Sunday, November 21, 2010

KungFu: The Andrew and Nicole Legend Continues

Last Tuesday morning we took a 4 hour bus ride into Beijing. Qinhuangdao is building a new train station, so in the meantime they've closed the train station for the next six months, so taking the super fast (and cheap!) train wasn't an option this time. However, the bus wasn't too bad since we left so early. Our goal in Beijing was to celebrate Andrew's birthday a little early, do some Christmas shopping, and stock up for Thanksgiving at the foreign food store. All in about 30 hours.

When we arrived in Beijing, one of the first things we noticed was a lovely sign pointing toward home! We didn't follow it, but did notice these European-style buildings in the same area. Next time we'll check it out and report back.

Our first stop was our hotel, which was a good choice. On our last trip to Beijing, we stayed at a gorgeous little hotel that was really far from the main sights and public transportation. This time we opted for an HI Hostel right next to the train station (we had booked it before we knew the trains wouldn't be leaving from QHD). It had lots of amenities, like a bar, mini-mart, and a cheap buffet breakfast.

We quickly checked in and then headed near the train station to see the old remnants of the Beijing City Wall.

Next we headed to the Temple of Heaven Park. Here, we toured some gardens and temples, and bought a cute little knit panda for Andrew's birthday.
See the baby panda?

After a couple of leisurely hours walking around, we went to the Natural History Museum. Unfortunately, the exhibits were in poor shape and none of the interactive displays worked, but it looks like with a little extra funding this would be a great museum. I never realized how fast you can get through a museum when there's nothing written in English!

After a yummy dinner, we went to a KungFu show at the Red Theater. I really enjoyed the performance. It told the story of a young boy who enters the temple and trains to be a warrior monk. The KungFu itself wasn't very impressive, but the costumes, sets, and story were really fascinating. I was most impressed by the little boys doing flips and mock-fighting. The whole thing was a combination of Street Fighter meets Swan Lake meets Jackass. There was a good portion of the performance dedicated to doing crazy things, like lying on a bed of nails and breaking bricks over heads. It was a lot of fun.
The Red Theater

The next morning we ate breakfast at the hotel and then went shopping. We did our Christmas shopping at the Wanfujing Market, where I picked up a cool panda hat for $3. Did I mention I have a thing for hats? We also bought Andrew an amazing silk shirt with dragons embroidered on it for the low price of $20. My mad bargaining skills made Andrew feel bad because we got them so low, but I figure that if they really couldn't afford to sell it at that price, they wouldn't, right? We checked out the bookstore, picking up a few classics like Around the World in Eighty Days and Arabian Nights. Andrew also got a guitar tuner. We passed on the skewered scorpions this time.

After, we went to the Sanlitun Village Shopping Center, which is basically a big outdoor mall targeted toward ex-pats and rich diplomats. We checked out the IPad at the Mac store, and then discovered the amazing Lugas Villa Mexican Restaurant. I ordered a huge strawberry margarita, and the bartender even gave me a second glass with the leftovers from the blender for free! We ordered chips and salsa and giant burritos and contentedly stuffed ourselves. A little tipsy (it was a BIG margarita!), we then did our foreign food shopping at Jenny Lou's. We bought some cranberry sauce, evaporated milk (for pumpkin pies), cream soda, two precious avocados, and cheddar cheese.

Reluctantly we headed back to the hotel, picked up our bags, played a quick game of pool, and then headed to the bus station for the trip back to QHD. Not bad for only 30 hours, huh?
Andrew's cool Dragon Master shirt

Next Tuesday is Andrew's birthday, and we'll be celebrating with tacos and chocolate cake and Harry Potter in English (well, on Wednesday Andrew agreed to come with me to the theater)!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Off the Wall

Two weeks ago we tried to make it out to a different part of the Great Wall, a more scenic spot where you can actually hike on top of the ruins of the wall. Unfortunately, we were taken advantage of by a taxi driver who tried taking us to a different place in order to extort more money from us. So this week, our boss John drove us out to Jiao Shan, where he patiently waited for over two hours while we hiked and climbed to our heart's content.

It was a crisp, cool day, with blue sky (a rarity in Qinhuangdao), and we were practically the only people out there. We hiked along the "safe" part of the wall for a while, before a dead end told us to go no further. Not deterred, we hopped off the wall and bushwacked our way to a lower part of the "dangerous" wall, where we again climbed up until the wall literally ran out.
"Dangerous" part

The way up was really steep, but the scariest parts were the ladders (I'm terrified of heights).

And no public place in China would be complete without it's ridiculous Chinglish signs. I'm trying people, but I'm only one ESL teacher.

Ssshhh, the grass is sleeping

After our exhausting hike, John took us to a steamed pork bun shop, where for about $6 (total!) we feasted on pork buns, corn soup, pickled veggies, and thinly sliced pork heart. It was all delicious, but I think I ate too much!

Next, we drove around the Shanhaiguan area for a bit, stopping to see the Old Dragon's Head, which we visited back in August, and making a lengthier stop at a fishing pier, where we walked over a path paved with sea star carcasses and broken crabs.
Laolongtao, Old Dragon's Head

I guess the fishermen can't eat the sea stars, so they just let them die on the pier. Andrew even found a beautiful purple and yellow sea star, and I liberated it by returning it to the ocean. I hope it made it.

We didn't arrive home until after 3pm, and then we prepared for a visit from Genie, a Russian ESL teacher, and Jeff, a university teacher from Colorado. I made pumpkin soup and homemade baguettes, with delicious persimmons for dessert. If you've never had a persimmon, leave right now and scour your area for them. They're one of the most delicious fruits I've ever had. Ive been eating about 1kg a week. Be careful, because if they're not ripe, they can be very bitter.

Next weekend we're heading to Beijing again to stock up for Thanksgiving and celebrate Andrew's birthday a little early with a King Fu show and a trip to the Natural History Museum.

Here are the weird foods of the month:

"Yes We Can" WWII beer

Shrimp donuts
Sprinkled Nachos???

Until I finally get Picasa up and running again, you can view all photos at Facebook.

If you're interested in getting him a gift for his 27th birthday, he really wants ITunes gift cards. :)

Saturday, November 6, 2010

There's the Rub

We didn't let our exhausting day at the Expo prevent us from getting up early on our final day in Shanghai to see some of the other tourist sites. In the early morning, we toured the French Concession for a bit, but weren't really able to see why it's called the French Concession. The best reason I saw was a C & A clothing store, a popular chain in France. We walked around this park for a while, marveling at all the different types of exercise people do (don't worry, there'll be a whole post about this). Then we stumbled on this pedestrianized ex-pat zone, called Xintiadi, which boasted a Starbucks, a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, a Lawry's, and even a Monty's Steak House!
French Concession, Xintiadi

Of course, at this point we were low on cash, so after an obligatory stop at the Coffee Bean for a coffee, we continued our tour, arriving at the Shanghai Museum.

Now I know Andrew is going to say how I'm always so negative in my posts, but I want to say that part of the reason I do this is so that you, the reader, know what's worth visiting, should your travels ever take you into this part of the world. That said, I wasn't impressed by the Shanghai Museum. The most impressive thing was that it was free to enter. They had some pretty beautiful individual pieces, but there wasn't one exhibit or hall that really wow-ed me. However, the museum was well-laid out, and showcased some interesting artifacts, such as jade pieces and some rather eccentric paintings.
Ninja turtle?
Flying baby head
More heads

After the museum, we again stopped for dumplings, our go-to meal while traveling (it's hard to make a bad dumpling). At this point, we had determined that the lining on my shoe had basically disintegrated, thus the cause of my aching feet, so I took a short rest. I popped into a massage parlor, and knowing zero Chinese managed to negotiate my way into a 30 minute foot massage for $5. Score! The massage itself was a little scary, as it was performed by a beefy woman who took real pleasure in slapping and punching the calves of her customers. Amazingly enough, when I arrived around midday, there were several people reclining in chairs, fast asleep, as the masseuse worked away at their poor limbs. How the slapping and hitting noises didn't awaken them, I'll never know. I myself was too terrified to sleep, but thankfully the massage was more relaxing than painful, and after the half-hour, I was ready to face the Expo again. On the way back to the hostel, we noticed a Hershey's store and had to go in. There, we were rewarded with Scharffen-Berger chocolate, made in Berkeley.

This time, getting into the park was easy, since we arrived around 5pm. We listened to the announcements detailing the wait times for the most popular pavilions ("China, U.S.A., France, Germany, and Japan: 6 hours") and decided to take their cryptic advice and "Make better visiting plans." We hit up some of the smaller pavilions, cruising through the smaller European countries like Liechtenstein, Cyprus, and Malta. The Pacific Islands and the Middle East also yielded lots of passport stamps, and many opportunities to learn more about the countries in question. I think we both enjoyed Nepal the best, though Syria and Belarus had very beautiful pavilions as well. Due to our chattiness, we enjoyed the perks of more free materials, sometimes just by default of being the only foreigners at the Expo. When we passed through Palestine, my greeting in Arabic produced an odd result: the Palestinian rushed out of the room without a word and returned with Palestinian pins and Yassar Arafat stickers, which were also handed to us wordlessly.
Vietnam Pavilion
Syria Pavilion (I was eating Syrian cookies, thus the weird face)

At the end of the night, we had acquired 70 stamps in our passport. Does this mean we can count those toward our total of countries visited?

The next morning we awoke early and took a taxi to the airport for the short journey back to Qinhuangdao. When we stepped off the plane, we nearly froze to death. It was about 40 degrees, and compared to the balmy 80 we had left behind in Shanghai, it felt like the Arctic. We quickly missed the warm weather, great coffee, and exciting sites we left behind in the south, and are looking forward to our next vacation in the winter, when we'll visit Harbin, in northern China, and brave the freezing cold to witness the amazing ice sculptures for which the city is famous.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


Where in the world are Nicole and Andrew?

When we arrived in Shanghai, we somehow managed to figure out the crazy metro map and make it to our hostel, the Mingtown Hiker Youth Hostel, which was centrally located right near the main shopping street and the Bund. We reluctantly paid the bill for three nights, which was more expensive for two dorm beds than we had paid for our private double in Guilin, but hey, it's Shanghai, you can't expect much. After showering we took a walk down to the Bund, stopping for dinner along the way. We pushed through the throng of people there to catch a glmpse of the two sides of the river. On the right bank you have the modern Pudong skyscrapers, while the left bank is home to the old embassy buildings. The contrast between classic and modern was really interesting to see.
Right bank
Left bank

We shuffled behind the line of people (did I mention there are 1 billion people in China?) down the quai before turning around and heading back to the shopping street, where we came to our senses and remembered that when in doubt, eat dumplings. Thus fortified, we dodged the hawkers selling (faux) designer bags, watches, and IPods before heading to bed around 11:30pm.
Nanjing Rd. Shopping Street

The next morning we woke our roommate early in our departure for our raison d'etre, the World Exposition. So just what is the Expo, you might ask? Well, the Expo used to be known as The World's Fair. Sound familiar? We weren't sure what exactly to expect either until we arrived. Each country, or area, if the countries are small and/or poor, designs a pavilion according to the year's theme; in our case, Better Cities, Better Life. Mostly the pavilion is a chance for the country to highlight their touristic opportunities and attract investors. This year, most of the pavilions seemed to focus on the idea of environmental sustainability. There was also an Expo mascot, the Shui, or water droplet.

not a sperm, Mom

We arrived at the Expo at 8:00am, an hour before it opened, and waited in line until 10:00am along with 627,000 other people (this number is not exaggerated; I checked).

Through the gates it was a mad dash for the pavilions. We knew it was a lost cause going to China or the USA, so we ran into the first pavilion that didn't have a line: New Zealand. It was a good choice, as I enjoyed the "natural" feel to the pavilion as we appeared to climb into a tree while watching images of Kiwi life on flat screen TVs.

We were out of the pavilion in less than ten minutes and on to the next, Cambodia, whose displays of temples and statues hidden in the jungle inspired me even more to visit someday. At this point we realized that everyone had these fake passports that they were getting stamped at each pavilion. We joined the cool club and $5 later we were ready for our first stamp: Indonesia. Unfortunately, the line was very long, and we waited an hour in the hot sun, snickering at the hilarious signs posted. However, people didn't seem to understand me when I said, "Polite sharing! No challenging!" to those who tried to cut in front of me. Thankfully there were some line police, a necessary force in China, where inevitably someone tries to cut in front of you, no matter where you are. Having spent so long in line, we decided to maximize our time in Indonesia.

I think we read every sign and label in that pavilion. Afterwards, there was a convenient restaurant outside serving coconut curry chicken at a Disneyland price. We indulged and split one serving between the two of us before venturing back into the heat and crowds. A quick glance around told us that the golden time in Asia had passed, with most lines exceeding a two-hour wait. A similar walk through Europe revealed the same thing, with even Belarus (our fall-back pavilion) filled to capacity. Here we made a crucial decision that would form the backbone of our Expo-strategy for that day and the next night. We decided to skip the bigger, individual pavilions, and just go to the larger, area-specific pavilions.

Our first stop was Africa, where we didn't have to wait in line to gain access to almost 50 small pavilions. Of course we stopped by Mali and wowed the locals with our Bambara skills before hitting up all the francophone countries just for an excuse to parler francais. For me, this was the funnest part of the Expo: cruising around the little pavilions, asking questions about the different countries. I think this was a highlight for those there, who had traveled hundreds of miles to live in Shanghai for seven months, but whose main job seemed to be stamping passports, which was all most people were interested in. I'm guessing there was some sort of prize for most stamps, because people were literally just running up to the booths with their passports and then leaving again. Many clever countries had even started putting up signs that said, "What's the name of this country?" to elicit some sort of guilt from the visitors. It didn't work. But we were rewarded for our conversation skills with small gifts of pins, bags, coffee, cookies, and tourist brochures. In addition, we learned a lot about the countries. For example, Maldives doesn't allow visitors to wear bikinis. I mean, I know it's a Muslim country, but come on, it's a tropical island! We were worried for a while that my chattiness would limit the number of pavilions we could see, but we still collected a cool 70 stamps in our passport, which doesn't include the pavilions that refused to give out stamps to begin with. I'm guessing we actually visited about 100 pavilions.

Having toured the continent of Africa, we lucked out and got into Argentina without a long wait, just in time to see a live tango show, which Andrew loved, of course.

Then we hit up Brazil and the Americas pavilion, where we gathered another handful of stamps before agreeing to the wait for Mexico, which was made worthwhile by the cool masks on display and the Mexican restaurant attached to the pavilion. Here we spent about $40 on horchata, Corona, a huge beef burrito, and tacos. The chef even came out and gave in to my plea for a little bit of free guacamole. Delicious!

Our luck continued throughout the night, and after Mexico we decided to try our luck at some of the bigger pavilions now that the crowds had dwindled down to a manageable 300,000. Denmark was on top of our list, and our patience was rewarded with the girl herself, the Little Mermaid! She was carefully removed from Copenhagen and flown all the way here. As Andrew remarked, she probably has a better chance of not having her head sawn off here than back home (this has happened to her a few times).

We also visited Norway, where we fell in love with some of the music, prompting a CD purchase, and we finally got into Belarus, whose earlier crowds were well deserved as the exterior and interior were lovely.

We were lucky enough to make it into Australia, one of the most popular pavilions. At this point it was after 10pm, and most of the pavilions were closing up, and we lucked out by being the last people admitted to Australia. I liked the exhibits inside the pavilion, and there was a cool show that's really hard to describe but used a lot of interesting technology.

At this point I felt that my feet were going to fall off, and since the park was closing, we limped back the metro, which didn't go all the way to our destination because of the late hour, so there was more walking involved before I made it home, whimpering in pain.