Monday, April 30, 2007

The Hillbilly Returns Home

After two weeks in China it was time to head home. The long flight gave this hillbilly a lot of time to reflect back on this latest adventure. I went on this trip hoping to see and experience something completely different than my travels before. I got that in spades.

I remember the very first time I traveled abroad. I was completely surprised by how modern and cosmopolitan everything was. I mean they actually had ATM machines in Paris! I had no idea I would be able to take money out of my account in the United States in a totally foreign country. I was completely shocked. It’s funny now that I look back on it, but it really did surprise me at the time. So I expected Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong to be big cities with all the modern conveniences we have here in the states. For the most part they did. The banks are even open on Sunday.

However China was not exactly what I expected. It is a communist country, but it has a very capitalistic twist. Similar to the US, there are the “haves” and “have nots.” As you wander the streets, you may see a Jaguar, Mercedes or Ferrari dealership, plus there’s an abundance of upscale hotels, bars and restaurants. But once you get out of the main tourist areas and walk the streets, you see how a lot of the Chinese people really live. It’s not that pretty.

I expected to feel completely lost in a totally foreign culture, but the politeness and warmth of the Chinese people was so welcoming it made me feel at home. The sheer beauty of Beijing and Shanghai were a complete surprise. The amount of American food options was staggering. You expect to see McDonalds and Starbucks everywhere. But in addition to those staples, we saw KFC, Pizza Hut, 7-Eleven, TGI Fridays, Outback Steakhouse and a few others. It’s funny to me that these places do so well there considering how much “healthier” the Chinese eat. They eat a lot of rice, seafood, drink tea all day and are always on the go! They are in constant motion. The other thing that surprised me was the quality of service we received everywhere we went. We could walk into a store or restaurant and there were always at least 4-5 people available to help us. We never once had to try and find someone to help us. We would walk into our hotel and be warmly greeted by at least 3 or 4 people by the time we got to the elevator. The other thing that surprised me was how clean the cities were. These are cities with millions of people, but they are as clean as Disneyland. If any of you have ever been to Disney, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. You’ve noticed all the people constantly cleaning, picking up and sweeping the streets. It’s the same way in China. No matter where we were, there was always someone cleaning nearby. They even had flower boxes along the freeway ramps on Beijing!

My Favorite City
Well that’s tough to answer. I think it all depends on what you’re looking for. Beijing was by far the China I expected to see. It’s steeped in history. Between The Great Wall, The Summer Palace, The Heavenly Temple, The Forbidden City, it has a lot of amazing things to see. However Shanghai, is a fun and very modern city. While there aren’t as many “must dos” the city still has a lot to offer. There are some great neighborhoods to stroll, cool bars, great restaurants and of course, Pudong. As I mentioned before, Hong Kong is great if you have a lot of shopping to do. Since it was under British rule until 1997, there is still a lot of British influence there. It is still very Chinese in a lot of ways but is considered a separate region. They have their own way of doing things and they even have their own currency. It’s funny but people from mainland China are even considered visitors in Hong Kong.

The one thing all the cities had in common was the bright flashing lights on all the buildings. Here are these stunning skyscrapers, amazing feats of architecture and most of them have bright flashing lights at night. It almost makes them a little tacky, not quite Vegas tacky, but it is still a little odd. Can you imagine a Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons with bright blue lights running down and across the hotel every night? One guy we met in Shanghai told us it’s actually a law. All buildings over a certain height have to have some sort of lighting. Considering how tall some of these buildings are, this would make sense as a warning signal for airplanes. But it’s not just the really tall buildings that have them. Maybe it’s an ego thing, a way for the owners to make their buildings stand out. I’m not really sure, but it is one of the things that stood out to me in each of the cities we visited. In Hong Kong, they even have a “symphony of lights” every night. Several of the buildings participate. They have flashing lights and laser beams going off, all well choreographed and set to music. It makes for great free entertainment.

The Language Barrier & Other Issues
Whenever I travel, I like to try and learn some basic words/phrases in the host language, but Chinese is very tough to learn. The accents are very strong, almost harsh. After two weeks I’m sad to say, I only managed to master Hello and Thank You!

Beijing was the biggest challenge. Even at major tourist venues very little English was spoken, but we were still able to buy tickets and get where we needed to. Shanghai was a little better since a lot of business is conducted there and English is the global language for business. However, outside of the hotels, very few of the folks you encounter speak English. Do not expect taxi drivers, waiters/waitresses to speak English. A lot of the restaurants don’t have English menus. Obviously English is widely spoken in Hong Kong. Make sure you have someone at the hotel write the hotel address in Chinese for you. In case you get lost, at least you’ll have something to show to the taxi driver or pedestrians to find your way home. A lot of the hotels already have cards made up with key phrases and major destinations for the city in English and Chinese. These came in very handy during our trip.

But the language barrier should not hold anyone back from visiting this fabulous country.
The people there are more than willing to help you learn Chinese and often want to practice their English on you. Despite my lack of Chinese though, we were able to get by. It truly is amazing how easily two people who speak completely different languages can communicate with each other when both are willing to try and understand the other.

The one thing that did bother me at first was the “male-dominated” culture. No matter where we went, Bruce was greeted first, served first and often times they even looked to him when taking my order at a restaurant. Even when I would give my credit card to pay for a drink or meal, they would still bring the bill back to him to sign. At first I was bothered by this, but then I took a moment to think about it. They were not doing this in anyway to slight me, it’s just their culture. I had to remind myself I was a guest in their country and I needed to respect their ways. The plus side of this was how polite, or “old-fashioned” as we would say, the men were. They were true gentlemen. They always opened the door for me or let me out of the elevator first. I know this will probably upset a lot of women out there, but I actually liked that. There’s nothing wrong with good old-fashion courtesy.

My Favorite Memories
Walking along The Great Wall outside of Beijing
Visiting the Summer Palace in Beijing
Having drinks on the rooftop of M on the Bund in Shanghai
Partying in Xia Tiandi in Shanghai
Listening to a Chinese band play Madonna music at Rendezvous in Shanghai
“Celebrity sighting” at the Sky Dome Bar in the Radisson Hotel (met the owner of all the Radisson hotels, a very nice and elegant woman)
The underground tram ride to Pudong
Drinks on the 87th floor of the Grand Hyatt in Pudong
The entire stay at Le Royal Meridien in Shanghai (a special thanks to Richard L. the Royal Club Manager)
The hot stone massage in Shanghai
The very steep tram ride to The Peak in Hong Kong
Partying at a variety of bars/clubs in Lan Kwai Fong in Hong Kong
Asparagus and mushroom soup, and the many other great vegetarian dishes
The efficiency of the Chinese
Variety of live music everywhere – Jazz, Spanish, Top 40, Soul
The beautiful gardens and landscaping throughout China

All in all this was a truly great and memorable trip. The beauty of the country, the warmth and generosity of the Chinese people, will remain with me for years to come. I would highly recommend a visit to this great country.

So to answer the question on my first post. Yes, it appears you can pull off a last minute trip to China! What did we ever do without the internet? I hope you enjoyed my journey through China. I certainly enjoyed sharing it with you. I'll be posting some quick tips, recommendations for traveling to China on the website soon.

Any recommendations on where this hillbilly should go next? I'm always open to suggestions.

Friday, April 27, 2007

3 Days Wet Days in Hong Kong

Unfortunately for us the weather forecast was correct and we had a very wet time in Hong Kong. It rained everyday while we were there, but we still got out and about to see the city.

As I said before, Hong Kong is like New York, but it’s like New York dropped in the middle of one of the Hawaiian Islands. It’s made up of several islands and is surrounded by huge mountains. However, they have built up into the mountains. It’s like the city has three different levels. So once again, we found ourselves walking up a lot of stairs. Unlike Beijing and Shanghai, it is not as green and spread out. It is much more compact and crowded.

The efficiency of the Chinese never ceased to amaze me during this trip and Hong Kong was no exception. They have built a whole network of walkways above the streets that connects the malls, office buildings and neighborhoods. It allows you to easily navigate around the city, while avoiding the craziness on the streets below. It was like a whole different world exists above the city.

We went to The Peak, “the pride of Hong Kong.” It offers a 360 degree view of the city. Despite the cloudy weather, it was still a magnificent view, especially at night. Due to the weather, unfortunately we did not get to see The Big Buddha, one of Hong Kong’s must sees. But we did make it over to Kowloon Island to walk along Nathan Road, the golden mile for shopping and have tea at the Peninsula. We partied in Lan Kwai Fong and got to listen to some great live music, including a Chinese Jazz band. I think I’ve heard more live music during my time in China than I have in the past 10+ years.

Despite the rain, Hong Kong was a good time but not as amazing as Beijing and Shanghai. It’s just a big city and a great place to go if you want to shop. There’s no sales tax, so it’s a great place to buy high end items. I’m glad I went, but I don’t know if I’d go back again anytime soon. It would be a great place to travel for business though.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Getting Wet in Hong Kong

We had checked the weather for Hong Kong before leaving Shanghai, knowing it would be considerably warmer. We are bummed to see that rain or chance of rain was in the forecast everyday while we’re here. It looked like Monday was the only day we might have without rain.

One of the suggestions our Hong Kong/Canadian friends made was to go to "the peak." It allows for some awesome views of the city. That is on the agenda for today (Monday) but as predicted we've woken up to rain. The forecast for the next couple of days is still rain and now even thunderstorms! Since it doesn’t look like we’ll have a good day clear day here, we’ve decide to go to the peak anyway. Hopefully the rain will make for some great black and white pictures. I just need to find some black and white film.

It looks like we are going to be warm and wet in Hong Kong!

First Impressions of Hong Kong

First impression - Hong Kong is similar to New York. It's crowded with people and tall buildings. It's a little claustrophobic, but it's still a hip, cosmopolitan city. It is considerably more expensive than Beijing and Shanghai. Given the long history of British influence, English is more more common here and they even drive from the right side of the car and on the opposite sides of the road. My gut was still telling me I wouldn't really care for this city. I do like New York, but I prefer a city with some warmth and friendliness. This is just tons of people, moving fast and not a lot of greenery. Shanghai and Beijing were both big cites as well, but they were spread out and had lots of parks. They were so well planned, they didn't feel claustrophobic at all.

We happened upon a little area called Lan Kwai Fong. It's a well known area, of cobble stone streets lined with cool bars and restaurants. As we were walking along we noticed a little place called the Keg. The Keg was a very small open air bar but it was full of folks. As we came in we noticed everyone was watching a hockey game (via sling box).

Given that it was such a small place, everyone started introducing themselves and talking. Turns out everyone in the bar was pretty much from Canada and was there to watch Vancouver play Dallas (Dallas won). We wound up talking to guys from Canada who are now living in Hong Kong.

After living in Los Angeles for so long, where people just can't take the time to be friendly, I'm always amazed by how easy it is to meet people when traveling. Our Canadian friends, RM & CH were just so friendly and great to talk to. After living here for over a year, they were more than willing to take some time out from watching the game to give us some great "must dos" while in Hong Kong. That is one of the things I love most about traveling. All it takes is sitting next to someone at a bar, restaurant or tourist attraction and hearing English spoken. The next thing you know you are having great and entertaining conversations with perfect strangers.
Thanks to RM & CH for making a great first impression for Hong Kong.

Made it to Hong Kong!

We've just arrived in Hong Kong. I'm so happy to see my blog is back in English! I was not able to access the domain directly while in Beijing or Shanghai so I had to go directly to the blog address and then everything was in Chinese. Luckily, I could remember where most of the buttons were so I was still able to publish my posts. But it's nice to be able to navigate in English again.

We're staying at Le Meridien Cyberpot which was recently awarded "Best New Hotel in Asia." I don't think I'm going to like this hotel as much as the ones in Beijing and Shanghai. While we have a great ocean view, we are staying up in the hills, about 10-15 minutes away from the main city center. We have to take a shuttle if we want to go anywhere. Plus it's a very tech-oriented hotel. Ya'll know how I feel about technology. It's got that techy, cold feel to it. I looked into booking another hotel, but at this late a date, the options are limited unless we want to spend and arm and leg!

I miss my butler!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Black Martini...

Have you ever had a black martini? Well I can now say I have! I've never even heard of black vodka, but apparently it does exist. So of course does the black martini! hhhmmmmm.

A black martini just sounded too intriguing to pass up, so I broke one of my cardinal rules when traveling. I ordered a martini. In most places a martini is the very traditional martini made with gin, not vodka. The few times I've tried a martini when traveling, I have not enjoyed it. After getting served one with black olives (possibly black olive juice and way too much vermouth) once in Budapest, I decided to stay away from martinis when traveling.

Well last night after much searching, we finally stumbled upon a little area called Xin Tiandi (New Heaven & Earth). According to Frommer's, it is Shanghai's“trendiest lifestyle destination.” It is a small area of trendy restaurants, bars and shops, primarily lodged in traditional Shanghainese stone housing. It was a very cool, and apparently, very popular area. We walked into an awesome restaurant/bar called T8. The d├ęcor was totally hip, all dark wood and glass. It looked like the kind of place you could order a martini. After Bruce raved about how good his was, I decided to go for it. Just as I was getting ready to order my traditional Kettle One martini, I noticed the black martini on the menu. So I went for it. I figure I love black Sambuca, so black vodka should be good, right? It can't be as bad as black olive martini in Budapest. And I was right. As the waitress had warned, it was a little strong, but I'm glad I tried it. I might just have to rethink my martini ban, well except when traveling in Europe. I'll have to keep an eye out for black vodka when I get back to the states. Who knows, the black martini might just be the signature drink at my next party. So you might just be trying one soon!

Pudong – From farmland in 1990 to major city representing China's future

Today we went to Pudong which is just across the river from Shanghai. It's a huge city that has sprouted up in less than a decade! It is tuly amazing how this huge city has just sprung up and is now host to major companies, skyscrapers and the 3rd tallest building in the world (they are in the process of building the tallest building in the world, unless Hong Kong finishes their building first).

As for the 3rd tallest building in the world, it's 88 stories high. The first 50 floors of the building are office space and then the Grand Hyatt occupies floors 51-88. Thanks to MJ's recommendation, we went to the bar on the 87th floor of the Grand Hyatt to have a drink. We had to take three elevators to get there. It was actually kind of freaky to be that high up. Unfortunately the smog is really bad here today, so the view was not as stunning as I'm sure it can be. But it was still worth the trip.

Just getting there and back was a lot of fun. It was like a ride at Disneyland. We took a “tram” that runs under the river to get there. The tram is basically these pod like cars that travel through a dark tunnel with a sort of light show playing as you move through. It was kind of like the old space mountain ride at Disney, but it moved at a much slower pace. All in all a fun day.

Now we're off to dinner at a hot restaurant along the Bund. Again, thanks to MJ for posting some recommendations.

Look out Hong Kong, here we come!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Thanks for your posts!

Thank you all so much for your posts. I really enjoying reading them. Please keep them coming. Thanks to MJ for the restaurant recos in Beijing, and CH for the "power bar" reco.

Today I had a hot stone massage at the spa in the hotel. It's the most beautiful spa I've ever been to. After a week off walking 5+ hours a day, it felt nice to finally relax.

Shanghai is very different than Beijing. I'll write more later, but wanted to do a quick post to say hello.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

One night in Shanghai

We have arrived in Shanghai. When we checked into our hotel, we were told, oh you're on the club level, let me take you to the check in for that. We were shown to the 44th floor, where there is a check in for "club level" guests. After checking in, our butler, yes butler, showed us to the room. He informed us there is a free breakfast buffet every morning and a happy hour every evening in the club lounge. You just got to love the benefits of American Express! Membership truly does have its privileges. This hillbilly is already starting to love this city.

I have a feeling Shanghai will be a very different experience than Beijing. I'll do another post soon recapping the final events in Beijing, but need to sign off now for some much needed rest and to enjoy the happy hour in the club.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

I Don't Eat Chicken Feet!

Okay we had our first lunch today. We've been so busy sightseeing the last few days, we have never had a real lunch. It would suddenly be 4pm and we'd realize we had not eaten. We'd wind up just grabbing chips from a snack stand at whatever tourist site we were at. So today we decided we were not going to skip lunch. We were tired of fasting. We found a little place just outside the Lama Temple. We ordered two dishes, sweet & sour pork and braised chicken. The sweet & sour pork came out first and it was delicious. We were about half way through that when the chicken dish came out sizzling on a very hot skillet. It looked fabulous! However once the smoked had cleared and we got a good look at the chicken, we had second thoughts. Suddenly it didn't look so delicious. It basically looked like they'd chopped up a chicken and tossed it in the skillet. Not only was the skin still on it, but there were lots of bones and there were actually chicken feet in the dish. Yes, three/four clawed chicken feet right in the middle of our dish. Luckily it was grilled with some celery. We are usually pretty adventurous travelers, but neither of us had the courage to try a chicken foot today. We ate the celery all around the chicken and polished off the sweet & sour pork, along with some rice. We both left with full stomachs and no desire to order chicken for dinner later.

Monday, April 16, 2007

A Sad Morning

We have just awoken to the news of the mass shootings at Virginia Tech. How horrifying. This post is in honor of all the students and staff who died or were injured during this tragic event. We may never have the answers to make sense of this. May those who are suffering find some peace in the upcoming months.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

More Beijing

So we had our first official Chinese dinner. I did not expect it to be like the Chinese food we’re used to but I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I was actually a little nervous. A lot of restaurants do not have English menus so I was afraid I’d wind up with a fish head on my plate. Luckily we found a restaurant that did have an English menu. There is this whole little strip of restaurants and bars along a lake. It was a quaint little area about 15 minutes from our hotel. After noticing that all but two dishes on the menu were some sort of seafood, I opted for the Beef and Hangzhou pepper and a side of asparagus. Now I wasn’t sure what Hangzhou pepper was, but it sure sounded better than my other option, feathered chicken.

The beef was good. The asparagus was okay, a little bland. By the way, Hangzhou pepper is like a green hot, hot, hot pepper. I took one small bite of one and my mouth was on fire. No more Hangzhou pepper for me!

After dinner we wandered into a little bar for a cocktail. It turns out they had a live band playing. Here we are in Beijing China at, The Buffalo Club bar, having a cocktail and listening to a live band playing Spanish music. All in all, a fun and entertaining evening.

We awoke the next morning and headed off to see the Summer Palace. I would not have thought that we would see anything more impressive than the Forbidden City, but we did. The Summer Palace is over 700 acres of islands, lakes, gardens and temples. We originally planned to do the Summer Palace in the morning and then the Temple of Heaven later in the afternoon. But we wound up spending the whole day walking the grounds at the Summer Palace. Every corner we turned revealed another jaw dropping sight. It was truly magnificent. I took a ton of pictures and I hope some of them can capture the beauty of this enchanting place.

After walking for almost 8 hours, we were ready to take a break. Here’s were we made our first official travel mistake. We grabbed the first taxi we saw and hopped in, thrilled to finally be sitting. Unfortunately, we had hopped into an “independent” taxi. When we arrived at our hotel, he tried to charge us more than double what the trip to the Summer Palace had cost us! We told him NO, too much and we paid him less than what he was asking but still considerably more than what we paid the trip out there. He was angry, we were angry, but he took the money, drove away and we learned a valuable lesson.

Next we are off to the Great Wall. I’m so excited to see it. I just hope these old legs can actually make it up some of the steps. After two days of solid walking, the knees are creaking!

Day 1 in Beijing

Tiananmen Square & Forbidden City

I’m happy to report I actually slept pretty well last night. I awoke refreshed and ready to take on the day. Woo hoo, our first full day in Beijing! After 25 hours of travel time, we aren’t quite ready to tackle the Great Wall. We decide to do Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

One of the first things that strikes me as we walk through the city, is how beautifully landscaped it is. The city looks so well thought out, almost like an architect’s model. There are so many trees and gardens along the way, the walk itself is beautiful. The second thing that strikes me about the city is the dichotomy of old and new. Here you are walking along a street lined with modern office buildings on either side and suddenly you come across an ancient building. It’s odd to see such a stark difference in architecture, but it somehow works here.

We get to Tiananmen Square and I am speechless. I have to take a moment. I can remember vividly the events that took place here and the students that died deserve a moment of silence, of rememberance.

After the square, we head across the street to start our long trek through the Forbidden City. What can I say? I can’t even begin to describe this amazing city. Words just can’t describe how remarkable it is. What an amazing feat! I’m even more bummed knowing that my pictures will never capture its beauty and grandeur.

After hours walking through the Forbidden City, we decide to head to Jing Shan Park in an attempt to capture the massiveness of the Forbidden City from overhead. As we walk along, rather slowly I have to admit, we get approached several times by “rickshaw” drivers. We finally decide, why not? Just another Beijing experience. At first I didn’t want to do it because I felt bad for this poor soul trying to pull two of us on the back of his “bicycle.” But boy did it feel good to sit down! After 5+ hours of walking, my legs needed the break! Plus he took us through some back alleys that we otherwise would not have seen. All in all, it was a great first day in the city.

Time for a little rest before heading out for dinner and cocktails. After the miles and miles we walked today, a cocktail or two is well deserved!

I've arrived!

After 25 hours of traveling, we have arrived in Beijing! It seems like we’ve been traveling for days. We arrive exhausted, thirsty but truly excited to be here.

Due to strong headwinds, our flight from LA arrived in Hong Kong late and we missed our connecting flight to Beijing. We get off the plane, ready to deal with trying to figure out to catch another flight. But Cathay Pacific had already taken care of everything. They were waiting for us as we got off the plane. They told us we had missed our flight, but they had already booked us on another flight. They escorted over to another airline, got us set up with our boarding passes and gave us some coupons for “refreshments” while we waited for the next flight. The service was amazing!

Off to nap now. More to come.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Are Those Last Minute Deals for Real?

So last week was the end of a 6 month freelance gig and I had decided to take a couple weeks off. It got me thinking. Are those last minute travel deals I get emails about every week for real? Can you really book a trip to Europe for $500? I decided to find out. I’d take advantage of one of the last minute packages. Where would it lead me? Maybe London for a few days. Cost Rica perhaps?

My friend Bruce and I couldn’t wait for the email alerts to start rolling in. Turns out there was one flaw in the plan--this little thing called Spring Break! The usual emails didn’t arrive. But it was too late, we had caught the bug. We were ready to travel. We hopped online and started the search. We searched and we searched and we searched. The world was our oyster. We crossed London off the list pretty quickly. We crossed most of Europe of the list. There just were no deals. We were close to choosing Costa Rica when Bruce threw out China as an option. China? Can you imagine a hillbilly in China? I’ve always wanted to go, but could we really get a last minute deal to China? I mean Asia is not even one of the options on the last minute deals links on most websites. We both started searching. On Easter Sunday we found our deal. We had found a great airfare. We could leave on Thursday! We mapped out our flights (4 one-way legs), got the credit cards out, input all our info and hit “confirm purchase.” Instead of a confirmation, we got kicked back to the home page. We tried again and got the same result. We finally got a hold of someone at the website to help us. Alas, he couldn’t get the purchase to go through either. Something was apparently wrong with one of the airlines websites.

To make a long story short, well at least shorter, we finally got the airfare booked Monday around 2pm. We rushed down to the Chinese Consulate; yes you need a visa to visit China, before it closed at 3pm. We got there at like 2:45, picked a number #385 (they were on #316) and wondered if we’d even get called. Had we just booked airfare for a trip we wouldn’t be able to take due to lack of a visa?! They closed the doors promptly at 3pm, but continued to help everyone that already had a number.

After what seemed like hours, it was finally our turn. We got to the window, turned in our passports and visa paperwork and politely asked if there was anyway we could get them tomorrow? We were handed a receipt and told, “You can pick them up anytime after 9am tomorrow.” We did have to pay $20 to expedite the visa, but that certainly seemed reasonable to us. We were getting close to actually making this trip happen.

We picked up our passports, with visas this morning. We had our plane tickets. We just needed to make some tweaks to the hotel reservations. We’re off to the airport tomorrow night. Have we actually pulled off a last minute trip to Asia?

Stay tuned…

Monday, April 2, 2007

Congratulations Florida Gators!

I know this is a travel blog, but this hillbilly has to do a quick shout out to the Florida Gators. Go Gators, National Champions in football and basketball. You make a hillbilly proud.