Monday, November 13, 2006

Checking out China

Sorry about the long hiatus - I was away on a two week adventure with my mom and sister through the country of my ancestors: China. Our trip took us to multiple cities, starting in Beijing, moving on to Xi'an, Guilin, Guangzhou, and finally to Hong Kong before returning to the States. The trip was very interesting, though also extremely tiring; I spent most of the last week resting and adjusting to the sixteen hour time change.

We decided to take a guided tour of the country, which would ensure that we didn't have to worry about the language barrier, since none of us are fluent in Mandarin. There are definitely other advantages to going with a tour group as well. For example, we had all of our hotel accommodations and travel arrangements taken care of for us by the tour agency. We also didn't need to worry about tickets to any of the sites, nor about the transportation to and from the attractions; all of that was taken care of by either the tour agency or the local guide. The people in our tour group were pretty nice and we ended up making a lot of new friends. Of course, there are disadvantages as well. For example, our schedule was crammed full of events each and every day. (Anyone enjoy 6:30am wake-up calls every morning during your vacation?) With a large number of people in our tour group, we attracted the attention of the ubiquitous street vendors, who were teeming at every tourist attraction, but we were able to fend them off, though on a few occasions, I had to use a little physical interdiction.

All of our meals were included with the tour package. However, that was definitely a negative aspect of our tour package rather than a positive one. Other than the breakfasts, which were for the most part Western-style and somewhat palatable, most of the meals that were included in our tour package were pretty horrible, especially the ones in Beijing. For some reason, we were constantly being served Americanized food, or at least their take on American food. For example, we had French fries and deep fried fish four separate times during our stay in Beijing. Perhaps they figured that we Americans wouldn't like the authentic local food. However, nearly everyone in our tour group was either ethnically Chinese or travelling with someone who is ethnically Chinese, and all of us were looking forward to authentic food. Sadly, this was not to be. Instead, we ended up having tasteless soups and bland vegetables with mystery meat. For some reason, I was designated as our groups' food tester, which I didn't really mind too much. I figured that I had my Hep A shot before I embarking on this trip as well as a full prescription of Cipro, so I was good to go. What was especially disappointing was that the tour package touted a 'special' meal in every city that would highlight the local cuisine. Most of these 'special' meals were no better than the others, especially what passed for Peking duck in Beijing. It made me long for some nice yummy food from Panda Express.

On the positive side, we did see a lot of the major tourist attractions in the cities we visited, which was very cool. In Beijing, we visited the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Summer Palace - all on our first full day in Beijing! (Now you know why we were so tired by the end of the trip - each day was just jam packed with things to do.) We also visited the Ming Tombs in Beijing. Of course, no visit to Beijing would be complete without a trip to the Great Wall of China. We noted, with some amusement, that along with the various trinket shops at the Great Wall, you can enjoy a latte at the Starbucks Coffee located right next to the Badaling entrance. In Xi'an, we visited the famous Terra Cotta warriors of the first Qin emperor, as well as the City Wall (built during the Ming Dynasty) and the Great Mosque.

Next, we went to Guilin, where we enjoyed a relaxing four hour boat tour down the Li River, where we enjoyed some spectacular views. The river and nearby mountains provide for some of the most picturesque scenery in all of China. We also toured the famous Reed-Flute Rock caves and visited Elephant-Trunk hill, which resembles an elephant drinking water from a lake. From Guilin, we hopped on a short flight to nearby Guangzhou. Our trip to Guangzhou left something to be desired. First, our guide was not there to greet us at the airport (due to some apparent scheduling mixup), so we waited at the airport for a couple of hours before she arrived. We also happened to visit the city on the very last day of a major trade convention so we could not get into our original hotel. Instead, we ended up staying at some sketchy motel somewhere in the sticks. Good thing that we were only there for less than a day. Of course, this only left us an opportunity to do a quick driving tour of the city, but that was plenty for all of us, as we were exhausted from all of the travelling. To top it all off, on our way to the train station for the trip to Hong Kong, we were given a proproganda-laden speech from our tour guide. Needless to say, we were all very happy to be heading off to Hong Kong.

Normally, the tour ends in Hong Kong, but we arranged to stay for an extra few days on our own. My mom still has a few distant cousins and some friends in the area, so we were treated to some mighty nice hospitality while we were there. We also had some pretty awesome food in Hong Kong, which was in sharp contrast to the rest of the trip. One of the restaurants that we visited was the Tai Woo Restaurant in the heart of Kowloon. This Cantonese-style restaurant served up some very tasty seafood plates, including some delicious crab and shrimp dishes, and an award-winning sesame chicken entree (which was nothing like the sesame chicken you get here in the US). The appetizer platter, with jellyfish and various cuts of smoked and barbequed meats, was spectacular, easily better than any of the food that we had in the PRC and definitely a nice birthday treat for me. It was so good, we ended going back for a return visit a couple of days later. Unfortunately, my mom caught some sort of stomach bug during our second day in Hong Kong as was completely laid out for the next couple of days and ended up eating Cipro like Tic-Tacs. The medicine definitely worked its magic and my mom was able to join me and my sister and a host of our newfound friends and family for another nice dinner during my last evening in Hong Kong. One special treat during this dinner was a local speciality - hairy crab, which happened to be in season during our visit. The meat was very succulent as was the crab roe. In fact, one of my friends told me to skip the meat and fill up on the roe!

By the end of our second week, my sister and I were more than ready to head back home. (My mom is staying for an extra couple of weeks to visit more friends and family.) Overall, the trip was good and all of us were happy that we were able to make over to China and experience it together. China is an amazing country and has a wealth of historical and natural treasures. However, as my sister and I noted, there are still a lot of things to be desired. For example, the pollution in China was bad in every city that we visited. In particular, the air in Xi'an was utterly horrible. I've never been to Mexico City, but I would find it hard to believe that the smog there could be any worse than it is in Xi'an. There was a brown haze in every direction and at all times of the day. One could imagine that a child could grow up there and not realize that the sky is blue. Related to the pollution is a general lack of hygiene in the country. People are spitting everywhere and no one seems to care very much. The tap water is so unhygienic that you cannot even brush your teeth with it; every hotel in China where we stayed provided bottled water for that purpose. Don't get me started on the bathrooms. Almost none of the women in the tour group would use the public 'squat pot' toilets, which were often little more than a hole in the floor. I am wondering what the world will think if the situation does not change before the 2008 Olympics Games in Beijing. I would imagine that a large number of the visitors who are coming for the Games will be from the Western world - what will they think about the unclean water and the rudimentary toilets? Even my mom, who grew up in China, hated using the public facilities. I realize that a large part of the world doesn't even have running water nor anything like what exist in China, but then again, they aren't hosting an Olympics summer games. I hope that the infrastructure in the country will improve as a result of the games, but I'm not too confident that this will happen.