27 July 2007

I love Sydney!

Yesterday morning, I arrived in Sydney. George greeted me and got me set up with a map of the city before he dashed off to work.

I had a glorious day exploring the city! The day was sunny with temperatures in the upper 60s and made for walking. I wandered around the Sydney Harbor Bridge and Sydney Opera House for most of the day. The adjacent botanical gardens are also quite beautiful. I'm amazed at how Sydney pulls off clean, hip, professional, and fun vibes all at once! This is a walkable, well-planned city. George and I went out for dinner on Darling Harbor last night, and we had an overwhelming amount of choices. The only draw back I've found so far is the outrageous cost of pretty much everything.

This morning we went out on a dive charter for two morning dives. Amazing. Really. The visibility on both dives was 50+ feet. At the shallow site, I could see where we were diving to before even breaking the surface. This is the best visibility I've ever experienced, and it makes me gitty! I could get used to safety stops mid-blue water. We wore wetsuits with no gloves or booties, and stayed plenty warm below water...and it's winter here. Again, truly incredible.

As for the critters we saw, they included three varieties of sharks (grey nurse, Australian ugly, and Port Jackson), two cuttle fish, two huge bull rays, trigger fish, and an eel. There were schools of tropical fish all around. Being that we're in Sydney, I felt like I was suddenly part of Finding Nemo.

George is finishing his last moments of work before vacation as I type. We're looking forward to a weekend outside Sydney with Paul and then three weeks in New Zealand. Cheers!

Oh, China

Being in China was frustrating and more difficult than I anticipated. I experienced more culture shock than I expected, yet I also became "comfortable" more quickly than I expected. On so many levels, it was a wonderful experience.

It was the first time I visited a country where neither of my two languages is spoken. It's scary to rely entirely on hand gestures or something that a stranger wrote for you. I now have a far greater appreciation for folks coming to the US without speaking or understanding English.

It was also interesting to be in an Olympic city the year before the Olympics. The people of Beijing have a lot of work to do in the next year to be ready for world's stage. With the large amount of manpower and excellent examples of other cities in their country, they certainly have the capacity to pull it off. You better believe that I'll be tuned in next summer.

Chinese Traffic and Food

Traffic in China is something else. Besides the immense number of people in the streets in cars, on bicycles, on scooters, in rickshaws, or on foot, the way they interact is positively fascinating.

Pedestrians hold much of the power...when they're in a group. It doesn't matter if the red stop symbol is illuminated or if the crossing guard is squealing his/her whistle louder than a semi truck. If a group of pedestrians wants to cross the street, good luck stopping them. Drivers are reckless, but they aren't going to run over an entire crowd of people. I took advantage of being outside the jurisdiction of the Seattle Police and joined the jay-walking crowd as often as safely possible.

Then there are bicycles, scooters, and rickshaws. As a lone pedestrian, you have to watch out for traffic in the bike lane just like you would cars because they will not stop for one or two people. They will obey the traffic lights only when convenient and do as they please the rest of the time. Doing as they please may also include driving against traffic. When we took a tour of the hutongs (small neighborhoods) of Beijing, our rickshaw driver did this, and I thought my life was going to be abruptly ended. Scooters are particularly dangerous because they're not always in the bike lane...or even on the road. The sidewalk seemed to be perfectly acceptable if the road and bike lane were too busy. Incredible.

Vehicular travel is probably the most dangerous, however. Seat belts are rarely worn, and I don't recall seeing a single child or infant car seat. Just as with pushing and shoving on the sidewalk, there is no common courtesy or right of way on the roadway. I saw at least three accidents where one car went into another lane and right into the side of an unyielding vehicle. It was not uncommon to see five vehicles (cars, trucks, vans, buses, etc.) attempting to fit across three lanes of road. Though terrifying, I grew accustomed to riding amongst the craziness.

I wish I had good news to report in the food department. The food I had in Beijing was dire - really, truly terrible. One night, we tried hot pot (a pot of boiling broth/oil that is used to cook the raw food you order with it). It was okay, but not enough to make up for the rest of Beijing's disappointment. In Chengdu, I had kung pao chicken at every opportunity.

The experience of eating in a Chinese restaurant as a foreigner was interesting. We'd walk in and ask if there was a menu in English. If not, that was the end. If so, we'd sit down. There would be one page of English menu to replace the 20-page Chinese menu. The menu items would be very simple descriptions like "chicken with cashews." (It's not kung pao chicken outside Sichuan...don't be fooled like I was several times.) There is one menu issued per table, regardless of the number of people sitting at the table. All the while, the wait staff is standing over your shoulder waiting for your order. Once you give them your order, you will only see them again when your food comes out and when you flag them down and beg for the check. When you request the check, the wait staff tells you the total and waits there until receiving the money. The itemized bill may or may not be given to you after your change is returned.

26 July 2007

Shopping? I'm there!

Visiting the market was a highlight of my time in Beijing. Anyone who knows my family's legacy of shopaholics should not be surprised!

As soon as Tracy told me that tailored suits could be made a reasonable prices, I had to have one! My beloved suit took us to the market three times (pick out material, first fitting, final fitting). The final product is pretty amazing, and...well...looks made just for me. It ended up just being an excuse to come to this fascinating place.

The market we frequented was an indoor market with 5 floors of vendors. Each floor has a general theme (bags and shoes, women's clothes, men's clothes, jewelry and salons). With few exceptions, any given item can be found at 5 or more stores. Supply is definitely in the buyer's favor. The people working at the stalls sometimes rotated between stores and always remembered us. With 7.5RMB to 1USD, we could have a good time finding fun stuff for a pretty reasonable price.

Some of the vendors were particularly aggressive while others waited until you entered the stall. I can't tell you how many times I heard "Hello. Lady, you need ______. Which one do you want? I give you good price, Lady." Taking more than a .25 second glance at something was interpreted by the vendors as wanting something. Touch something, and you should be prepared to negotiate for it or have a good excuse for not wanting it.

Negotiating price was generally fun, and almost always followed the same pattern. At some point, the vendor would tell me to stop joking and offer a real price. And at least once, I would start to walk away. The less you want something, the more likely you'll get it. Tracy was particularly skilled at getting her desired price. We were both told at least once that we were tough bargainers. I'll take that as a compliment, thank you very much.

I'd love to tell you about the fun stuff that I got at the market, but many of you will see these things when Santa comes next December. Rest assured that I had a fun time picking them out!

Forbidden City and Tienanmen Square

Back in Beijing, Tracy and I decided it was time to start seeing the sites! We'd done our best to plan around the weekend, when tourist sites can be particularly busy, but we couldn't wait any longer to go into the Forbidden City.

On Saturday morning, we joined some serious crowds in the area around the Forbidden City and Tienanmen Square. While the early morning crowd was still in the Forbidden City, we went to an adjacent park, Jingshan Park, and climbed to the rock garden on top for a great view of Beijing. To the immediate south, we saw the Forbidden City and Tienanmen Square. To the west, we saw nearby Bei Hai Park. To the north was the area of the bell and drum towers, and the central business district could be seen to the east.


Against our better judgment, we braved the crowded and unrelenting afternoon sun to visit the Forbidden City. It's a beautiful maze of detailed buildings set on nearly 180 acres. We spent about four hours, and I don't think we covered even a fraction of it. The largest building, which most people recognize as the symbol of the Forbidden City, was under construction and completely closed. You can't go to Beijing without visiting the Forbidden City, but I really felt it was over-rated.

On several occasions, we wandered through the neighboring Tienanmen Square. Despite its tragic history, I thought it was really cool. There were always a lot of people using the large, open space. In the evening, families were out sharing time together and flying kites. Unfortunately, there was always a significant military presence in the Square as well. We even watched through a fence to see some sort of military training. It brought back not-so-fond Marine Corps memories.

Warriors, Pandas, and Photos...Oh, My!

The Great Wall exhausted us, but there was no rest for the wicked. The next morning we were scheduled to leave for a three-day excursion to Xian and Chengdu, so off we went...

When we arrived in Xian, we booked a car for the day. It was the only option that was really feasible since we were only allowing ourselves 8 hours before flying on to Chengdu. Our driver, Lee, was sweet and moderately conservative in his driving. I think he was the only person I rode with in China who used an indicator.

Anyway, we were on a mission to see the Terracotta Warriors to their fullest extent. Emperor Qin had an entire army cast out of terracotta as part of his tomb around 210BC. Each warrior is life-sized and slightly different, so they really appear to be real people. Qin was buried with the army of warriors, but the overthrowing empire destroyed many of the warriors when it found the tomb. The tomb was only discovered in modern times in the 1970's when someone was drilling in the area.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, there are three buildings with separate pits. Archaeologists are still actively working in two of the pits. I found the largest one the most interesting. At one end, reassembled warriors and horses have been placed in formation. In the middle, archaeologists are clearly still recovering debris. At the far end, visitors can see the steps taken to reconstruct the warriors and horses. There are bins of hands, busts, heads, etc. along side parts of warriors with reconstruction material exposed. It was very cool, and the grounds have been beautifully laid out and maintained with local flora.

We made a quick stop in Xian and then dashed back to the airport to catch our flight to Chengdu.

In Chengdu, we stayed at a wicked cool hostel called the Loft. (Can you tell I just spent 10 days with a New Englander?) It's an old printing factory converted into three floors of rooms and a floor of common space. The way they integrated the indoor and outdoor spaces brought back fond memories of places like the cloud forest of Ecuador.

The Loft helped us accomplish our next mission: PANDAS! Early the next morning, we went to the breeding research station just outside Chengdu. The first hour was disappointing as all the pandas were sleeping. And then came feeding time! We happened to be in the area with 10-month old panda cubs when the keepers came out to wake them for feeding. I scored a front row, center stage spot for the "show." videoThe pandas chased their keepers up and down slides and around the grounds. They practiced climbing trees and attempted to climb their keepers in the name of food. They were very, very cute. Unfortunately, Tracy and I were not able to handle the pandas as we'd been told. For some strange reason, there was no one at the area for petting despite the large amount of money we were willing to pay.

The next day, we went to the local plaza and Mao statue on our way to the airport. Tracy was truly the star for the day! She stepped up for me to take her picture by the statue, and suddenly a crowd formed. She had her picture taken with probably 20 people. One proud father even had his young son pose with her. She was a real trooper!

The Great Wall Experience

I'm having such a good time traveling that I'm lagging behind in updates. This overcast afternoon is my opportunity to redeem myself. Hopefully I'll get to cover all of China.

As soon as we arrived in Beijing, Tracy and I booked spots on a bus to the Great Wall. Since day one of trip planning, I have been adamant about wanting to see the unspoiled part of the Wall. So, we decided to hike from Jinshaling to Simatai. A 10K (6.2 miles) walk should be easy enough, right? It can't be that difficult if it's in a tour book. Sure, Amanda.

The mere detail of getting from Beijing to Jinshaling and Simatai to Beijing was interesting enough, but I'll talk about Chinese traffic in another post. Let's just say that I first suspected we might be in for more than we requested when the 90-minute bus ride we were expecting turned out to be nearly 4 hours.

Nonetheless, we were excited to arrive at the Wall! Tracy wisely "convinced" me to ride a gondola from the bus to the base of the Wall to conserve energy for the hike. By the time we got to the top, I was down right gitty! The parts of the Wall near the access points are in pretty good shape. These sections have been renovated and maintained over the years. The farther we got from Jinshaling, the worse the shape of the wall. It's still intimidating, but it is most definitely crumbling in sections. Interestingly enough, the terrain also became incredibly difficult after leaving the immediate Jinshaling area. The photos of this area are gorgeous, but reaching them proves a struggle to anyone who's not truly fit. One memorable section had three sections of 100+ steep, tiny steps each separated by a small watch house. A handful of local people were walking the Wall hoping to sell water and/or provide assistance to those who weren't prepared.

The Wall is every bit as amazing as your most imaginative dreams. Really. The analogy of it being a dragon along the mountains reigns true. It's tall - probably 15 feet (3 meters) - in most places. When standing on top, some places have tall walls while other areas have only the base remaining. At one point, we were standing there looked at the Great Wall as far as we could see in front and behind us without anyone else within sight. Talk about goosebumps! I feel privileged to have been able to experience it and hope that my pictures will say what I'm not able to articulate.

But wait - that's not all. By the time Tracy and I reached the end of our hike in the Simatai area, we were done. Pure exhaustion set in. And then we discovered the "flying foxes." For 35 RMB (less than $5), you could zipline from the Wall to the area where our bus back to the city was waiting. I hesitated, but wise Tracy convinced me that nothing would feel better than some good ol' fashioned wind in the face. Yes! It was fantastic! We each ziplined down the gully and across the river. It was a truly unique way to end a very special day!

20 July 2007

Half-Way

Sadly, I'm half-way through my time in China. Tracy and I are having a GREAT time! I'll just give you the highlights for now.

We hiked 10k of the Great Wall on Tuesday. It was hot, humid, hazy, and very steep. I wouldn't trade that hike for the world, though. We earned our Great Wall experience with every step. Hopefully our pictures will show at least a fraction of the amazing sights on and around the Wall.

On Wednesday, we flew to Xian to see the Qin Terracotta Warriors. Again, what an experience! There were three pits of warriors, two of which are still in the process of being fully excavated. We'd been told that some people are disappointed by the size, and one of Tracy's friends told her it was "skippable." Hardly. We both thought they were REALLY fascinating.

On Thursday, we went to a panda breeding center. While we didn't get to hold a panda as expected, we did get to watch some cubs playing with their keepers. I'm looking forward to sharing my videos. Pandas are ADORABLE!

Last night we got our first look at Tienanmen Square when we happened upon China's version of the changing of the guard. We're headed there and the Forbidden City today.

I've gotten plenty of laughs over our stardom here. Tracy, in particular, is a popular photo subject. Last night we were both asked to be in family photos at the Mao photo outside the Forbidden City. Good times!

More later... :-)

15 July 2007

Arrival

I arrived in Beijing without incident. I'm reunited with Tracy and safe. :-)

After a whopping two hours in Beijing, I can clearly see that natural selection has forced China's surviving population to push and shove their way to any and everything. Queuing seems like a lost art.

That's it for now. I can't promise frequent posts while I'm here, but I'll do my best to pass along my experience.

13 July 2007

Trip Prep

I'm leaving tomorrow morning on a new adventure. (George will join me in a couple weeks.) I've weathered 2+ years in the non-profit world, the LSAT (twice!), law school applications, law school waiting games, and one glorious week of rest and relaxation. It's time to head abroad!

Any trip abroad demands at least a little bit of preparation. Over the past several weeks I've gone to San Francisco to get a visa for China, logged onto the Australian government's visa-granting website, purchased some comfortable clothing and bags, and read more pages of travel guides and travel magazines than I care to remember. It was just Tuesday, though, that I caught myself thinking in Spanish and carefully planning out some of the common phrases used when navigating a new city. This drew me to compare my subconscious to the ordinary cat or dog who somehow senses that its owner is about to leave it for a holiday away from home. My mind somehow learned that each time I've gone through the motions of preparing for a big trip in the past, I've ended up in a Spanish-speaking country where I've relied almost entirely on my second language skills for survival. Weird, but kind of interesting, huh?