Saturday, May 28, 2011

Ignorance Is Bliss

I've been kicking around Nanjing the past couple days, enjoying the nice weather. I'm sure it was obvious in my last post that I'm starting to get a little fed up with Chinese people. It was exacerbated even more on the train ride up here, when one of the train salespeople (employees on the train that demonstrate and sell junk) was selling something, giving a demonstration to the car over her microphone. When time came to offer the junk product to me, I declined, and she proceeded to say something in Chinese that made the whole car laugh. It's pretty obvious she's making fun of me in Chinese, and it's pretty obvious that I'm now very annoyed. Early in the trip I was good at ignoring this sort of thing, but after seven weeks in China I can't stand this blatant ignorance anymore. It took a lot for me to keep from standing up and telling her off. And this one is an easily explainable situation. This kind of shit happens EVERY DAY.

Now that I'm done venting, let me tell you about Nanjing. Upon arriving here I had a moment that reinforced the fact that I am a veteran traveler that's not easily scammed: I laughed in the face of a cab driver that tried to give me a price five times the meter rate to get to my hostel. That in itself is a little revenge for me, I now longer have any qualms about being rude to other people here, it's an eye for an eye at this point. I did manage to get to the hostel for much cheaper, and this place has a relaxed feel to it, with plenty of tables and chairs outside to enjoy the beautiful weather.

Yesterday I headed to the Nanjing Massacre Museum where the history of the Rape of Nanjing is showcased. Basically the museum is built around one of the mass graves that was excavated, and supposedly held twenty thousand people! It's pretty morbid, you walk a path that snakes around half-unearthed skeletons of adults and children. The most morbid thing about the place is that unlike the Killing Fields in Cambodia, this place has lots of local tourists that visit it. It really gives it a different feel when it's possible that some of these people may have relatives buried in those pits. The museum itself is very well put together, and really gives the message of learning from our mistakes. The best touch of all is the giant peace monument at the end of the tour.

Today I had quite an adventure trying to search for a gym to go work out at, hopefully to put back on some of the large amount of weight I've lost. One of the hostel staff told me of one to go to, which seemed straightforward enough, but I couldn't find it. After asking a couple more staff of various hotels, I followed one's advice and tried the university. I should have been smart enough to think that simply showing up at a Chinese university and trying to find a gym was not going to be easy. And it wasn't, I didn't find it. I then spotted a Ramada Hotel in distance, and proceeded there. The front desk staff had a hard time understanding my inquiries until a random hotel patron told me where it was. Expecting to pay, I got to the gym to find it unstaffed, and worked out anyways. The free workout made up for the amount of walking I had to do.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Floating Mountains

I just arrived back from a two day trek in Huangshan, aka the Yellow Mountains. Immediately upon starting the hike I could tell why James Cameron got his idea for Avatar's Floating Mountains from. The views were very obstructed from heavy fog until we (I hiked with a Dutch girl I met at my hostel) reached the Cloud Dispelling Pavilion. The name is very accurate, for there we had our first views of the amazing mountains. They seem to form right out of the fog. The geology there is amazing, the peaks themselves have a fantasy look to them, and they're sheer cliffs rise up so far from the ground. Some of the trails are literally on the edge of these huge cliffs, and you get a great view of the hundreds of meters drop into the fog below.

The second day we tried to wake up early to catch the sunrise, but apparently not early enough. I figured waking up at 5am would be sufficient, but apparently the sun rises at the ungodly hour of 4:30 am in Huangshan. Fortunately, the skies were clearer and the views were much, much better. We climbed up to Celestial Peak, the highest point in the park. The views there were amazing, and the stairway down was steep as hell. Some of the nomenclature in the park is pretty comical. Some of the peaks had cheezy names like "Turtle Carrying Golden Turtle Peak" or "Monkey Looking At the Sea Peak", etc. Now at this point in the morning I had started to become fed up with Chinese tourists; for instance, the girl at the peak that kept bumping into everyone, when we're standing near the edge of a few hundred meter drop. Or the huge tour groups with the guide that spoke into a microphone that was excessively amplified through a speaker attached to his hip. I'm glad we don't have that kind of thing on the trails back home, and I'll do everything in my power to stop that if they happen to show up there. I did manage to extract some positive from the crowds when I got a hilarious picture of a fat Chinese man being hauled up on a chair by two porters, smiling the whole way. I thought that was funny as hell. Unfortunately since I can't orient the photos in my post because I have to email them, you'll see the photo before the description and the dramatic value is somewhat lost.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Run to the Hills!

My time in Suzhou came to an end last night when I arrived in Huangshan at 1am. The past couple days I wandered around Suzhou and checked out the classical gardens there. The Humble Administrators Garden was perfect for the new wide angle lens I bought in Hong Kong, and it made me very glad I bought it. The day I walked around there was hot clear, although you can't call the sky blue, it's more greyish from all the pollution. The gardens themselves are immaculately maintained, and are very beautiful. Walking along you can see many people painting and sketching pictures of the gardens. Speaking of that, Jin Jiang Road (where I was staying) is a magnet for photographers. The most common sight on that street is SLR cameras, then models in Chinese dresses. Per capita, that place must have one of the highest rates of photographers. Seriously, you couldn't even go into a cafe and read a book without four or five people wandering around taking pictures of random shit. Another funny thing was when I was walking around the main shopping area, after I had bought a train ticket out of Suzhou. It was a big plaza area, full of shops and fast food restaurants. What stood out most was the smell: it smelled like a plant I used to spot rail cars at down at the docks in Vancouver. A fat rendering plant. Where they render dead animals into processed tallow. You can imagine how foul that smells. That's how this shopping area smelled. I have no idea why.

The train ride was my second attempt at taking a chair car. I did so on this one because it wasn't an overnight train, just a simple ten hour journey that started in the afternoon. Now during this ten hours, I have to kill some of it, so watching a movie on my netbook is the best way to do it. As soon as I break that thing out, I'm a magnet of interest for everyone in the car. I watched the Kite Runner and two episodes of the Pacific with an old guy in the seat across from me. He didn't speak any English and couldn't possibly understand what was being said in the movie, but he was digging it nonetheless. He even supplied the movie snacks: sweetened rice crackers. Before I broke out the cinema, I had an interesting time watching the scenery we passed on the train. It reminded me of scenes from old movies like Slap Shot or the Deer Hunter, scenes of old midwest mill towns; working class houses (apartments in China's case) set against a background of a giant steel mill. It was like looking back thirty years. Very interesting in my opinion.

Now I'm in Huangshan, and tomorrow I'll attempt to hike the Yellow Mountain, supposedly the terrain that gave James Cameron his idea for the floating mountains in Avatar. I've heard good things and I'm pumped, but unfortunately the rain is threatening to, well, rain on my parade. With some luck it will break tomorrow and give me an excellent-view-filled trek.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Back In China

What a day. I woke up hung over to get on a train from Shanghai to Suzhou, only to get there and wander around the streets for an hour trying to find my hostel from their shitty map. Thankfully the train ride was only half an hour, because I had to stand the whole damn time since there were no seats left. Only the good side, the train was one of the high speed kind. Not quite a bullet train, but fast. And damn nice, I've never been in such a modern train, and it was cool. I just wish I could indulge the railroader in me and get a look in the locomotive.

Shanghai was a cool city. Not a great one on my list, but the thing that ranks it is the ease of travel in affords a traveler. Lots of people speak English, and it has a very easily negotiated transportation system in it. I stayed in the Bund, an area where all the tourist and historical stuff is located. It has great views of the skyline from the river. A couple nights ago I went up to the observation deck of the Shanghai World Financial Center (the building looks like a giant bottle opener, just so you know), the second highest building in the world. It was actually quite comical, to get to the observatory on the 100th floor, you're led through a bunch of hallways and various elevators where the overstaffed workers are simply there to push a button for you. The view was pretty crazy. I will complain, however, at the presence of windows in the observatory. So what if there's crazy wind shear at that elevation, or that people could jump off the builidng? I wanted a clear photograph! Not one with window reflections!

All in all, Shanghai was much like Hong Kong, but more boring. Now I'm in Suzhou. My primary reason for coming here was to visit a friend I met in Chengdu, but unfortunately she is busy with work until Monday and I'm running out of time in China, so I'll have to settle for only seeing the Historical Gardens that are here.

Hong Kong & Macau Wrap-Up

After drilling through my bank statements and totaling up my expenses for Hong Kong, I realized I've been totally Asianized by this trip. I'm adding everything up in a "holy shit that's a lot of money" manner, until I realize that what I spent in Hong Kong is probably less than what I would spend traveling in a western city.

The good: Hong Kong is probably the most diverse city I've ever been to. There's all kinds of people, tons and tons of great food, and lots of culture. The architecture is the most modern and diverse I've ever seen. It also has a cool sense of efficiency to it; the metro trains were very well organized and clean. Speaking of clean, the efficiency system in that department is amazing. Hand rails on escalators are literally sanitized every fifteen minutes! The road and pedestrian infrastructure is incredibly well planned: I never saw a traffic jam and buses seem to run every minute. Seeing the Bank of China building ticked a box on my list. My camera got a work out, and for it's services it now has two shiny new lenses to give it some class. I got to accomplish a life goal in this city: photographing the Hong Kong skyline from Kowloon was something I've always wanted to do. Macau was really cool, too. It was my first experience in a casino city and it makes me look forward to hitting up Vegas someday. Oh yeah, and I killed the black jack tables!

The bad: Prices. Like I said, not up to western standard, but definitely high by Asian standards. This city takes the record as the most expensive city on this trip so far. Hong Kong has some of the most expensive real estate in the world, and it shows in the prices of some services. For example, to work out one time at a fitness club near my hostel was $200 Hong Kong Dollars, roughly $25 Canadian dollars, more than it would cost in Canada. It was ludicrous to drink in a club or bar, a beer would run you $55HKD ($6.80 CAD) and up. The clubs there were lame in my opinion. I'm not really into the swanky, pretentious dance clubs where people flash their cash, and the huge banking industry that Hong Kong possesses breeds tons of rich yuppies that populate those clubs. THE HEAT. Fuck was it hot in Hong Kong. I've been in Death Valley, California, where it was fifty two degrees C at 9pm, and I did better in that heat than I did in Hong Kong. I can't imagine what it would be like in July. The Hunter S. Thompson quote "I was pouring sweat. My blood is too thick for Nevada" comes to mine, just swap it for Hong Kong.

The money:
Days spent: 8
Total spent: roughly $600. $73 on miscellaneous stuff (tours, admissions, bank fees, etc), $140 on purchases, $400 on daily expenses.
Average spent per day: $50
And I do have to include that I won $171 CAD on the black jack tables in Macau. I added that just to brag.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Vegas of the East!

That's a fitting description for Macau. I couldn't get a train out of Hong Kong today due to the fact that the train to Shanghai only runs on Sunday, so I decided I would head over to Macau to check it out. I've never been to Vegas so a casino city is a new thing on me, and it was a pretty cool experience. The cool thing about casinos is that all the money that they generate (apparently Macau pulls in more than Vegas) transforms into bright lights and flashy decor, which then transforms into awesome night photography for me. I watched a fountain show at one of the casinos that was really cool, it made me think I should get my butt to Vegas one of these days and see all the architectural porn they have there.

I've only played black jack in a casino-type setting twice in my whole life, and apparently today the god's of black jack were with me. I killed it, bringing home $1380 Hong Kong Dollars (about $172 Canadian Dollars). Not a bad score for a couple hours at the table. I'd started out at the tables at the Venetian, and were shocked at how much the buy in was for the cheapest table: $300 HK. I doubled my money on that one but at first I was a little apprehensive about spending that much money. That sum is big when you're a backpacker. They were cheaper at the MGM Grand, only $100. I did try to the slots too, but slots suck, and I lost $20 HK Dollars. I'm very happy at my winnings, they paid for the whole day, plus some.

And tomorrow I head back to the mainland, to Shanghai and beyond!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

It's Like a Sauna In Here...

That's exactly what Hong Kong is like. Hot and humid ALL THE TIME. I went out this morning submit my visa application for my new Chinese visa, and even at 9am, standing in line was almost unbearable. I don't think Canadians are meant to be in such humid conditions, our blood is too thick. I can stand desert heat no problem, but through me into extreme humidity, and my goose is cooked. A guy staying in my hostel has the right idea, stay up all night and sleep during the day to avoid the heat.

That same guy has also been a huge wealth of information for me the past few days. His name is Jacob and he's a photographer from the US that's been traveling abroad for the past couple years. His main area of photographic expertise is shooting models, something I want to get into soon. All the talking with him the past few days and seeing how much better his pictures turn out with a prime lens, it lead me out to the Wanchai Computer Mall today to look at some. I walked away spending almost $1100 and two lenses more toward being a professional photographer. My justifications were that Hong Kong is the cheapest place in the world to get camera equipment (the lenses were each around $150 cheaper than at home), I'm thinking of trying to shoot some models when I get to Australia and buying a lens there would cost me more, and all the photographic magic that is awaiting me in Papua New Guinea begs to be captured with the right equipment, and I'm thinking I might be able to make that back on a company I just invested in. And my birthday is coming up....In two and a half months. Convinced?

After all this wallet-killing I headed across the river to the site of where last night I accomplished a life goal of getting a picture of the Hong Kong skyline from Kowloon. Ever since I saw a picture of this famous skyline, I knew I had to see and photograph it for myself. And I did, during the worlds largest daily light show, which is put on from Hong Kong island. Today, however, I was there to see some of the museums, which are free on Wednesdays. I hit up the Cultural History Exhibit, which shows the archaeological history of Hong Kong, and the Hong Kong Space Museuem, where I saw a cool IMAX movie about the Hubble Telescope. And tonight I might sample the local night life again, one last time before I depart on Saturday.

Monday, May 9, 2011


Last night I saw one of the most amazing urban views I've ever seen, and probably will ever see. On Victoria Peak, a mountain in the middle of Hong Kong island, there's a tram that leads to the peak, where they have a big viewpoint set up. It has an amazing view of Hong Kong and Kowloon Bay. I love night photography, and this delivered. It made me wish I had a tripod, and if I had I would have went up there early in the afternoon and held down a spot on the deck of the tower and snapped away at night. Unfortunately everyone else and their dog is up there trying to get the same picture of the city, so we had to compete for a spot to snap pictures.

Last night was also another taste of Hong Kong night life, and I tasted it hard. A friend from the hostel (Max from San Fran) went out to the Soho area of Hong Kong, where the concentration of bars is astronomical. Basically it's all built on a hillside and you ride this escalator up to the streets, passing by bars the whole way. The layout is really cool, too. All the bars are open to the street, giving the whole place a feeling of free roam. I had a much better time than I did on Friday, and Max and I got totally loser pissed.

I still have two and a half hours until midnight here, so happy Mother's Day, Mom!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Hong Kong

Well, I'm finally here, in one of the most important cities in Asia. Getting across the border from China was easy enough. Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Zone of China, meaning that it has certain distinctions and privileges from the mainland, like it's own currency, better standard of living, and Facebook. That's right, Facebook is going in the list. Two months of having to use that shitty TomatoPeople site (I still love you) made life just a little more dull. Yesterday I got majorly up to speed on picture posting.

I hadn't really thought of what the night life in Hong Kong would be like, I guess I just figured it would be like the rest of China. Burying my head in the sand about that fact really hit me when I went out last night with some people from my hostel, and surprisingly Hong Kong night life strikes a similar resemblance to Vancouver in terms of demographic. Not with prices though. I never thought going out here would be this expensive. Granted, we were in the more upscale club areas where all the financial people go, but I was not expecting to pay double what I would pay at home for a drink. Being in Asia for the past nine months has turned me into a tight ass a little, spending nine dollars on a beer seems like an insult. I didn't dig the first night of HK night life, it featured the aspects I despise: pretentious people who think about money too much, and gold digging bitches going after rich old men. Blah. I've come to enjoy and become used to bars in Asia, which are full of travelers just having a good time and thinking of nothing else.

But that isn't going to ruin Hong Kong for me. I think I'll try and find some good pubs in my next six nights here, something a little more laid back and suited to my style. Hong Kong has had some serious bonuses in it for me, too. Today I had a great meal of sushi, and that's not even the highlight of the day. I wandered into a grocery store this afternoon to see what I could find and I stumbled across Cheerios, strawberries and milk, my common and much enjoyed breakfast back home. I was so excited I shit myself THEN I COULD NOT FIND IT.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Put A Hurting On My Wallet

That's exactly what Guilin has done to me. Being the May holiday, I couldn't get anything but a private room, and at the holiday-inflated rate of roughly $30 a night, this place has been the most expensive accommodation I've stayed in in my whole trip. Guilin is all around expensive, and I'm sure these three days here are going to account for about %25 of my entire monthly budget for China. The river boat tour I did yesterday cost me about $50 alone, second only to the Gibbon Experience in terms of price I paid for a tour.

The boat tour was pretty decent. All you really do is stand on the top deck of the boat and take pictures, but there is a buffet lunch. The scenery is amazing. Huge limestone karsts tower above the river, which winds around the various mountains. One scenic point in the river is even featured on the back of a twenty Yuan note. Last night I ventured out and took some amazing night shots around the city, hopefully I should have them up on my Flickr account within a few days (Chinese internet is painfully slow thus makes uploading difficult). Today I strolled out to a viewpoint on top of a karst in Guilin city for some birds eye views of the urban area. Now despite this amazing scenery, I was actually disappointed with Guilin. It's a huge tourist trap, making everything overpriced and full of Chinese tourists. I'm undecided whether or not I want to come back to this area to visit Yangshuo, which looked nice but possibly the same sort of deal as Guilin. I'm sure you can detect that in the enthusiasm I put into this post.

Tonight I head out on an overnight bus to Shenzhen, where I'll spend a day before I cross into Hong Kong. I'm stoked on HK, especially after that night photography session here. Getting a picture of the Hong Kong skyline at night has been a life goal of mine, and I intend to fulfill that goal.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Trail to HK

Guilin is the first stop on the path to Hong Kong. I arrived here last night on a twenty four hour overnight train. For some reason (most likely waiting for an opposing train) our train had to wait at the platform for an hour, which was a long, hot, sweaty hour. The ride itself wasn't too bad; I'm slowly learning more about trains the more I ride them. The biggest lesson I learned is to be prepared with enough food for the trip, because it's not a guarantee you'll get enough once on the train. This trip happened to be a little lacking in the food department. Rice and veggies isn't enough to fill up this white boy. I ended up befriending a very nice Chinese girl that spoke a tiny bit of fragmented English. Thankfully her phone had a Chinese to English dictionary on it. Another thing I learned was that Chinese Locomotive Engineers suck at driving trains. Any engineer worth his salt would be able to avoid slack run outs on a fifteen car passenger train, but we got them a lot, and they were violent shocks. Thankfully nobody had any open drinks on the table.

Guilin itself seems pretty nice. Very touristy, though. And to add some salt to that wound, it's the Chinese May Holiday, which means everyone goes traveling for the three days. Most of them seemed to have chosen Guilin. That also means that the expat English teachers are on holidays too, and I happened to party with a few of them last night. No gay bars this time, we kept it strictly heterosexual. Ironically, there are more single women in gay bars. I walked down to the bus station today to buy a ticket out of here (train saga is over, for now) and strolled around the city a little. It's humid as hell here, I've never felt humidity like I have here.

There aren't many difficult aspects of traveling in China. The language barrier can usually be negotiated with a phrasebook and a little patience, the transport is easy, the weather is good, and the hostels are pretty decent. The one thing about traveling in China that is difficult and constantly plagues me is ordering food. Whether it be not knowing what exactly you're going to get when you order, or having to put up with the fact that all Chinese menus are geared towards communal eating, it's difficult. For example, today I go to a restaurant that had menus in English. I order a dish of sweet corn with peanuts, which I'm thinking will come out as a stir fry or something. Nope, it was a big plate of corn with some peanuts on it. That's what I had for lunch. I'm positive I'm going to pass a cob of corn tomorrow morning.