My China Travels: Golden Week 2013


My friend Shayla and I decided that for Golden Week this year we would travel together to China. Shayla ended up making most of the travel plans and booking the hostels, which I greatly appreciated since I barely had time to think in the weeks leading up to our trip. Between my regular classes and working on weekends for Ayame Matsuri, I ended up kind of only half-planning out the trip, which caused me a bit of grief but more on that later.

Shayla wanted to hit up three major spots: Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing, in that order. The plan sounded like one big ball of awesome to me, so I readily agreed to this amazing idea.

Hong Kong

When we arrived in Hong Kong, Shayla had the bus information on her really handy tablet. We tracked down the bus after a brief walk through two different bus stations in the airport, ended up coming full circle back to where we started, and eventually found the correct waiting point. We discovered that China and Japan differ greatly for schedules when a man informed us the previous bus didn’t come. The bus after that didn’t come either. We ended up waiting quite awhile for our bus, and when the bus arrived, I discovered there’s no change machines on Chinese buses like there are in Japan. The bus driver helped me out, though, and then we were finally on our way to our hotel.

Our hotel, by the way, was freakin’ Noah’s Ark.

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Seriously, it’s a hotel. It exists. Shayla and I lucked out and got to stay in a big eight bed room for cheap. Each room had its own kind of animal theme and there’s even a theme park next door. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to go into it and explore because we were too busy doing stuff like watching Hong Kong’s Guinness World Record show called “A Symphony of Lights” on a boat.

Ayame chan 1951Many, many buildings participate in this extravagant display of lights set to music. I enjoyed it and the ferry ride over the river. Afterwards, Shayla and I discovered a historical little place dedicated to education about China in the 1800’s. The main reason I noticed it is because of the humongous trees that the place featured.

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It was quite strange to go skyscraper, skyscraper, skyscraper, to huh? Is that a giant tree? Smack in the middle of metropolis? My response was, of course, let’s explore that shit! We did and also picked up some wi-fi to get directions to our next hostel, which is a story in and of itself.

We only stayed one day at Noah’s Ark. The next morning we headed over to the Forever Bright travel agency to apply for mainland entry visas. We got their by taxi, which by the way is so much cheaper than Japan’s taxis, by far.

Quick note of warning for people traveling to China, make sure your taxi has a meter and that it runs when the taxi moves. Taxi scams are everywhere in China, with taxi drivers that will promise one fee at first and then expect you to pay maybe three times as much by the time you arrive at your destination. A guy with a meter is legit (most likely).

The Forever Bright travel agency is one of the cheaper places to get visas, and so there were lots of people there on vacation before us. Because Shayla is a Canadian, she got her visa the same day she applied. I was only able to submit the forms and would have to come back the next day for mine because I’m an American.

We decided to throw our luggage into a locker (which took forever to find and had a devil change machine crafted by Loki) before we headed off for the Chi Lin Nunnery and the Nan Lian Garden at Diamond Hill.

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The Nunnery featured beautiful Buddhas and Bodhisattva in gold. I wasn’t permitted to take pictures of them but trust me they’re very ornate and gorgeous. The garden featured an array of rock gardens with artistically cut trees.

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Later on, Shayla and I went to the Jade Market at Yau Ma Tei. The Jade Market is a couple of blocks of various jewelry and other items for sell that claim to be jade.

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Unfortunately, the majority of the “jade” is actually just green treated glass or plastic. However, we discovered a lady and her sister that claimed to be part of the Jade Association (not really sure that even exists) and even threw a laminated certificate in our faces to try and prove it. I bought my Mothers Day gift there since my mom loves jade. I tried with my limited knowledge to assess if the jade was real, but I’m no expert.

Ayame chan 2056Something to note about China is the haggling. From what I understand, haggling is basically a part of most if not all transactions at markets. In the jade market, I pretended I wasn’t sure about the price about four times and she kept bringing it down every time I looked like I might give something back.

I got a tip towards the end of the China journey that the method for haggling should go like so: Seller says the price. You offer about 1/3rd of the price. They scoff and bluster, you do the same, until you eventually meet halfway. However, if you want to fight for cheaper you can, but half is usually appreciated.

When Shayla and I got back on the train to go get our stuff and head to the Kingston Inn hostel, I found out that begging happens on trains in China. It was actually a small shock to my system. For some reason, my brain didn’t catch up for a second, and when it did I marveled a little bit at the brilliance of this move. Yes, it’s annoying as a commuter, but for the begging guy? Totally the best way to get money. People are trapped in this train with him, unable to escape, and there are eyes everywhere judging you for not putting money in the man’s cup. I could never imagine it happening in Japan.

Then again, I could never imagine half of the shoving, talking, and spitting that I saw in China happening in Japan. In China, shoving is a perfectly acceptable form of getting onto a train, and you have to do it in the end to get a spot on the trains. Also, people talked on the trains as long and as loud as they pleased. They chatted on cells phones, without holding hands over their receivers. I got to say I’m going to miss being able to strike up a conversation on a train. Being forced to stay quiet during long train rides always bothered me.

The spitting happens a lot at train stations. Supposedly, it’s supposed to be healthy for you to clear out the spit out all the gunk in your mouth regularly during the day. I can kind of understand that logic and I didn’t mind so much on the streets. Actually, it reminded me oddly of home with men chewing and spitting out tobacco in Kentucky. In the train stations, I’ll admit I felt grossed out. It’s just too close quartered for that kind of stuff in my opinion.

By this point, it was time to grab our luggage and cart it off to the Kingston Inn. Now, for those of you who book with the Kingston Inn, be aware that the check-in is in Patterson building A on the third floor on Patterson St. It took Shayla and I a very long time (and a lot of swearing on my part) before we finally discovered this little tidbit of information thanks to a kind old man who worked at a different part of the hostel, because it’s apparently not just one hostel but many spread out over one area.

This was the entrance to our hostel.

Ayame chan 2172This part of Kingston Inn isn’t in the Patterson building but across the street and down two blocks and up eight floors. It was quite a complicated search, but we ended up not sleeping on the street, so win.

Once the bags were put away, it was time for Temple Street, a huge night market at Yau Ma Tei. Close to where the Jade Market was in the daytime, Temple Street stretches many, many blocks. I thoroughly enjoyed looking at all the wares, even though I only ended up buying a lock for the lockers in the hostel.

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The Temple Market has a huge selection of random for sale. The street had everything from TVs to jewelry to adult toys to Deathnotes (which even had the rules in them!) to Angry Bird Chopsticks and also really cool USB sticks.

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Towards the end of Temple Street, there was food! Shayla and I walked around and finally decided to try the spicy crab.

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I discovered here that unlike both Japan and America, when China says spicy it doesn’t mean a pleasantly mild seasoning that is kind of hot. No, China’s version of spicy means this shit will burn your mouth and make you cry. I enjoyed every bite because I’m self-destructive like that, and it was delicious once you got past the pain.

When we eventually returned to the hostel, we came back to discover that we had a new roommate, and that roommate STOLE MY BED. I will not let this go. Ever. I know it’s ridiculous, that technically it’s not my bed and that a I should just get over it, but I put a towel as a clear, distinct marker equating, “This bed belongs to someone, that someone being me,” but no. She took it AND MY TOWEL, which was free so all I had to do was get another one, but that required going all the way back down the street and across the way and back. Jerk.

The next day’s plan was to go buy me a plan ticket to Shanghai followed by visiting the Po Lin Monastery and seeing the Big Buddha. After that, we’d head back to the Forever Bright travel agency to get my visa. We ended up finding a travel agency and getting the plane ticket pretty quick. However, the line to the cable car we intended to take was really long, and on top of that, the cable car’s service got suspended due to bad weather. I decided not to risk going to Po Lin since I had to get my visa and I wasn’t sure if I’d make it back in time. Shayla went on ahead to the monastery while I headed back to the travel agency.

When I got to Forever Bright, I got the wonderful news that there was a small delay thanks to the whole thunderstorms and flash floods going on outside. I had a small heart attack at the news. I knew that it wasn’t the end of the world if I had to change my flight and wait another day, but the amount of work it would take to make a change in plans would be killer. I guess God heard me praying because a woman, who looked less than pleased being soaking wet, stomped in only about fifteen minutes later holding a box full of passports. I was one of the first to get their visas back.

Once Shayla and I reunited, we headed over to the Avenue of Stars, which is similar to the Hollywood Walk of Fame with Chinese actors and actresses getting a star and sometimes hand prints along this street.

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Here’s Bruce Lee’s star. Unfortunately there were no hand prints, but it’s still pretty cool.Ayame chan 2147

Because a star is not enough, he also got a statue. Ayame chan 2161

Not far down the road we found Jet Li’s star. This time there were hand prints! I had to get a picture. Ayame chan 2157

And of course, the ever awesome Jackie Chan! Ayame chan 2152 Ayame chan 2151I discovered that my hands are the same size as Jet Li and Jackie Chan’s. I have the fists of power!

Shanghai

Our flight to Shanghai got us there around noon. After a long train ride filled with people, we found our Phoenix Hotel (that’s totally a hostel).

Ayame chan 2177 Ayame chan 2182Our hostel was really close to the People’s Square and the Bund, so we explored both that night. Since it was May 1st, there was some celebrating going on that night. The crowds were rather large.

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For all that the night was full of magic, the following morning insured that Shanghai and I will never friends. I will never return there, and here’s why:

The Agricultural Bank of China (ABC) gifted me with one of the worst banking experiences of my life.

Ayame chan 2250Why did I need to find a Western Union? Well, two major reasons played into this, and the major reasons are basically my dumbass fault. Sometime in Hong Kong, I bumped into somebody on the train a little harder than I meant to, and I felt a hand near my hip region. I ignored it because everyone around me was crushing into me and I was just fighting to breathe.

However, later on when counting my money, I realized that I had a serious chunk of money missing. That’s right folks, I got pick pocketed because I’m forgetful. I had the rest of my money in my passport carrier around my neck, so it was safe. The money in my pocket? Gone. The worst part is that I KNEW about this problem on metros. It doesn’t even matter what metro we’re talking about, all metros everywhere have pick pockets at rush hours. Also, I didn’t buy a plane ticket until I was in China to go to Shanghai. I knew better than to do this as well, but I did it anyway because I figured I’d have money.

From this learning experience I tell you some basic traveling tips I should’ve followed but didn’t: 1) Don’t put your money in your pockets. Put it away where people can’t see it and take it without your notice. 2) Get all possible traveling expenses done before going to the country.  3) Always bring more money than you’ll think you’ll need. 4) Travel with a credit card. I didn’t, and I owe Shayla BIG TIME for having one on hand.

Back to the Western Union and ABC. Shayla and I walk into the bank, ready to get this done and over with as quickly as possible to be on our merry way. It was not to be. Firstly, the man who we encountered first, who I assume was a bank manager of some sort, hands me a sheet and snaps at me to fill it out. I do, making a small mistake on one letter. He gets out another sheet and snaps that I have to fill out another one, that there can be no mistakes. Alright, my temper’s rising, but I just deal and re-write it. Well, then we wait…and wait some more…and some more…

With each passing second my temper’s rising to a dangerous degree. The man doesn’t bother to tell us anything. He just paces back and forth without even acknowledging my existence. Finally, after far too long, I get my chance to be seen by a teller. She snaps in English that I have to fill out something on the sheet again. I very nearly lost it, but instead I filled out the sheet again. Because this bank is run by OCD asshats, I ended up having to do it again because I misspelled my aunt’s name with a C instead of a K for Kathy. Then, some guy throws himself between me and the teller, yelling at her and demanding attention like a five year old. By some blessed miracle, I kept a lid on my rage and didn’t start a fight. When he finally left, the woman got back to filling out my paperwork and shoving money through a slot at me. I said, “Xie xie.” and she gave the most grimacing smile possible before doing other things. I said “Xie xie,” to the asshole manager as well, and he dismissively waved his hand at me.

Shortly after that mess, Shayla and I went to a tea ceremony. We bumped to two Chinese cousins who were on a student tour group and they suggested the place. They were quite kind and very helpful, translating everything during the tea ceremony for us. Ayame chan 2251

This is a good luck mythical frog-like creature has two options for you. After the tea ceremony hostess pours tea on it, you can either touch the coin in his mouth for wealth or touch the colorful dots on its back for love, luck, etc. Ayame chan 2252

My favorite tea was the black lychee. Ayame chan 2255

However, this tea below unfolds in the water. After the hostess made tea with it, she set it up as a decorative item on the table. Ayame chan 2258Unfortunately, we had to part ways. Even though we exchanged emails to get in contact with each other again, somehow the email list we got was somehow misplaced during our travels. If Bei Bei or her cousin stumble across this post, I’m very sorry for losing your emails and thanks so much for all your help.

Next up was the Yuyuan Garden. I loved this part of Shanghai the most.

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At first, I enjoyed the pretty scenery and architecture. Ayame chan 2272

I hopped over stones. At one point, I tried to get the koi in the ponds to nip at my fingers, but they wanted nothing to do with me. Ayame chan 2277

And then I got distracted by all the dragons. Ayame chan 2280 Ayame chan 2289 Ayame chan 2294 Ayame chan 2296

Apparently, no matter what part of the world I’m in, I’m a huge dork.

Beijing

The train ride up to Beijing was done overnight. Shayla got us a sleeper car so we basically ended up paying for transport and a hotel all in one. When we arrived at Beijing Railway Station we were well rested and ready to tackle the day. We couldn’t go to our hostel until later on that evening, which was kind of difficult since we had to drag our luggage around with us as we walked around the Temple of Heaven.

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After the Temple of Heaven we wanted to go to the Summer Palace, but there just wasn’t enough time. We ended up going to the train station to head up to Badling, where Shayla and I stayed at the Great Wall Courtyard Hostel.

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I loved that place. It was recommended to Shayla and I by our friends Kris and Jillian, who abandoned us in Japan to go get married. Honestly, the nerve of some people, thinking they can go off and be happy. However, I managed to find some interesting little tidbits around the hostel that involved them.

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In the wee hours of the next morning, Shayla and I went up the Great Wall.

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If I was to be completely honest, I’d tell you that Shayla actually climbed the Great Wall and I slowly walked up it. Ayame chan 2414

It was so cool to see. Unfortunately, the pictures don’t even fully capture the moment. Ayame chan 2412

The wall snaking through the mountains is just amazing. Ayame chan 2406

The only problem I face is that the pictures turned out foggy thanks to the early morning mist. Ayame chan 2408 On the way back to the hostel, a quick look at the train schedule revealed that we were stuck a little longer than we expected in Badling. Due to some reason we couldn’t read thanks to the kanji, the trains weren’t running as often as we thought. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We charged up all our electronics, figured out how to get on Facebook to contact people, and had the most awesome breakfast ever.

Due to the delay, we had to cut some of our intended touristy destinations. Summer Palace got nixed, which couldn’t be helped, and the Forgotten  City closed too early for us to wait in line to get inside. We did end up going to Tiananmen Square and the Emperor’s Avenue, which were both really cool.

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I intend to go back to Beijing as soon as possible. I love historical places and I really, really want to explore the tombs and the caves up north. Even though I saw so much, I want to explore even more. I’ll see how summer vacation looks for another trip.

For now though, it’s back to Japan!

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