Thursday, August 18, 2011

Go south, young man


Truly a modern city, life is much more comfortable here than the crowds and cluttered streets of Beijing. I was shocked when me and Ning were the only two people standing by our entry to open in the subway on one of the major lines in Shanghai – in Beijing, it’s rush hour and rubbing up against other people’s sweat, no matter what time it is. You can also cross the streets in Shanghai without having to worry about a car accident every other second. Nonetheless, I’m glad I got to stay in Beijing for two months instead of Shanghai – you can probably cover all the major sites in Shanghai in two days, but in Beijing, there’s always something new everyday. Shanghai is still worth a look though:

French Concession – former residence of Western expats, lots of European style architecture.

Yuyuan (Old Gardens) – This used to be a temple complex, but nowadays a tourist hotspot. 

小笼包 – we waited over half an hour for these famed Shanghai specialties, but they were so worth it. 

 Shanghai’s awesome skyline ... On our side, the old part of town.


“Paradise on earth”, known for 西湖 (West Lake). Definitely lived up to its reputation, although expect tons of tourists. Hangzhou is SWELTERING during the summer, but first day, it rained quite a bit, which helped us cool off a little, and the second day, we stayed close to the shade. I also highly recommend renting a bike, especially if the places you want to go to are close by – the buses are expensive (well, expensive by Chinese standards), crowded, and not all have air conditioning. The highlight of the first day was probably Lingyin temple, which has giant Buddhas, arhats, and the like. Probably the most breathtaking is the collage of arhats behind the big Buddha in the first hall:

Pic cannot capture how huge this was. Absolutely breathtaking.

Next stop was Leifeng Pagoda, which is a new pagoda housing the remains of the old one inside. It has amazing views of 西湖 at the top and lights up at night.

Um escalators to the base of the pagoda? I’ll take it.

Second day went by smoother, as we rented bikes from our hostel and from the owner of the nearby noodle restaurant. Hangzhou also has its own bikes for rent, but hostel rates are definitely cheaper. My bike, however, lost its chain halfway through the day, but we found a bike shop that fixed it for 3 kuai (<50 cents!?!?) – I still have to get used to how cheap China is sometimes.

Biking around Hangzhou

We hit up the Six Harmonies Pagoda first, which is deceiving with its 11 tiers – you can actually only climb up to around the fifth floor. The view is still great, although if you’re pressed for time, Leifeng Pagoda tops all. After that, took a scenic route to Longjing Tea Village, one my favorite parts while we were in Hangzhou. Longjing tea, as all first-year Chinese students at Yale will know, is one of Hangzhou’s 特色 and we happened to run into an owner of a restaurant, who lured us in with promises of amazing scenery, air conditioning, and most enticing of all, food. He was pretty cool – even though I understood only 10% of what he is saying, it turns out he’s the youngest person in the village with a license to fry tea (um, I don’t know if that translated well, but his exact words were 炒茶). He also cooked amazing food and was right about the scenery:

You can see the tea fields at the very top of the hill. Apparently, the village runs under a communal system where everyone can enter a lottery to win a field after the owner of that field passes away.

After that, we strolled around Guo’s Villa and some nearby parks before taking a boat to the cultural site that’s on China’s 1 kuai bill: the island of the “Three Pools Mirroring the Moon” in the middle of 西湖. At night, it’s said you can view the moon’s reflection off all three ponds that make up the island.

 Three Pools Mirroring the Moon

Afterwards, we headed back to our hostel by way of the Su Crossway, one of three paths running across 西湖. The sun was setting then, making for excellent pictures of pink horizons mirrored by the lake’s clear waters. I also made a vow to buy a bike in Japan as soon as I can – there’s just something about zipping by on a bike that makes you feel like a kid again.

View of Su Crossway from Baochusu - soon to be conquered!

Xihu at sunset 

Our last dinner in Hangzhou was at the same noodle restaurant, recommended by our hostel owner who swore a new chef came every night who cooked excellent fried corn and fish head. Turned out he wasn’t lying – this little hole-in-the-wall restaurant served one of the best meals I had in China so far. Ning had told me earlier in the day that she would make me order for dinner, since I pretty much have no skills when it comes to deciphering the menu, but thankfully she forgot just in time for her to do ordering :).


Xiamen is an island city off the coast of southern China, and if we thought Hangzhou was sweltering, well, Xiamen was SCORCHING. Nonetheless, I really liked this port city and the palm trees were legit (unlike the imported ones in Shanghai). We stayed in a hostel on Gulangyu Island, which is another popular tourist destination reachable by ferry from Xiamen. Gulangyu is famous for its old architecture, remnants of the time when European foreigners inhabited the island. It was really easy to get lost with its nonsense layout of roads and wasn’t as clean as Xiamen, but it had breathtaking views of the island and the Xiamen skyline:  

Next day, we explored the island a little more before returning to Xiamen to meet up with Ning’s friend. Dying from the heat, but still beautiful. We walked around Nanputousi and Xiamen University, which kind of reminds of Stanford with its European architecture and endless palm trees.

Xiamen University - so you can find blue skies in China after all...

We also got to taste some of Xiamen’s specialties:

红豆豆化Taiwan style. Didn’t realize Xiamen was that close to Taiwan - I’d like to go someday…

And now for some wisdom (albeit by learning the hard way):

Travel tips in China

1. If you’re like me and mosquitoes absolutely love to feast on your blood, bring loads of DEET from the U.S. It’s pretty hard to find in China, and the Chinese mosquito repellents are a gamble. Beijing isn’t too bad, except for the occasional bite when you stop and chat with a friend under a tree, but if you travel after the program, the mosquitoes definitely get worse the more south you go. Also donning those long but comfortable pants, even during the heat of summer, would probably be more bearable than having to suffer 40+ bites at the same time (as I’ve come to experience the hard way).

2. Buy train tickets early, especially if you have a popular route or have few options to your final destination. I had a case of 倒霉, and had to buy a return flight from Beijing to Xiamen because there were no more tickets for the train from Fuzhou to Beijing (an added cost of ~$130). China’s way of selling tickets is a little frustrating, since you can only buy them 5-10 days in advance, depending on where you want to go. Don’t be surprised if they all run out within the first morning of going on sale. The sleepers from Beijing to Shanghai are also extremely popular. I think 10 days before is when they go on sale, so buy them as soon as possible if you want to save around $60 in lieu of the 高铁.Another thing, buying tickets at a local train office will probably be a much more pleasant experience than trying to wait in line for 30+ minutes at one of the major train stations. Also don’t forget to bring your passport! You need ID to buy tickets besides the sleepers.

3. Be wary of counterfeit money (mostly 100 kuai bills). I got one somewhere in Beijing, but somehow spent it along the way. Ning, however, got a fake 100 kuai bill from our hostel in Shanghai when they were giving back the deposit. The counterfeit 100 kuai is pretty similar to the real thing – it still has the watermark Mao image, but the difference is the yellow color (the real one is more brownish). If you end up getting a counterfeit bill, I heard you can try to spend it at a busy McDonald’s to get rid of it – but the price you pay is a dent on your conscience.  

4. Other random tips (a lot which, I guess, applies to living in China in general) – always take some toilet paper/hand sanitizer, write down the hostel phone number if you need to call for directions, and pack LIGHT (lugging heavy bags in the middle of summer in southern China is not fun). Also don’t be ashamed about using a parasol (or rain umbrella, people won’t stare) – aside from protecting your skin, it beats the heat. 

5. Traveling by yourself or with friends? Obviously, most people prefer a traveling buddy, especially with only two years’ worth of Chinese. Traveling by yourself does, however, force you to practice your Chinese more and will probably give you a greater sense of freedom/independence, as was the highlight of my trek across Japan last year (link). While I still think traveling alone is something I will always appreciate, I was immensely lucky to travel around China with Ning this time around. First, I feel like I gained one month’s worth speaking practice at HBA through only one week with Ning. I’m truly a learner outside of the classroom when it comes to learning how to speak another language – I imitate the way people speak around me, not just their choice of words, but their intonation and mannerisms. Picking up mangled sentences from your classmates, while still good opportunity to practice, definitely falls short of being with a native speaker. Also, Ning sometimes forces me to speak on our behalf anyway, like asking people to take our picture or ordering food (but as I’ve already mentioned, she hasn’t remembered that one yet!) Moreover, she answers all my questions – not just how to speak correct Chinese, but why we see Chinese people doing certain things. Okay, third point has basically turned into an excuse to thank Ning for all that she’s done on our travels together, to which I’m infinitely grateful.

All in all, China is an AWESOME place to travel. I kind of regret I only gave myself a week – China is huge, and you can go to places as wild as Tibet or as international as Hong Kong or Macau. Next time I come to China (because there will definitely be a next time, whether for research, study, or just travel), I really want to go as far as Tibet or Yunnan… til next time then. 

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