeling to know that you have broadened your horizons. And all you have to do is buy that ticket, and get on the plane….

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A few days ago I went to a place in Nanjing that I knew was not going to be a pretty sight — the Nanjing Massacre Museum and Memorial which documents the Japanese invasion of the city in the 1930s which is estimated to have killed about 300,000 people. Many people have heard of the “Rape of Nanjing” and I felt that as a visitor to Nanjing it was important to go and see the museum and understand what really happened.

The entrance to the memorial is quite stark and bleak, everything is painted in black and there is almost no grass. Little speakers cleverly disguised as rocks play very somber music right out of a dramatic movie which, if you ask me, was a bit over the top. One area has survivors’ footprints set in bronze. But in general, the memorial area is grim, which, I suppose, is the whole point.

The museum however itself is extremely well done, walking people through the background of the attack and showing pictures from the scenes around the city at the time. They also have true stories from survivors, and also from Japanese soldiers who were there at the time and can admit to what happened. It is not a pretty sight to see pictures of women being forced into comfort stations, and bodies burnt or decapitated or worse. And it is extremely well documented.

Footprints of the survivors

It was only when I got to the area that is the actual excavation pit where they found the bodies that it really hit home — that I was standing on the very spot where hundreds of thousands of men, women and children were murdered. Many of the bodies bore signs of brutality, such as nails hammered into skulls, knees and hands. Even babies’ skeletons showed bullet holes to the head. How any person can do such things to anyone is of course beyond anyone’s comprehension. All of the other visitors looked on, shaking their heads, saddened by the nature of the event.

As someone who has lived in Japan and seen so much beauty in its culture and people, it was really hard to reconcile the brutal things that the army did during these times with the wonderful, kind, and generous nature of the Japan that I know and love. But, an army does not represent a whole country. The American soldiers who were recently exposed in Afghanistan for setting up kill squads and make games of shooting civilians do not represent the average kind-hearted American person who would never hurt another human being. Yet every army commits atrocities. Governments do terrible things to their own people. And it happens in countries across the world, regardless of religion or economics. The rape of Nanjing happened in 1937, but it seems like at some level of human nature, things don’t change. It makes me wonder if violence and cruelty is just something that is hard wired into our genes. Perhaps it is something that we will never fully get out of our systems.

Anyway, although it was a hard thing to go and see, I would actually recommend a visit to the Massacre Museum, just to understand the event which has shaped Nanjing and will forever be an important part of its history.


Sights of Nanjing

So enough about cultural insights… how about some pictures?

It’s been an incredibly busy few days in Nanjing, with lots of UNESCO World Heritage Sites to visit, and things to see. I was pleasantly surprised by how nice Nanjing is!

The Ming Tombs:

“Stone Elephant Walk”

These impressive stone statues line the entrance to one of Nanjing’s UNESCO World Heritage Sights, the Ming Tombs, the resting place of the first emperor and empress of the Ming Dynasty. Other animals include elephants, lions, and even unicorns which, strangely enough, did not have horns. Click the thumbnails below to see more.

Linggu Pagoda

The beautiful Linggu Pagoda, made entirely of stone, is not too far from the Ming Tombs — both being located within Purple Mountain, the scenic area which houses many of Nanjing’s top sights. I decided to climb to the top all the way up the spiral staircase. I’m not someone who is afraid of heights, but when I got to the top, the view made my stomach twinge with fear! Beautiful views though. People in Nanjing are lucky to have Purple Mountain so near to the city; it’s lush, the air is cool, and the forests are dense. You could say it’s like the Central Park of Nanjing…. except Central Park doesn’t have 1000 year old cultural relics in it!



Confucius Temple

Not only a temple, but a massive compound within a section of Nanjing’s old walled city. In fact, the temple itself is only a tiny part of the whole area and I only spent about ten minutes there. The old buildings in this area have been quite well preserved but many of the shops at street level have been turned into McDonalds, KFCs, Haagen Daaz and trendy clothing stores. Nonetheless it is quite nice to wander around the tiny back alleys with food stalls, teas, and of course various Chinese souvenirs.

Little kid captivated by mechanical PLA toys

Xuanwu Lake

Located within another section of Nanjing’s ancient city walls is Xuanwu Lake, a very nice place to walk around in the fresh air (thought yesterday was, actually, quite polluted and a bit grey). Couples lay in the shade playing with each other’s hair, old ladies gather at tiny tables to play mahjong, parents walk with their tiny kids, and families have fun in the paddle boats in the lake.

Chinese couples who are engaged do “pre-wedding” photography months or even years before the actual wedding day. This soon-to-be-bride had just been handed a violin as a costume prop

There are still a few other things to see but so far I think I’ve got a good taste of Nanjing. Although that is one thing that is a bit missing — Nanjing cuisine. Haven’t been able to find any yet!

Only the Lonely

Friendly old geezer on the train who shooed other people away from the seat so I could sit down. Chivalry survives in China?

One of the first things I’ve noticed about Nanjing is that there are very, very few foreigners, so as a result, I definitely stick out.  I am guessing that if you live here, you better get used to the staring. Every time I’ve been on the train, I’ve been the only “round-eye” there, and without fail people take a few seconds to stare.

Since my friend Laura has to go to work during the day, I have been going sightseeing alone, and for sure I’ve been getting a lot of looks as people walk by.  Sometimes people talk to me, usually just a “hello!” or a “hi!” and a big smile. I’m assuming that people are just curious to see our differences and our similarities. Even in the supermarket, for example, people stared openly at my shopping basket to see what I was buying. They must be wondering, what do foreign people eat? And when I went into a local restaurant, they watched in amazement as I ordered a plate of dumplings, and then spent about five minutes discussing the fact that I had ordered dumplings. I don’t mind the curiosity… in a place with few foreigners, even trivial things like what you buy in the supermarket or order in a restaurant seem to offer interesting new cultural insights.

But where are all the tourists? Where are the expats? Why do I see so few of them? Okay, so Nanjing is not as famous as its neighbour to the east, Shanghai, or the capital to the north, Beijing, but Nanjing has its fair share of attractions. Nonetheless, the staring is a bit hard to get used to! I thought to myself, this must be how an Asian exchange student feels when he walks into a country-western bar in Texas or something!

Today on the train, there was, for a change, another foreigner. In fact he was a tall, well built young black guy. We both got into the same car and he came up to me to talk. Turns out he is from London, and working here at an English Language school. I thought to myself that if people shy away from me when I sit on the train or get into an elevator, then this guy must for sure have a hard time. If white foreigners are scarce, foreigners of any other race are even scarcer.  I’m pretty sure that he came to talk to me just because he was lonely. We only had a few minutes to talk, since my stop was coming up, but as I got off the train and the doors closed I felt like I should have gotten his email address or something, or invited him for a Friday night drink tomorrow. I remember how hard it was when I first arrived in Tokyo, and how incredibly lonely that first month or so was, not knowing anyone, not having a single person to call you up and say, “Hey, what are you doing tonight?” But, alas, the train pulled off, and it was too late.

It’s a bit funny, thinking of befriending a total stranger, because you wouldn’t do something like that in your own country. You wouldn’t just  chat up somebody on the train and ask for their email address. But hey, when you’re the minority, you better stick together!

The lamb in the lion’s den

Is there such a thing as an honest taxi driver in Asia? Although in the “first world” parts of Asia like Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan the cabs are well regulated and always run on metres, in the rest of Asia…. well, good luck.

I arrived on Monday morning at the surprisingly pleasant Nanjing International Airport after a surprisingly pleasant flight on China Eastern Airlines from Hong Kong to Nanjing. After buying a China Mobile SIM card in the airport, I came across the airport’s tourism office and got some info on how to get to my destination. My friend who I’ve come to visit here, Laura, said to just take a cab from the airport, but for some reason that day I was feeling bold. I decided to try the local airport bus, which would drop me at one of the bus terminals downtown. I went to the bus attendant, stated the name of my destination like a question — Zhonghuamen? — and she nodded. This was indeed the right bus. I paid RMB 20 for the bus ticket, and hopped on board.

The bus was no problem and the ride was pleasant… it was when I got off the bus at the Zhonghuamen Coach Station that the problem started! As I exited the bus terminal and onto the street, I was immediately greeted by about six different enthusiastic “HELLOOOOOO!”s from waiting taxi drivers whose eyes lit up at the prospect of a tourist, travelling alone, and obviously not knowing where the hell she was, or how much a taxi should cost. This, of course, is their chance to fleece a few more yuan out of my pocket. But thankfully, after enough years of living and travelling in Asia, I knew how to deal with it.

Some of the taxi drivers were unofficial, using their private cars for taxis. A few official taxis were lined up, with the drivers leaning back on their trunks, taking a break and smoking cigarettes. I was the only foreign person around and of course I had no idea how long the taxi ride should take or how much it should cost. But, that’s just part of the game you have to play as a new tourist.

Three different people came up to me, trying to escort me to their taxis. I took out a piece of paper from my pocket to show to them, with the Chinese address of where I was trying to go (a tip for people travelling to China… ALWAYS have your address, and the address/name of the tourist attractions, written down in Chinese). A very persistent woman with a big smile said “Ohhh okay okay! 20 yuan! 20 yuan! Come come come!” and then tried to take my suitcase, pointing towards her white car. I held tight to my bag, smiling all the time and gesturing towards the registered taxis. Passersby paused to watch the taxi drivers fighting over the lone single female foreign traveller, many of them chuckling and laughing.  I just smiled back at them and laughed too — I’ve been in this situation before in other parts of Asia, and know that all you can do is keep smiling.

Finally, one of the registered taxis finished his smoke, and ushered me over to his taxi and turned on the metre. He said something to the other taxi drivers and everyone laughed. Ah well. The lions had finished their game with the little lost lamb, and left me in peace. Off into the taxi I went. I had to ask him to turn on the metre but of course with him speaking no English and me speaking no Mandarin I had to mime it. “You turn on?” I said, pointing at the metre. I mimicked the sound of the metre, chick-chick-chick-chick-chick? He laughed so hard and broke into a coughing fit (all Chinese smoke, which is why they cough so much). Finally he turned on the metre, and we were off.

Last night as I sat in my friend Laura’s place, telling her about the taxi drivers, we both had a good laugh about it. These kinds of things happen all the time when you travel in Asia, particularly in countries where people make very little money and foreigners are an easy target for some harmless “negotiations” in price. But I’ve seen some tourists get incredibly irate, freaking out when people try to pick up their bag, or getting very flustered and upset if a bunch of people approach them and try to get them into their taxi. I’ve even seen a girl, travelling with her boyfriend, burst into tears, I suppose afraid and overwhelmed and intimidated. I guess it is just the fear of the unknown — you’ve just arrived, you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who to trust and who to believe.

This is why I honestly believe that the more you travel, the less scared you get of the world, and the more you realise that you can handle any situation that gets thrown at you. Once you’ve gone through it once or twice, you learn how it goes and you know not to panic. You see that little situations like these are not dangerous and you don’t have to be scared. These people don’t mean any harm to you, and it’s not like they want to kidnap you and rob you and rape you. For the most part, they’re just trying to see if they can earn a little bit more money today. All you have to do, is stay cool. Be cool, and they will be cool too.

And above all, keep smiling.

Guangzhou – the real China!

Guangzhou holds the reputation of being ‘the place where everything on earth is made’. That means that the plastic keypad on my computer was made in Guangzhou, the telephone on my desk was made in Guangzhou, and, most likely, the Marks and Spencer blouse, which I am wearing right now, was made in Guangzhou. And after being there on a weekend trip, I can see that this reputation is well deserved.

Vacuums and mannequins seem a strange juxtaposition for this window display

This was my third trip to China – the first being to Chengdu on a mega hiking trip up a sacred mountain, and the second being to Beijing to wander the Forbidden Palace and walk the Great Wall. I hadn’t been planning to visit China again, but my friend Katie, whose Chinese side of the family reportedly had to sneak out of China during the Opium Wars, was in Hong Kong for a holiday, and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see ‘the real China’.

Wish I could read more Chinese!

Wish I could read more Chinese!

Just two hours by train north of Hong Kong, Guangzhou is not exactly a ‘tourist destination’ the way that Hong Kong, Shanghai or Beijing is, even though it has a very rich and very fascinating history. It is best known for being the first area of China that allowed trade with foreigners, and with it came the first foreign settlement. Back in the days, the foreign traders could not pronounce the province name ‘Guangdong’ properly, and Anglicised it to become ‘Canton’, which is where the word ‘Cantonese’ comes from. Today, it is still a centre of commerce and export, and you are more likely to see a trader from Dubai than a tourist from Canada.

According to statistics, Guangzhou city has 8 million people (with likely a few million more hidden in the wood works!), which makes it the third most densely populated city in the mainland. Walking through the streets was a complete sensory overload – women carrying a bamboo pole with two packages hanging from either side, a man on a bicycle with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on a refrigerator, tiny shops with a million goods blasting fast-paced Canto-pop while cute salesgirls clap to get your attention.

But it’s not all like that — in the back streets, we also found tiny homes with old ladies scowling at passersby through the gate, tea shops with giant cakes of compressed tea leaves, and huge bamboo steamers full of char siu bao at a sidewalk cafe.

I love street eats!

I love street eats!

My colleague Malcolm who works at my company’s Guangzhou office, had invited us to stay in his beautiful, huge 3-story townhouse (which is half the price of my crappy little 1-bathroom apartment here in Hong Kong), and to show us around. He took us to the Glasses Market to get what he claimed would be the ‘cheapest, fastest, coolest glasses you’ll ever get in your life’. The mall was five storeys high, and full of nothing but optometrists, frames shops and sunglasses. Inside a little shop with about 5,000 frames, we met the sweet and petite Lina, who spoke fantastic English, and helped us pick out some very funky frames. I needed one pair, Katie needed two, and Malcolm decided on one, just for the heck of it, as they were too cheap to pass up.

“Do you think we can get these back tomorrow?” we asked as she took our orders.

She looked at her watch for a second, smiled brightly and said, “Yes, of course! Come back in the morning!”

I soon came to realise that the word “no” does not exist in China. If you want some kind of service or product or business, they will never tell you they can’t do it. You want it, you got it. That’s how come their economy is exploding – these people work harder than anyone on the planet and are not afraid to put in a few extra hours to facilitate a customer and do the job. I think the average laid back “nah, ah cah do it today, come back tomorrow” Trini sleeping under an almond tree could learn a thing or two from the Chinese…

'Yes, of course we can do it!'

‘Yes, of course we can do it!’

That night Malcolm took us to a famous seafood restaurant along the Pearl River. Inside the massive restaurant is a wet market, with tanks full of giant crabs, eels, alligators, turtles, fish of every kind, water bugs, any and every thing that you could imagine lives in water, waiting for you to point to it and say, “That one, I want that one.” We decided to dine on some eel. Katie picked out a nice fat one, the man grabbed the net, and two minutes later, it was at the end of our chopsticks and into our bellies.

Wonder how these taste...

Wonder how these taste…

During dinner, Katie got up to use the washroom.

“Did you see the alligator?” she asked excitedly as she returned from the bathroom.

“What alligator?” I replied.

“Just head to the right, you’ll see it.”

I drained my beer, got up and walked through the restaurant, looking for this alligator. But I was too late – all that was left was its head on a tray of crushed ice. The rest of its meat had already been selected by some hungry diners, and the chef was busy chopping it up. Doesn’t get much fresher than that, I suppose.

Another interesting area was Shamian Island, which is the original foreigner settlement. This tiny area of the city was the only place foreigners were allowed to live, and they had a strict curfew of 10 pm. They were not allowed to intermingle with the local Chinese population, and according to the history books, any foreigner caught trying to learn Chinese would be executed. So Shamian was quite an entirely different place to the crazed streets of the city. Old European architecture, a beautiful old church, large swathes of green, fountains, huge trees providing endless shade. I swear the temperature in Shamian was a good 5’C cooler. All over the island, young Chinese couples in elaborate dress were taking wedding photos, and families strolled around in the cool of the parks. We also saw a lot of foreign families with a tiny Chinese child, as Shamian is still home to many of Guangzhou’s embassies, which authorise Chinese adoptions.

Strangely enough, in China it is custom to take wedding photos a whole year before the big day!

Strangely enough, in China it is custom to take wedding photos a whole year before the big day!

Although Guangzhou is a really exciting, lively place, at times it was a bit too overwhelming – too many people, too much action, everywhere you look your eyes see something new. “I don’t think I can see any more new things today,” Katie said as the afternoon began to head into evening. “My brain can’t take any more stimulation!”  But I have to say I was very glad that Katie came, or else I probably would never have made it to Old Canton, to see ‘the Real China’.


Taipei traipsing

Usually people spend the days leading up to a trip choosing their clothes, planning their itineraries, poring through guidebooks and circling what they want to see. It’s supposed to be an exciting time; heck, half the fun of travelling is planning the trip.

But unfortunately, thanks to a dreadful stomach bacteria, I spent the days leading up to my Taiwan trip with my head stuck deep in the toilet, staring at the porcelain, and wondering whether I would make it on the plane!

Thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster for the miracle of antibiotics. And I suppose I have to thank the Big Blue Machine for their wonderful health care system so that I can get lots and lots of free drugs to help me stop barfing.

By Thursday evening I was feeling a bit better, even though I still couldn’t eat, I made it to the airport and got myself on Eva Air direct to Taipei. It was really only on the plane that I started planning what I was going to see over the next three days. Seiji was there for work, so during the day I’d go sightseeing and at night we’d go gallivanting. I wondered, how much can I squeeze into three days? And more importantly, how on earth could I visit a place that is famous for its street snacks and maintain self control to not eat everything in sight on account of my bad stomach? The doctor had told me to try not to eat anything too spicy or exotic so as not to further upset the stomach. Hmm, this advice would be hard to follow.

My first stop on the tourist track — the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall of the former president of Taiwan

Taipei proved to be a very cool little city. Well, not so little, really. In fact, quite big and spread out. But easily navigable, well organised, and enjoyable. I was highly impressed with their public transport system. The subway was amazing, there were lots of signs in English to show you the way, and people were really helpful if I looked a little bit lost. It was very easy to hop on the train and then just wander around the streets, bathing in incense in the temples, poking around in the markets, and taking in the atmosphere.

I’d heard from many friends that the Taiwanese were very friendly and mellow, and their reputation proved true. I was impressed by how nice the people were, and so well mannered compared to… well… I won’t call any names! They move at a slower pace there, and even though it is a bustling city with lots of cars and motorcycles and traffic all over the damn place, the people somehow seem strangely laid back, as though nothing phases them.

A line of bikes gets ready to battle with oncoming traffic

A line of bikes gets ready to battle with oncoming traffic

The street food also lived up to its good reputation. Eating for the Taiwanese seems to be something best done outdoors. All over the sidewalks and alleys are little street vendors, selling all kinds of eats for hungry passers-by. Steamed dumplings, rice balls, noodles, soups, Taiwanese sausage, and even sushi can be bought on the roadside. It’s fast and tasty and incredibly cheap — as little as 5 cents (US). So tempting, but I had to be careful. My stomach wasn’t back to normal just yet.

My favourite street food was a simple dish called dan bing: a sort of flatbread, almost the texture of roti paratha, infused with little green herbs, grilled on top of a scrambled egg, doused with a bit of red chilli paste, and folded in half. I ate one of these every day. Late one afternoon after visiting the famous Confucius Temple in Shilin, I wandered around looking at the various snacks, and got in line at one of the stalls. A young Taiwanese guy, about 15 years old, came up to me and said in a perfect southern accent, “Ma’am? May I recommend that you try this one instead? This is the real deal, I promise you. Come on, switch lines. You gotta try to this China Pizza.” He turned out to be an American born Taiwanese who grew up in Tennessee, which would explain why he called me “ma’am”. And he was right, the flatbread was incredible, soft and crispy, juicy and spicy. I sat down on a bench in the warm sunshine, watched the people go by, and munched on it, happy as a pig in mud. In fact, I must have looked pretty damn happy — the locals who were passing by kept smiling at me.

‘Dan bing’ in the making — and about to be devoured, by me!

But I have to say, even though I have an adventurous stomach, there is one thing I absolutely cannot and will not ever put into my mouth — stinky tofu. One night we ventured to the a street market and I was immediately confronted with that unmistakable smell. Westerners have described it as “dead dog”, “rotten dead dog”, or “rotten dead dog with gangrene and maggots covered in vomit lying on top of a week-old heap of garbage festering in the sun”. All of these descriptions are fairly accurate, but make no mistake; it’s tofu. Why is it so stinky? I couldn’t tell you. But if you see a huge vat of some kind of bubbling red chili-looking liquid with big chunks of something sort of white in it, then you’ve found the source of that smell.

Typical scene in the street market

I mostly used my guide book and the tourist map to figure out what I wanted to do and what I should see. I was pretty happy with what I saw, but I have to say that one thing that was a major waste of time was the famed Taipei 101. What a crap attraction! The view of the city was quite good and your stomach does somersault as you look down from the top. But the building itself is not so interesting, and then you are forced to walk through their massive gift shop full of dead coral jewellery to get back out. Definitely not worth the NTD 400 that you spend to go up in their super fast elevator. For visitors to Taipei, I would say this is one thing you can definitely skip.

The National Palace Museum was also said to be something you absolutely must visit when in Taiwan. It was indeed quite good, but really far too big unless you have the stamina to spend eight hours there. It was worth the visit, and the relics and art were impressive, especially a very famous “jade cabbage” which everyone was making a big fuss over. Outside of the museum are some beautiful gardens and some ponds, and it’s very nice to walk around in.

Taipei Museum

On my last day I only had about six or seven hours before heading to the airport, but we decided to make a little day trip out of the city and into a smaller town to the north called Danshui. It was the very last train stop of the MRT system and it deposited us into a quieter, more rural part of Taipei. Next to the Danshui river and close to the sea, it was a really nice town. I was the only foreigner there, so I got a few stares, but I didn’t mind.

Munching on a stick of mochi -- little sticky rice balls, so yummy! And a whopping 10 Taiwanese cents!

Munching on a stick of mochi — little sticky rice balls, so yummy! And a whopping 10 Taiwanese cents!

Walking down the old village road, we wound through tiny alleyways and suddenly found ourselves smack dab in the middle of the busiest, narrowest, most crowded little street market I’ve ever seen. Clothes, fresh fish, meat, sweets, food, snacks, fruits and veggies, anything and everything was on sale, and it seemed like every resident of Danshui was passing through to do their Sunday morning shopping. It was a claustrophobe’s worst nightmare but good fun to be trapped in the middle of it. We grabbed a few snacks, followed the tight flow of the shuffling people, and were eventually excreted out of the market and back into the streets. We walked along the Danshui river where people were generally taking it easy, walking their dogs, eating ice cream. It was nice. Really nice.

Madness in the market…. I don’t know what that is, but can I have one, to go, please?


From Danshui it was back to the hotel, hop on the bus, get into the airport, and on the plane. Wish I could have had some more time, not so much to see Taipei but to see some more of Taiwan. I read how the north coast is beautiful, there is a gorge I would have loved to hiked, and the south coast is supposed to be gorgeous, with diving, surfing, nice beaches and marine parks. We actually saw very few tourists around Taipei, and I’ve heard that it is one of the most underrated countries in south-east Asia. What a shame!

Holy Mount Emei, Sichuan Province, China

Well, I fought the mountain, and the mountain won. I admit it, we got our asses kicked. The holy mountain climbing expedition didn’t go exactly as we had originally planned. In fact, the whole trip was definitely more challenging (both mentally and physically) than we could have possibly anticipated. But I will say this: it seems to be true that the tougher the journey, the more rewarding the destination.

We had three main problems during this trip — one was a lack of time, two was a lack of Mandarin, and three was a lack of muscles. The transportation was a complete and non-stop nightmare, even getting tickets was an awful experience, and on the first day we were so behind schedule!


Finally at the starting gate! Michal, Ed and Martin are all geared up

Too bad none of us know Mandarin…

By the time we arrived at Baoguo, the town at the base of the mountain, it was almost 12.30 and we had to have a very quick lunch before starting our walk. We started off all right and the paths into the mountain certainly are quite scenic. Very lush and green, little rivers and babbling brooks, bamboo sprouting all over the place, pagodas and monasteries and nunneries abound.

About an hour in, we also got a bit lost due to a lack of proper English signage along the trail. Then it started to get steeper and steeper. I’ll admit that even with all the hiking I’ve been doing recently, I was still huffing and puffing my way up the trail. We stopped every now and then to admire the beautiful old wooden mountain temples that have been there long before there were even roads to Baoguo. Lots of people live on the mountain too — whole communities growing their own vegetables, raising chickens, and using donkeys to transport bigger things like bricks or building materials.

Donkeys help move goods up and down the mountain

Along the way we met a very nice and chatty young Chinese couple who were headed to the same area as us, and said they knew a few places we could stay. By then we had been walking uphill for about five hours and were more than a little exhausted, so we followed them and got a few rooms at a little hotel at Qingyin Ge, a very scenic area nestled in a green valley, surrounded by a lake and some very dramatic rock gorges.

Dinner was fantastic and a good reflection of the legendary spiciness of Sichuan cuisine — fresh bamboo shoots in sesame oil and chili, cucumbers and crushed garlic with chilli, and chicken with chilli – all washed down with some semi-cold Snow beer. We didn’t know the chicken would be the ENTIRE chicken, head and all, but you know how it goes, in China nothing is wasted.

Eat your chicken head! Don’t you know there are starving children in Somalia?

We decided that night that since we hadn’t even made it halfway up the mountain, and only had one more day of hiking left, we’d have to submit to taking the bus for the next leg of our journey. Even though it felt a bit like punking out, we were all secretly a little relieved. That night we all zipped ourselves into our sleeping bags, and hibernated for a good nine hours.

The next morning we were up and ready to go by 7.30, but getting tickets for the bus again proved to be difficult (I tell you, travelling in China can be a logistical hell). But after a calming one-hour ride up the mountain, we arrived at the starting point to walk up to Jieyin Hall and further up onto our final destination — the Golden Summit of Mt. Emei.

The Sea of Clouds

 There were loads of Chinese tourists on the trail, as well as a number of very handsome red-faced Tibetan macaques. They were sitting close to the route fence, gorging themselves on food that the tourists were throwing to them. They seemed quite accustomed to the crowds and people sticking cameras in their faces.

As we got closer to the top, the view started to reveal itself to us. We were then at about 2,700 metres, and we were far above the clouds below. The sun was also blazing down and giving us a strong dose of UV. So much for all the guide books saying that the temperature can be close to freezing from November to April, because we were sweating our asses off!

It’s getting warm!

The steps continued up and up and up into the mountain, until we arrived at our next mode of transportation — the cable car to the summit. You won’t be surprised to hear that this, again, was a rough ordeal and Iwas always one second away from killing the next person who pushed me. It was more than infuriating. We were all trying to keep our cool, but the pushing and shoving and endless shouting was really quite hard on the nerves. But we were so close to our final destination, we tried our best not to get upset. After all, this was supposed to be a beautiful, holy Buddhist mountain, and we had come so far to enjoy it.

We zipped up the last leg of the mountain, and arrived at the Golden Summit where we were totally blown away by the panoramic view. It was a perfect day — bright sun, blue skies, and fantastic visibility. In the distance we could see white snow capped mountain peaks, and below us the world was blanketed in a sea of clouds. After all the pushing and shoving and bad behaviour, we were rewarded with one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen, and I finally felt a wave of peacefulness wash over me. We had made it!

Best… view… ever…

At the Golden Summit we took our times to wander around, visit the temples and get many pictures of the famed golden statue of Buddhist deity Bodhisattva Puxian who, legend has it, landed on the Golden Summit riding a 6-tusked elephant.The temples were beautiful, but the real climax of the trip, the most best part, the cherry on top of the big bowl of ice cream, was the view of Wanfoding, a wooden temple built on the next peak, sitting in complete solitude, precariously perched next to a very steep cliff. I’ve never seen anything so dramatic before. And it definitely made the trip worth it.

The Bodhisvatta

Kids at play

Yes, beware

God this temple shit is boring! Can we go home now?

That afternoon we got back on the bus down the mountain and then took another back to Chengdu where we would stay the night before heading to the airport on Sunday. At a nearby restaurant we samples the famed Sichuan Hot Pot, where you get plates of meat and veggies to cook in this super spicy mixture of chilli oil, red peppers and broth. Our mouths were on fire for hours. Even the lukewarm Snow beers didn’t cool our throats.

World famous Sichuan hot pot. Go brave.

We battled a mild hangover the next morning, but managed to drag ourselves out of bed to visit the Wenshu Monastery, a beautiful old wooden temple complex that is the oldest and most well preserved in Chengdu.

Every alleyway showed a beautiful old temple

Monks liming in the temple

A few hours later, we made it to the airport, and before we knew it we were circling over the skyscrapers of Hong Kong. Again, it always seems like these trips are over before they even start…

Well, even though it didn’t go quite as planned, it was still a hell of a trip, and I learnt many many things. I learnt that when hiking, you should always give yourself more time than you think you need. Don’t expect things to always go smoothly, because they probably won’t, especially in a new country where you don’t speak the language. Speak to the locals, because even though some of them will try to rip you off, many of them will genuinely try to help you. And last but not least, try not to let rude people get to you or spoil your trip, because it might be the only time in your life you are ever there.

The Great Wall — A True Wonder of the World

Without a doubt the best thing I saw during this Beijing trip was the Great Wall of China. It was unforgettable. The words I would use to describe it are incredible, astounding, unbelievable, unimaginable. How on earth they ever built such a mind-blowing and bizarre structure, and so many years ago, is beyond comprehension. Snaking its way across every mountain and peak and craggy cliff, the Wall never seems to stop, stretching all the way to the very coastline of China.

The station closest to Beijing proper, Badaling, is from the sounds of it overrun with tourists, crowded, covered in crappy souvenir stalls, and the section of the wall which has been modified, upgraded, uplifted, and redone to make it safer and more tourist friendly. Most people visit Badaling as a brief stop during a whirlwind visit to take a few pictures, but it is considered the least authentic area of the Wall to go to.

So instead, I signed up for a hiking trip to the section of the wall that is the furthest away that you can get from Beijing and still do as a day trip. The section that I hiked — from Simatai to Jinshanling — is referred to as ‘The Wild Wall’ because it is pretty far away from Beijing city, about a 3-hour bus ride each way, and thus attracts few tourists.

And a wild wall it certainly is. The bus dropped us off pretty much in the middle of nowhere and pointed us vaguely in the right direction, and the group of fellow backpackers and I set out to walk our way to Jinshanling, where the bus would meet us a few hours later. A few villagers descended on us like plagues of locusts, offering to carry our backpacks for a few bucks, or trying to sell hot, stale cans of imitation Coca Cola. They followed us for a good 20 minutes before giving up and finding something else to do. (A tip to tourists — don’t talk to anybody who starts a conversation with “You are so beautiful!” because trust me, they don’t want to chat with you. They just want your money, and if you make the mistake of chatting with them, they’ll follow you like flies to shit.)

Anyways, the Wall is incredible, the hike is very beautiful, and after days of stink, nasty pollution in Beijing,  a breath of fresh air. Bright blue skies and fluffy white clouds. Quite challenging in certain sections as the steps are massive and it puts a lot of pressure on your knees and thighs. One woman made the mistake of wearing a cute pair of heels. Perhaps she thought she was going to Badaling, and not hiking two and a half hours across a massive stone structure!

It actually wasn’t too hard of a hike, but it really is a lot of up and down. It’s like the architect stood up on a peak one day, pointed with his finger, and said, ‘build it all the way east’, and the devoted workers  shrugged and did just that, regardless of the terrain. When the land rose up, they built along it. When the land plunged down into a river, they kept going. Up and down and up and down, over and over again. It is truly an example of Chinese persistence.

DSC02818 DSC02821 DSC02825 DSC02838 DSC02847 DSC02846

The Great Wall is truly a must-see during any itinerary to China, and I would highly, highly recommend going to the Simatai-Jinshanling route to really have the place to yourself.



The Best of Beijing


To me, it is always with great sadness and regret that a trip must inevitably come to an end (unless you’ve had an awful time and you couldn’t wait for it to be over). One second I was in Beijing, standing in a beautiful, incense bathed courtyard of a Buddhist monastery watching shaven-headed monks offer their prayers, and the next second I was on a plane, heading back to highrise heaven, wondering where all the time went.

Even though the Beijing Easter trip was short, I think I managed to see quite a lot, and certainly the most important sights. Not an hour was wasted — the only time I wasn’t on the move was when I was sleeping. This was also my first true solo trip/vacation, and travelling alone proved to be very good because you can do exactly as you please, when you please. That said, I also did enjoy chatting with a few other solo travellers, when the opportunity arose.

Here are some highlights of the trip…

Beijing hutongs: This style of housing is the traditional courtyard structure for Chinese neighbourhoods — small, one-story buildings all connected by a tiny maze of alleys and walkways, often all connected so that it seems like a mini city inside. Unfortunately they have been demolishing the older hutongs in the run-up to the Olympics, even though I think tourists would rather see the old way of life than the new one….

The Forbidden City: Smack dab in the centre of Beijing is the Forbidden City, where the Imperial family lived in privacy and isolation from the rest of society for hundreds of years. It is incredibly massive — indeed a city of its own — and full of halls, courtyards, an endless number of rooms and various impressively large complexes. But to be quite honest it didn’t stand out as the best thing I saw in Beijing. It comes across as simply very big, very empty, and even a tad soulless.

Tour group waiting to enter the Forbidden City

Inside the Forbidden City — wonder what it was like when it was inhabited?

Tiananmen Square: Talking about big, empty and soulless, that’s also a pretty good description for Tiananmen Square. Of course, the first thing that will strike you about the picture above is how grey it is. That is indeed Beijing’s infamous air pollution. But if you look very clearly you can see the picture of Chairman Mao on the large gate which separates the Square from the Forbidden City. Mmm mmm. That’s some high quality smog, all right. Hack.

Imagine breathing this day in and day out…

The Imperial Summer Palace: The royal family used to escape to the north of the city to their Summer Palace to enjoy the cool breezes and the scenic lake. Indeed it was quite lovely, and the feature that really impressed me was the Long Corridor, which is a walkway that goes along the entire lake front. Painted on each wooden panel on the corridor is a depiction of life at the Summer Palace, or traditional Chinese folklore. I got some neck pain from peering up at the panels but they were so delicately painted, and with such detail. Peaches, crabs, flowers, hot peppers, birds, stories of great battles, and even a man instructing a dog. I wish I could have known all the stories.

Waaay! Look at people! Wish I spoke Mandarin so I could understand the stories…

The Hall of Incense

The Temple of Heaven: Considered Beijing’s most beautiful building, and rightfully so. The Temple of Heaven’s architecture truly stands out from the typical rectangular style of Chinese temples. This beautiful wooden structure is also built with no nails, and was where the Emperor came to pray for good harvests. The style is highly symbolic — Earth was represented by a square while heaven was represented by a circle, so the temple and the surrounding grounds all symbolize the connection between heaven and earth.

Wangfujing Night Market: This strip of stalls was selling everything you could imagine, such as scorpions, grubs, starfish, snakes, centipedes, ostrich (supposedly) and a variety of edible innards. Some of the tourists were trying to show off and eat something exotic but even the local Chinese were sticking to more ‘normal’ foods. It was good fun to wander around here, but I have a suspicion that they only serve these things to lure the tourists.

When in doubt, eat what the locals are eating

So, those were the highlights inside the city.

But without a doubt, the best part of this trip was the unforgettable experience of hiking on the Great Wall.

On Sunday morning when I looked out the window I was shocked — all of the smog had cleared. It was a beautiful, clear, clean day. I was truly lucky.

To read a detailed report about the hiking trip to the Great Wall, please click HERE.



Planes, trains, and really fast automobiles

Okay okay, so maybe I lied a little in that title — there were no planes, and we took a ferry to Macau instead of a train, but we certainly did see some VERY fast automobiles last weekend.

Macau is a small island (well, technically two) in southern China that is an easy 1-hour ferry ride from Hong Kong. Since it is also a Special Administrative Region of China (just like Hong Kong), we don’t even need visas to go — nor did we need to change money into Macau pesos!

Macau was a Portuguese colony for 442 years and was the last European colony in Asia until it was returned to China in 1999. It is especially famous for being a gambling destination, since gambling is illegal in Hong Kong, so it is home to an endless variety of very tacky casinos.

It is also home to the annual Macau Grand Prix, which is apparently the only street race in the world that has both cars and motorbikes (but not at the same time!). A friend had two front row tickets for the final day of the race and was kind enough to invite me, and even though I am not a racing fan, I figured, why the heck not?

It turned out to be an amazing event — our seats in the Lisboa Stand were fantastic, and positioned at one of the corners of the race track. That meant that we were in the thick of action, where cars collided and bumped each other barely driving an inch apart. The sound of the engines soaring by was exhilarating, and the crowd all gasped in unison when a car got into an accident and cheered when they recovered. It wasn’t boring for a second.

When the race was done, we grabbed our street maps and went out to see the historic area of Macau. Within 15 minutes the garish casinos disappeared behind us, and we found ourselves walking on black and white cobble stoned streets — the quintessential Potuguese style — with buildings covered with blue, white and yellow tiles. It was so quaint, the pretty little European styles, the lattice work balconies, the buildings painted in pinks, yellows and blues. It truly was like a mini-Lisbon… but full of Chinese people!

Black and white cobble stones, just like in Lisbon

Outside the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral — Macau’s most famous icon. Built in 1582, it was the biggest church in all of Asia until it was destroyed in a fire during a typhoon in 1835.

Making almond cookies

The Cock of Barcelos — saw this a lot in Portugal too!

Macau is an interesting little place. But, it’s LITTLE. You can see everything pretty much in one day. The Portuguese section is very pretty but small. There are some nice restaurants in the square, and the Cathedral is a short walk away. But I would recommend only doing Macau as a day trip, not as an overnight, unless you are going to see a show at one of the casinos.