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Josiah's China Travelogue 2
June 23 - July 16, 2015
China Travelogue 1
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.
Despite the United booking, both flights were Air Canada and, as far as long plane flights go, they were fairly nice. Not on the level of Korean Air (which I flew to China last time), but nice. Anyway, I got to China around 2 PM on Tuesday. Since I did ok getting around on my own last time, Connie and I agreed to meet at my hotel rather than the airport. Like last time, I opted to take the mag lev train from the airport which is faster (at up to 430 kmph) but a bit more expensive. I didn't have any problems making it to the hotel, though I did spot this rather interesting display in one of the metro stations. I knew they had Plants vs. Zombies in China (I actually got Connie into it a while back), but wouldn't have expected to see a display like that for a game anywhere outside of Japan.
After catching up for a bit, Connie took me to a Thai restaurant she likes in a fancy mall. We got duck pineapple curry, chicken cooked in some kind of leaf, and a very Chinese style plate of mixed vegetables (not in the picture), all of which were very good. Out of curiosity, I also got a ginger lemongrass drink, which was excellent (a sort of ginger lemonade).
I hadn't been able to sleep on the planes so I didn't want to stay out too late so that marked the end of the day.

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...
Connie and I spent a total of two of three hours in the museum and I'd recommend it if you come to Shanghai. It provides a very nice overview of many types of traditional Chinese art and all the signs have English. Plus it's free, so you can't beat that.
After we left the museum, we decided to walk to Xiantandi, a nearby area which has a lot of restaurants. We actually ended up getting sidetracked by a mall we passed on the way. To our surprise, said mall had a branch of Nanjing Da Pai Dang, which Connie and I had eaten at back in Nanjing last year. It was one of my favorite restaurants from that trip, and the Shanghai location is just as good. Highlights included duck dumplings, salted duck, pickled vegetables, and a very interesting chicken steamed over a bed of tangy greens of some kind. It was an awesome meal and very reasonably priced (everything I mentioned and more (probably a $70+ meal in the US, for around $20). I'm hoping to go back again before I return to the US.
We did eventually make it to Xiantandi, which is a shopping and dining plaza which utilizes a bunch of old brick buildings. It was fun to walk around and contains a number of nice restaurants and shops. Looks like a big nightlife area too. We had already eaten, but it was hot and humid so I got a scoop of black sesame gelato to cool down.
After we finished exploring Xiantandi, Connie and I went to get train tickets for tomorrow then hung out at my hotel for a bit before splitting up for the night. Since we had such a big lunch, we just got some cheap food at a convenience store. I decided to try seaweed flavored potato chips. Not sure I'd buy them again, but they were better than a lot of flavored chips I've had.

Random China Comment: Back in China
So, what're my early thoughts on returning to China? Well, there's still a lot of smog and you have to be careful about the tap water (conveniently, my hotel in Shanghai has a filter in the room). Like before, the overall cleanliness level isn't bad, though it isn't quite up to US standards either, there's a lot of smoking, and crossing the street stills feels moderately dangerous. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't seem like much has changed in the year since my first trip. Regardless, it's a very interesting country and this should be a fun trip.

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.
Maanshan itself is a nice little city. It's a rather new and Connie says it's often rated at one of the most livable cities in the country. From what I've seen so far, there are lots of trees and many shopping streets lined with stores and restaurants. And tons of those tall apartment buildings you see all over the place in China. It actually reminds me a bit of Wuxi, where I stayed for a few days last year. It's definitely not a place that really gets any tourism though (domestic or international), so there's a bit of a different vibe than some of the places I've been.
My hotel is fairly nice and cheap (about $16.50 a night), though the room is a little weird... After checking in, Connie and I walked around a bit and had a good late lunch at a Hong Kong style restaurant.
Eventually, we made our way to her parents' place for dinner. It was nice to meet them, though a little awkward since they speak about as much English as I do Chinese (which is to say, almost none). Her mom is a great cook though.
After dinner, we walked around a nice park near my hotel. It had a statue of three horses and a large lake with colored fountains. It made for a pleasant way to wrap up the day.
On a rather odd side note, I have fastest data connection that I've gotten anywhere in the country. Maybe since it's a smaller city there isn't an old slow network they can force me on...

Random China Comment: Busses
Like many countries, China has both local busses (for within a single town/city) and long distance ones (for travel between cities). Local busses are pretty casual while long distance ones have assigned seats. So far my experience with both is pretty limited but, as some general notes... Fares are really cheap, at least by US standards. But, much like the busses in Japan, with the exception of tourist busses, there's usually little to no English, making them much harder for non-Chinese speakers to navigate than the trains and subways. One interesting thing about long distance busses though is that, unlike trains, you're not required to show your passport to buy tickets or board, which makes them a little more convenient in one respect.

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.
We later met back up with Connie's parents' for a great lunch at a Chinese restaurant then split up again for a bit. I used a break in the rain to walk around that lake from last night and hung out in my room, then went out with Connie and her parents to get train tickets for a our return back to Shanghai tomorrow. After that we walked around a different park with a lake (there are a few of them here), then split up again.
We eventually met up with her parents again at Porridge Paradise, a restaurant near my hotel. Can you guess what they serve? This was my first time trying Chinese rice porridge. It's fairly mild; well the base is anyway, from there it depends what gets added to it. Ours had peanuts, jujube, and a couple things I couldn't identify. Not something I'd normally get for dinner (though it's commonly eaten then in China), but pretty good.
So yeah, not an especially exciting day, but pleasant, and it was nice to "talk" with Connie's parents a bit more.

Random China Comment: Size is Relative
Connie has always been very clear that Maanshan, her home town, is only a small city. A claim that seemed to be supported by the lack of a high speed train route. Well, it really didn't look very small to me up arrival. In fact, it looked pretty large. I checked online and apparently it's got a population of over two million, with tall buildings and a bunch of shopping areas and malls to match. I suppose it depends who you ask but for me (or Americans in general, I assume), a city with over two million just can't be considered "small". I'd say a small city is more like one or two hundred thousand and a million is fairly big. But apparently China has a lot of these "small" cities and their idea of a big city is a place like Shanghai or Beijing (equivalent to New York City, Chicago, or LA in the US). Seems that size really 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
Despite everyone calling them apartments, Chinese apartments are more like condos, in that they're typically bought rather than rented (though sometimes that buyer will then rent it out). Newer "apartments" tend to come in groups of really tall towers (you can see some photos in my previous China travelogue, check the Day 5 entry). From what I've seen, they're often gated and have nice landscaping inside, almost to the point of having a small park. From what I've heard, the apartments themselves are often sold unfinished, leaving it up to the buyer to finish and customize them. Both of the apartments I've been in here in China has been really nice on the inside. The outside of the buildings are often pretty fancy as well. The weird thing is the rest of the building interiors. Once again, I'm only going off of the two buildings I've been in and what I've heard from some others. Anyway, while the apartments themselves may be nice, the shared interior of the buildings (halls, stairs, elevators, etc.) tend to be dirty and unfinished. Honestly, the ones I've seen look like they belong in a slum or maybe a condemned building, making for a really weird contrast with the nice looking apartments themselves and the exteriors. From what I've seen, I'm also guessing (I haven't looked into it) that, unlike US apartment or condo complexes, there isn't a managing company that's required to fix things that go wrong with the building. So yeah, definitely a bit different from what I'm used to in the US and Japan.

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.
We eventually made it inside the museum and started making our way through. Being a natural history museum, it starts back at the creation of the universe and walks through some of the major time periods. There's a ton of animal models and skeletons, and one of the biggest collections of real stuffed animals I've come across. There were even a few live animals as well. And, of course, plenty of dinosaur skeletons, which were always my favorite thing as a kid. The fossil collection was also a standout. Assuming they were real, it was hands down the most impressive one I've ever seen. There was a lot about modern animals too, including a collection of African animals (stuffed) and this giant wall of antlers and horns, a fairly nice rock exhibit, and the part comparing different types of birds' eggs, nests, and feet. Not quite sure what's up with that last one...
All in all, it's a very nice natural history museum, and all the signs have English (always a plus). Probably not a must see if you're visiting Shanghai (since you can see similar museums in various parts of the US), but it makes for a interesting 2 - 3 hours (probably longer if you get the audio tour) and I enjoyed my visit. Though I'd recommend avoiding weekends so as not to end up waiting in line like Connie and I did.
After the museum, we headed to the mall we'd gone to back on Tuesday night and ate at a Taiwanese restaurant that was on my list. The food was good and it reminded me of some places I ate at last year in Nanjing. There was even a similar fish dish. Gotta say though, I'm impressed by just how many high end malls and shopping areas there are over here...

Random China Comment: Cars and Drivers
I've already mentioned how dangerous it feels to cross the streets in China. Cars will turn on red lights without bothering to slow down more than the absolute minimum, regardless of whether or not any pedestrians are in the cross walk, and all the people on electric bikes seem to ignore street signs and traffic lights entirely. Then there's my experience riding in taxis and other cars. First off, seat belts are entirely option. In fact, a lot of cars I've ridden in have pads put on the seats that block the belts entirely. As for their driving... I'm not entirely sure if Chinese people are extremely good drivers (the fact that they take so many risky turns and squeeze through such tiny gaps without a near constant stream of accidents is impressive), or extremely bad ones (with the disregard for traffic rules and always cutting things way too close). And then there's the honking... Lots and lots of honking... Connie, who had a driver's license in the US said she never wanted to drive here in China and I really can't blame her.

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
Well, that's what Connie calls them. Anyway, on hot days, it's fairly common to see guys (often older men, but occasional younger ones as well), with their shirts rolled up just above their stomachs walking around, hanging out, and just going about their business. Once in a while, you'll see one with just an unbuttoned shirt, but the roll up is far more common. Nothing wrong with it, I guess, but it is a little strange to see.

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
Unlike Japan, China has its fair share of beggars. I haven't seen any around Shanghai's major tourist destinations, but they do pop-up in some of the less high profile areas. And, despite a number of signs saying it's not allowed, they seem fairly common on the Shanghai subway's always busy line 2. Had one or two show up in train station waiting rooms as well. While they seem mostly harmless, Connie is rather suspicious of whether or not most of them are actually disabled and/or destitute, so scams could be common here. And, while most of the ones I've seen seem fairly harmless, we did encounter a couple of extremely aggressive beggars, one of which I think was loudly cussing me out in Chinese. So you may want to be careful if you encounter any.

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
Much like in Japan, in China if you're not Asian, you tend to stick out, with the only real exception being at major tourist attractions (like the Forbidden City and Great Wall). So don't be surprised if you attract some attention from the locals. I've had a handful of people say hi to me in passing or chat a little bit (though not as many as in Japan), and in certain areas lots of people have come up to offer me fake brand name goods or try and invite me to an overpriced tea house. I should also note that foreigners tend to attract some stares (the Japanese are usually polite enough to at least pretend they're not looking, the Chinese are more obvious about it). So, if you're really shy, it might take some getting used to.

Random China Comment: Moving in China
In the US, it's pretty common to move to a different town/city or even a different state to find a suitable job. I'm a good example of that, going from my home in Colorado to jobs in Florida and then Hawaii. While that can still happen in China, it's apparently a lot less common. According to Connie, while there's nothing stopping people from going and living in another city, at least temporarily, getting an ID card for your new area (which is used much like a driver's license here and, as such, a local one is required for some things) can be rather difficult. In the US, changing your driver's license to a new state is mostly a matter of gathering together some proof of ID and residence papers and then standing in line for a while at the DMV. I'm not sure what the process is here but apparently it can be difficult or even impossible to do on your own. Some companies are willing to help employees from other areas get their ID cards changed, while others prefer to just hire locally in the first place to avoid the hassle. Just another way in which things here differ from back in the states.

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.
I had booked a pretty early flight from Shanghai (we could have taken a train, but it would have meant a solid day or more of traveling), my rational being that we'd get in early enough for half a day of touring. That was all well and good, but I forgot to take into account what time of day the subways start running, so we had to take a cab. Way more expensive than the subway, but still very reasonable by US standards. The flight itself was on China Eastern and took about 3 hours. We actually had a really big nice plane with a center row and TVs in every seat, which I really didn't expect. Free breakfast and free checked suitcases too. I guess Chinese airlines haven't cut nearly as many corners as the US ones have... Really, the only knock against the flight was a 25 minute delay but, for China, that's not too bad.
When we landed in Kunming it was cold and foggy with a strong breeze and rain. Fortunately, by the time we got to our hotel, the rain had stopped, the fog had lifted, and things has warmed up a little. I splurged a bit (by China standards) on hotels for this Yunnan trip, getting a really nice room with a queen bed, good internet (yay!), and all bamboo decor for about $50 a night. After settling in, we headed out for a slightly late lunch. Since we were both pretty hungry, we ended up heading for the nearby restaurant I'd originally had marked for dinner. Due to all the minority groups living in Yunnan, there's many types of restaurants here that you'd have a very hard time finding elsewhere in the world (even in other parts of China). The one we ate at was called Yingjiang Daiweiyuanv (a recommendation from my tour book; no idea how that's pronounced), which features Dai cuisine. Honestly, it was one of the most unique places I've eaten in years. Connie and I had a pretty hard time choosing what to order, because they had a giant menu and just about everything in it looked so different from anything we'd had before that it was near impossible to guess what it would taste like. While it had all the typical meats and veggies you'd expect, the preparation ranged from a bit different to extremely unique. In the end, with a little help from the waitress, we managed to settle on a few dishes. From left to right, there's spinach and spices (I could pick out garlic, cilantro, and chilies) cooked in some kind of leaf, shredded dried beef (kind of like a soft jerky), and a spiced grilled fish. There was also chicken soup in bamboo. The spinach and fish were especially awesome, and both were spiced in rather unique ways. Both were also a bit on the hot side. Fortunately, the beef and chicken soup (which used black skinned chicken) had no chilies at all, so they were good for cooling down. And honestly, there were much more adventurous items on the menu like the mushroom and ginseng or the various kinds of bugs (not my thing, but still). It was really different, very good, and a lot of fun and I would love to eat there again sometime.
After lunch, we walked around the northern edge of the nearby Green Lake Park. Green Lake is aptly named, as it's covered in lotus plants this time of year, many of which were in bloom. There were even some white lotus flowers, which I don't recall ever seeing before. We also happened upon a large group doing some kind of ethnic dance (Connie thinks it was Tibetan, but neither of us was totally sure). The rain started again at some point, but as an extremely light drizzle, to the point where I didn't even bother with my umbrella.
We skirted the edge of the park for a bit before turning to the side, snacking on red bean filled buckwheat cakes, and walking uphill a bit to Yuantong Temple, which is the most important Buddhist temple in Yunnan, dating back around 1,200 years (though it was renovated and expanded a few times throughout its history). Upon first entering, the only especially notable looking things about it were the fancy gate and the really low ticket price (a bit under $1 per person). Though Connie and I both agreed that the architectural style was a bit different than the norm. After walking past the first hall though, it became a whole lot more impressive. The use of water was especially striking and like nothing I've even seen before at a Buddhist Temple, giving it a bit of a garden feel. The temple buildings surrounded the entire pool and extended back up the mountain behind it (though we weren't able to go up to the higher ones). And, while I couldn't photograph it, the main hall had two large (20+ feet tall) dragon statues, one on each side of the Buddha, another very cool and unique element. There was an interesting looking bronze Buddha as well. Really, it was a very pretty and different temple. My tour book really didn't give it enough credit. Oh, as a little aside, I spotted a cat sleeping up on a roof, in line with all the little decorative figures. Or maybe it's trying to stare down that guardian monster...
Then it was back to Green Lake Park to explore a bit. While you can just walk around the edge of the lake, it actually has numerous islands connected by bridges, which make for the nicer stroll. There's bamboo groves, more lotus, some black swans and other birds, and a lot of little tea shops and pavilions where locals hang out to chat, play games, sing old folk songs, and the like. There's also a section with a bunch of vendor stalls (many focusing on local specialties), some with amusingly odd English.
Around the time we finished exploring the park, the rain picked up a bit so we headed back to the hotel to take a break and plan for tomorrow before heading out once again for dinner (at which point the rain had stopped again). Since we'd had a big lunch, we decided to keep it simple and try a local specialty, over the bridge rice noodles. So named because, as the story goes, it was created by a woman who had to cross over a bridge in order to bring lunch to her husband. We went to a place across the street from the hotel that looked like a bit of a hole in the wall on the outside (and in the first dining room), but had a rather fancy dining room in the back complete with various ethnic performances (which we caught the last 20 minutes or so of). As for the noodles themselves, they were kind of like shabu shabu (Japanese hot pot) in that you get plates with meat and vegetables and a giant bowl of hot broth (not shown in the picture) to put them in. Unlike shabu shabu though, you're supposed to add rice noodles as well, mix the whole thing up, and eat it like a noodle soup. It was fairly good but the broth was extremely spicy, and ended up pushing both Connie and I a bit past our level of spicy food tolerance for the day.
All and all, it was a very fun start to our Yunnan trip and I'm really looking forward to the coming days.

Random China Comment: Air Travel
While Chinese airports haven't really impressed me (I especially disliked the Beijing airport last year), air travel works similarly to the US and, if you fly a lot, you shouldn't have any trouble with a domestic flight in China. And, in fact, it seems at least some of the airlines here don't penny pinch as much as the US so in-flight snacks/meals and free checked bags still exist. A couple things to note though, they use old fashioned metal detectors for airport security rather than the fancy but questionably effective body scanners that have taken over in the US, though I was able to keep my Lionheart pendant and watch on without setting it off. Didn't have to take off my shoes either, though I did have to take off my cell phone and take my laptop out of my bag. Also, China still follows the old "no electronics can be used for 15 minutes after take-off and before landing" rule, so keep that in mind.

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).
YEV is a theme park on the shore of the nearby Dianchi Lake and West Mountain (also major attractions), a cheap 30 minute Taxi ride from downtown Kunming. It's got a bit in common with Epcot, but struck me more as a bigger version of the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu. It's a large area, with 26 themed villages, each dedicated to a different one of Yunnan's ethnic minorities. Going through the entire list and writing about all of them would take way too long, so I'll more try to summarize the general experience, while going into more detail about a few here and there.
After entering, Connie and I first came to the Dai Village, which was neat since it brought to mind the Dai restaurant from yesterday. It more or less gave us an idea of what to expect from the other villages. While each village varies in size, they all contain at least a few buildings done in that group's traditional style, a store selling traditional handicrafts, and a costume shop if you want to dress up and get your picture taken in that group's traditional garb. Many also contained a place where you could get snacks. Some were really generic (hot dogs and popcorn) but others were ethnic specialties such as this buckwheat pancake in the Lisu Village. A few, such as the Dai Village, even included a full restaurant. Most villages also had at least one traditional style house you could enter to get a feel for how that people of that minority group live (or lived, I suppose, some of them have probably modernized a bit), like this one from the Nu Village. Temples and the occasional craftsman's shop were scattered about as well. Each village also had at least one sign (sometimes several) talking about each group, how large they are, where they live, their religious beliefs, etc. With an odd handful of exceptions, all the signs had Chinese and English. Throughout the park, there were also several stages where various groups would put on shows of traditional song, dance, etc. The first one we saw featured a mix from the Pumi, Nu, and Lisu, whose villages were all close together.
We made it through the first 9 villages then took a detour to a sort of Thailand area for the one non-minority related attraction. An elephant show! I hadn't seen one of those since I went to the circus as a little kid. The elephants were well trained and it was a lot of fun to watch. As an interesting twist, instead of the trainers rewarding the elephants after a successful trick, the audience could buy bananas and coconuts to feed the elephants between acts. Yes, elephants can eat coconuts. Most just smashed them and ate the pieces, like in that photo, but I saw one elephant actually just put a whole coconut in its mouth and chew on it for a while. And no, there were no peanuts.
After getting some snacks, including purple rice cooked in bamboo and onion bread, we were back to exploring... Or not. Connie's cellphone apparently disappeared at some point during the morning so we spent some time backtracking and trying to call it, all without luck. While we're not sure how, it seems most likely that it got pickpocketed at some point. On the bright side, she didn't really like that phone so she wasn't too upset about it.
After giving up on the phone, we headed to the next batch of villages, including Tibet, where Connie decided we should do the whole dress up thing. Is it just me, or do I look like a Dragon Warrior character? At only around $1.60 per person, it was way cheaper than I expected, though you'll either have to pay them more to take your photo or flag down a passerby to help out.
One thing that really impressed me was how different all the minority groups were. Only three of them bore much resemblance to the regular Han Chinese (China's dominant people group) and all the groups varied wildly from each other as well in terms of dress and architecture. The Lisu from earlier reminded me a bit of early American or Canadian settlers, the Jinpo had a sort of Polynesian vibe, the Yi (more on them later) seemed almost Spanish, and the Wa Village (the pictures of which are not appropriate for a PG web site) brought to mind the creepiest and most violent jungle tribes.
What else... The De'ang had this really interesting "smashing pit" where you could smash glass bottles as a way to relax. The Hani had a neat carved wall, and the Yi (who had one of the largest areas) had this set of Chinese Zodiac statues, a tea garden, and swings. We also caught another show in the Yi area. See, doesn't that seem almost Spanish? On a side note, I think the Yi women have really cool hats. Anyway, that show also included a guy playing a number of different traditional flutes, including one that doubled as a pipe so you could smoke and play at the same time.
Continuing on, the Mosuo were one of several groups to build their family houses around a large courtyard. They're also rather famous for being a matriarchal society and for their unusual "marriage" practices. But you can look up more on them yourself if you're curious. The Naxi and Bai were some of the most similar to the regular Han Chinese, though the Bai seemed to make everything they built white. While in the Bai area, we tried an odd snack that's popular in Kunming, which is essentially milk that's somehow baked or fried into a light snack (sort of a puffy cracker). While I'm glad I tried it, I can't say that I particularly care for the taste of dry and slightly curdled milk. On the other hand, the goat milk tea in the Mongolian Village was pretty good. As we neared the end, the Lahu Village brought back that African / Polynesian vibe, while the Yao have a life that revolves around Taoism, and the Hui were clearly China's Muslim group. And, just before leaving, we tried out a traditional way of transportation one of the groups (can't remember which) uses to traverse mountain gorges. At least that's what the sign said. Seemed like a regular zipline to me. I had to talk Connie into it, but she had fun.
Originally, we had been planning to see some of the other things around Dianchi lake after finishing at the Ethnic Villages but, even without seeing every single show and skipping the occasional display, we ended up spending most of the day there. But we had a fun and interesting day and that's what matters. As for Dianchi, we did walk over there and take a brief look after leaving the park. It's a pretty lake, but the water is a rather disturbing shade of green...
It took us a little while to find a taxi. Not because there weren't many around, but because Kunming taxi drivers seem to have a strong tendency to turn you down if they're not sure of the address or just don't feel like driving to the area you want to go. Something we ran into a few times... Well, we eventually made it to Tusheng Shiguan, a somewhat hard to find restaurant that seems to be in all the tour books but not very well known by locals. It serves Chinese food, but the big draw is that everything is organic (a real rarity in China). The food was pretty good (though not amazing), but the service could have been better. Shortly after arriving we got displaced from our table due to the arrival of a large group. I personally didn't mind that too much, but it was annoying that they got waited on and served first.

Random China Comment: Impressions of Kunming
Kunming is a Chinese city. And, as such, it's got lots of traffic, super tall apartment buildings, some fancy stores, some not so fancy stores, and some rather dirty and rundown areas as well. There's a couple nice attractions in the city itself (such as Green Lake and Yuantong Temple), but mostly it's a rather generic city with an especially interesting collection of restaurants. You do have some mountain views though, which is nice. And, while there's still a layer of smog, it's much thinner than the other parts of China I've been to. To the point where blue skies are pretty common. Less humidity and lower temperatures than the Shanghai and Beijing areas too. I actually got slightly sunburned at the Ethnic Villages, proving that I really didn't spend enough time outdoors those last few weeks in Hawaii...

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.
Anyway, Mufu means Mu's residence and it's the former home of the Mu family, the Naxi head family which ruled Lijiang for hundreds of years. The inside is a palace like complex, a little like a smaller and more colorful version of the Forbidden City. There was a throne room, of course, complete with a water dragon carving in the ceiling to ward off fires (personally, I think a large bucket might have been more useful...). But that was only the beginning. There were living quarters, a library, and a temple; a really pretty complex. The complex went partway up a nearby hill, offering a view of the old town's rooftops. My first thought was how easy it would be to run and jump across them, a sign that I've probably played too much Assassin's Creed...
On a side note, Lijiang is odd in that it lacks a wall (a key feature of ancient Chinese cities). One of the main theories as to why is that if you add a box around the Chinese character for Mu (as in the Mu family), you get the character for trapped, so the Mus thought a wall would be bad luck. I found that amusing, anyway.
We spent a couple hours wandering around inside Mufu then it was back into old town. After seeing (but mostly not trying, since we'd had big meals) all the local snacks yesterday, Connie and I wanted to go on a bit of a snacking spree for lunch. First up, rose petal pastries. The filling is made of rose petals while the outside is a flaky pasty dough, sometimes flavored with other things like sesame seeds or sweet potato. They were really good. The popsicles? Also good, though some flavors can be a bit strange (I tried a green bean the previous day, which was better than it sounds, but opted for a more normal one today).
On the way to our next snacking destination, we made a short stop for something else. If you spend any amount of time in old town, you'll see lots of girls and women with colorful strings braided into their hair. Women without said braids can expect to be approached by a steady stream of old women offering the service. I'd been urging Connie to give it a try and she finally relented, with good results.
Back to food, we went to one of those street food style counters. That was kinda breaking the general China rule of don't eat street food, but it looked clean enough. We got pregnant tofu (large cubes of soft tofu stuffed with mushrooms), large mushroom caps stir fried with vegetables, a weird looking vegetable (supposedly something local that no one but the sellers seem to know the name of), and some mochi type balls filled with a brown sugar mix. The food was pretty good (especially the tofu) and I did fine eating it. Connie, however, got a bit sick, despite us sharing all the food. Fortunately, after some recovery time, she was ok and ready to continue.
Making our way back to the water wheels, we walked a short distance into the very generic new town (the large town / small city bordering old town) and caught a bus heading towards Shuhe, another old town in the Lijiang area. Though I should note that the regular bus like we took drops you off nearly half a mile from the entrance to Shuhe. You need to either take a taxi or a tourist bus if you want to avoid the extra walk.
Shuhe is a lot smaller than Lijiang Old Town and didn't start becoming commercialized until more recently. As such, it's possible to wander off the main tourist drag enough to see some more "authentic" residential areas if you want. That aside, the streets are wider than Lijiang, there's fewer people around, and the whole place seems quieter with a slower pace. So it would presumably be a better place to stay if you just want to relax and take things easy. And, as you saw from that previous picture, there's a bunch of horses or mules around that you can pay to ride. There's a canal too, which is pretty and is put to some practical uses as well... Other than that, the shops are mostly the same as what you'd find in Lijiang, though there seem to be more foreign restaurants (as opposed to Lijiang's focus on Naxi and Sichuan food). There's also a big Tibetan cultural center. There's a free little museum inside, though at one point Connie and I got pulled away and whisked into a lecture on Tibetan medicine complete with a doctor who determines your health by a quick glance as your palms and tries to get you to buy various medicines. Over all, Shuhe is a pleasant place to visit, especially if you want a bit more quiet without losing the old city vibe. But it wasn't as different from Lijiang old town as I'd expected. Oh, as a note, Google Maps does show roads for Shuhe, making navigation simpler.
It started to rain rather hard on our way out of Shuhe but fortunately we managed to get a taxi soon after leaving the town, even if the driver would only take us to the square with the water wheels, rather than the area near our hotel (looks like Lijiang taxi drivers aren't any better than the Kunming ones). After walking the rest of the way and drying off, we ate at a little restaurant near our hotel that Connie had spotted the other day, which apparently gets lots of good reviews on the Chinese equivalent of Yelp. It was pretty good. That dish, by the way, is called Japanese tofu. I liked it quite a bit but I can say with confidence that there's really nothing Japanese about it.
One other thing worth mentioning about the day is that we switched hotel rooms. There wasn't anything wrong with our first one, but it was actually a three person room and family had booked at the last minute and was looking for a room like that so the hotel asked if we'd be willing to switch to a different room (at the same price, of course). We took a look at the one they offered and decided to go ahead and do it. The new room seems like an upgrade in most ways, with a living room, massage chair, and even a huge kind of Japanese style bath. So yeah, no complaints there.

Random China Comment: Bitter Tea
Normally when brewing tea, you want to avoiding leaving the tea leaves or bag to steep in the water too long to prevent the tea from getting bitter. And in Japan, when it comes to matcha (green tea powder), the better (and more expensive) the tea, the milder and less bitter the flavor. China, on the other hand, takes an opposite approach. Tea leaves tend to be left in the water the entire time, even while the tea is being drank. It's fairly common to see a Chinese person carrying around a travel mug filled with tea, leaves included. According to Connie, the bitterness is actually seen as a good thing. Definitely not what I'm used too...

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.
Lijiang Songcheng actually has two sections. The first is a little amusement park with some (mostly kiddy) rides. Since we bought our tickets through our hotel, we actually got a ticket for three free rides (they're not included with regular admission), though we only used one of them before heading over in the actual Songcheng park. Like the Hangzhou one, it's themed after ancient China, though this time with a focus on some of the minority ethnic groups that live near Lijiang such as the Dai, Mosou, and Naxi. We spotted an old timey shopping street and a little beach with some really weird chairs, before going to see a street show. For the next hour and a half or so, we were pretty much whisked along from show to show. First there was a Naxi weapons show (swords, staves, chain flails, etc.), immediately followed by a spear dance and a fire dancing and breathing show. The fire part was especially good. Then, over at the, er, brothel (yes, that's a guy), there was a show that combined some comedy, dancing, and singing. Next up, a Dai cultic show of sorts with a witch doctor (who I immediately thought of as Dai Darth Vader) leading some chants and dancing, followed by more fire dancing and some knife climbing. Not sure if those were real knives or not, but I looked it up and apparently knife climbing is a real thing that's done at Dai festivals. That was immediately followed by a Mosuo show which, while probably not all that accurate, played heavily on their reputation. And finally a version of the ball throwing show we saw in Hangzhou.
After that, things slowed down as the 4:30 main show got ready to start, so Connie and I set out to explore the park. Turns out, there's a reason most people don't get there until an hour or two before their main show starts. Not only is the park smaller than the one in Hangzhou, but the majority of the buildings, and even an entire village, appear to be completely unused at present. So, when there aren't any shows happening, there really isn't very much to do. If they filled up the buildings with shops, restaurants, displays, and other attractions like at Hangzhou Songcheng (where you can spend at least the better part of a day), that would be one thing. As is though, it's really only worth going for 2 - 3 hours (one for the main show and another hour or two to check out the other shows around the park). Makes me wonder why they built so many unused buildings though. Hopefully they have plans to expand and fill them out in the future...
Anyway, eventually our show time came around. Like in Hangzhou, the show was an extremely elaborate and well choreographic series of performances based on the local history and culture. It started with a bit about early civilizations and some kind of flood, followed by a romantic section about the Mosuo. Switching gears, the section about the dangers facing ancient trading caravans was a lot more intense. Then it was off to Mufu for a celebration much like the Emperor's birthday party in the Hangzhou show. And, of course, every thing was historically accurate... Ok, maybe not. While it's possible that the Mu family did receive delegations from Persia (Lijiang was once an important trade hub), I really doubt they traveled there on a flying carpet. Next was a tale of tragic lovers. Apparently, due to some government policies after the Mu family lost control, lovers' suicides became rather common as many young men and women weren't able to marry whom they wished. And finally, the show ended with a section about Shangri-la. No, not the mythical city, but the real Shangri-la, which is a Tibetan minority town a few hours away from Lijiang. Though, apparently, the local government actually changed the town's name to Shangri-la back in 2011 to attract more tourism... Regardless, it was a nice finale.
We managed to squeeze on a shuttle bus back to Lijiang and got back just in time to get dinner before sunset. We decided to try a Tibetan restaurant near our hotel, which turned out to be quite good. The stir-fried Yak and vegetables and Tibetan pancake with yogurt were the standouts.

Random China Comment: American Fast Food
Unsurprisingly, some American fast foods chains have made their way over to China. According to Connie, KFC is the most popular (and I have seen quite a lot of them). But there's also McDonald's, Burger King, and the rare Subway. Pizza Hut is here too, though it seems a lot fancier. It's kind of weird seeing a fancy Pizza Hut... Anyway, like in Japan, all of these chains have some menu tweaks to make them a bit more Chinese, which can range from interesting to plain weird. A few Japanese chains like Yoshinoya and Genki Sushi pop up once in a while as well, though they don't seem very common.
If you just want something to drink, Starbucks is still all over the place (though the Chinese coffee and tea places tend to be a lot cheaper) and mostly the same (with a couple more Asian drink and snack options, much like in Japan). The British chain Costa Coffee (a Starbucks clone that is apparently very popular internationally, despite not having any notable presence in the US or Japan) is quite common as well.

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.
It was getting towards evening by the time we settled in, so there wasn't time for much other than dinner and a bit of relaxation. So yeah, nothing big to write about for today.

Random China Comment: Religion
When I was a kid, I remember hearing some stories about missionaries taking huge risks to smuggle Bibles into China. Well, those days are long over. Christianity has gotten fairly common in China and continues to grow. Meanwhile, traditional Chinese religions such as Buddhism and Taoism, once more or less stamped out by the government, are in the midst of a resurgence. Though the decades of government crackdown still show, as religion (of any kind) is clearly a much less prominent force in China than, say, the US or Japan.
Also, while the Chinese government's stance towards religion has greatly improved, it still stops short of actual religious freedom. Religious groups have to be approved and monitored by the government and a number of religions, such as Judaism, have yet to be officially recognized. As such, while it's ok for foreigners and temporary residents (such as those on student or work visas) to hold services and other meetings for those religions, Chinese citizens are not allowed to attend.


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.
Anyway, after that we made out way out to the Xiantandi area (which I wrote about back on Day 4), walked around for a bit, and ended up at Honeymoon Dessert. It's a chain my tour book recommended. And, as the name suggests, it focuses on desserts. Some are fairly ordinary, others are definitely things you wouldn't see in the US. Connie and I split what was more or less a mango blintz or crepe. I got a dessert that was almost normal (fruit and an iced vanilla sauce) except for all the basil seeds, which seem to be a fairly common dessert ingredient. Connie's was a bit more unusual (at least by US standards), papaya soup with white fungus. Odd combination, but not bad. The weirdest thing on the menu by far though (which we didn't get) was a coconut soup with frog eggs. Supposedly they're good for beauty or something...
After that, we walked around a bit more and got a little more to eat, but we still had the better part of the afternoon to kill. Since it was rather hot and humid, Connie didn't want to spend much time outdoors if we didn't have to, so we decided to check out the nearby movie theaters. Nothing was playing in English, but I figured that, despite my complete lack of Chinese, I might be able to enjoy an action or kids' movie. Turned out, there was a kids action movie starting soon. Called The Monkey King, it was a CG movie loosely based off the popular Journey to the West (you may remember I posted a picture of a a guy dressed up like him the other day). While Connie did explain a couple things to me, it was pretty easy to follow. It was actually rather entertaining too. Honestly, they could probably dub it in English and release it in the US. Most US kids won't know who the monkey king is, but there are a lot of popular kids movies these days based on original IP, so I don't see that being a problem. One thing about the movie that did stand out was the theater. The one we saw it in was what they call 4D, which I've seen at amusement parks but never for a full length movie. Anyway, it means that the seats vibrate, poke, and blast air at you at appropriate times to match what's going on in the film. They even sprayed snow (well, more like some sorta snow like bubble stuff) over the theater at one point. A little corny, but kind of amusing too.
We meant to eat at Nanjing Da Pai Dang that night, but there was a really long wait so we ended up getting dim sum at the nearby Starz Kitchen, a popular Hong Kong style restaurant, which was pretty good.

Random China Comment: Hotel Quality
I've mentioned before that, with the rare exception, I could nitpick a bit about all the hotels that I've stayed at in China. Much more than most US hotels. Ignoring the hard beds (that's just a traditional China thing), most of them just aren't quite up to US (or Japanese) standards in regardless to cleanliness or repair. Of course, part of that might be because I usually stay in fairly cheap hotels here, and it's never been so bad that it's dissuaded me from staying in said hotel, but it is noticeable. However, I'm beginning to think that the main issue is with the maid service. Most of the issues I've had with various hotels rooms could easily be pinned on the maids not going a good job.
I've been here a few times when the maids have cleaned my hotel room in Shanghai. And, at least in this hotel, they seem to the do the absolute bare minimum (often nothing more than fresh towels and toilet paper). That does leave the question of whether the maids are lazy, or the hotel just doesn't set very strict cleaning standards. Either way, it seems to be a rather common issue in China. Still, there have been some hotels I've stayed in that I have no complaints about (I think the hotel in Hangzhou was the best in that regard). And, of course, fancier more expensive hotels generally have better quality. Still, it's something that I think Chinese hotels in general should work to improve.

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
I've eaten at a lot of good restaurants in China. One of the nice things about traveling there is that, due to the exchange rate, you can get a meal in a very nice restaurant for a relatively low cost (often $8 - $16 per person; a fraction of what a similar meal would cost in the US), or in a cheap or mid-range restaurant for next to nothing. Though keep in mind that food quality in the low end restaurants can be a bit dodgy at times. One thing I did notice this year, however, is that a lot of restaurants now post their health inspection ratings in an obvious spot. Not sure how reliable they are, but it's a nice addition.
As a note, most Chinese restaurants expect you to order multiple items and share them among your group, rather than the American style of everyone getting their own appetizer. In general, three items is a good amount of food for a party of two if you've not overly hungry.
Anyway, I just wanted to mention a few of my favorite Chinese restaurants. Specifically, nice higher end places where I ate at least a couple of times and which have multiple branches around China.

Nanjing Da Pai Dang
This restaurant specializes in food from Nanjing and the surrounding area. It's got a large and diverse menu, complete with English translation, and a fun old China style of décor. Some of the menu items are rather small, so I'd recommend 2 - 3 things per person, a bit more than at most restaurants, but the prices are also low, so ordering a few more things than usual isn't a problem. I especially recommend the duck dumplings, salted duck, and some of the chicken dishes, but really everything I've tried has been good. It's my favorite China restaurant and I highly recommend it.
While it started in Nanjing, there are branches in many major Chinese cities including Shanghai and Beijing, so there's no reason not to go.

Din Tai Fung
A close second on my list, Din Tai Fung's specialty is Shanghai style soup dumplings, and they've got quite a wide variety. But there are also numerous other items on the menu including noodles, steamed buns, and soups. While there are a lot of restaurants with soup dumpling, few have Din Tai Fung's variety, not to mention the English menu. It's also received numerous awards from not only Chinese but American papers as well. So yeah, the food is awesome. My personal favorites are the chicken soup dumplings, the mushroom dumplings, and the sweet rice wine soup. Though the noodles and the chestnut dumplings are pretty awesome too.
Din Tai Fung has branches in most major Chinese cities, along with a few locations abroad (including a couple in the US) so be sure to go if you ever get the chance.

If you want to try Taiwanese food, Bellagio provides a large menu, English translations, and great food. I'm especially fond of the three cup chicken and a number of the fish dishes (check out the really strangely looking fried one for something really good and different). They've got a pretty fun drink selection as well, like the longan and jujube milk tea. Wow I don't think it has quite the "wow" factor of the previous two restaurants on my list, I always enjoy eating there.
Conveniently, Bellagio also has branches all around China, so keep an eye out for it if you're traveling.

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
While China is a fun place to visit, there are some things about it that can be very problematic for tourists. On that note, I'd like to quickly go over some of the things I'd most like to see change in China over the coming years. Note that, for the purposes of this list, I'm only going to cover things that strongly impact the average tourist (though most of them would be really beneficial for Chinese citizens as well) and I'm going to mostly avoid political and cultural issues. If these things are dealt with, visits to China will be much safe and more pleasant.
So, in no particular order...

1. Less Smoking
Or at least less smoking allowed in public places. Though, if you are a smoker, you'll probably find the much small number of restrictions a nice change... While more businesses and/or the government could easily limit smoking in more locations, a lot of people seem to ignore the no signs there are and actually reducing the number of smokers will take a lot of time. So yeah, I assume this will improve, but very slowly.

2. Less Pollution
Over all, China is easily the most polluted place I've ever seen by far You really have to get far into the countryside if you want to find clean air and water and even then there's usually still some smog around. Another difficult and time consuming problem to fix, but certainly doable if the government really gets behind the effort.

3. Easier Train Travel
More high speed train lines would be nice but, from what I can tell, those are already an ongoing project. I won't even complain about all the security checks (though I'm not sure if they're really needed). However, it would make things so much easier if the Chinese government would just allow tourists to buy train tickets using the automated kiosks (you need a Chinese ID card). They already have an English menu option, so it would be a simple enough. Right now though, not being able to use the kiosks means talking to an actual ticket agent. Problem is, there are usually very long lines and most ticket agents can't speak English, making the ticket buying process a difficult and time consuming hassle.

4. Improved Sanitation
Being able to actually drink the tap water and not having to carry around anti-bacterial wipes or gel to use before meals would be a huge improvement, and go a long way towards making China feel like a fully modern country. Not having to worry about getting food poisoning from smaller restaurants and street food would be awesome as well.

5. Faster and Less Restricted Internet
While I think the hotels I've stayed at are partly to blame for the horrendous internet access I usually have in China, that's not the whole problem. Though I did recently read that the government is going to be investing a lot of money in improving internet speeds throughout the country, so that's one issue hopefully taken care of.
One thing I'd really like to see though, is for the Chinese government to stop blocking access to so many web sites; including gmail (and everything else Google), Facebook, and many other widely used sites and services. I do appreciate that I can access them on my phone (at least so long as I'm not on wi-fi), but data costs when roaming are pretty expensive and not being able to access them on my computer is, at best, extremely inconvenient. At worst, it could make conducting business while in China near impossible if you rely heavily on some of the blocked sites.

6. Better Cleanliness and Repair in Hotels
While I've yet to get a hotel room in China that's so bad I won't stay there, I've only had a couple where I'd say the room cleanliness and quality was completely up to US or Japanese standards. I'm not sure if the issue is hotel policy or the maids' skills or work ethic, but something could use a bit of improvement.

7. Less Scams
China is getting a bit infamous for scammers that target foreigners (trying to sell knock-off items, overcharging in restaurants and taxis, pretending to need money for train tickets, etc., etc.). Sure you can avoid at least most of the scams if you're careful, but it would be nice if they weren't so prevalent.

8. Better Traffic Safety
Not knowing China's traffic laws, I'm not sure if the main problem is due to lack of suitable laws, or a glut of drivers who ignore them. Either way, appropriate laws should be made (if needed) and very strictly enforced. Especially in regards to stopping before turning on red lights and giving pedestrians the right of way when they're crossing at the proper time. Charging ahead full speed to make a right turn on a red, while honking and hoping everyone runs out the way, is not how it should be done. There are lots of other traffic safety issues that should be addressed, but I'd say that's the most critical one I've noticed so far.

Random China Comment: Going it Alone
One thing that made this China trip different from my last one is that I was with Connie (a native Mandarin speaker) the entire time, unlike last year where I spent half the time touring on my own. And, unlike in Japan, where I always have my conversational level Japanese to help me out, I know virtually no Chinese. Traveling with Connie made everything a lot simpler. While I still did a lot of the trip planning, and was often the one leading the way, her language skills really were invaluable.
Still, that left me wondering, could I have done it, gone to all the same places and done the same things, on my own, without the aid of a Chinese speaker? Well, let's see...

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...
On a side note, the cab ride to the bus station aside, getting to the Stone Forest wouldn't have been too difficult since the ticket counter and busses are clearly labeled.

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...
So, if you're a moderately adventurous traveler, don't be too afraid to get out of the big cities and explore other parts of China (like Yunnan), just make sure to make detailed plans in advance.

China Travelogue 1

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