Things seen along the way

As we’ve moved along over this journey, I’ve taken pictures of things for posting to the blog. Some of them didn’t make it, for one reason or another. But hating to waste good pictures, I thought I’d throw them into a blog posting for all to experience.
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Home again, home again, jiggity-jig

Um… someone stop the world, please? I wanna get off.
The world is a lot bigger than one would expect. Sure, Disney says it’s a “Small, Small World“, but trying going around it sometime. And I don’t mean by plane — go around it by surface. It takes a lot longer, and you’ll see a lot more.
Biggest surprise in the whole trip? Reverse culture shock. Didn’t see that coming, I tell ya. After seven weeks of blocking out all other languages to concentrate on the rare blips of English (signage and speech), arriving in San Francisco about overloaded me. Ouch.
The Bow River is flooding. The main highway was renamed. And those are the only two things we knew about on the road. Adjusting back is going to take some time…

Nara is neat

The last time I was in Japan (a little over a year ago), I’d wanted to go to Nara. I’d quite a bit about it, but just hadn’t gotten the chance to go. So when we planned this out, and happened to be spinning through Japan on our way home, it was a very fortunate happenstance that both of us wanted to be there.
Nara, as it turns out, is a very neat little city. Make no mistake, this is most definitely no town. But it doesn’t feel large. At least, if you’re within the “walled” portion. (I’m not sure if there’s an actual wall, but that’s what it looks like on the maps we’ve seen.)
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Wandering around Tokyo

Tokyo is a wonderful city. Even in the rain. Despite a delayed start (we were up late — it doesn’t help that Chris and I yak a lot), we soon found ourselves in Ginza, walking through the mist-like rain in search of not much except yarn (Amy’s got a project she’s trying to finish).
We went through the sweet electronic sanctity of the Sony Showroom [insert drool marks on the screen here], then over to the Apple store (four floors of pure industrial design nirvana), before crossing Ginza dori in search of, well, food. Amy spied a small sign that led us down an alley barely wide enough for us to walk, then down a set of barely-marked stairs into a basement restaurant that served some darn fine raumen, and some pretty funky dumplings.
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Our first plane ride in a month

We left the hotel early this morning — before 7:00 am — to catch a train to the airport. Strangely fitting that our last train would be to our first plane in quite some time.
Chek Lap Kok airport was designed with an express train in mind, which is great considering how far out the airport is from Hong Kong Island. The train system (the Aiport Express) also lets you check in at the train station, so you don’t have to check in at the airport.
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Ohio, Nippon!

Last country. Almost home.
Being in Japan, actually, is almost like being home. This country is so familiar to me (well, certainly Yotsukaido, Chiba, and Tokyo) that I didn’t actually notice getting off the plane, going through immigration, getting the bags, getting on a train, finding Chris, and getting to his apartment. I think I might actually have been here too much…
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A side-trip to Macau

One last thing we needed to do before we leave the Hong Kong area was check out Hong Kong’s forgotten half-sister, Macau. Macau was founded a couple hundred years earlier than Hong Kong by the Portuguese, and was originally the heavy weight title holder of foreign trading port until the British dethroned it with, shall we say, some less-than gentlemanly behaviour to get their way (I refer to the events leading up to the Treaty of Nanking).
Getting from Hong Kong to Macau is a fairly simple process: you either go overland (through China, which we can’t do since we’ve officially left China and don’t have a multiple-entry visa), or you take a ferry. While Macau might be Hong Kong’s forgotten half-sister, they seem to have a pretty solid relationship, especially now since they’ve both returned to the stewardship of China. The ferry service is perfectly representative of this — they run every 15 minutes.
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Amy's ready to kill me, I swear…

I complain a lot.
Unintentionally, I swear, but I do.
(Amy says I like to complain, but I actually hate it. I don’t even realize I’m complaining until I complain. I complain to myself that I complain, and get stuck in a vicious cycle of complaint. But I digress…)
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The dim sum curse lifted

The dim sum curse is lifted, finally! After a few days of trying to figure out where to go, we hit Hong Kong Island to see what we could find. Our concierge had recommended a place called “Luk Yu Teahouse”, which according to the Lonely Planet guide is full of surly staff. When we got there, it wasn’t even close to full — a sure sign of a not-so-good dim sum.
We tried another nearby restaurant that we’d spied a couple of days ago. Didn’t look any better. At this point, I was willing to walk 100 miles for good dim sum. We’d backed down twice on dim sum, going for something that looked decent, rather than what we’d really wanted. I wasn’t willing to back down a third time.
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Paddles up!

For the record, we didn’t it plan it this way. But like many things on our trip, fortuitious circumstance happened to place us in Hong Kong on the first day of the Dragon Boat festival!
Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival at Stanley Beach
Having first tried dragon boating last year, I was curious to see how the Big Buoys (yes, bad joke) do it out here in Hong Kong, where the sport reigns. There are many differences from how I did it in Calgary last year, and what seems to happen here.
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Buying a suit

So one of my missions here in Hong Kong (self-imposed, I should add) is to find a suit. Not just any suit, but the one for my wedding. So needless to say, there’s a certain amount of care needed in ensuring that what I get is what I need. I mean, I’m getting married in this. Yet, I don’t want to break the bank.
For some reason, dress-makers are on Hong Kong Island, but the tailors are in Kowloon. An interesting divide, but it meant that I couldn’t do anything until yesterday.
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The dim sum curse

We’re cursed. It’s the only way to explain it.Since arriving in China, one of the few things we’ve been absolutely obsessed over finding is some authentic dim sum. For us, this means a seating hall of about 4,000 or so, insanely noisy, carts trundling every which way, and no menu. Oh, and a place PACKED full of people.
You’d think, that in a country of China’s size, we’d find one?
We’ve had dim sum, now, twice. The first time at our first hotel in Beijing. Very unsatisfying. The second time was after our current hotel in Hong Kong (we’re now just checking out for another one; we got this one to cover the days extra in HK) recommended one that doesn’t seem to exist. Either that or the concierge is a moron who doesn’t understand that when you recommend something, you have to know where it is!
The food was good, but it was off a menu. And no carts.
One way or another, we will find proper dim sum!

A little more on Hong Kong

We haven’t been here long, but there’s already a few interesting things that are, well, interesting. Consider for the moment the fact that we’ve been running through three very different countries from what we expect to see at home: Russia, Mongolia, and China. For many of us, China will at least seem familiar, only from possibly walking through our respective Chinatowns or our favourite Chinese restaurant. Be rest assured, your favourite Chinese restaurant probably has little to do (or in common) with some of the places we’ve been…
It’s also fair to say that the Russian places are totally different. Mongolia, don’t even get me started.
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Messed up Hong Kong money

So naturally, upon arrival, we needed to get some money out so we could, well, do anything. The bank machine (from the Bank of China) set the minimum amount of HK$500 (a little less than CDN$100). Imagine my surprise when, on the $500 bill, there reads:

Promises to pay to the bearer
on demand at its office in Hong Kong
By order of the Board of Directors

A HK$500 bill
I wasn’t even sure if this was real money, or some kooky promisory note! (Turns out, it’s real…)
A HK$100 bill
But imagine my FURTHER surprise when I look at the goofy set of $20 bills. Under most countries, the paper currency is issued only by the central bank, e.g. the United States Mint, the Bank of Canada, the Bank of England, and so forth. But here in Hong Kong, it seems just about anyone can do it. So far, I’ve got five different $20 from three different banks: Bank of China, HSBC, and Standard Chartered Bank.
An array of HK$20 bills
This place is messed, man…

Help me, I’m melting!

Hong Kong is hot. It’s humid. I think I left a trail of melted me behind as we walked around. Oof.
We took our final long-distance train from Xian to Guangzhou yesterday, arriving this morning. We switched from the Guangzhou Main station to the Guangzhou East station (thankfully, they’d completed the metro line in between them) before taking the high-speed train from Guangzhou East to Kowloon here in the Hong Kong SAR.
Getting off the train was rough. But that first sight across Hong Kong Harbour somehow made it all worth the discomfort.

Across Hong Kong harbour from Tsim Sha Tsui

But dear GOD did I ever need a shower…

Xi'an and the Terra Cotta Warriors

Amy and I have gone to some lengths to avoid doing the largely tourist thing: travelling in a tour group. Why? Because this is a trip we’ve both planned, and travelling with a group really wasn’t part of the plan. However, as we’d come to find out, getting to see the Terra Cotta warriors in Xian pretty much required a group.
In retrospect, this is all bunk. You don’t need one. It’s just cheaper. Theoretically.
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Last night's train

Man, do I ever have more to say about last night…
This was the second long distance train we’ve taken in China (I’m not counting the train that brought us from UB to Beijing, by the way). The first train, Z1 (which runs Beijing to Shanghai), was exceedingly nice. Very comfortable, although the air conditioning kept cutting out, making the inside a bit sticky.
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The Shanghai Museum

Lest I neglect a wonderful place in Shanghai. One of our first stops was the Shanghai Museum. This is a fairly new place, having only opened in the last couple of years. And its exhibitions are among some of the best I’ve ever seen. The building itself is quite nice to look at (as are many of the buildings in Shanghai), but the collections are even better.
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The Shanghai MagLev Train

A few years back, someone got the idea that China really needed to showcase its technical know-how, and put forth the idea of building one of the most technically-complex things for commercial use: a MagLev train. Magnetic levitation, while not a new idea, is an expensive proposition. Few countries have even attempted it (the major attempts have been primarily Germany and Japan, with smaller ones in England, the United States, and France), and only China has created a commercial system. At a cost estimated at $1.2 billion (US, I presume). This is for a 30km link that runs from Pudong airport to Shanghai’s state-of-the-art subway line, but not even close to the downtown core.
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We've been Shanghai'd

So we found out today at lunch that our hotel is on what was farmland barely a decade ago. The Pudong area of Shanghai was nothing but agriculture until China opened up a scant time ago, and BOOM — a city appeared. Most of it here is new and fresh. It’s modern on a scale that’s hard to imagine.
Downtown Shanghai
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On the topic of Beijing

I have to say, I was a little uncertain of what to expect in China. Mostly because we’d been told by several Brits and Aussies that we could expect a plethora of unsanitary toilets, pushy and obnoxious people, and horrible trains.
I really have to wonder what on Earth these people saw that was so bad?
So far, we’ve had excellent experiences, even walking into alleyways that are likely more local than tourist. The bathrooms have been clean (mostly, some do have a fairly powerful odour), the food has been mostly outstanding, the people very friendly (“art students” aside, we’ve had a number of people who do just want to talk, even if Amy doesn’t dig the whole “practise my English” thing), and the pushy lines are no worse than trying to get into Future Shop on Boxing Day.
Mind you, we’ve only just started China, but so far, I have little to complain about. Beijing is also a fairly modern city, which is a nice thing to see amidst all the old buildings, hutongs, and styles that make this metropolis up. I’ll be very interested to see how Shanghai is…

In praise of my Critical Mass bag

Some companies, those that want to be “fun” companies, sometimes give their staff things like shirts, bags, water jugs, and various other bits of paraphernalia emblazoned with the company logo.
A couple of years ago, Critical Mass gave us sling bags, in either blue or yellow, with the Critical Mass logo on the back. Some people thought they were kinda dorky. Me? I’m loving this thing!

Critical Mass on the Great Wall of China

I don’t know who specifically chose this bag style, but I’ll assume it was someone like Cyndy. This bag has been lugged most of the way around the world now, acting as my day pack. It’s been on the Great Wall. It’s been through the Hermitage. It’s seen the deserts of Mongolia. And it’s been rained on a couple of times (including a nice, semi-tropical downpour) and kept my stuff dry!
So far, the only problem has been the stitching falling apart on the Velcro for the side flap. Nothing 30 minutes with a sewing kit can’t fix.
Did I mention that I love this bag?

The Summer Palace in Beijing, and a duck

About the only thing Amy and I had on tap today was the Summer Palace. For this, we took three subways and a (decent) taxi to the location. Total cost: about 30 yuan, and about 30 minutes. The palace entrance was crowed with about half the population of Beijing, it seemed. High for a weekday, but we soon realized why…
There’ve been storms here the last few days. Big ones. I haven’t heard a good thunderstorm in a long time. The rains, it seems, have washed away the all the haze and pollution that’s been hovering around the area for the last few days. (We should have gone to the Wall today, but c’est la vie.) This made The Summer Palace near perfect for visiting today. It wasn’t too hot, there was a great breeze (almost to the point of calling it “windy”) and the sky was actually blue (instead of the usual white with a blue tinge).
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Shifty Taxis in Beijing

So Amy and I decided to take a taxi back from the Summer Palace to our hotel. Partly because the walk around the Palace grounds (which are huge) wore us out, and partly because we couldn’t figure out how to get back to the subway station we’d taken the taxi from in the first place.
A warning, which will likely be universally understood by many travellers, some taxi drivers in Beijing are con artists. Well, more like would-be con artists, as to be a proper artist, you have to be accepted for your ability. The a-hole who decided to dupe us really didn’t come off that way.
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