Sunday, February 28, 2010

Monkey Island

It must be said that Ness's primary motivation for coming to Sanya, more than the scenery, the ocean, and the warmth, was the monkeys. There's a whole island full of them - just off the southern coast of Hainan island. Home to over 2,000 macaque monkeys, the island's primary purpose is to be a nature preserve. Secondarily, however, it's quite the tourist attraction, with several acrobatic shows in which the performers are all ticked-off looking monkeys (oh, and a pony...and also a goat.)

The monkeys were great (more on them in a bit), but getting to the island was the best part. After the hour-long drive through rural Hainan, with pointy-hatted workers bent over rice paddies, small fruit plantations, dilapidated buildings, and strange species of pigs and cows wandering the streets in families, we arrived at said best part: the overseas cable car. It looks like a ski-resort gondola, only a lot more terror-inducing, with sagging spans of cable and sudden drops. It's a short trip, maybe 10 minutes, but it's magic. As the car took to the skies, we stared wide-eyed at the gleaming blue ocean below which, after a short stretch, transitioned to vibrant rain forest hills of uninterrupted green. As the cable reached an apex, the car lurched downward towards the forest, the ocean now on our left. It was pure beauty, seen from a rare perspective, and I was reluctant to get off.

And then the monkeys. They were everywhere, sitting on the side of paths, hanging from trees, climbing on the sign posts marking the way to various attractions. One smacked me on the backside with both palms as I passed by. Not sure what that was all about. We took in two shows which were pretty amazing, but not without a tinge of guilt. I don't think this kind of thing would fly in more sensitive countries. Some of the monkeys looked less-than-thrilled to be balancing on increasingly tall stacks of wood, walking on stilts, riding the backs of ponies, peddling small bicycles off ramps, or doing handstands on the back of a goat which itself was on a tightrope. Yeah. Don't pretend you wouldn't want to see that.

Side note: what is it about being the only foreigners at a place that makes the locals think you're part of the tourist attraction? As is often the case, Ness posed for photo after photo with random people. I sat off to the side and people snuck photos when I wasn't looking. Weeeird.

After the shows, we further walked the monkey-filled paths and stopped at the various observation areas. There were swimming monkeys, monkeys holding flags, monkeys you could pose for a photo with. I struggled a bit getting about, my foot and knee still badly sprained from having too much awesome on a boogie board. At one point, a man yelled something loudly in my face, pointing at my leg, which Ness roughly translated as "Your leg is hurt." Nice one, Sherlock. Despite the injury, I had a good time. After all, it was an island full of monkeys. Cute, playful monkeys. What's not to like?


Friday, February 26, 2010


I am on a tropical island in southern China. The last couple weeks of shivering in six layers of clothing are behind me. Here in Sanya, along Hainan's southern coast, it is in the 80s, hot and humid.

Hainan advertises itself as “The Hawaii of the Orient.” In truth, it has a long way to go before it is a fair comparison to Hawaii. The climate and foliage is similar, but the crowded rush of people and mismatched development is still very China. Our hotel is on Dadonghai beach, across a parking lot from wooden boardwalks that line the waterfront, shaded by thick palm trees. The ocean here is cool, but not cold – perfect for escaping the heat. The beach itself can be crowded, but there are non-congested areas where the sand is soft with room to relax and swim.

It's like the vacation from my vacation.

After Beijing I spent a few days at Ness's place in Shanghai, not doing anything touristy, just spending time with Ness and Ramsey and writing all those blog entries on Beijing. Ramsey hasn't been able to travel with us at all this trip. Ness has time off from teaching, but in addition to his English classes, Ramsey is an instructor at a Mixed Martial Arts gym he co-founded. His fitness classes keep him glued to Shanghai, with no time to venture elsewhere for the moment. A shame. It would be nice to have him along.

We took the metro and then maglev train to the airport, instead of our usual bus/taxi combo. It's the only operating maglev in the world and at 267 miles an hour, floating above a track of giant magnets, it's pretty damn fast.We got to the airport with time to spare.

Then, as things are wont to do, everything went to hell. We had booked our flight via Lu who used a Chinese website. Our e-tickets were printed out entirely in Mandarin characters, so neither of noticed we were supposed to fly out of the small, regional Shanghai airport and not Shanghai Pudong International. When the guy at the check-in desk informed us of our mistake, the look of utter shock and terror on our faces must have been priceless. We had an hour before the flight and the other airport, far across the opposite end of the city, took at least an hour to get to.

So we ran, our luggage hefted onto our shoulders, back onto the Maglev, hearts pounding. You know you're in dire straights when you're internally screaming for a train that travels 267 mph to go faster. From the maglev stop, we hopped on a taxi and told the driver to step on it. He complied, darting through cars on the expressway like a maniac, his hand constantly on the horn. Through some miracle we made it before the flight took off. It helped that the check-in and security lines were practically empty. It wasn't until I was on the plane that I at last let myself breathe.

Nothing like a warm beach to de-stress from a panic attack. And it's pretty dang nice here. I ended up shaving the beard I'd been maintaining the last four months to stave off the heat. We spent forever trying to find sunblock. I would have thought it'd be readily available since this island is thick with pale Russians – half the signs in the Cyrillic alphabet. The first tiny bottles we found started at $25. Yuck. After more searching we found something cheaper that said spf 30 on it and of course ended up being face whitener. I figured this out when I spread it on my face and instantly turned into Casper. It was a horrifying sight. I do NOT need to be any whiter.

Consequently, we sprung for the expensive stuff.

And this post has already gotten too long, with so much left to say: the paper hot air balloons floating above the darkened beach on the last day of the Spring Festival. The huge fireworks exploding overhead, so close we could feel their heat, as waves lapped against our toes. The strange screeching lizard that woke me up in the middle of night, perched next to my head. My unfortunate accident on a boogie board (I'm still limping).The fact that the not-quite-snug swimming suit I bought here keeps getting knocked off by waves (I've managed to avoid exposing myself to everyone on the beach...mostly).

The days have been full. It's been good.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Beijing Addendum – Terrible Trip to the Tombs

The plan was to visit the Ming Tombs on the way back from the Great Wall. This is what most tourists do, since the tombs are 50 kilometers from the city. The internet made it seem so simple: take the 919 (slow) bus from the Wall to a stop that connects it with the 314. Take that bus directly to the Tombs and voila: more sight-seeing bliss. Easy-peasy.

Wrong. The real instructions, at least in our experience, have many many more steps. So here they are, for your edification.

Jeremy and Vanessa present “Instructions for getting to the Ming Tombs from the Great Wall”
  1. Look for the the 919 (slow) bus at the entrance outside the wall. Ignore scores of fake taxi drivers shouting, “Hello, Taxi, Hello. Ming Tomb. Hello” into your face. Find a parking lot full of 919 buses. Approach official-looking lady and hear her argue with her coworker in Mandarin over who will deal with the foreigners. Ask, in Mandarin, where the slow 919 bus is. Be told it's “behind” with vague gestures. Walk in the direction she points, asking two other people along the way who also declare it's “behind” something. Walk a huge staircase to an area that looks “behind” the parking lot. See nothing. Walk back down. Ask again. Be told it's actually a steep climb further up the mountain. Experience strong desire to hurt someone. Begin ascent.

  2. Walk at least 25 minutes through tunnels and past signs before finally reaching another 919 parking lot. Discuss how this other location could even remotely be considered “behind” the previous parking lot. Shake fist in anger.

  3. Realize new parking lot is a mix of “slow” and “fast” 919 buses. Ask several people which buses are “slow” and which “fast.” Realize no one knows anything. Get help from a man who asks around the parking lot. Finally be led to a bus that says “Fast Slow” bus. Yes, “Fast Slow.” Look for a baby to punch in the face.

  4. Settle on the “Fast Slow” bus as only alternative. Queue up in a disorderly mass of people. Wait. See bus pull up and be forced inside by the shoving mob of bodies. Notice every seat on the bus is already taken. Get crammed further and further back into the aisle as more people get on. Have no room to breathe. Try to keep from passing out from the heat and stink of bodies. Watch the lady in the seat nearby throw up into a bag. Travel for 20 minutes of agony, cursing your parents for having met.

  5. Hear a stop announced, not matching your desired stop. Get off anyway, pushing past bodies as you go. Celebrate the “fresh” air and freedom from discomfort. Notice the bus lady is shouting at you for having not paid for the 20 minutes of hell. Keep walking. Hear the lady chasing you down, tugging on your arm. Quicken your pace.

  6. Lose the bus lady around a corner. Notice you're in a ghetto. Get harassed by several more fake taxi drivers. Find a toilet, regroup. Walk back to 919 bus stop. Jump on next bus and blessedly find a seat in the back. See the new bus lady approach for money. Pay glady – then immediately be asked to move forward to front of the bus as your stop is approaching. Get off.

  7. Check the bus stop for any sign of the connecting 314 bus to the Tombs. See nothing. Absolutely nothing. Where is this mythic 314 line? God only knows. Ask around for any information. Receive bubkiss. Then a lady who speaks surprising good English appears. Breathe a sigh of relief as she describes a 314 bus stop that will go to the Tombs. Retract relief as she informs you the stop is at least a 20-minute walk away. Curse loudly.

  8. Begin walk. Continue walk. Walk and walk and walk. No stop. No 314. Freeways, and streets, and hobos. Feel a wave of utter defeat sour your spirit. Wait on a corner for a long time. Hail a taxi. Ask the driver if he's heard of stop 314. The taxi driver does not, because he is brand-new. Of course he is. OF COURSE HE IS BRAND NEW!

  9. Tell the driver to take you home, away from this horrible place. He does not understand. Where is this Beijing metro stop you speak of, he asks. Really, taxi driver? Really? Swallow your pride and call your friend Lu. Hand the driver the phone. Hear a long stream of Mandarin. Watch as the driver looks further confused, then defeated, trying to work his GPS. Get out of the taxi.

  10. Walk back the way you came as Lu searches the internet for a route to bus 314. Finally reach where the bus dropped you off. At Lu's suggestion, get on bus 376, which takes you past a fork in the road to another stop. Realize this was where the English-speaking lady was pointing all along. Try and find bus 20, a route Lu says will take you near the tombs. No bus 20. Cross the street and search the bus stop there. And suddenly there it is on a rusty metal placard: the mythic bus 314! Whoop and jump around in sheer ecstasy.
  1. Squeeze into the crowded bus when it finally arrives, ignoring the pungent alcoholic breath of the old man pressed next to you, and the foul, rotting breath of the man who announces each stop by wheezing into your face. Whatever, this is bus 314 – blessed 314. Next stop: the Ming Tombs.

  2. Next stop is not the Ming Tombs. Nor is the stop after, or after that. But eventually, yes, the Ming Tombs. The mother #@*ing Ming tombs at last.
And so we arrived, 4 hours after leaving the Wall, at the famous Ding Ling tomb, the only tomb excavated of all the Ming Tombs. It was a hour before closing and the place was virtually deserted, making our visit almost peaceful. We took the long stairs down to underground chambers, saw the burial sites of the Emperor, his Empress, and many concubines. Saw thrones and artifacts in the museum. Very satisfying.

In retrospect, we should have done a little more research before trying to take the bus. Our source had listed the wrong stop, the cause of most of our problems. The correct stop was available upon further search. Still, even with all the correct info, the 919 (slow) bus is a horrible steaming pile of dung. Never take it. Repeat: never take it. It is a blight upon the Earth, a scourge against humanity, a great evil.

Triumph upon our arrival.

Underground tomb entrance.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Beijing - Day 3 - Great Was the Wall

There are many ways to get to the wall, located out in the low rolling mountains northwest of Beijing. Most tourists get their hotel to arrange a bus, some hire a taxi for the day, others fall for the so-called private tours which stop at jade factories along the way, encouraging them to shop for cheap souvenirs for hours before finally dropping them at the less scenic sections of the wall, closer to the city. Ness and I opted for the official Chinese (cheaper) route – the 919 bus.

Of course this way is also confusing as hell. To get to the right 919 bus stop, one must walk several blocks from the metro stop past several other 919 buses going in the opposite direction. There's also fake 919 buses, claiming to be the official line, and even people who will tell you the 919 bus stopped running and offer their tour as an alternative. All this must be ignored. The official 919 bus is green and white, situated behind Deshengmen, a large tower gate. We got there in the early morning and hopped on the 919 “fast” version (there are 2 versions), which doesn't have any stops along its hour-long route and only costs 12 yuan.

That part was a breeze. Getting back from the wall, on the other hand, was an unmitigated disaster. It is is a tale of much horror and woe, but I will leave the telling of it for the next post, in the interest of brevity.

It's funny how a visit to the wall seems synonymous with any trip to China. It's the main event, so to speak. I surely wasn't going to let this trip pass without seeing the ancient relic. And now suddenly I was there, and so was the wall. Miles and miles of it, rolling along the mountain ridges, clear as day. Ness and I purchased a ticket and then walked the steep steps to the watchtowers higher up, taking it all in. It was crowded, and perhaps that detracted somewhat from the majesty of it all, but still – we were on the mother-lovin' Great Wall of China.

Facts you may not know about the Wall:
  • You can't see it from space. That is one of those persistent myths, one that I'd been told my whole life and was later surprised to learn to be false when designing the Great Wall section of a textbook. It stands to logic that a relatively narrow object that blends into the landscape could never be seen that high up, but who thinks these things through?

  • Much of the wall has crumbled into ruin. Only select portions of the wall have been fully restored, a few near Beijing. The section we were at, Badaling, is the most heavily visited, but other long stretches can be reached.

  • The wall turned out to pretty much suck as a defense. It was breached twice, first by the Mongols, then by the Manchu. Oops.

  • In 2007, the Wall was voted as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. And rightly so.
You can walk the wall for as far as you like. Way off in the distance, we could make out several ant-like figures still marching along its heights. We didn't go that far, but we certainly got our fill. Then instead of walking down, we elected to go by pulley– a roller coaster-like vehicle that winds down the mountain to the tourist stalls near the entrance. And for some reason there is a bear at the bottom you can throw apples to. Whatever, the pulley was awesome.

We will now fast forward to later that night, skipping the Ming Tombs fiasco for the moment, to our ride along the new Olympic metro line to the Bird's Nest, as seen in the 2008 Summer Games. Currently the Bird's Nest is filled with snow and has been converted into a kind of winter wonderland – complete with indoor ski slopes. We decided not to pay the 50 yuan to get in (having had plenty of winter wonder, thanks) and instead walked along the boardwalk outside. Everything was lit up, including the ultra-modern Water Cube, where all the swimming competitions were held. Best of all the boardwalk wasn't crowded, and despite several vendors trying to sell us kites (look, 7th kite lady, if I didn't buy a kite from the first 6 kite ladies, I won't be buying yours), it was a peaceful stroll after a long, long day. 


Beijing - Day 2 - Palaces and Temples

Grannies playing hacky sack. That's the first thing that greets you as you step through the entrance and into the park-like corridors of the Temple of Heaven. It's quite a sight: circles of old folk, mostly women, spread out in small clumps kicking feathered hacky sacks high into the air with surprising skill. One lady catches a sack with her forehead, balancing it on her brow with a low chuckle before letting it fall back to her waiting feet. It's hard to tell if these women are demonstrators or just enjoy the “sport.” Yes there are vendors spread throughout the crowd, selling the feathered sacks. But the number of these circles gives the impression that hacky sack, much like at a freshman dormitory, is a common game in these parts.

The Temple of Heaven is where the Emperor would pray for a good harvest in the days of the Ming and Qing dynasties. There are gorgeous circular buildings and wide rectangular halls in the ancient Chinese style. We were lucky to visit during Cultural Week. Halfway through our wanderings, the inner square was roped off and scores of figures in colorful traditional robes performed a sort-of Tai-Chi with weapons. Awesome. The whole complex is huge. We walked a lot, stopping at sections of interest haphazardly. The Circular Mound Altar was swarming with people behaving as if in a punk concert mosh pit, shoving their way to stand on the altar where the Emperor made a burnt offering to Heaven. Through all the feet, we were at least able to catch fleeting glimpses of the altar.

We passed an outdoor market on the way out, stopping to buy dried kiwi. Back on the streets we realized the metro entrance was at another end of the complex, far away, and there was no way back in, short of paying again. Thankfully we found a bus back to south Tiananmen (Ness recognized the correct characters) and walked the tunnel under the street to the Forbidden City, dodging more “art students” and suited-men demanding we take their travel service to the Wall.

The Forbidden City covers a smaller area than the Temple of Heaven, but it has a lot more buildings – a small city's worth, essentially. This is where Emperors, their households, the entirety of the government lived for five centuries, cut off from the common people. It is a feast for the eyes, every alleyway and enclosed garden felt like walking through another age. Still, it was hard not to think of the enormous gap between the lifestyle of the royal and peasant-class. I had the same thoughts at Versailles years ago– the sheer opulence of that palace is almost suffocating, especially taken in the context of the time. Unlike Versailles, however, the excesses of the Forbidden City are more aesthetically pleasing, with intricate sculpted dragons and painted archways, and not so much gold-plated this, and jewel-encrusted that.

Later that night the city exploded into celebration. Up until now fireworks had been going off daily ever since the start of the New Year, louder and more frequent in Beijing than in Mudanjiang or Harbin. But this night in particular was intense. Searching for a restaurant on the street near our hotel, we dodged explosions left and right. Rockets whizzed passed our heads, sparkling fountains of light sprouted in every direction. It was like moving through a war zone, bright and chaotic and deafening. We later learned it was the 5th night of the New Year festival – the birthday of the Chinese god of wealth. All the fireworks are to get the god's attention, ensuring his favor and good fortune.

Ball's in your court, Money god. Best deliver.


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Beijing - Day 1 - Tiananmen

The plane from Harbin to Beijing was temperamental, jerking about in the windy skies like a Parkinson's patient. By the time the landing gear deployed, the plane was experiencing full-on convulsions. A dozen barf bags ripped opened in unison. The first sound of hurling set Vanessa off. Others followed in much the same way dominoes fall. I clutched my bag, trying to block out the audio. It didn't help that they had fed us fish.

We arrived at our hotel in one piece, if slightly lighter. I had booked the place purely on location (and price), just outside of Metro Line 2; so I was thrilled when it turned out to be a charming, comfy place – with architecture in the style of an old Chinese courtyard, inner garden, and staff in traditional dress. Check-in hit a snag when they had no idea what this “Orbitz” was we had booked with, but we got through it.

Then I was locked out of my bag. We had bought luggage locks to keep our stuff safe on the trains. Now the combination to one particular lock had decided to change itself. We tried 50 variations of the original combination but nothing. At last I was able to jimmy off the zippers that held the lock in place, a crude but effective solution. Panic concluded, we hopped on the metro and went to Tiananmen Square.

It was strange to be walking through a place I had read so much about in my study of modern Chinese history. Beyond the several books on Mao Zedong's life I have read, I have designed sections in history textbooks on the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Tiananmen Square is always featured prominently in these books – a gathering place for the Chinese masses to hear their godly leader. So as we approached Mao's giant hanging portrait at the far-end of the square, it didn't surprise me that I had a “Mona Lisa Moment.”

Let me explain. Da vinci is a sort of historical hero of mine. Here's a man so thoroughly gifted in both art and science, who lived such a colorful life. He was always my answer to the cliched hypothetical question: “If you could have lunch with one figure throughout human history, who would it be?” His most famous portrait, the Mona Lisa, has become its own sort of cliché. It's familiar to everyone, seen everywhere. Despite its historical significance, in many ways it has become the epitome of art mundane. Yet, many years ago, when I approached it for the first time at the Louvre, I experienced the strangest sensation. Seeing the actual portrait, not some photograph, gave me goosebumps, took my breath away.

And so it was with the giant portrait of Mao. I felt a chill just staring up at his smug, crazy-eyed face. The man killed more then 50 million people with his destructive policies, razed countless works of art and literature from existence, silenced intellectuals and anyone with an opposing voice. Not a good dude. All the same, the giant portrait of Mao on Tiananmen square has made my short-list of “Mona Lisa Moments.” Congrats Mao, you bastard.

As the sun set, we watched the official flag-lowering ceremony on the square along with hundreds of Chinese and a few foreigners. Beijing is a tourist-friendly city, with an easy-to-figure-out Metro system, plenty of signs and announcements in English, and abundant scammers waiting for a mark. We were approached by “art students” who spoke very good English and claimed to be in Beijing on holiday. While conversing, they led us through a park, and to a coffee shop. They seemed annoyed when we declined the invitation to go in – but I had read too many stories on the internet of “tea-ceremony scams” where you end up paying for things you had not signed up for. We did promise to text the students about hanging out the next day (after all, there was the small chance they were genuine) but we sort of forgot to follow-through there.
Our hotel: the Soluxe Courtyard, outside and lobby.

Vanessa, in her "snow queen" outfit, often gets asked to pose for photos with people's kids.

People keep mistaking us both for Russians. I suppose we have a bit of that look.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Harbin Ice and Snow Festival

We've been set loose into the wilds of China. Lu is staying in Mudanjiang to spend more time with her family before heading back to Shanghai to start working for eBay/Paypal. We will no longer have her around to hold our hands, which is essentially what she has been doing up until this point. Now we'll be totally on our own. Except, as it turns out, not quite yet.

Our next destination was Harbin, which Ness and I had prepared to handle. We researched hotels, read up on the taxi situation (apparently they like to bamboozle people, up in Harbin), traced routes to the airport, etc. Then Lu's dad caught wind of the situation and insisted we have help. I believe he thinks we will end up destitute on the streets, shivering in the cold, perhaps considering a life of prostitution if left to ourselves (I'm sure news of my “mugging” didn't help this perception.). He called a friend of his living in Harbin and made arrangements.

We took a 4-hour bus north through the frosty white countryside and were dropped off at a street in downtown Harbin, where it is -14 C during the day and -23 C at night. We had been sweating in our multitude of layers on the bus but were instantly missing it as soon as we stepped into Dr. Cold's Wonderland of Pain. This is a kind of cold that backhands you repeatedly in the face, insults your mother, and then issues several hard kicks to the groin. Not pleasant.

Lu's dad had instructed us to stay where we were until “Uncle Joe (Zhou)” came to get us. I had Ness teach me how to say “Are you Uncle Joe?” in Chinese, but the only people who approached us for the first little while were taxi drivers, none of whom were named Joe.

While we waited, I ran across the street to the public toilets. Upon entering, a lady at a booth screamed something at me, which clearly meant she wanted money. Realizing I forgot how to say “how much?” I flashed my fingers in a counting motion, and she favored me with a dead glare and said "dur." Dur – in much the same sound and intonation as someone with, shall we say, limited mental capacity. I have no idea what "dur" means – it is not one of the numbers 1 through 10 I had so carefully memorized. Pretending to understood, I just handled her my smallest bill, 1 yuan, and she handed me change. First solo Chinese transaction a success!

I returned to Ness and learned she had been able to text Uncle Joe and got a response that he would be there in 5 minutes. Go Ness! True to his word, Joe pulled up with his wife and 7-year-old daughter. She came bursting out of the car and said “Hello! Nice to meet you!” in heavily accented but adorable English. And then we were off. Ness was able to make small talk in the car with Uncle Joe and his wife. I mostly smiled and pretended to know what was going on. I have had to do this a lot lately.

What followed was a day of wonder, awe, and awkwardness. Wonder and awe for everything we saw. Awkward because a family of total strangers dropped everything for a day and became our guide and chauffeurs. They took us to a place to eat, bought us food (refusing to let us pay them), then to an inexpensive hotel to check in, then through the substantial traffic to the world famous Harbin Ice and Snow Festival. The festival is divided in two, on one side of Sun Island is Snow World with hundreds of amazing snow sculptures, and the other side is the ice festival with gigantic lit structures built with blocks of ice.

Getting into the exhibits was insanity. The entrances were packed with people, more packed than even our train travels at the height of the Spring Festival. Once through the ticket lines and entrances, however, the crowds spread out a bit. I won't go into detail describing everything we saw, I'll let the pictures do it. Suffice it to say, it was pure eye candy. Delicious eye candy.

Uncle Joe was waiting to take us back to our hotel as we left. He even met us the next morning and took us to the airport, refusing the money we tried to pay him. I just wish we could have been more interesting for him. Ness's limited (and my nonexistent) grasp of the language kept the conversation to a minimum. Yet Joe seemed happy to take us around, all the same. Lu says it's a cultural thing – that people in China bend over backwards for their friends (in this case, friends of friends). It certainly is an admirable thing, even if it did make our time together a bit awkward. As he left us at the security line at the airport, we thanked Uncle Joe profusely.

And now we really are functioning on our own. I know because I'm writing this from the future. Stay tuned.


Ness got to hold an arctic fox. She immediately wanted to own one.