“大家好!” (da4 jia1 hao3*)
These were the first words my Mandarin instructor greeted the class with when I first stepped into Chinese 101 at the University of Hawai’I Manoa somewhere around 1999. Cutting to the chase, I’ve maintained study in the dialect (Mandarin. There is no true “Chinese language.”), but before June of this year, had not really spent any considerable time in a Mandarin-speaking country. But, that has since changed.
We took a 3.5-week hiatus from all things North American and journeyed to the Far East for a nice sojourn in China and Taiwan.
BEIJING – 北京
After a six-hour layover in Moscow, we opened with Beijing, arriving at one in the a.m. without a ride. Shuttle service to our hotel (three minutes away) stopped running at midnight, and the meterless taxis either didn’t know where it was (despite the printed address in my hand) or charged too much. But we learned about the prices afterwards. The gentleman who finally agreed to take us charged 200RMB. Was that a good deal? Kerrie and I looked at each other and shrugged. Sounded like it may have been cheap. Sure.
… it wasn’t.
First impressions – thumbs down.
Let’s just get some sleep and discuss in the morning.
Our time in the capital was limited to a total of three days and we woke up at around 5:00 a.m. the same day (body clocks were jacked) and made our way for the Great Wall. From the airport, we made our way into Beijing and went another couple of rounds with the illegal taxi groups – the ‘black cars’ as they were affectionately known. No; we won’t mess with that again. There had to be a bus. There was, and thank the gods; the heat was just too much.
The trip to the Great Wall (of the many entrances available, we were headed for八达岭 ba1 da2 ling3) was short and air-conditioned. All seats were filled with either other tourists or students on a school trip. Once we were there, it was just a matter of doing what everyone does at this architectural marvel – walk. I can’t venture to guess how far we walked. We just wanted to take in the experience. It was up and down, and flat, and jagged, and full of people, heat, and incredible scenery. And for some reason, people were coming up to me asking me to hold their children and take pictures with them, using their cameras. When did I reach celebrity politician status?
Tiananmen Square was next. It was bigger than I imagined, and on the day we went to see Mao’s body, it teemed with people. I laughed at how many bag checks there were. This wasn’t just at Tiananmen Square either. It seemed that no matter where you went, you had to check your bags. Subway station? Bag. Getting on a bus? Bag. Tiananmen? Bag. Bathroom, restaurant, need tissues/chopsticks/chips? Bag.
They rushed us through so quickly that I really couldn’t make out whether his ear was truly falling off or not like the rumors were saying. Cool experience, nonetheless.
The city is chalk full of so many beauties, and though we were happy to have been able to get to all the known tourist destinations, we certainly were saddened not to be able to see more of what the city had to offer.
SHANGHAI – 上海
Shanghai was next and we knew it would also be a swift stint of sightseeing. Definitely in possession of more of a cosmopolitan feel than Beijing, this city On The Ocean seemed to be in full developmental bloom, and as I had long heard, fashion and shopping were perennially en vogue.
There was an anomaly which seemed to catch our attention on the first day there, however, and that was the Jing’an (静安寺)Temple. It was the location of the temple which caught us off guard. It’s Shanghai, right, so you’re thinking high rises, commercial edifices, municipal/civic buildings, maybe some parks. You think of temples too (it’s China), but you just don’t think of them being in the middle of the city, which was where this particular temple was – in the middle of the city. There were the high rises, buildings, etc., on all sides, and in the middle of all of that was this revered temple called ‘jing an’ (literally: Quiet Peace). It was inlaid and constructed with beautiful golden materials so that it shone in the middle of the day. The architecture on the inside was very pretty, intricate, and worth the visit.
There’s this saying in Mandarin which states that ‘Heaven is above, and Suzhou and Hangzhou are below,’ equating these two towns to Paradise. Suzhou was pretty. We only had a few hours there (took a tour), but the places that we saw were very nice. There were some gorgeous gardens in this small town, and the river tour was excellent.
For the Western tourist, you’re used to quietly touring – that is, touring on your own and going at your own pace.
Doesn’t work that way in the Chinese world; they’re talking all the time. The bus ride was fine until the tour guide got on this microphone at the head of the bus and speakers above us rained down an ear-splitting cacophony that made me afraid. It was as though the voice of an angry god were unleashing some loud fury upon my ear canals
…and it didn’t stop.
It was all-day thing. Every time we got back on the bus, we had to listen to this man yell at us. <sigh>
So that was fun.
No, seriously though, Shanghai was great, and there was quite a bit to do in the city if you’re into fashion and modern China. If you want to meet the old China, it’s just a short trip outside the city.
HONG KONG – 香港
One of my favorite places in the world, Hong Kong delights. We flew in at around noon from Shanghai (we must have somehow booked a flight run by the same company as our tour group because again, speakers of loud cacophonous demonic advertising invasiveness hovered above us the whole flight – sucked), and took an easy airport express into Kowloon. Our hotel, the BP International, was superb, located in the middle of the city, with easy access to everything (busses, subway, trains, food, prostitutes, more food…it was great).
We were in the city a total of nine days and were able to meet up with some long-time family-friends and enjoy many of the marvels of this incredible international port city.
One of the first stops was the Great Buddha (大佛) statue at the very edge of the MTR network on Lan Tau Island. If you’ve ever read the timeless book Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse (the all-blue paperback from the ‘90s), there is a representation of Buddha on the cover. This Great Buddha in Hong Kong was the one used for the cover of that book. At least that’s the story we got, and we believe it, so that’s that (I just tried looking it up and I got nothin’… so must be true).
During my time at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS), I did a presentation on Macau**, and was fascinated by it. I knew that, at some point, I would have to go there, to be there, to see it. And that’s what we did – woke up early and took the nearest MTR (subway) to the ferry port, hopped on a ‘super ferry’ and rode over to Macau.
All of the ferries I’ve been on, apparently, had no balls. They were pussy ferries. I say that because when we were on this ferry, I asked if I would be able to get out and walk around on the outer deck. My dear friend, WW (蕙蕙) told me that it wasn’t the way it worked there. The inside of the boat should have given me a clue – it was the same seating arrangement as the airports (assigned seats, seatbelts, drinks, etc.). And once that thing was out of HK harbor, it moved.
We were in Macau in 30 minutes because our boat was a rocket.
I had to gamble in Macau because:
A: I didn’t know when I would be back (knew I would be, just didn’t know when) and,
B: I had to say that I had gambled in Macau.
So, I played Craps until I was up $30US (~500HKD). SWEET!
We then proceeded to take several busses into Taipa (氹仔) to see the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The walk was quick and we were on a time crunch, sadly. But we did it. Portuguese architecture was omnipresent there, noticeable in everything from building exteriors to the black-and-cream tiled walkways of the plazas abutting the ruins themselves. We did not have the time to examine any of the local cuisine, which wasn’t that much of a loss for me. I know Macao will happen again, and when it does, I’ll be waiting.
The food was unreal in Hong Kong, and there was a limitless supply of it. Kerrie and I are vegetarian, but our dietary ethos is modified a bit when we travel. We tried every part of the pig, I think…well, I guess not every part of the pig, but a liberal portion. It was Kerrie’s first time to try chicken feet, which she enjoyed. And yes, she’ll tell you that personally if you ever ask her about it.
The time, as always, flew by, and nine days later, we were on our way to our last stop in Asia.
TAIPEI – 台北
Japan has always held a special place in my heart, and Taiwan, in many ways, brought me back there. There are reasons for this, on which I’d rather not take time to spend on here, but let’s just narrow it down to location and history for the time being.
It wasn’t as hot as it was in Hong Kong, but Taipei was still heated.
We were able to see the respective memorial halls of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek, which were nicely presented and well-guarded. At each of these exhibits, there are two fully uniformed guards facing each other on pedestals. They are frozen, mannequins, positions they hold for an hour, at which point they have to be relieved. There are red ropes, and onlookers are given peremptory commands to turn off their flashes. The ceremony can then begin.
Taipei is a city of convenience and we found there to be much more social order and courtesy than in Mainland China. I mean, you can sit there and argue that places like Japan and Taiwan are small, and you’d be right. Geographically, they are small, but they also know how to make effective, efficient, and frugal uses of their resources. Public transportation is easy and convenient, the general populous is made up of gregarious people who are courteous hosts, and there’s no real feeling of being rushed.
We patronized more night markets and sucked down more bubble teas than we could count, and we loved it.
It would be a lie to tell you that I’m well-versed in the area of evening entertainment in Asia. But I will say that in my non-well-versed experience, no one does the night market better than Taiwan. It’s just something they’ve perfected over the (100+) years. There are tons of people huddling and shifting down a main walkway buttressed by small single stalls and stands selling foods of varied shapes and scents – everything from mouthwatering melon slices on skewers to sausage plates or noodle-and-vegetable dishes.
Regarding Stinky Tofu –
I’ll cut to the chase. Since I was young, I have loved food and can eat anything. For many years I have heard of the “stinky tofu,” and how it tastes better than it smells. This I have believed. I thought, when I go to Taiwan, I’m going to try this stuff, and I’m gonna love it.
I was wrong.
I tried it, and yes (by perhaps a degree) it tastes better than it smells.
But, let’s just say that it’s not my favorite and call it good.
I wish we had time to go to Hualian; I really would have liked for Kerrie to see it. It just wasn’t the right time on this trip, and there’s so much to see in Taiwan outside of Taipei. We love this city.
We flew back to Seattle via Seoul, and were content to know that we filled our time with wonderful memories and beautiful people.
Mainland, Hong Kong, or Taiwan – if you have even the slightest desire, you must go.
* – in Mandarin, each utterance, each Chinese pictograph carries its respective tone, numbering 1 to 4.
** – the proper noun is spelled (properly) as ‘Macao’ in English, though it is more commonly seen as ‘Macau.’