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I'm just a stressed-out-perfectionist-not-so-average-cupcake-making-graduate-student-from-Kansas trying to find my place in this world.
Current Adventure: Interning for the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in Washington, D.C.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Hong Kong and China :-)

I’m in love with China. Actually, maybe I’m just in love with Asia in general. When I was boarding the ship in Halifax, there was a mother and daughter behind me, and the mother was telling me how her nephew had done Semester at Sea several years ago, loved China and decided to move there. Now, he is living full-time in Beijing. I really didn’t understand why he would want to do that. I couldn’t imagine wanting to live anywhere in Asia, let alone China, which was supposed to be dirty, supposed to only have squat toilets (which is true for the most part), and be too. . . .something. . . something I couldn’t put my finger on. I don’t know what I thought; I just didn’t want to live there or even vacation there extensively. I always fantasized about living somewhere in Europe, volunteering in Africa or India, moving back to New Zealand, but never, ever did I contemplate living in Asia. Now, I’m so in love with everything Asian. The people are so friendly; they just smile at you, even if you can’t find a way to communicate with them. There really is a sense of community in China. My favorite thing to do here was to get up early and sit outside the hotel on a bench and watch as all the elderly people congregated to do group exercises. After they finished exercising, they would eat breakfast together and then play card games all day. Usually, they would still be hanging out at the park when we got back to our hotel room in the early evening before dinner. They were kind of like teenagers, just hanging out and enjoying life, hiding from their overbearing children. I loved everything about China: the food, the people, the buildings and the atmosphere. It was all amazing, and needless to say, I can’t wait to come back. I’m still not sure if I could see myself living here for an extended amount of time, but I know that I want to come back as soon as I can because one week is definitely not enough time to experience China.

The ship pulled into Hong Kong harbor very early on November 11, and it was one of the most spectacular views that we’ve had coming into port. I was up there bright and early to see the sun rise, and we were off the ship soon afterwards. For the first time, we got off in a terminal, much like an airport that took us straight into a mall, where Mackenzie and I, of course, stopped for coffee and delicious pastries—so good after four days straight of the monotonous ship cuisine.

Carren, Mackenzie, Ken and Marty (a lifelong learner couple), and I took The Star Ferry from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon Island, where we caught a double decker bus up to Victoria Peak. We walked around the top of the mountain for a while, taking in all of the beautiful scenery before grabbing a leisurely lunch at a local restaurant. We took the cable car down, which seems like it would have been a pleasant experience, but it wasn’t. The trolley went down backwards really fast, and it was really scary, not to mention that I had to go to the bathroom, so it was just really uncomfortable. Afterward, we just walked around for several hours, visiting the (free) zoo and the botanical gardens. The temperature was perfect—about fifty-five degrees and sunny. As much as I was enjoying Hong Kong, I don’t think my calves appreciated it, since the entire city seems to be built on a hill. I’m not even kidding, I’m pretty sure we walked UP hill the whole day, and my legs were so sore the next morning.

The Hong Kong night market on Hong Kong Island is one of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen. It is so busy. There were thousands of people on these two blocks of streets, crowding into little tents to buy knock-off north faces and uggs, Hong Kong souvenirs, everyday items such as pots and pans, seafood that was still alive and swimming in small kiddie pools on the ground, and everything else that you could ever imagine. I didn’t buy anything; it was just fascinating to be there and feel all the life that is in that market.

On the way back to the MV Explorer, the three of us passed by a movie theatre that was supposedly playing the movie Life As We Know It, which we had all been talking about seeing once we’re back in the US. So, we decided to have a movie night. I specifically asked the man in the booth if the movie was in English, to which he responded yes, and then he took us to the posters so that I could show him which movie we wanted to see. He told us the time of the movie, we paid for our tickets, bought some popcorn (which came with fish balls—gross), and then headed for our theatre. I asked the movie attendant which way to our theatre, and he told us that the only movie playing that night was the action film Unstoppable, and sure enough printed in capital letters on my ticket was Unstoppable. I went to the ticket booth to ask the man who sold us our tickets why he told us we could see Life As We Know It and ask for a refund since that’s not the movie we wanted to see, and he said, “no English, no English, no English.” Sure buddy. You could speak English ten minutes ago when you sold us the ticket to the wrong show. We didn’t get our money back, and I actually ended up making it through the entire film without getting too scared, but needless to say, I did not enjoy it. Oh, communication barriers, how I love you.

The next morning I left with a Semester at Sea planned trip to Beijing. We drove an hour or so from the ship to the airport, where we checked in, grabbed some lunch, and boarded our three-hour flight to Beijing. We were fed some sort of rice with chicken in a really runny sauce on the plane, but given no utensils—not even chopsticks. We couldn’t make the flight attendant understand what we needed, so we didn’t really eat it.

The Beijing airport is amazing. It just opened in 2008 for the Olympics, so everything in there is still practically brand new. The first thing that I noticed when I stepped outside the airport was the cold, and I loved it. Everyone was complaining about it, but I absolutely loved it. The air smelled like fires and Christmas and everything about home. I wasn’t prepared clothing wise for such temperatures, but I managed to layer up and stay warm for the four days that I was in Beijing. Our group split up into groups of two where we got into treshaws, which are little carriages pulled behind bikes with three wheels, and we were each taken to a different home and family who had volunteered to have us over for dinner. My homestay mother was Mother Bai, and she cooked the most amazing dinner ever for us and even taught us how to make meat and veggie dumplings. She must have made ten different dishes for us to try. My partner, Rudy, and I spent a couple hours at Mother Bai’s home, drinking tea and eating with her and her mother—Grandmother Bai—and her sister—Auntie Bai. Their home was over five hundred years old and had been passed through the family for more than twelve generations. They had running water and electricity, but the only warmth came from a single fireplace on the ground floor. After dinner, the treshaw driver took Rudy and I to the hotel where we met up with all the other people in our group.

The hotel was really nice. That is something that you can always count on during Semester at Sea trips: a nice hotel and delicious food. I’ve never, ever stayed in as nice of hotels as I have while on Semester at Sea trips. Rudy was my roommate, which was fortunate since she lives across the hall from me on the ship, and we were already pretty good friends. The next three days were just really nice. We had no partiers in our group, they kept the tours small, the weather was cold (it was so nice not to be sweating constantly like we have in the past ten ports), and the sights were amazing.

Saturday morning we had to be up by 6:30AM, because the bus left at 7. We visited the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the Silk Market. I managed to buy a winter coat at the Silk Market for ten dollars. It’s not high quality, but as long as it lasts me through Japan next week, I’ll be happy (I mean, I’m just happy it kept me warm all week in China!).  The Forbidden City was beautiful, but it was also really, really, really big. Apparently, we only saw about 5%, but it still took us almost three hours to walk that little bit. Then, we headed to Tiananmen Square before lunch at a buffet restaurant. The guide actually gave us the choice between some free time or going to an orphanage about an hour outside of Beijing where he volunteered at often. All twenty of our group members decided to go to the orphanage.

I’ve been to a lot of orphanages on this trip and even some before on previous mission trips, but this was the most depressing one I have ever been to. I know that a lot of it was how cold and dreary the weather was outside, but the facilities that housed the three hundred children (all under the age of 12) were incredibly inadequate. They only had running water every other day, and even though the dormitories were heated, no other building on their campus was. While the Semester at Sea students were playing soccer with the children, I walked toward the back of the property where I saw three kids—two boys and one girl—crouched in a back corner; they were digging a hole in the dirt. I crouched down next to them, and they handed me a little hand shovel, so I started digging with them. The girl kept throwing in little bits of tree bark and wood. It didn’t really register in my mind what they were doing until one of the little boys, who was probably about 7 or 8, took a melted down dirty birthday candle out of his pocket, ran away for a minute and came back with a flame, that I realized what was happening. It was really difficult for me not to cry right then as I watched them warm their little chapped hands next to the fire that they had made. The entire time we couldn’t say anything to each other because I couldn’t speak Chinese and they couldn’t speak English. But then the Semester at Sea boys started a tug-of-war game, and the kids ran off to help their team, leaving me staring at the flame as it flickered out.

We painted a huge mural alone one of the brick walls in an attempt to make the campus look a little cheerier. It was actually a really fun mural, thanks to several artistically talented Semester at Sea students. I, however, just painted in the lines that they had drawn.

That night we had the famous Peking Duck dinner. It was. . . interesting. I always try everything that is served to me, because you never know when something that looks like duck web jelly might be amazing. In this case, it wasn’t so amazing, but at least I tried it. I did enjoy the rice pancakes that we filled with duck meat and then rolled into a little burrito though.

Some friends and I headed to La Viva shopping center after dinner to get some warmer clothing and some time away from the big group. I decided that I really needed to get some warmer boots, so I went into a nice shoe store, asked to try on a pair of UGGs in a US size 9, and then the shop attendants laughed me out of the store.   Apparently, the largest size they carried was a size 6.5… who even wears a 6.5?? A third-grader?...I was a little bit humiliated that they were all laughing at me, so I just left and went and bought myself a nice hat and scarf set. It’s pink and very cute, and softened the blow that the Asian women thought I had monstrous feet.

The next day was the day that I have been waiting for so long—the day I got to see the Great Wall of China. First, we went to the International Kungfu School, where Jackie Chan learned Kungfu and where The Karate Kid was filmed. It was really neat to see the Kungfu performance, and they we all got a one-on-one thirty minutes lesson (so, watch out: I know Kungfu now!). But I was antsy the whole time to get to The Great Wall. Finally, after a hurried lunch and a 2-hour bus ride, we were there. I could see the wall running along the mountains almost the entire time we were driving, and it was breathtaking. We had to hike for about 25 minutes (a very steep hike!) up to the gondolas; I actually rode in the same car as Bill Clinton did when he visited the wall a couple years ago. It was just kind of luck of the draw, because we could only have four people in each cable car, and we had to jump in as it was moving.

Walking along the wall was surreal and invigorating, especially just imagining what had happened there over the years. The temperature was perfect for wearing coats and hats but not being freezing cold—probably in the high 40s, low 50s.  I walked along the top for two hours with a couple friends before we tobogganed down. It was so much fun!

That night we saw an acrobatic show, went to dinner around 10PM (I was so exhausted), and then headed to bed. The next day was spent primarily traveling from Beijing to Shanghai, but we did go and visit The Temple of Heaven and participate in a tea ceremony before we went to the airport.

Shanghai was very much like Beijing, and I loved it, especially since the weather was just a tad warmer, which made it much more comfortable for walking around. Since I didn’t go in transit with the ship from Hong Kong to Shanghai, I had to turn my passport in to the Chinese port authorities on the ship to inspect and stamp. They said that it would take a maximum on 1 hour to complete. I waited to get off the ship for almost four hours that night, which was incredibly frustrating. Some people weren’t allowed off the ship again until noon the next day! It’s so strange that the Chinese seem to have a handle on everything, yet it takes so long to get a stamp in your passport. I found it frustrating considering I had been in mainland China for four days and gone through customs and immigration in Beijing, but c’est la vie.

Mackenzie and I headed out for a late dinner after I finally got my passport back and was cleared for debarkation. The food left a little to be desired, and the way the bones were in that meat, made me think that it probably wasn’t chicken….but I didn’t ask any questions, because I didn’t want to find out that I was eating dog. We walked around Bund street, the infamous Shanghai historical shopping district. It was so beautiful at night with all of the buildings and markets lit up. We walked along the river where the ship was docked, just taking in the beautiful city skyline.

The next morning, we were up early and spent the day wandering through little streets, visiting with the locals, and eating dumplings off the street. I’m not exactly sure what was in those dumplings, but again, I didn’t ask. They were delicious though.

I was sad to leave China, but I’m sure that I’ll be back.  I’m also really excited for Japan! Today, we sailed by lots of little Japanese islands—even one that had an active volcano on it. If we had sailed by at night, we would have been able to see the lava pouring into the ocean. It’s pretty cool to go to school on the ocean; I get out of class for the best things—volcanoes on the starboard side, a pod of dolphins off of port side, crossing the very center of the world, etc. You know, completely normal events. . .

 Japan is our last international port. I’m disappointed that my adventure is coming to an end so quickly, but at the same time, I’m so excited to be home, where things are normal and consistent. Riiiiiight. . .well, maybe not—but at least I’ll have my family and old friends and old routines for a while. . . until I start my next adventure. ☺

1 comment:

  1. Have you tried dumplings and roast ducks? They are the famous and traditional Beijing dishes. And also bird's nest soup? Its a delicacy in China.

    Enjoy your days~~~