Tuesday, April 27, 2010

All Good Things Come to an End

Well, that’s it! After a little over a year, my worldwide odyssey has come to an end! I sincerely want to thank everyone--my family, friends, hosts and travelers. Without them, my trip would not have been possible. This past year has been the highlight of my life thus far. My travels have broadened my horizons and eliminated many stereotypes I had about certain cultures. Everywhere I visited, I tried to interact with locals, learning about their country, culture and society. I value these interpersonal experiences, as they are the most memorable and more educational than reading books. I will remember my interactions with locals much more than I will remember the tourist attractions. I have learned that regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion, people are very similar all over the world. Everyone needs to feed his or her family, be loved and be accepted.

One indelible mark left on me as a result of this trip is my view on humanity. I am so glad I had the chance to step back and slow down from the daily grind of life. In doing so, I have been able to observe and experience humanity at its finest. I never expected to be invited to a man’s village, fed by a woman on a train or led to a bus station by a stranger. These “random acts of kindness” have shown me there are people with good intentions in the world, and to open up to them.

The following are some (not exhaustive) of my favorite countries:

France--There are many reasons why this is the most touristed country in the world. I like France because of its diversity--a country the size of Texas contains many different geographies, cultures and food. France places a huge emphasis on the arts and culture. In my opinion, French food and wine are simply the best in the West.

Spain--Similar to France, there are many reasons why this is the second most touristed country in the world. I like Spain because of its diverse regions, cultures and food. For example, Andalucia, a southern region, has unique Moorish architecture. I was surprisingly wowed by the number of cultural festivals in Spain.

South Africa--I had the opportunity to only visit the Western Cape province in South Africa. I was stunned by the natural beauty of Cape Town, its mountains, beaches and nearby wineries. Moreover, I appreciated the diversity there, as its mix of Blacks, Whites, Indians and Malays enriches the South African culture.

Uruguay--A tiny country sandwiched between Argentina and Brazil that is not on the tourist trail. I loved the friendly locals, the laid-back lifestyle, the farms and the beaches. Uruguay is small enough for me to learn all aspects of its society. For me, it was a joy simply living in Montevideo after traveling non-stop the previous months.

Syria--This Arab country has the friendliest and most hospitable people in the world! Also, Syria contains a wealth of history, as evidenced by its Roman ruins, Byzantine monasteries, Crusader castles and courtyard mansions. I enjoyed learning about the “real” Syria and not the Syria portrayed in Western media.

Malaysia--This is my favorite country in Southeast Asia. I love the cultural blend of Malays, Chinese and Indians. As a result of this diversity, Malaysian food is some of the best in the world. Lastly, friendly locals and a well-developed infrastructure makes traveling in Malaysia hassle-free.

China--The world’s most populous country surprised me on many fronts. Traveling around rural China, I encountered hospitable people, quaint villages and scenic countryside. In urban China, I loved the juxtaposition of old and new. The food is diverse and simply the best Asian food! China is racing ahead into the future and everyday brings changes and surprises. Overall, China is a very exciting country to visit!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Shanghai, China

Shanghai is China’s “New York” and thus is its wealthiest city. The city is blessed with a rich history, evidenced in the old and new buildings.

When I was visiting Shanghai, the city was gearing up for Expo 2010, a world-class event with almost 200 countries building pavilions. Because of this huge event, security had been ramped up everywhere, as seen in the X-ray scanners at each subway station.

Shanghai is racing ahead into the future at lightning speed. There is construction everywhere. Everyday, new sections of freeways, apartment blocks, skyscrapers and subway lines are being added. The most conspicuous evidence of this is in Pudong, the business district by the Huangpu River. Pudong is dominated by skyscrapers, which include the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, the Jinmao Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Centre. These buildings are beautifully lit up at night, which can be seen across the Huangpu on the Bund. New shopping centers also abound in Shanghai, including those lining Nanjing Rd. and Sichuan Rd.

The Shanghai of the past is equally attractive. Elegant concession-era buildings line the Bund, the avenue adjacent to the Huangpu River. Throughout the city center, there are quaint shuttered European-style homes. Emphasizing the importance of historical preservation, the government has restored several old neighborhoods and transformed them into tourist hot spots. These areas include Shanghai “Old Street”, Xintiandi, Tianzifang and Duolun Street. I enjoyed the outdoor atmosphere of these areas--people have utilized the old courtyards by socializing and dining.

The food in Shanghai is among the best in the world. On my last day, I went to a popular restaurant to eat xiao long bao (steamed pork dumplings with soup inside) and xian jian bao (pan-fried pork dumplings with soup inside). These were scrumptious and I will be sure to be back in Shanghai to dine on some more!

Luzhi, China

Luzhi is a lovely little canal town two hours away from Shanghai, near its famous neighbor, Suzhou. I chose to visit this “little Venice” as I had heard Suzhou is a large city.

Luzhi has one of the best ambiences of any Chinese town. Old wooden and brick Chinese buildings line narrow canals, with stone bridges arching over them. Trees line the canals, adding to the charm of the town. In the shops near the canals, locals sell a wide range of crafts, including musical instruments, fans, paintings, calligraphy and dresses. Overall, Luzhi is simply a great place to take it easy and wander around for the sake of soaking up its relaxing atmosphere.

Beijing, China

Beijing, China’s capital since the Yuan Dynasty (about 800 years ago), is one of the world’s most fascinating cities. It combines both old and new on a grand scale. Beijing has its traditions, but it is also leaping ahead into a world-class metropolis.

I came to Beijing primarily to witness its history. The top four historical sites that cannot be missed are the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven and Great Wall. The Forbidden City, next to the famous Tiananmen Square, was China’s seat of royalty during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The gigantic complex contains a garden and many halls and residences with orange tiled Chinese roofs and red columns. I found the architecture not quite fascinating, as I grew up with Chinese architecture. The Summer Palace, on the other hand, was the emperor’s suburban residence. The complex contains a huge lake, Kunming, with several bridges, pagodas and a temple complex on a hill. The Summer Palace is a great escape from the city’s crowds. The Temple of Heaven is where the emperor would pray for a good harvest. This complex contains the famous Harvest Prayer Hall, with its three-storied round structures.

The Great Wall, the only man-made structure seen from space, is my favorite historical structure. Together with a group of CouchSurfers, we took a two-hour van to the outskirts of Beijing. We then proceeded on a 10km hike from Jinshanling to Simatai, which took about 5.5 hours. The hike was phenomenal! Not only were there few tourists, but I could see the wall snake its way up and down the hills for miles. It was amazing to trod on a historical path and appreciate the work that was put into building this masterpiece.

Modern Beijing is undeniably spectacular. I started off my tour visiting the National Grand Theatre, in the shape of an egg “floating” in a pool of water. I then visited Olympic Park, site of the successful 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Of particular interest to me was the National Stadium (“Bird’s Nest”) and the National Aquatic Centre (“Water Cube”). The other part of modern Beijing are the malls and shopping districts that have cropped up these past few years. There are probably more foreign brand-name outlets in Beijing now than in Hong Kong. Areas such as Wangfujing Dajie and Sanlitun are about as capitalistic one will find in China.

One part of Beijing that I enjoyed was the area of Houhai, with its renovated hutong (alleys). In recent years, the city has begun to realize the tourism potential of its historical buildings and have converted many stone courtyard homes into bars, cafes and restaurants. Many of these homes are simply charming.

Dining in Beijing. All I can say is “yum!” This is because as China’s capital, Beijing has all types of Chinese food. In fact, one hardly even knows what Beijing food is, except of course, for the famous Peking duck. I was fortunate enough to dine on Peking duck (my favorite part is the sweet plum sauce) with Cser Calvin at the most famous place of all, Quanjude. My other dining adventures in Beijing involved munching on bao zi (steamed buns with pork and vegetables), jiao zi (soup dumplings) and bing (crepe with egg and onions).

Zhangjiajie, China

I initially was not going to visit Zhangjiajie, a UNESCO-listed park filled with towering quartz sandstone peaks. However, the park, located in northwest Hunan province, was a good stopping point between Guilin and Beijing. It took me over 15 hours by train from Guilin to Zhangjiajie, and this included a connection in Liuzhou. On my first train, I sat on a hard bench seat. Luckily, the train was fairly empty, so I did not have to endure the crowds that I had envisioned (including many people standing). On my second train, from Liuzhou to Zhangjiajie, I slept on a hard sleeper. This is the most popular way to travel long-distance in China as it is the most economical and comfortable. Because of this, one usually has to buy hard sleeper tickets days in advance. Each hard sleeper compartment (rooms without doors) contains six beds, in two groups of three bunks each. The middle and upper bunks are not as comfortable as the lower bunks due to the fact that one cannot sit upright on them. The beds themselves are quite narrow--about two feet in width.

I arrived in Zhangjiajie city and took a public bus to the youth hostel. This was the only youth hostel I stayed at in China and it did not disappoint. The room and bathroom were clean and well-lit. The common area was cozy with wonderful d├ęcor. I later learned that many youth hostels in China are decorated stylishly, either modern or refurbished historical. This certainly beats many hostels in the West!

I visited Zhangjiajie park on two separate days. In fact, I was practically the only solo traveler and one of the few “foreigners”. Most people who visit join tour groups and even those who travel independently hire a guide at the park. I admit it was quite difficult to schedule a trip from Zhangjiajie city to the park as both public bus and park shuttle bus schedules are not posted. Thus, I had to constantly ask locals for information. On both days, I caught the last bus from the park back to the city (an early 5pm). On the second day, I had planned to catch an earlier bus, but that fell through as I exited the park at a different place (which a guide recommended) and then realized I had to walk 40 minutes to the bus stop.

On my first day, I strolled through the flat and boring Golden Whip Stream. This area allows one to gaze up at the numerous “spiky” quartz limestone peaks that is characteristic of the park. These peaks were formed thousands of years ago from water erosion. I then hiked up to Yuanjiajie and walked from one viewing platform to the next. The views up there were incredible, as I saw the tops of those “spiky” peaks. The effect of mist on the peaks was phenomenal. The most unique structure was the limestone bridge that arched its way to a peak with thousands of padlocks (apparently for good luck). There were moments during my walk through Yuanjiajie that I got the viewing platform to myself. However, as I progressed through the walk, more tour groups appeared, disturbing the tranquil environment. I accepted this, as there are always many people in China, as this is the most populous nation in the world!

On my second and last day, I visited the viewing platforms at Tianzi Shan, the highest point in the park. This area had the most spectacular views, with peaks likened to “calligraphy pens”. This area was also swarming with tourists and food sellers. I spent the afternoon hiking the much less touristed Yangjiajie. I climbed peaks such as “One Step to Heaven”. Yangjiajie was my favorite part of the park because one can get varying views of the peaks. Besides a birds-eye view, I was also able to descend in between peaks and end up at a valley of peaks. I was often alone on this hike, which made the experience more memorable, as I was able to concentrate on the beautiful scenery and not on tourists snapping numerous pictures of themselves.

Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces, China

Besides the legendary karst peaks in the Yangshuo and Guilin areas, northeast Guangxi province also contains another tourist gem--the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces. This man-made agricultural wonder looms over several villages of the Yao minority.

Myself and two Canadian backpackers, Alicia and Jelena, decided to stay at an inviting guesthouse in the traditional Yao village of Dazhai. Dazhai contains wooden homes with gray Chinese-style roofs, all nestled in a valley filled with yellow wildflowers and a stream. The surrounding cliffs contain step-like rice terraces.

We embarked on a hike up the mountains, past the village of Tiantouzhai and to viewing platform #1. This place gave us a panoramic and commanding view of several rice terraces and villages. Despite the lack of greenness (it was the dry season), I enjoyed observing the undulating edges of the rice terraces and their enormity.

The most exhilarating part of the hike was getting lost. In fact, if one doesn’t speak Chinese, one will definitely get lost as there are no signs; I had to constantly ask locals for directions. After we passed viewing platform #1, we decided to hike to the summit to catch the sunset at viewing platform #3. We did see the sun setting, but not over any rice terraces, so we did not reach viewing platform #3. We then decided to head down the mountain as it was getting dark. At around dusk, we arrived at a miners’ compound, unsure of where we were. The miners told us that the only way back to Dazhai village was to go back the way we came, which would take 3 hours. This was not going to be possible because it was getting dark. The miners told us the only option would be to hire a van to take us to the nearest city of Longsheng, where we would have to spend the night and head to Dazhai the next morning to retrieve our luggage. We did just that, splitting the RMB200 van ride.

Despite the initial fear of getting lost and having to pay a “penalty” in the form of a van and an extra hotel room, chatting with the miners proved to be one of my highlights in China thus far. The miners were there to extract gold and worked long hours (in shifts around the clock). It turns out that we were not the first “lost” tourists. There have been a handful of foreigners in the past. I was lucky in that I could communicate with them in Chinese. The miners were extremely hospitable and I saw a side of the Chinese (from strangers, that is) that I have never experienced. They served as several types of tea, all brewed and poured from a traditional tea set and apologized several times for not having food for us. Furthermore, they gave us tea leaves as gifts. This experience has given me an even more positive view of rural China.

Yangshuo and Guilin, China

After waiting for weeks for my “return home permit” to enter China (which reduced my time in China from 4 to 2 weeks), I boarded an overnight bus from Shenzhen to Yangshuo. The 9.5-hour sleeper bus (with beds in it) was very comfortable and efficient. I arrived in Yangshuo at 5am, 1.5 hours ahead of schedule.

I was extremely excited to be visiting China! I have only been to China once (Xi’an) and that was 14 years ago. Thus, I was unfamiliar with the culture and society of the Mainland and was curious to experience it! In particular, I wanted to visit the scenic Chinese countryside, with its villages, rivers and hills. I wanted to discover the beauty of a country that has been deemed “polluted” by Western media.

The Yangshuo and Guilin area in northeast Guangxi province smashed most stereotypes I had about an ugly, polluted China. This area consists of fabled karst limestone peaks overlooking rice paddies, quaint villages and meandering rivers (Li Jiang, Yulong He). The scenery resembled a painting.

One of my highlights was cycling in the countryside, with karst peaks surrounding me. My day guide Daisy and I also floated down the Yulong He on a bamboo raft, sliding down a few rapids. Another highlight was the 4-5 hour walk along the Li Jiang from the village of Yangdi to Xingping. For this hike, I followed the river the entire time, all the while gazing at those dreamy peaks and chatting with the villagers. The countryside (and especially on the trail) was calm and peaceful, with wildflowers and water buffaloes along the way.

Back in town, I sampled the famous “Guilin rice noodle soup”, with its sour and spicy condiments. There was nothing special about the cities of Yangshuo and Guilin, only that I preferred Yangshuo because of it is smaller. Guilin has become a large city with tall buildings that hide many of its famous peaks.