Tuesday, December 14, 2010

'Tis the Season... for Pickles!

I've been waiting to write a blog about the first snowfall of the year. I'm still waiting. Every weekend for the past month, Corey and his crew have geared up to head out to one ski resort or another, only to receive that call on Friday night: it's too warm, the man-made snow is melted, and there will be no snowboarding. Week after week, same story. In fact, it's raining out right now. So screw it- I'm starting my Christmas blogging without the snow.

CHRISTMAS!! We're in full-on holiday spirit mode. We won't be with any family this year (other than each other, obviously), but we're having a big Christmas party with lots of friends, so I'm sure it'll be a great holiday anyway.

We made gingerbread houses again this year. Can you guess who's is who's?

I'm squirming with anticipation... This is my big present from Corey:

I know it's something camera-related, but I don't know for the life of me what it could be that would come in a box that big. I would think he got me a lens and put it in a giant box to throw me off, but I picked up the package at the post office myself, and it really is this big. What could it be?!?!

Now- pickle time. Every year Corey and I buy each other ornaments (well, I buy him the current year's Hallmark Star Trek spaceship and he picks out something fun for me), and this year was the best one ever... Hide and Seek Pickle!!

I hear it's a German tradition to hide pickles in the Christmas tree, and this (plastic) one shouts out little clues while he's hiding ("Yoohoo!" "I'm over here!"). So cute! Given my love of pickles, this ornament is a serious winner. I want to play Hide the Pickle all day long.

They say tonight's the night for snow. I'll believe it when I see it. It better come soon before Corey tries snowboarding down the roof or something.

Happy Winter!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

China Recapt Part 4: Shanghai

Our last city to visit was Shanghai. To be honest, I'm not really sure why we came here; there was nothing in particular we wanted to see, even after scouring guidebooks for suggestions. I guess we just figured it was a big, famous city and we should see it while we were there. So we went, we saw it. That's just about how exciting it was.

We flew in from Chengdu in the evening and checked into the Grand Mercure Hotel. It was swankier than I had thought it would be when I made the reservation (which wasn't particularly a bad thing). Nice and luxurious. The view from the floor-to-ceiling windows in our room was nice.

We woke up leisurely the next morning and ordered (western style) room service for breakfast. Now this may seem like a silly thing to do on a trip to China, but it's rare (living in Japan) that we get the opportunity to have an American breakfast, so we were excited by the prospect of eggs, bacon and french toast. Plus we don't stay at nice hotels very often, so we figured we'd round out the experience.

We spent the rest of the day haphazardly walking around the city, seeing what there was to see. It was basically like being in New York or Tokyo or any other big city around the world, only less interesting somehow. It seemed sort of bland. Big stores. Big buildings. Big business. Nothing particularly noteworthy. We walked the Nanjing pedestrian mall and along the Bund, checking out the views to the Pudong area across the Huangpu River. We also took the "Tourist Tunnel" which runs underneath the river connecting the two areas, which was one of the more bizarre things we saw on the trip. It was a tunnel of trippy lights with a voice on a loudspeaker stating random Earth-related words like "meteor shower" and "basalt in blue ocean." We didn't quite get the point of that one...

The next day we had planned to take a day trip to the nearby water-town of Zhujiajiao. Lonely Planet said there were tour buses running every 30 minutes, so we woke up leisurely again and made our way across town to the stadium where the buses departed. When we got there we discovered there's only one bus a day to Zhujiajiao and it left an hour prior. NUTS! Our plan was foiled and there was nothing else we particularly wanted to see instead.

We were leaving that night on an overnight train back to Beijing (to catch our return flight home), but it wasn't leaving until 9pm, so we had most of a day to kill. We wandered over to the French Quarter where we proceeded to play on the internet via an iPad in an Apple store for a while. Then we walked the streets a bit and eventually had lunch at a German cafe. The weather was gorgeous (even a little hot!), so we sat outside and people watched for a bit.

After lunch we started wandering around again, wondering what the heck we were going to do for the rest of the afternoon when we just happened to pass by a movie theater that had a giant sign for Harry Potter. It just so happened there was a showing starting in 10 minutes, so that's what we ended up doing on our last afternoon in Shanghai. Hey, there were Chinese subtitles, we were umm... immersing ourselves in the culture of the language?

We had a bit of an adventure trying to catch our train that night. Who would have thought Shanghai would have not 2, but 3 gigantic train stations?! We may have ended up at the wrong one and then we may have spent an hour getting lost trying to run across town to a different train station in time to catch our train. Thank goodness for our paranoid, always-2-hours-early-to-everything ways.

We had to share a cabin on this train and it was slightly less comfortable, but the trip still went fine. Corey got to amaze our bunk-mates with his sweet Mandarin skillz, and they had a nice conversation.

We spent one more night in Beijing before flying out, back home to Japan!

A few general thoughts:

1. The pollution was not nearly as bad as we thought it was going to be. Apparently we got lucky and arrived just after a big wind storm came and wiped the air clean in many places and before they lit the coal furnaces for winter.

2. I found the giant fancy stores (Gucci, Prada, Tiffany, etc) that were in every.single.city interesting, as they were sometimes blocks away from fairly striking poverty, and in the case of Beijing were a block away from Tiananmen Square and the tribute to Mao. Interesting juxtaposition.

3. I won't miss many of the smells prevalent in China.

4. The food was surprisingly similar (to me at least) to the American version of "Chinese food." Better, yes, but ultimately the dishes and most of the flavors were familiar. Everything was veeery oily, but it was delicious.

5. I was surprised by how "foreign" things seemed to me. I was naively expecting things to be more similar to Japan than they were, and I had figured the things that were different wouldn't feel so strange since I've spent so much time living in "different" and would be used to the feelings associated with that. But I definitely experienced some culture shock.

Overall the trip went extremely well and we were really happy with it! I highly recommend going!

At the Misawa train station getting ready to begin our trip

That's it! The full set of China pictures is up and ready (in case you didn't get enough here).

Time to plan the next trip! (Hmmm, I think I hear India calling my name...)

Monday, November 29, 2010

China Recap Part 3: Chengdu

If Xi'an wore us down a little bit, then Chengdu picked us right back up. We loved Chengdu- a lot! We had just 24 hours in this city, and the main attraction was PANDAS!!

We flew in from Xi'an in the morning and easily got a cab out to our hotel, The Buddah Zen Hotel. It was in a (kinda touristy, but didn't seem so relative to the major hubs we had just come from) Tibetan area that was really cool. The hotel was gorgeous and calm, our room located above a courtyard with a fountain and chirping birds. We were upgraded to a suite upon arrival (yeah!), and they even had a bowl of fresh, delicious apples waiting for us in our room. Perfect hotel!

After we cleaned up a bit, we walked around the streets of our neighborhood. Lots of street food, tea shops, and vendor after vendor selling ivory combs. The Washu Temple connected to a prominent Buddhist monastery was literally a block away, so we spent time wandering around there. It was gorgeous, but unfortunately I couldn't take pictures of the prettiest parts.

For dinner we wanted to try a vegetarian restaurant (The Floating Lotus) featured in the Lonely Planet guide and it looked like it was not too far away from our hotel on the map. We walked around for a while trying to find it with no luck. Finally after walking a giant circle, ending up right back where we started, Corey checked the guidebook to see the Chinese character name of the restaurant, looked up and said, "Oh, here it is!" It was right in front of us, literally connected to our hotel building. We felt dumb. It was a cool place- very Buddhist, complete with monks dining and only non-alcoholic beer served. We tried vegetarian hot pot, which was great.

We woke up early to have time to eat our free hotel breakfast before leaving for the pandas (after the debacle with getting to the Warriors in Xi'an we played it safe and just booked a private car through the hotel to get us there). Soon we were at the Chengdu Giant Panda Research Base.

PANDAS!! We saw big ones and small ones (very small ones- little 2 month olds in the nursery wobbling around), playful ones and sleepy ones.

Then the best part came... we got to hold one!

For a "donation" to the center, you get to take pictures with a "baby" panda (in quotes because while they're still babies, they can still be pretty darn big!). We got to hold him on our laps and he was so cute and cuddly! I fell in love. Definite highlight of the trip.

That was all we had time for during our brief stay in Chengdu, and after the panda center we were off to the airport to catch a plane to Shanghai. Stay tuned!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

China Recap Part 2: Xi'an

After 4 days in Beijing, it was time to move on to Xi'an. Aaahh, Xi'an... this wasn't our favorite city of the trip. But I'll get to that.
We had booked soft-sleeper overnight train tickets to travel the 570 miles between cities. We weren't sure what to expect from this mode of transportation, and after making our way through some pretty um, interesting waiting areas at the Beijing train station and using the most horrifyingly disgusting "toilet" I've ever come across in my life, we were starting to second-guess our choice. However, once we got aboard the train we happily discovered it was going to be a perfectly luxurious trip. We even scored and didn't have a full train, so the top bunks were empty and we had ourselves a lovely private compartment! It was a great night of snuggling up in our comfy beds (I grew up riding Amtrak, and these were bigger and nicer than their sleeper cars) with the train rocking us to sleep, having not a care in the world.

Then we pulled into the Xi'an train station early the next morning, and all the niceness stopped. It quickly turned into the worst day of our trip.

This is the station as seen from the city wall the next day. Imagine it with about 10x this many people when we were there.

It was insanity. Advice: don't be at a Chinese train station on a Sunday. People everywhere, noise everywhere, smells everywhere, people bumping and yelling, and we had basically no clue what was going on or what we were doing. Trying to find the taxi line (while constantly deflecting the swarms of scammers and hawkers trying to come between us and our money in one way or another), our stress levels were starting to get maxed out. Then a "taxi driver" latched himself onto us, Corey couldn't get him to go away, I was oblivious to what the heck was going on (obvious hint: it's nice to know Mandarin when in China), and things got a little ugly for a while.

Eventually we made it to our hotel (The Bell Tower Hotel, which was ideally located, but otherwise just mediocre).

The Bell Tower Hotel

We were grumpy, tired, and overwhelmed, but not wanting to waste any of our precious time here, we hit the streets to go see the Terracotta Warriors. According to the hotel, the options for getting there included 1) hire a private car from the hotel for 450RMB ($70-ish) 2) Take a taxi for 350RMB or 3) Take a bus for 30 RMB ($4-ish). "Well that's an obvious choice," we say. "We'll take the bus!"

Only problem: the bus left from the train station. Stupidly, we made our way back to the train station, naively thinking we would actually be able to maneuver the crowds and find this alleged bus. FAIL. After dazedly walking laps around the station, we go for plan B and hail a taxi. A real character of a taxi driver picked us up and agreed to drive us. While he was friendly, I'm not totally convinced that the guy wasn't either a wee bit drunk or not quite all there mentally. Getting out of Xi'an traffic he was yelling and swearing up a storm (so says Corey, I wouldn't know...), and at one frustrated point he purposefully drove straight into a large group of pedestrians, causing quite a street flare up.

Things calmed down a bit when we got out of the city, until he pulled the car over to the side of a busy highway to pick up a man walking along the side of the road. Not a part of the plan, but honestly- not much we could do about it at that point. At some point it becomes apparent we're driving this new random guy around instead of going to the Warriors and we have no idea where we are. Random guy eventually gets out, and we spend more time driving around some backroads, until our driver is motioned to stop by some young girl (?) who says we can't go further because the government has closed the road. Of course it has.

So then this girl gets IN our taxi, and our driver turns off the road onto... nothing, basically. There's sort of a dirt road into fields. Girl starts asking us to come see "special local goods" she is selling. Corey asks where we're going and driver doesn't seem to know, and is instead turning whenever this girl tells him to. I'm thinking, "Wonderful, we are getting kidnapped, they're taking us out to the middle of nowhere and aren't going to bring us back to civilization until we give them money." Corey and I start a bit of internal panicking, thinking we've gotten ourselves into a horrible situation. Stress level back up to where it was when we first arrived. Not happy.

Then suddenly we made one turn onto a populated street and they told us to get out. We were at the Terracotta Warriors. Just like that. The driver took 40RMBs off the price he quoted us because of the hassle (even though he sort of ripped us off even with that discount). I suppose that girl was just helping a lost driver get us to our destination. Moral of the story: we're paranoid.

Once we were there (safe and sound, having avoided kidnappings and pedestrian maulings), we enjoyed the Terracotta Warriors very much! The site is made up of 3 "pits" and a large museum. Each pit is in a different state of excavation, and there are places to see rows and rows of fully intact "soldiers" displayed like they likely would have been and other places where the artifacts are still mostly buried. It was really, really interesting. I miiight have stuck it out as an archaeologist if I could have worked on something half this cool (hmm no, probably not...).

After this sight, we were pretty much done for the day and we crawled into the hole of our hotel for the rest of the evening and night.

The next day we felt a bit better and went out exploring the rest of the city. Our hotel was right in the town center across from the Bell and Drum towers, so we spent the morning visiting those.

The Drum Tower, as seen from the Bell Tower

View to the south gate of the old city wall from the Bell Tower

We spent most of the rest of the day walking the entire length of the old city walls that surround the city. It was really cool, and since the walls were pretty much empty it was a nice break from the crowds. It was a long (8 mile) walk. The original plan was to bike it, but thanks to my gimpy knee, that was a no-go. So we walked.

For about a mile on the north side, the wall was lined with these old decaying decorations. No idea what they were for or when they were used, but in their current state it gave the wall a strong "abandoned Alice in Wonderland" vibe. Creepy!

After the wall walk, we decided to check out the Muslim district of Xi'an. We had wanted to see a purportedly impressive mosque, but we're lame and couldn't find it. We did walk around plenty of super lively streets where people were cooking, tending to their sheep (there were sheep everywhere, right on the sidewalk), and eating. We were really intrigued by this area and wanted to try a bunch of the food and explore some more, but exhaustion and something akin to culture shock overtook us and we weren't really feeling up to diving into the experience. It's something we wish we had done now though, because it seemed completely cool.

And that was pretty much our experience with Xi'an. When we think about it, we sort of think, "ugh." But it's not Xi'an's fault. We found it to be much more overwhelming than Beijing (more people, more pollution, more noise, more crowds just about everywhere), and we let it get to us. If we had gotten off on a different foot, I think we would have enjoyed it much more. A couple of bad experiences ruined our moods, so I don't think Xi'an got a fair shot. I don't want to put anyone off of going there because there are a lot of great things to see.

Maybe book a tour to the Warriors though. That was all very annoying.

More pics of Xi'an have been added to the China album on my picture page.

The next stop was Chengdu, coming soon...

Thursday, November 25, 2010

China Recap Part 1: Beijing

Warning: this post is long, and quite picture-heavy!

We're back from China! It was a perfectly amazing trip, and we had a great time. I have lots of stories to write about and even more pictures to share, so I'm slowly going through and getting things together. I think I'll end up doing 4 separate posts (one for each city we went to), so I'll start now with the first part of our trip:


Beijing was awesome sauce, I must say. We spent a total of 4 days here, plus one extra at the very end of our trip. We arrived (after a 4 hour flight from Tokyo, after a 5 hour train journey from Misawa) to an amazing hotel in one of the hutong districts- the traditional coutyard homes laid out in a sort of communal fashion in a network of alleyways with little restaurants and shops along the streets. So much character in these neighborhoods.

The alleyway leading up to our hotel, The Double Happiness Courtyard Hotel
Down the alleyway from the entrance to our hotel in the hutong. The area was so interesting and I'm sooo glad we stayed here instead of at one of the more standard hotels (even with the occasional whiff of sewage in the alley).

We love, love, loved our hotel (Beijing Double Happiness Courtyard Hotel). It was beautiful, convenient and the staff was unbelievably helpful and friendly. We had so much fun here, and it was by far our favorite hotel of the whole trip.

The courtyard of the hotel

2nd hotel room
After our first 2 nights in a regular room, we were upgraded to this GORGEOUS suite. I loved that canopy bed!

First off, let me say: Beijing is HUGE. Things that look totally walk-able on a map are miles and miles apart. Even on the subway, it easily took an hour to reach various destinations in town. That being said, taxis were relatively easy to come by, and the subway system was super easy and cheap (2 RMB to go anywhere in the city, which is about 30 cents). So it was really easy to get around.

The first day we made our way to The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Again, this place was giant. We had no clue just how big it was when we got there. We spent the entire day there and still didn't even see everything. Corey loved it. I loved it too, but was a liiiitle Forbidden City'ed out by the end of the day. It was fantastic to see though.

The next day was our big Great Wall hike. Unbelievable! We booked with Beijing Backpacker's Association to go on a hike of a largely unrestored section of the wall which is much less touristy than other areas (from Jinshanling to just before Simatai, which is closed right now). In fact, we only saw maybe 10 people (other than our group of 16- who were awesome people we really enjoyed meeting by the way) during the whole 3-hour hike on the wall.

Gorgeous views- the wall wound across the hills as far as the eye could see.

Many areas were literally crumbling away. Made for stunning scenery!

It was incredible. The views were gorgeous, we saw passed through 22 towers, and while I was pretty pooped by the end, it was well-worth the experience. Definitely something I'll remember doing forever!

Over the next 2 days, we visited the Temple of Heaven park:

Temple of Heaven

Lines of people sitting along the benches playing cards and dominos.
This park was great for people watching. All over there were groups of people sitting around playing cards and dominos, other groups were practicing ballroom dancing in large groups, doing martial arts, playing various games and large group exercising. I could have spent all day here!

Saw an acrobatic show:

The show was ok... Corey likened it to watching a high-school talent show. One of the kids didn't look like he could be older than 10...

Went to Olympic Park:

The Bird's Nest

Toured the Summer Palace (which was our favorite sight other than the Great Wall, and wish we had devoted an entire day to exploring it rather than the 3 hours or so we were able to. It's absolutely stunning, and absolutely gargantuan.):

View in the Summer Palace

Performances at the Summer Palace

and took a cooking class (in the hutong home of a great lady and her family who helped us make braised pork ribs, 2 different beef stir frys, and an eggplant dish. YUM! and so much fun!):

Unfortunately, my knee has been a little wonky lately, and all the stairs on the great wall hike combined with all the miles and miles we were walking every day did a number on me. I ended up hobbling around with an extreme limp for most of the rest of the trip. It was not ideal, but luckily we were still able to do just about everything we wanted to (albeit with more pain than I would have liked). Going to the doctor next week...

Anyway for more pictures of our trip (there are gazillions; for each picture on this blog there are 30 more on my picture page, and for each of those pictures there are 30 more which are just staying right on our hard drive), visit the China album on my picture page.

Next up... Xi'an!