Four fun-filled days

I sit here at my kitchen table, rubbing the weariness from my eyes. Not the things you’d normally hear from me, mind you — I haven’t been working too hard as of late (as you know, my big project is done). No, this is from something much better — spending time with my family, and notably you, Monkey.
The last four days have been a lot of fun. Maybe even too much fun. Both of us are pretty pooped. You went to bed and for the first time in a long while, there wasn’t hours of chatter from your room. I think you pretty much passed out. I won’t be too far behind you, I think, but I do wish to describe the fun that we’ve shared.
‘Cuz, frankly, I’m not sure how the heck I survived it all…
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My favourite trains (so far)

I rarely remember my dreams. I have to wake up in the middle of them to remember what they were about, and quite often I’m so tired that by the time I can get my mental faculties together to try and remember the dream, I already forgot what it was. Which is probably good, since most of the dreams I remember make very little sense.
This morning’s dream was an exception. I was talking with someone I know (admittedly, can’t remember who it was) about trains. (Believe it or not, this is not an unknown conversation.) They asked me what my favourite train trips were, and I had said something like “whoa, that’s a tough one, let me think”. Then I started rhyming them off.
Oddly enough, that was about when I woke up … and I kept rhyming. So I figured, heck, that just sounds like a blog post!
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The IOC is living in a dream world

As I was skipping through my various feeds this morning, I came across the following quote from Jacques Rogge, President of the IOC:

Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, said the Games would “help the world to understand China, and it will also help China to understand the world.”

I think we need to send a team into the IOC’s fantasy world and extract them, because they’ve clearly (and totally) misunderstood the situation.
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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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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…

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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Enter the Forbidden City

My calf muscles are killing me. I don’t know how many stairs Noah, Justin, and I climbed yesterday, but I swear my calves have never received such a workout in their existences. And now they’re taking their revenge on me. Even small stairs hurt … a lot. They’re rocks attached to the backs of my legs. They don’t flex, they pulse. Forget the Stairmaster, folks! If you want a great workout, spend the money on a trip to China, then visit three different sections and walk as much of it as you can. Your legs will be cut out of stone in days.
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Hiking the Great Wall of China

Amy’s feet self-destructed yesterday. And as you’ve already read, the state of her feet prevented her from coming to the Wall today. So why did I go without her? We’d already made plans with Noah and Justin, and this was their last suitable day for the trip. Amy effectively told me to get lost and have fun without her. I didn’t particularly like this arrangement, but I couldn’t argue with her logic, either. It was entirely possible if I didn’t go today, neither one of us might get to go.
Noah and Justin were in the lobby waiting for us. After explaining that Amy would not be joining us for the hike, we sat down to the task of deciding where were going. There are several sections of the Wall in close proximity to Beijing, and the key is to find the “right” one. The reason for the quotes is because some parts of the Wall are in their untouched state — effectively, falling apart. But they’re authentic. Other parts of the wall, such as Badaling, might as well have a pair of mouse ears slapped on ’em with “It’s a Small, Small World” playing for all the authenticity there might be.
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Searching for the Tianjin Antique Market

Lonely Planet recommends going to Tianjin, especially to see the antique market there. It is said that a lot of the materials there were confiscated during the Cultural Revolution, and are now being sold to the dealers, who in turn sell it at the market. Theoretically, neat stuff, right?
This brought Amy and I to hop on the first Beijing – Tianjen express train this morning. A jaunty 90-minute trip on a fairly zippy (and comfy) train that deposited us at a rather chaotic train station. We walked from there roughly south-west (“roughly” because the street grid is slightly skewed, and got us turned around more than once) when we stumbled across a rather large and bustling pedestrian mall.
As Amy so aptly put it, this distracted us a while.
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Hello, underwear!

Today was errand day. Today, we decided to get our train tickets sorted out, and make plans for an excursion to the Great Wall. Inadvertantly, some things happened along the way…
First off, we hopped the subway down to Qianmen station (which is Tiananmen Square, but we weren’t headed there) to search through the hutong neighbourhoods. After a little dive in, we were diverted due to biological reasons (namely self-preservation having not to use the toilets in the back alleys). Out back on the main street, the decision was made to skip ahead to the Grand Hyatt Hotel for two reasons: exchange traveller’s cheques and see if they can handle tour bookings a little more easily.
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