Josiah's China Travelogue 2
June 23 - July 16, 2015
|Day 1 - 3 (Sun - Tue June 21 - 23): Flying to China|
If you're wondering, no it didn't take me three days to fly to China. It was two plus crossing the international date line. Anyway, I caught a red eye from Honolulu Sunday night and flew straight to...Vancouver, Canada. Which is in the completely opposite direction. So why did I fly there? I used frequent flier miles to book my flight and only had enough miles if I chose the cheapest options (well, almost enough, I had to buy a few miles and don't get me started on the ridiculous amount United charges for miles), and that means you don't have a lot of say in your route. So that mean Vancouver and a long layover in their (very nice) airport. Approaching the city from the air was pretty cool though. It looked like an ocean made of clouds with the mountain peaks taking the place of islands. Nice view of the nearby bay too.
|Day 4 (Wed June 24): Shanghai Museum and Xiantandi|
The weather report was showing a high chance of rain (though, in the end, there was just a tiny bit in the evening) so Connie and I decided to play it safe and check out one of the indoor things on my touring list, the Shanghai Museum, which is situated in the People's Park. I'd originally meant to go there last year, but didn't have the time. The museum is free and has four floors with a number of permanent galleries and a few temporary ones. We started out in the ancient Chinese bronze gallery. And it was ancient, some of the pieces were over 2,000 years old. There were lots of pots, cups, and weapons. There were also a number of bronze bells. The most unusual thing was this item, decorated with yak. Any idea what it is? It's actually an ancient pillow. Yes, seriously. There were some other pillows of that style in the pottery gallery we visited later on. I can't imagine there's any way pillows like that could be comfortable, and you'd think they'd be horrible for your neck... Next was the ancient Chinese sculpture gallery, which was mostly Buddhas. Then ceramics, including lots of pots, vases, and plates (from simple to elaborate), some of which had pretty strange designs. There were also a number of ceramic statues like this man blowing a conch while sitting on a beast, this warrior, and even a camel. The Chinese seal gallery featured seals kind of like Japan's hanko (though, unlike in Japan, they're not used much anymore here), though many seemed more elaborate than practical. There was also a painting and calligraphy gallery, a collection of traditional clothing for various Chinese minority groups, some creepy Tibetan masks, and a jade gallery. Finally, there was there was a collection of extremely elaborate old furniture and one of ancient Chinese currency. Speaking of currency, one minority group apparently used special kinds of knives as currency at one point. Not sure why. Maybe it make them hard to rob...
Random China Comment: Back in China
|Day 5 (Thu June 25th): Traveling to Maanshan|
On a side note, thanks to the rain, there was actually some bits of blue sky today. Anyway, one reason for my trip to China was to meet Connie's parents. So she and I set out to Maanshan. It's a small city about an hour outside of Nanjing by bus (there's no train station there, though it's supposed to get a subway line to Nanjing at some point). Between the train and bus, it took around three hours from Shanghai.
Random China Comment: Busses
|Day 6 (Fri June 26th): Hanging Out in Maanshan|
Connie's parents were originally going to take us to a hike of some sort today, but we had a change of plans due to rain. Instead, Connie and I spent the morning walking around a large fancy mall. Aside from a lot of clothing stores, an IMAX, and a number of elaborately decorated restaurants, there was also a couple of cool obstacle course type play areas for kids. Wish US malls had something like that when I was growing up... On a side note, I tried a durian flavored cream puff. Not bad, though probably not a flavor I'd choose again.
Random China Comment: Size is Relative
|Day 7 (Sat June 27th): Back to Shanghai|
Not much to write about today. Connie's mom made a very nice lunch and then Connie and I took the bus and train back to Shanghai through some pretty heavy rain. Fortunately, the rain had let up by the time we returned. We had a quick dinner after sunset, and that's about it.
Random China Comment: Apartments
|Day 8 (Sun June 28th): Shanghai Natural History Museum|
It was another very rainy day, so Connie suggested a visit to the new Shanghai Natural History Museum, which just opened a couple of months back. Apparently, the initial rush of popularity hasn't faded yet. This was the first time I've ever had to wait in line (and a 90 minute line at that) to get into a museum. Maybe a weekend wasn't the best day to visit... Something else I've never seen at any other museum? Ticket scalpers. Yes, seriously. And here there's apparently no law against significantly upping the ticket prices. Buying tickets from them doesn't get you out of waiting in line though. The line is because they only let in so many people at once to avoid overcrowding. Anyway, that was a bit annoying, especially with the rain, but I'm used to waiting in long lines thanks to all my amusement park visits and Connie and I were able to chat while we waited, so it wasn't too bad.
Random China Comment: Cars and Drivers
|Day 9 (Mon June 29th): Hangzhou|
|Hangzhou is a small city to the south of Shanghai. I meant to get there last year, but didn't have the time, so I wanted to be sure to go on this trip. Since it's only about an hour by train, I'd normally do it as a day trip, but Connie wanted to spend the night so we ended up booking a hotel (on a side note, Connie found a really nice but reasonable priced hotel that even had soft beds (a rarity in China)). Of course, an hour by train didn't take into account the 45 minutes or so it took us to get to the proper train station (the area we're staying isn't near the right subway line for a quick trip there) or all the time needed to buy train tickets and wait for the train. I really just need to assume that a trip involving a train here will always take far longer than in Japan. Anyway, it was a really foggy day, but I was still able to watch the scenery on the train ride. Seems the area between Shanghai and Hangzhou is mostly farms, along with crumbling concrete houses (presumably still occupied) to go with them.
After arriving (a bit later than I thought we would), we took the subway a few stops (look what I saw, but didn't try, along the way), checked into our hotel, and then headed to West Lake, Hangzhou's main draw. The fog limited visibility quite a bit (and made the day very muggy, in addition to the heat), but the lake was still pretty with its with boats, islands, and lotus. There's a nice walking path all the way around the lake, which Connie and I followed. While the lake was very crowded where it borders Hangzhou's main downtown area (and was also lined with fancy shops and restaurants), and rather noisy as well with singers and dancers scattered around the area, it got a lot quieter and more relaxed the further we went.
There are a number of attractions and points of interest along the lake. The first one we came across was a temple dedicated to an ancient ruler of Hangzhou (which was once its own kingdom). It was a nice little temple, and had an odd iron pavilion in the courtyard.
We continued on, passing by tea houses, small gardens, and the occasional odd statue, while dodging the small tourist transport carts that passed from time to time. It was fun, though really hot. I wish the Chinese vending machines (which were scattered along the path) were as nice as the Japanese ones...
Anyway, after a while we came in view of Leifeng Pagoda (translates to Evening Sunlight at Thunder Peak Pagoda) which is one of the lake's most famous attractions. A little while later and we actually reached the Pagoda (on a side note, I climbed the stairs, Connie took the escalator, and I still made it up first). While the original structure dates back over a thousand years, it was damaged centuries ago during a war and eventually collapsed in the 1900's. You can still see the original foundation (and throw money on it, if you want), but the pagoda itself is a modern recreation. Not that it matters too much, since you can still get a great view from the top. One of the floors also has a series of panels depicting a popular legend of an immortal white snake who took on human form and fell in love with and married a mortal man, fought to resurrect him after his untimely death, and was eventually sealed beneath the pagoda by an evil monk.
After we left the pagoda, we visited the large temple across the street, which made for a quick but scenic diversion. I think I mentioned it before, but in ancient China places were given very poetic names. Now, on this sign the first and second lines are entirely separate, but I thought the arrangement was funny...
Still further on, we reached a very long causeway which cuts across part of the lake. While you can continue along the shore instead, it seems to be the more popular route. By then, the sun was starting to get low (it's a really big lake, and we didn't start our walk until early afternoon), but we pressed on, passed the tombs of some famous historical figures, and made it to Solitary Hill Island, which is close enough to the shore to be connected by a bridge. The picturesque Seal Engravers' Society compound was there, along with Louwailou, one of the area's most popular restaurants, where we stopped for supper. Finally, we walked the last couple of miles in the dark, completing our circuit of the lake (roughly 8 - 9 miles, I think). I was actually rather impressed that we made it the whole way given our start time and that Connie, while in fairly good shape, isn't as used to really long walks as I am.
To wrap things up, we caught one of the evening's fountain shows back near where we started. As a note, only the second part of that video has the proper music, the music in the first part was some performer with a very loud stereo and a sax who insisted on playing while the fountains were going.
While I do wish the fog hadn't been so thick, it was a very pleasant day. Due to the late start, we didn't have time to see all the attractions around the lake, but I enjoyed myself quite a bit. Hangzhou is a very nice city (one of the nicest I've seen in China so far) and West Lake deserves its good reputation.
Random China Comment: "Hot" Guys
|Day 10 (Tue June 30th): Hangzhou Songcheng|
|Hangzhou Songcheng wasn't originally on my list of places to go in China. In fact, I didn't even know it existed until a couple of weeks ago when I happened across and internet article listing the world's most popular theme parks (based on attendance numbers). While most of the list was filled by every Disney and Universal park in the world, there was one Chinese theme park and I noticed that was actually in Hangzhou so I did some research. Well, their English web site left much to be desired, but it looked interesting so Connie did some more research and we decided to check it out.
We got tickets from the concierge at our hotel (a little cheaper, but a bit of a hassle due to a network issue that caused a processing problem) then hopped a bus nearby. As a note, since the buses tend to not have any English, getting to the park without Connie's help would have been tricky, though not impossible.
Hangzhou Songcheng is a theme park based on ancient China, specifically Hangzhou at its peak. As such, the majority of the park is designed like a romanticized Chinese town. There are restaurants and snack stands, many where you can watch some traditional items (like barley malt candy) being made, some displays and exhibits on ancient life, and plenty of little shops. Though there are also more theme park like attractions such as play areas, a mirror maze, and some haunted houses.
There's also lots and lots of different shows. Some, like the different types of puppet shows, are very traditional. Others, like these dancers, not so much (despite the mostly traditional outfits). After walking around that section for a while, Connie and I climbed an artificial mountain lined with Buddhas and small temples. There was a giant Buddha statue and replica Buddhist cave you could go through at the top. Some nice views of the rest of the park too, not that you can see the view especially well in this photo...
We snacked a bit for lunch (figuring theme park street food was probably much safer than the regular variety), happened across a cool martial arts show, then found a good vantage point to watch the ball throwing show. It's about the daughter of an official choosing a husband by tossing a red ball into the audience. The guy who catches it becomes her bridegroom to be and gets to take part in the rest of the performance. While we were up high, we also spotted this. Not really sure what was going on there...
After that we rushed off to see the Romantic Show of Songcheng, which is essentially the park's main attraction (as a note, it's not included with the base ticket price and it can fill up fast, though there are multiple performances each day). It's an hour long show that's something like a fancier version of Shen Lun (the Chinese dance and culture show that tours the US) with a little bit of Cirque du Soliel thrown in. They even allowed photos and videos. It started with a bit about early civilizations and then jumped ahead to the time when Hangzhou was the capital of China, with the emperor throwing a big birthday party which included delegations from various other countries. Then there was a pretty epic battle against the invading Huns (who, historically, did win eventually, though they were beaten back a number of times) followed by sections based on the white snake story and another famous Chinese fairytale romance. Finally, the last part focused on more modern elements of Hangzhou like its famous tea and the scenery around West Lake. It was a really well done show all around and both Connie and I really enjoyed it.
Afterwards, we spent a bit more time exploring the remainder of the park before deciding to head for the train station. While we did walk through the entire park, we skipped a few exhibits / attractions here and there and didn't see anywhere near all of the shows, so I could see some people spending an entire day there (for us, it was around 5 hours).
Unfortunately, the ticket line at the train station was really long and, when we finally got to the front, the earliest train we could get tickets for wasn't for another two hours. Buying train tickets in China in advance really does pay off, though it requires you to be rather rigid with your plans.
And that was our Hangzhou trip. It was a lot of fun and I could definitely see myself going back next time I'm in China. I could easily spend another day or two seeing the rest of the sites in Hangzhou proper, and there are a number of other areas nearby (small towns, a wet lands park, etc.) that look worth visiting.
|Day 11 (Wed July 1): Shanghai Aquarium|
|There was still a chance of rain today (the last for the week), and Connie wanted to take things little easier after the two very full days we just had in Hangzhou, so we decided to visit the Shanghai Aquarium.
On the way, we passed a building where Connie said that new mothers can stay to rest and recover after birth. That's nice, but their choice of English words could have been better...
The aquarium is actually right near the Pearl Tower (which I visited last year, see the Day 3 entry) and a number of Shanghai's other tallest buildings.
The aquarium itself is nicely laid out, mostly divided into areas representing fish in different parts of the world (the Yangtze, the Amazon, etc.), often with a fancy decorated area to match. Some were fish I've seen quite often, others I didn't recognize. There were a number of more unusual fish in their collection, and they even had an exhibit of albino fish. Some personal favorites included the saw fish, Grass Eels, and the large jellyfish display.
But the real highlight of the aquarium is its underwater viewing tunnels. There's actually several of them and the last one is enormous, going through multiple tanks. It's easily two or three times longer than any others I've been through.
I don't know if I'd put the Shanghai Aquarium on my must see list, since there are good ones elsewhere, but it's in my top five aquariums so it's definitely worth a stop if you've got the time.
That evening, we ate at Din Tai Fung, a restaurant I'd spotted the other day. It's a very famous chain with branches all over China along with a few in Japan, Australia, Korea, and the US. It's actually won a lot of awards from major US publications as well. Anyway, their specialty is Chinese dumplings, which you can watch them make. They have other things on the menu too, but the dumplings are the biggest draw and they have a much larger variety of them than most of the other dumpling places here in Shanghai. We got soup dumplings with chicken, mushroom dumplings, vegetable dumplings, a vegetable dish, and a soup made from sweet rice wine with rice and black sesame mochi balls inside. The dumplings were amazing, especially the chicken and mushroom. Being a soup dumpling, there's a lot of liquid inside the chicken ones, so you're supposed to place the dumpling in a soup spoon, poke a hole in it, and then eat it and drink any soup that came out. The mushroom ones lacked the soup element, but had one of the best mushroom flavors I've ever encountered in any kind of dish. The vegetable ones were good too, though didn't have quite the same wow factor. I also really loved the soup, which was sweet with only the tiniest alcohol taste and flavored with little bits of dried flower. I'll be looking for a recipe once I get home... In the end, Din Tai Fung quickly went on my list of favorite China restaurants, right up with Nanjing Da Pai Dang. Now if they'd just open a branch in Honolulu...
|Day 12 (Thu July 2nd): A Temple and a Garden|
|Now that the weather has improved, Connie and I decided to do some outdoor stuff in Shanghai. Our first stop was Jing'an Temple, which is the most prominent Buddhist temple in Shanghai (as a side note for those of you who have read my past travelogues, remember that China has far fewer temples than Japan, so it's not like there's a ton of them around here). While the original temple dates back over 1,800 years, the current temple was built in the 1900's and massively renovated just recently. As such, while it maintains a classic look, the structures are all pretty new. The monks are rather modern as well, we saw a number of them using smart phones... As you can tell from the pictures, it's a very fancy temple with lots of gold and even a big pagoda in the back. While the complex itself is limited in size, I don't see many temples with so many floors. One thing you might also notice from the picture is that they make extensive use of both that four direction lion motif and an elephant one as well, neither of which I've often seen used. Not shown are all the large Buddha statues in the various temple halls. There was one made out of what looked to be marble (which I don't normally see Buddhas made from) and a giant 15 ton sterling silver Buddha. Their current goal is to make a 2 ton solid gold one, which may explain why the ticket prices are a bit on the high side. Regardless, it's a pretty cool temple and I'd say it was worth the visit.
Afterwards, we went to the the old timey shopping area around Yu Garden. A lot of the buildings there are probably recreations, but the whole area still looks really cool and it's a fun place to browse the shops. We actually ended up eating lunch at the local branch of Din Tai Fung (the soup dumpling restaurant from yesterday), which is still awesome though a little off the main drag. In addition to more chicken and mushroom dumplings, we got a rather interesting preserved beef dish along with some delicious red bean and chestnut dumplings for dessert.
After we'd had our fill of window shopping, we headed into Yu Garden itself. I visited both the garden and the shopping area last time I was in China (see the Day 4 entry), but it was fun to go back and this was Connie's first time in the garden itself (it's really easy to overlook cool spots just because you live in the area). She was surprised by how big and nice it was. Honestly, I think it's just as good as the famed Suzhou gardens (though they're all very unique, and very much worth visiting as well), with new sights and details to notice around every single turn. While we were there, we got to talking a little bit about how expensive it must have been to create due to the sheer size and detail. So I looked it up. Turns out it was built by a high ranking imperial official back in the 1500's, though in the end the expenses helped financially ruin his family...
A break back and the hotel and then dinner at a nearby Japanese / Korean place wrapped up the day.
|Day 13 (Fri July 3rd): Jewish Refugee Museum|
|Connie and I kept today's touring kind of short since we had some things to do (like laundry) in preparation for our trip to Yunnan early Sunday morning. A while back, Connie had taken a Jewish history tour of Shanghai and one location was the city's oldest synagogue, Ohel Moshe, now a museum dedicated to Jewish refugees in Shanghai during World War II, when over 14,000 Jews came to Shanghai to escape the Nazis. Though kind of far from most of the city's main tourist attractions, it's right near a subway station, so still fairly convenient to visit. The building is no longer used as a synagogue, aside from the occasional special event. The first floor has regular tours in both English and Chinese (I was surprised at how many Chinese people were there). The old Chinese man who gave the talk was very nice and informative, though he had an extremely strong stereotypical Chinese accent, so I really had to listen closely to tell what he was saying. The third floor of the synagogue contains a small Holocaust museum while the courtyard and former matzoh factory in the back houses a little cafe and the refugee museum, which contains information about what life was like for the Jews living in Shanghai during the war. Definitely a niche subject, but fairly interesting.
We headed back to our usual mall for lunch and ate at a combination Shanghai and European style restaurant. I got a fig and pear drink and aside from the usual Chinese vegetables there was a rather unique (and good) breaded chicken with lemon sauce and seasoned beef ribs steamed in a lotus leaf (which took a while to cook, but was quite good). Then it was back to the hotel to take care of that aforementioned stuff.
Random China Comment: Beggars
|Day 14 (Sat July 4th): Getting ready...|
I was originally planning to go to the Shanghai Botanical Garden, but it was drizzling for most of the day and Connie was feeling a little off so we decided to wait and do it another day. In the end, we hung around the hotel for a while, I did some reading, packed for the trip to Yunnan tomorrow, and the like. Since there isn't much to write about, here's some RCC's instead.
Random China Comment: Sticking Out
Random China Comment: Moving in China
|Day 15 (Sun July 5th): Kunming, A New City in a New Province|
When planning out this China trip, I decidedly that, if possible, I didn't really want to spend the entire time in the Shanghai area. Connie and I talked it over a bit and decided to spend one week in the Yunnan province, a part of China that neither of us had visited before, and that week starts today. Yunnan, for the record, is in the south west part of China, bordering Burma, Laos, and Vietnam, and is home to a large number of minority ethnic groups. It's a really mountainous area and known as one of the more clean and natural parts of the country. It also has a number of popular tourist destinations. While most of the rest of this China trip was kept fairly loose schedule-wise, I planned the Yunnan visit more like my normal trips (in Japan, or last year's Beijing portion of my China trip), though Connie helped out with some of the elements. We'll be based in two different cities over the course of the week, the first being the provincial capital of Kunming.
Random China Comment: Air Travel
|Day 16 (Mon July 6th): Yunnan Ethnic Villages|
When I first planned the basics of the Yunnan trip (hotels, flights, etc.) I was going purely by my tour book, which said that there really wasn't much to do in Kunming. Which is why I gave us only 2 1/2 days there and wasn't entirely sure if we'd be able to fill it. Turns out, my tour book sold Kunming a bit short. While it's true that there aren't that many attractions in the city itself (we hit the main spots yesterday), aside from all the cool restaurants, there are a lot of neat places right nearby, which I discovered when doing some additional research online. In the end, I had about four different possible destinations for today. I let Connie decide, and she chose the Yunnan Ethnic Villages (also known as Minorities Villages and Nationalities Villages).
Random China Comment: Impressions of Kunming
|Day 17 (Tue July 7th): The Stone Forest|
|The Stone Forest is a place I've been wanting to see for years and the main reason I made Kunming one of our base cities. It's a ways outside of Kunming in the homeland of the Yi minority group (the ones with the cool hats). My tour book recommended hiring a driver to take you there (at the cost of around $80), saying the buses take several hours because they stopped at zillions of souvenir shops on the way. Not sure what bus that writer took, but the Kunming East Bus station (a cheap 30 minute taxi ride from the city center) has frequent direct busses to the Stone Forest for about $4 (look for the specially marked ticket area), which seem to take between 75 and 120 minutes depending on traffic. There's actually some fairly nice scenery on the ride as well, lots of hills and farms mostly.
When Connie and I got off the bus, there was a bit of initial confusion over where to go to buy tickets for the Stone Forest itself. A couple of signs would have worked wonders... Anyway, the ticket office is obvious enough when you get close, but it's a several minute walk from the bus stop. Tickets are on the expensive side for China (around $30) and, if you want to ride one of the trams from the ticket office to the entrance of the forest and back when you're done (a little under two miles each way), that's another $4 and has to be bought at a separate window. There's a geology museum by the entrance as well...but that costs extra too, so we skipped it.
The Stone Forest is made up of Karst stones, a type of rock filling the area that eroded in an unusual way, leaving sharp spires scattered everywhere. Many have been named after their resemblance to various animals, like this one which is an injured bird perched atop a rock. There were a lot of tourists and Yi woman selling trinkets and offering a chance to dress up for photo shoots in some of the more popular spots like that injured bird stone and the main entrance to the Major Stone Forest (one of several areas making up the Stone Forest park), where the characters for Stone Forest are carved in the stone. But as Connie and I started hiking into the Major Stone Forest, we soon left the crowds behind and quite often found ourselves alone. A short ways in, I climbed up to the Viewing Pavilion to get an overview of the area. Got to say, the scenery is breathtaking and very unique. And this coming from someone who has been to all the major rock heavy parks in the Western US.
The paths were all well made (no dirt or mud) but exploring the depths of the Major Stone Forest isn't a simple stroll. There's lots of ups and downs and some very narrow passes. It's almost like a cave in some spots. I should also point out that the entire thing is a big maze (on that note, they should totally run a maze game there). There's tons of twisty little paths leading off in all sorts of directions. They don't give out, or sell, maps. There are map signs scattered throughout, but they're lacking in detail and only show a handful of the paths. Most of the points of interest that Connie and I found (like this elephant stone) were due to luck. Trying to follow the maps rarely got us where we wanted to go. Personally, I loved it. But if you're not in good physical condition or don't like getting lost, you may want to stick to the couple of flat paths that don't go too deeply into the forest.
We wondered around for something like an hour or hour and a half before ending up back at our starting point and breaking for lunch. Despite the lack of direction, we almost never ended up in the same area twice. The Major Stone Forest is impressively large. After lunch, we backtracked a bit towards the entrance of the park and tried a different and somewhat greener path. We thought we were in a different area entirely but after wondering around for a while we discovered that we were still in the Major Stone Forest, just a different part of it.
Finally leaving the Major Stone Forest behind, we came across some Yi performances and a pond that we'd been looking for a while back but never found thanks to the confusing maps. We then came to the Minor Stone Forest. The stones there are spaced much further apart than in the Major Forest, and there's a lot more grass and a nice little pond in the middle. It's also very heavily trafficed and much smaller. There's little risk of getting lost, with only one real main path, which dead ends in a food court type area.
There's a few other distinct areas in the Stone Forest Park but most of them are much further out, requiring a lot of walking or a ride on a tram. Connie and I never quite figured out if riding one of the internal trams would use up our return tram ticket or not, so we didn't. Though if I ever get the chance to come back here, I'd like to figure that out and visit the other sections. I wasn't ready to leave quite yet though, so we hiked up the nearby Bushao Mountain for a nice view of the area before heading out.
All in all, we spent 4 1/2 - 5 hours in the park. And, if I could figure the trams out, I could easily have spent at least a couple more visiting the other sections. On the other hand, if you hate hiking and just want to snap some easy photos, I guess you could finish in 30 minutes. Just keep in mind that the travel time between the Stone Forest and Kunming adds a lot of time to your day.
Back in Kunming, we had a bit of trouble finding a taxi driver who would take us to our hotel, but we got there eventually. We decided to go back to the Dai restaurant for dinner. It was packed but the wait wasn't too long. Unfortunately, just before we got seated, their gas got shut off for some reason so they had to stop serving the majority of the menu until it was fixed. So we went looking for their other branch that's supposed to be nearby but failed to find it. In the end, we gave up and hopped a taxi to Makye Ame, a Tibetan restaurant, for a now very late meal. Makye Ame was a lot of fun though. It's a very elaborately decorated place and has a constant stream of Tibetan singers and dancers. The food was good too. I got to try grilled yak meat (kinda like buffalo, or a slightly tough cow), a very interesting fish, and a couple of really awesome mushroom dishes. I also got a cup of sweet yak milk (salty was an option too, but I steered clear of that). It was actually pretty good. A lot like a sweet buttermilk.
Oh, going back to the Stone Forest for a moment, there was one other notable thing that happened today...
|Day 18 (Wed July 8th): Lijiang|
|Today, we left Kunming for another part of Yunnan, the town of Lijiang. On disadvantage of traveling around Yunnan is that the whole region seems to be rather lacking in high speed trains (D and G trains specifically, which are similar to the Japanese Shinkansen). So, if you want to travel between Yunnan's major towns and cities by land, you're left with the much slower K trains and busses. Which is why, instead of spending all day on a train or bus (7 - 10 hours), Connie and I headed back to the airport for a one hour fight. When I booked the flights, the site I used had some kind of special that let me upgrade our tickets on this particular flight to first class for something like $10 extra. Now, I'd love to fly first class on my long overseas trips, but the ridiculous prices have always stopped me. And if I can ride coach for 10 hours to get to China or Japan, I could certainly do it for an hour to Lijiang. But a chance to fly first class for cheap, even on such a short flight, was too good to pass up. And it was rather nice. We got to use separate (and much shorter) check-in and security lines at the airport and got to hang out in the VIP lounge (complete with free breakfast) prior to the flight. For some reason, our plane was really far from the gate, so everyone had to crowd into a shuttle bus to get to it... Except us, as we were personally escorted to our own private (and much more comfortable) bus, which also arrived before the regular one, allowing us to board quickly and easily. It was only a medium sized plane, so the seats weren't super fancy, but they were larger and offered more leg room, plus we got hot towels for our hands / faces. So yeah, first class is pretty cool. Too bad I'll probably never get it on a longer flight...
As with a lot of Chinese cities, the airport in Lijiang is on the far outskirts, so we got a taxi and headed to our hotel. Well, most of the way to our hotel. With a couple exceptions (more on that later) cars aren't allowed in Lijiang's old town, where our hotel is, so the driver got us as close as she could then called the hotel and a guy came to meet us and show us the rest of the way. Fortunately, our hotel is on the very edge of the old town, so it took only a couple minutes to walk. I feel sorry for the people who have to lug their suitcases around for 20 or 30 minutes to the hotels in the center of old town...
At around $64 a night, this is the most expensive hotel I've ever booked in China (gotta love Chinese hotel prices). Being in the old town, it's an old building that's been renovated into a hotel, complete with rather fancy themed rooms (a bit like the hotel I stayed at last year in Beijing). I could nitpick a little (like with most hotels I've stayed at in China), but it's a pretty nice hotel with very friendly and helpful (though not English speaking) staff.
After settling in, Connie and I headed out to explore old town. If you've read my other travelogues, you may remember my visits to various old towns in Japan. Well Lijiang is similar, in that it's a town with a long history (over 1,000 years in this case) that managed to survive to the modern era with many of its old buildings, roadways, and the like intact (though I doubt there's much left that goes back 1,000 years, probably more like a few hundred or so).
But before exploring came lunch. One of the first decent looking places we passed served black chicken hot pot, a popular dish in this area. We must have had at least half a chicken in ours, including a foot and the head (which we didn't eat). You could order various vegetables, noodles, and the like to add in, and there were some spices to dip your chicken in too. The oddest thing was a side of a tofu dish I've never seen before that tasted like a very strong cheese (interesting, but I wasn't a fan). It was a decent meal, though nothing too spectacular compared to all the other hot pots I've had.
Once we'd finished eating, it was time to start exploring in earnest. Since we were on the outskirts, the place was fairly quiet and empty at first. One thing we soon noticed is that old town makes use of a lot of canals. Originally, they were used for washing and drinking water. Now, they more just add to the ambiance. Though I'll say that many of them have some of the clearest non-tap or bottled water I've seen in China. After a little more walking, we got onto one of the main streets and started to see a lot more shops and other tourists (though the place doesn't seem to get really busy until mid-afternoon). The old streets and buildings are really cool and, as we continued to explore, I was especially impressed with the size. Lijiang's old town is much, much larger than any of the old towns I've visited in Japan. You could easily spend hours winding through the streets and not see everything. But I do mean winding, it's a bit of a maze. They do have maps (in Chinese, at least) at the tourist centers though. I relied more on Google Maps, but while it does show the location of many hotels, restaurants, and attractions, it doesn't show any streets, so the best it can do is point you in the right general direction. That's usually enough, though there was point later in the day and we spent around 20 minutes going in circles trying to find a road that would lead to a certain restaurant.
Lijiang has had a huge tourism boom over the past decade or so, which means that most of the buildings in old town now house a seemingly endless array of shops, restaurants, and inns. Lots of snacks too. Though, despite how many shops there are, most fall into only a handful of categories such as local instruments (drums, mostly), Naxi (the main local minority group) weaving, clothing (of a couple specific kinds), wooden trinkets, dried yak meat, milk, and yogurt (nice, but not hugely different than cow yogurt), and a few other things. Even the snacks tend to be the same from place to place (fried street foods, rose petal pastries (a local speciality), and popsicles (for some reason)). So it does get a bit repetitious at times. Though I will note that prices do vary (sometimes wildly) between shops. And it's nice to see actual craftsmen working in some of them. On a side note, despite the massive amount of tourism here, I've seen hardly any non-Asians other than myself (and I haven't even seen any Asians I can definitely say are non-Chinese).
Repetitive shopping options aside, the town itself continued to provide lots of visual variety. We stumbled across a group of Naxi dancers as well. Oh, another thing about the canals, they often don't have guard rails and, in many places, you cross them on thick boards rather than proper bridges, so be careful not to trip and fall in. With all the bars / night clubs positioned along one of the main canals, I have to wonder if that happens a lot...
To keep the atmosphere intact, cars are mostly banned in old town, though you will need to dodge the occasional bike and cart. The main exception to the car rule is the small garbage trucks which, oddly enough play loud music as they go, presumably to alert the local shop keepers of their arrival (a little like an old ice cream truck, but for garbage).
We eventually ended up at the north end of old town, marked by a large square with a pair of really big water wheels (which is apparently the place to go if you want KFC, McDonald's, or Pizza Hut as well). From there, we walked north along another canal and past some old style (though not actually old) buildings to Black Dragon Pool. The pool itself (supposedly protected by a black dragon) is surrounded by a nice park. On a side note, you need an Lijiang Old Town Maintenance Ticket to get in. Though you need one of those to get into just about every attraction in and around Lijiang, so the pool is as good a place as any to get one and they're good for seven days, so that's convenient. But back to the pool. There are a number of nice pavilions in and around it, the water is surprisingly clear, and it has more birds than anywhere else I've been in China (not that the place is swarming with birds, more like they're oddly missing in most parts of China). The main draw though, is the view of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in the distance, which is said to be one of the prettiest views in China. While looking across the pool towards the the mountain is nice (and would doubtless be even nicer if seen on a cloudless day), I think "one of the nicest views in China" might be overselling it a bit.
After walking around the park surrounding the pool for a bit, Connie and I headed back into old town to find dinner. In the end, we settled into a random restaurant along the main canal. The view and décor were nice and the food was decent, though nothing especially great (the general consensus seems to be that it's hard to find really good restaurants in Lijiang, since they tend to cater to tourists rather than aim for repeat customers). The thing I liked the most was the Naxi style fish. Actually, while the fish was fairly good, I liked the vegetable, nuts, and sauce mix on top of it the best. One thing about the restaurants in old town though is that many of them turn more into bars or night clubs as they night wears on and, as such, most of them have singers (or maybe karaoke in some cases) with the volume cranked up to ridiculous levels.
After that, we sat around the central square for a bit waiting for a nightly bonfire that's supposed to take place but nothing seemed to be happening so we eventually gave up and headed back to the hotel. Upon further research, I learned that we were in the wrong square (it's in the one with the water wheels), so we'll try again a different night.
|Day 19 (Thu July 9th): Mufu and Shuhe|
Black Dragon Pool is one of the biggest attractions in (well, technically near) Lijiang's old town, the other is Mufu, which was where we headed this morning. It's nestled in the western part of old town and fairly easy to find if you follow the signs. Plus it's really hard to miss when you get close. You need one of those maintenance tickets I mentioned the other day to get in, along with another ticket that costs extra.
Random China Comment: Bitter Tea
|Day 20 (Fri July 10th): Lijiang Soncheng|
The original plan for today was to take a train to the town of Dali (another one of Yunnan's more famous tourist destinations) and spend the day there. It's a reasonable 2 hour or so ride from Lijiang, despite the area's total lack of high speed trains (a G train would probably reduce it to half an hour). But yesterday, when talking with the guy at our hotel about train tickets, he insisted that, after spending time in Lijiang, Dali's old town would be a bit of a disappointment. So we decided to sleep late and spend the day doing more stuff in Lijiang instead. We had a few options but, since we got off to a rather late start, we decided not to get too ambitious and just go see a show. There's two big shows in Lijiang. Lijiang Impressions is supposed to be really good, but it's a bit expensive and the show times are pretty early in the day. There's also a Lijiang Songcheng. You might remember Hangzhou Songcheng back from Day 10 of this travelogue, the old time theme park and show Connie and I went to in Hangzhou. Well Lijiang has one too, so we decided to spend the afternoon there. We ended up with tickets for the 6:00 show (the 4:30 was sold out) and got there right around when the park opened at 2 PM (which seemed rather late, but it made sense later). Everyone seemed a little puzzled why we wanted to arrive so early, but the guy at our hotel was nice enough to drive us there for free to save us the taxi fare.
Random China Comment: American Fast Food
|Day 21 (Sat July 11th): Blue Moon Valley|
|Today, I wanted to get out and do some hiking. The two main spots for that near Lijiang are Tiger Leaping Gorge and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. But the gorge requires two days (or one very long day if you're fast) to hike the entire thing (though there is a short hike you can do instead) and is a bit further away. Connie was rather adamant about not wanting to go to the summit of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, but was up for visiting one of the other parts of the park. We eventually decided to start at Blue Moon Valley and then go to the Yak Meadow (where they really do raise Yak) afterwards if there was time (unfortunately, there wasn't as we go off to a late start).
Getting to the mountain was a little tricky. There are shuttle busses, but only if you get a ticket for the summit or the Lijiang Impressions show (the main reason the show is a bit expensive is that you have to pay the park entry fee on top on the ticket price). If you want to go to the other parts of the mountain, other than hiring or renting a car, you need to go to the Mao monument a short walk north of old town, cross the street, and take one of the number 7 mini-buses waiting there. Thing is, there are a lot of number 7 mini-busses competing for customers and they don't leave until they're full so, depending on how good your buss's "recruiter" is and how many people want a ride to the mountain at the time, you might end up waiting for a while like Connie and I did. However, the driver's don't care so much about the number of people as long as they make at least 100 RMB / Yuan per trip. The normal fee is 20 RMB per person with five people per bus. However, if you're willing to pay extra to make up the difference they'll be happy to go without a full load. Connie and I eventually did that, and the driver was nice enough to take us all the way to Blue Moon Valley, rather than dropping us off at the parking lot (where we would have had to pay a little more for a shuttle bus).
Blue Moon Valley is one of the lower spots in the park, though high enough for a somewhat cooler temperature and cleaner air, and consists of a number of pools along with spectacular views of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. While the mountain stream that feeds them is real (you can see some waterfalls up on the mountain if you look closely), the pools themselves are man made. Though the designers did a beautiful job with the pools and the waterfalls leading into each one. Connie at I started at the second pool from the top and followed a nice path down and around the lower pools before looping back up to where we started. Apparently, the valley is an extremely popular spot for wedding photographs and we passed a number of couples in all sorts of different wedding suits and gowns. Continuing on, we reached the uppermost pool and probably the most famous photography spot in the valley. Oh, if you're curious, the water color is due to the minerals in the limestone, not pollution. The stream itself is extremely clear. At one point, we found a Chinese couple fishing stones out of the stream for some reason as the guy loudly complained about the freezing cold water. Not sure what they were doing, but it was kid of funny to watch. From there, we followed a quiet little path along the stream for a bit. We could have gone further than we did, but it started to rain a little so we turned back. In the end, the rain was only a brief sprinkle and, after enjoying the scenery for a while longer, we caught a shuttle bus to the main parking lot followed by another number 7 mini-bus (same rules apply as before) back to Lijiang.
That evening, we went over by the water wheels to check out that bonfire. In the end, while there were some groups of dancers around, there still wasn't a bonfire. Maybe because there was a special event performance going on that day? It was fun to people watch though. We even spotted the Monkey King (aka. Son Goku from the Journey to the West legend (Saiyuki in Japanese). This particular version of the Monkey King is from a popular old Chinese TV show based on the legend. The guy did a really good job with both the costume and the movements...
As the sun began to set, we headed back towards our hotel. A wrong turn along the way due to the crowded streets (Lijiang is a lot busier on weekends) took us into the eastern part of old town, which we hadn't visited before. Despite all the time we spent exploring, there really is still a good chunk of the town we never saw. Anyway, it was a lot quieter and less crowded over there. And it was nice to watching things begin to light up as it got darker. We walked around for a few more minutes after another Tibetan dinner (featuring yak fried rice) just to admire the city at night as a conclusion to our time in Lijiang.
While Lijiang is very touristy, the old town is still a really fun place to visit and there's some good hiking and other points of interesting nearby. I could certainly see myself returning in the future, probably with a more serious hiking focus.
|Day 22 (Sun July 12th): Back to Shanghai|
Not too much to write about today. The guys at our hotel were nice enough to give us and another group a free ride to the airport. And, while it wasn't first class, we had a perfectly good flight back to Shanghai where we checked into the same hotel as before. Apparently, a big typhoon passed through the city yesterday (we completely missed it), though you couldn't tell that by looking around. I didn't notice any signs of damage and the weather was hot, sunny (the sky was sort blue, probably thanks to the typhoon), and humid. No rain at all.
Random China Comment: Religion
|Day 23 (Mon July 13th): Hanging Out in Shanghai|
After the big Yunnan trip, Connie and I decided to take it easy for today. Our first stop was a ticket office so we could buy some train tickets for tomorrow's trip. Of course, we could have just bought them at the station tomorrow, but the way things work here, that probably would have meant a long wait in line and a later train.
Random China Comment: Hotel Quality
|Day 24 (Tue July 14th): Tongli|
|One thing I wanted to do last year but didn't have the time for was to visit one of the water villages near Suzhou. So named because they'll small old villages built around a network of canals (a bit like Venice). There's three of them, with the most famous being (according to all the tour books) extremely touristy and full of souvenir shops (probably kind of like Lijiang). Instead, my book recommended Tongli as the best one to visit, so that's where we went. While there are a handful of direct busses from Shanghai, the easiest way to get there is to catch one of the frequent busses from Suzhou station, which takes around 45 - 60 minutes (as a note, they're at the long distance bus station, and finding the right ticket counter takes a little work). Add in a 30 minute train ride to Suzhou, and it seems like a pretty short trip. Add in the time from our hotel to the train station, all the waiting you have to do before trains here, and the waiting time for the bus, and it took us more like 3 1/2 hours total. Anyway, despite arriving a bit later than I would have liked, we eventually made it to Tongli. Or the bus stop, at least. Where where we opted to pay 5 RMB (about 80 cents) for a shuttle to the town entrance, skipping a 20 minute or so walk past a bunch of shops and restaurants. As a note, you need to get a ticket to enter Tongli itself (you can get them at the tourist center when you arrive, or as a combo with your bus ticket from Suzhou). Conveniently though, said ticket gives you free admission to most of the town's attractions.
Anyway, after crossing a bridge into Tongli proper, we immediately went looking for lunch (as I said, the trip took longer than I thought it would). Connie had done some research on restaurants and quickly led to us a little place nearby where we got a local vegetable, white fish with eggs, and another variation on that sweet rice wine soup we've had a couple times before (this time, with tons of little mochi balls). Simple, but good. After that, we set off to explore the town. While Tongli is a bit touristy in spots, the majority of it is clearly still residential, with people living ordinary lives in very old houses. As such, it's also much quieter than Lijiang and weaving through the streets and alleys was rather peaceful. Aside from the electricity and occasional motor bike, it really felt like stepping back in time, and the canals make for a lot of pretty scenery.
Most of the points of interest in Tongli, other than the town itself, are fancy old houses which once belonging to the town's wealthier inhabitants. The first one we found was Gengle Manor (or mansion, depending which translation you're looking at). Like most traditional Chinese mansions, it was comprised of several buildings with enclosed courtyards and a garden. With plenty of neat walls, doorways, and alcoves scattered about. The first couple of buildings also featured a display of tree root carvings (a traditional Chinese art form), many of which were extremely impressive in both size and skill.
Our next stop was the Pearl Tower. It's another mansion and garden complex, much larger than Gengle. It even had a stage for opera or other performances. The one thing it didn't have was a tower. Apparently there never was one either, just a little model of a tower (which isn't even there now, though there is a somewhat larger model you can look at in its place). Not quite sure what the deal is with that, but it was still a nice place to walk around. I thought the set of game themed window lattices in the garden were rather neat, and there were some signs with amusing English (naturally, those are two different locations it's pointing to, but they're not clearly separated on the sign) as well.
Backtracking a bit, we then followed one of the main canals for a ways, passing some commorants (birds used for fishing) and a place selling milk tea strained through stockings instead of whatever it's normally strained through (it was good milk tea, though I'm not sure exactly what difference the stocking makes). Anyway, our next stop was Jiayin Manor, which was a lot smaller than the last two but featured some rather tall buildings and some neatly shaped windows.
After a bit more exploring, we ended up at Tuisi Garden. I wouldn't say it's quite on the same level as the Suzhou gardens, but it's still pretty and way quieter than they are. There were a few kids there practicing their painting, which was kind of fun to watch.
Connie and I had decided not to stay too late in the day, due to the amount of time it would take to get back to our hotel, and the fact that we didn't have a return train ticket reserved, but we still had a bit of time left so we decided to take a ride on one of the gondolas (or whatever they're called). While the pilot (is that the right word?) didn't really say much of anything (it's apparently a ride, not a tour), it was nice to ride around one of the major canals, and offered a different view of the town.
In the end, we spent around 4 hours in Tongli, which was enough time to walk through the majority of the town and see most of the major attractions (though there was one other big one and several smaller ones we didn't get to) at a fairly relaxed pace. Another couple of hours probably would have been enough to see at least most of the remaining stuff. Though there were some hotels scattered about and Tongli seems like it would be a relaxing place to spend an entire day or two. Either way, I'd say it's definitely worth a visit and Connie and I both enjoyed it, even coming so soon after our stay in Lijiang.
|Day 25 (Wed July 15th): Last Day in Shanghai|
|At this point I'd finished everything on my Shanghai list and I needed some time to pack and such so Connie and I didn't have any big plans for today. We went out for lunch at Nanjing Da Pai Dang one last time. Tried some different things on the menu this time, including fried fish, pigeon soup, and some type of gourd. After that, we just walked around a bit in the mall we usually go to at Xuijianhua. They were apparently doing a Popeye themed promotion. How many of you guys remember Popeye? He was still fairly popular when I was a kid, but this was the first time I'd seen any Popeye stuff in a very long time... Anyway, it seems he was, and still is, popular in China.
That aside, there wasn't much to write about. Just some packing, hanging out with Connie, and the like.
Random China Comments: Favorite Restaurants
Nanjing Da Pai Dang
Din Tai Fung
|Day 26 (Thu July 16th): Back to the US|
|I had originally planned to take the subway to the airport but, after seeing what morning rush hour was like on the local lines, I decided to just get a taxi instead. A lot more expensive, but not that bad by US standards, and a whole lot easier. I had a much simpler and more pleasant time leaving China than I did last year, though my flight did get delayed for an hour (after everyone was already stuck onboard the plane). That happens way too often in China... Once we actually got in the air though, it was a short hour and a half or so to Seoul, South Korea.
I had a much longer layover there than I did last year, thanks to some changes in my original flight plan, so I had more time to look around. It really is a nice airport, quite possibly the nicest I've ever been to. Fancy, comfortable, good wi-fi (way better than any I had in China), and lots to do. There's some museum style cultural displays, the performances, the traditional Korean craft lessons, and even a parade of sorts. Actually, if I had arrived a bit earlier (thank you China and your frequent flight delays), I could have gone on one of several free tours to nearby attractions (temples, shopping areas, etc.), no visa required, while I waited.
Not too much else to say. Both my flight to Seoul and the one back to Hawaii were on Asiana, a Korean airlines that was fairly nice. I think they should have served drinks a bit more often on the Seoul to Honolulu flight, and their movie selection wasn't as big as some larger airlines, but that's nitpicking. All in all, it was a smooth trip back.
To wrap things up, here are two final RCCs.
Random China Comments: Improvements I'd Like to See
1. Less Smoking
2. Less Pollution
3. Easier Train Travel
4. Improved Sanitation
5. Faster and Less Restricted Internet
6. Better Cleanliness and Repair in Hotels
7. Less Scams
8. Better Traffic Safety
Random China Comment: Going it Alone
First up, Shanghai. Thanks to the subway, Shanghai is a very easy city to navigate and there's a decent amount of English around. While Connie did turn me on to some attractions not listed in my tour book, there's nothing we did in Shanghai that I would have had any serious problems with had I been on my own.
Next, Maanshan. Since the best way to get to Connie's home city is by bus, it would have been a bit difficult (through probably not impossible) to reach on my own, since the Chinese bus system is not English friendly in the least. I'd say it's even harder than the Japanese bus system, which I don't recommend without either very clear directions or a decent knowledge of Japanese. However, since there's really not much of anything for tourists to see in Maanshan (though it is a nice city), had it not been for Connie I would have had no reason to go, making it a bit of a non-issue.
Hangzhou? Well, getting there and doing the walk around West Lake would have been simple enough. Getting to Hangzhou Songcheng (the theme park), however, would have been pretty difficult since it required a bus ride. While the park has an English web site, it's extremely barebones (missing a lot of basic info) and, as far as popular travel books and web sites go, the place doesn't seem to exist. There was also no English for the show schedule, though the rest of the park had enough English that I would have been ok. Anyway, I'm really not sure if I could have gotten to Hangzhou Songcheng by myself or not. Maybe with a bit of searching or a taxi.
That brings us to Kunming. Flying there wouldn't have been too hard. The main problem would have been transportation. Kunming is eventually getting a full subway system, which should simplify things greatly but, for now, there's only a handful of stations open so it's not very useful. The best way to get around is by taxi. I did manage to use some taxis on my own last year, by making sure to have the Chinese name (and often address) of where ever I was going written down and showing it to the driver. That might have worked but, as I previously mentioned, Kunming's taxi drivers had a tendency to turn you down if they didn't know the address (which was often) or just didn't feel like diving where you wanted to go). Without Connie there to either reason with them or tell me when we needed to find a different cab, I'm not sure what would have happened. I suspect I either would have gotten kicked out of a lot of cabs (with no idea why), or majorly overcharged instead. Especially, since a lot of them didn't run their meters...
How about Lijiang? Kind of like Kunming in that the taxi rides (such as the one to the hotel) could have been rather tricky. On the bright side, once there, I could have walked most places. Finding the bus to Shuhe could have been difficult, and both finding out about and going to Lijiang Songcheng would have likely been extremely difficult as, once again, there's virtually no English info about it out there (though I'd be fine once I reached the park). I think I could have managed Jade Dragon Snow Mountain ok on my own though. One thing, however, is that I wouldn't have been able to eat at some of the restaurants we did, since they entirely lacked English.
And finally Tongli. I would have had to eat at a different restaurant (once again, no English) but, that aside, the only difficulty would have been the bus. Finding the correct ticket window and bus, mainly.
So, over all, there would have been some problems but I think I could have mostly done it on my own, with a few potential hang-ups. Actually, some of my hotels my be among those... The Shanghai one in particular never seemed to have any idea of how to check me in. Never mind that I had a reservation (which I gave them a printed copy of), stayed there on three separate occasions, and had the same clerks each time...
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