Xi’an!

Ancient clay warriors , walled ancient city , moats , muslims , sound good everyone? Welcome to Xi’an!

An early wake up in Hangzhou with an hour-long 95 RMB taxi ride to the airport ( 1 hour taxi ride like 15 bucks hell yea!) and then a two-hour flight to Xi’an. Beats the hell outta the 19 hour train ride there. I was pretty excited to get back to Xi’an. It’s the furthest I had been West in China and everything is different. People are darker skinned, a huge Muslim community , different foods ,and different accents. I was ready!!

We booked a cool hostel inside the ancient city walls.Part of the old town massive defensive walls remain and are surrounded by a moat. At the center of it all are the ancient drum and bell towers , which used to ring the bells to signal the times throughout the day and send the signal to open and close the gates into the city. This is the ideal place to stay in town to see all tourist spots. Shuyuan hostel is a party hostel with an awesome underground bar. If you are looking for a party check it out , if you want to sleep early it’s an avoid fo sho.

After we arrived and checked out the hostel we decided to head out to Big Goose Pagoda. I believe this ancient tower was around 8 stories tall and must have been quite the sight in ye olde times. The structure served as a watch tower outside of the ancient city. Before the advent of skyscrapers this was a massive building. When one climbs up it yields a quite nice view of modern Xi’an’s skyscrapers towering above all else. At these sites in Xi’an I can find pretty much the exact same photos from the exact same vantage points that I took 4 years ago haha.

Leaving the tower , we headed back towards a pizza joint we noticed before while walking. ( Pops western food cravings strike!) Sky high pizza was actually amazing. Nothing else to say about the pizza  just simply amazing. Then back to check out the Bell Tower and Drum Tower. Perhaps the most striking thing about the Bell Tower is that in these modern times it is completely encircled by roads. It stands in the center of a intersections of four main roads and a traffic circle. Chaos rules here with insane amounts of traffic , honking, cutting off, swerving , in general all out madness. Fortunately the town planners have built an underground pedestrian circle underneath. In fact many streets in Xi’an are (crossed??) via underground tunnels under the road. Traffic is horrendous in this city, they really need a metro system here.

After checking out the towers we went in search of the Muslim quarter around the Drum tower. Along these streets are tons of street vendors selling nuts, breads, and tons of lamb and beef skewers. Street food heaven! The family is scared of street food but I know what’s up. They watched as I devoured a pile of lamb kebabs , bread , and washed it all down with some brew. When the feasting was finished we went back to the hostel and I made full use of the free drink tickets everyone checking into the hostel got! I chatted with some English teachers hanging out there and compared living costs and salaries between Xi’an and Shanghai.

The next day we went out to see the Terracotta warriors. Upon arrival at the bus station near the train station we were swamped by annoying touts and when we found where the buses were parked we were confounded. There is a real bus taking you directly to the warriors but also there are a bunch of fake buses that display the same bus number but make stops at many different places on the way hustling people through markets and shops where the drivers receive commissions from the stores. God it was so confusing and frustrating and I was super angry. We couldn’t find the real bus and ended up chartering a car to take us there and crammed 5 people plus the driver into a small sedan ughhh for around an hour ride.

The Terracotta warriors are spectacular but to tell the truth I was a bit underwhelmed by it the second time around. Some places , like the Great Wall , never fail to amaze me but for some reason the warriors weren’t all that awesome after the first time for me. I just kinda loitered around while the family looked around and a tout annoyed the hell out of my dad until he bought a cheap mini size clay warrior set. I agree with pops that sometimes the damn touts can almost ruin the experience with their unending attempts to sell ( and try to rip you off at that) their cheap crap. After this we had to cram back in the car and deal with the driver trying to take us to a tourist trap when after they promised not to do that. I wasn’t the happiest camper at this point in time.

When getting back to the city proper the skies promptly unleashed their fury upon us. We went back to the hostel and gathered our things before hopping in the hostel van very very early to make it to the train station for our sleeper train to Beijing. So incredibly glad we left super early. The traffic was a nightmare , gridlock and horns everywhere. Our driver was crazy laying on the horn at every point , swerving into the other lane when he could , even driving up on the sidewalk for a brief bit. Finally we arrived and proceeded to do a mad dash through the deluge of rain and people.

A Chinese train station can be one of the craziest things. Absolutely packed with people, luggage on the floor with people sleeping on it , no room to move at all , and thousands if not millions of eyes settled upon the weird foreign freaks. It can be absolutely intimidating for those of us not used to it. Fortunately I was the guide for the family through the chaos and we made it , settled down , and drank a few beers while waiting for the sleeper to pull in.

Now the family wanted a soft sleeper ,which I have never had the fortune to take before. I’ve taken many an overnight train in China and have ridden hard seat and hard sleeper. Now hard sleeper is no problem for me , I’ve had quite a few good times meeting people , playing cards , and drinking baijiu with my new friends. Wow my parents spoil me haha. Sleeper is really really nice.

Hard Sleeper – two sides of 3 beds , top , middle , bottom with no door to seal yourself off from the outside hallway

Soft Sleeper – two sides of two beds apiece , nicer furnishing , bed comfort is pretty much the same which is not a bad thing at all , I like the beds , and you can shut yourself off from the outside world. Which can be nice if you don’t want people peeking in and looking at the big foreigner sleeping haha.

Alrighty folks that’s it for now. Next post will be a big one about Beijing , or more likely a couple of posts about Beijing.

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Ancient water towns – Zhujiajiao

Let’s take a break from the summer travel writing and catch up with some current events. Last weekend , well yesterday , I took a trip to the relaxing water town of Zhujiajiao 朱家角. Zhujiajiao is an easy day trip from Shanghai but it would be worth it to stay the night in one of the hostels there. We only had time (and money) for a mere day trip but it was all good. Will most likely head back to check out the annual October music festival held there.

This ancient water village is set waayyy out in the western Shanghai suburb of Qingpu. But it’s relatively easy to make it there. Go to People’s Square and find Pu’An Lu 普安路 by HuaiHaiZhong Lu  淮海中路 , it can be found by going to exit one of People’s Square metro station and continuing south (straight) out from the station and crossing HuaiHaiZhong Lu. After you find Pu’An Lu hop on one of the pink Hùzhū Gāosù Kuàixiàn 沪朱高速快线 buses for 12 kuai and you are on your way! The buses leave at 30 minute intervals and the last one returns to Shanghai at 10pm. After about an hour the bus pulls into the Zhujiajiao bus station and you are only a short walk away from the ancient town.

Zhujiajiao ancient town is like a trip to the past. Cobble-stone streets, two-story white stores/ residences line the streets , red lanterns adorn the walls , boats float down the canals albeit with tourists,  underneath the stone bridges, and old families crowd around in their courtyards playing mahjong. This town has a history of more than 1700 years and sometimes you can feel like you really are away from modern times , though that changes quickly when one spots a hardly inconspicuous coffee shop.

You may guess from the title that the main attraction of this town is water. Zhujiajiao lies at a natural conjunction of a few rivers and the rivers were harnessed into a series of canals which crisscross the town. The canals bring about the necessities of bridges ,which  Zhujiajiao also happens to be famous for, how about that? Around 34 stone and wooden bridges are scattered through the town and I must admit make for some excellent photos. One can also opt to buy either a 90rmb 80rmb or 30rmb ticket which grants you access to 9 . 8 . or 4 respectively little museums and attractions , including an imperial post office , various temples , and a botanical knowledge center. We choose to just go in for free and walk around the town (strapped for cash at this point in time). It would also be worthwhile to cruise in a boat but again no cash money.

What attracted me to this town also attracts many artists, musicians , and others of a slightly bohemian streak who seek to escape the pressure of living in the city. Those sick of trying to land a job as a corporate lackey , feeling suicidal from all the fluorescent lights and cramped cubicles, and tired of the cramped commute in rush hour , come to Zhujiajiao for an easier, more relaxed, more fulfilling life, selling art , playing punk rock shows , etc.Which has led to a concentration of cool bars , coffee shops, and bookshops in the center of ancient town. Cool places to check out include the Book Room , Bum Care ,Heima (a Scandinavian bar/lounge,  and my favorite Zher. Zher is a cool underground punk bar/ chill out lounge , which has a stage set up and comfy couches to watch the shows from. Also cheap beers (20RMB Beerlao!!) and a huge selection of Belgium beers.

If you like seafood this is definitely a good town for eating. Check out the mini river lobsters!. A plate just loaded with the juicy suckas. MMMMMMMM!!!

Hangzhou

Oops sorry everyone the last few days have been pretty busy , work during the week and play on the weekend. Back to the summer’s travels!

Next stop Hangzhou. Hangzhou is the largest and the capital city of Zhejiang province. Hangzhou lays about 180 km or so from Shanghai. 2.5 hours or so by bus but only 55 minutes via the high-speed train from Shanghai , making it an easy weekend escape from the crush of the city. Hangzhou has been one of the most prosperous cities of China for the last 1,000 years or so and is most famous for beautiful West Lake. West Lake really is that awesome , it’s not one of those hyped-up ” you must visit sites!!!!” that when you arrive leaves you with nothing but a vast feeling of disappointment . Hangzhou is also the most popular place for domestic Chinese tourists so it is an absolute must avoid during the madness of national public holidays. West Lake scenery is even featured on the back of the 1 RMB bill!.

We stayed at the Hangzhou International Youth Hostel at 101 Nanshan Lu , literally a one minute walk from the lake. This location was amazing. Both sides of Nanshan lu are heavily treed which creatures a lovely leafy green shady vibrant zone. There isn’t a whole lotta traffic here either which really adds to the contrast from Shanghai. I plan on returning here for a nice weekend getaway from Shanghai in the future.

The first day in Hangzhou we spent walking around the lake in the general vicinity of the hostel and taking a quick boat cruise to one of the islands laying on West Lake. 45 RMB to make it to Lesser Yangzhou Island. This is an artificially created island with a nifty little twist , the island is a ring with water on the inside and then another island on the side of the island , cool! After the island we walked over to Middle Zhongshan Lu pedestrian street to just look around and look at the cool architecture then returned to the hostel. After relaxing at the hostel and watching the sunset we found an extremely cool place.

JZ Bar (jazz bar) is right by the hostel on Nanshan Lu and is one of my favorite bars I’ve been to. Every night has a live jazz event and the one we saw blew me away. Sipping on our extremely pricey Carlsbergs (thanks pops!) I was amazed by the covers of Beatles , John Lennon , and (sorry can’t remember others! but I recognized many songs and then my jazz knowledge dad recognized the rest) crooned out by that sexy lady! Woo hoo!

The next day we ventured out into the less developed western green hilly area of Hangzhou in search of the famous Longjing tea. The area is loaded with tea fields , a tea museum , and plenty of tea houses and villages. This part of Hangzhou really amazed me , completely unlike Shanghai , reminding me more of Kirtland, OH with the greenery , lack of people , and streams. “This isn’t China “,you may think ,until you come on the tea fields with the farmers in the stereotypical cone-shaped hats plucking fresh tea. We took a visit to the tea museum, which was unfortunately closed on that day but we could still walk through the fields and visit the gardens and then found a tea house to relax at. This tea is the freshest possible and may be a little different from what you are used to. Tons of fresh green leaves float in the glass as you drink , if you finish your glass a waiter promptly comes by and pours more hot water into your cup.

After the tea fields we came back to visit Lingyin temple , this is one of the 3 oldest and most famous temples in China. It is a practicing monastery with monks roaming around the vast grounds. The temples are huge and the setting is serene set amongst the all the tall pine trees. However , my favorite part was the many many Buddhas carved directly into the stones of the mountain along the river. The carvings are stunning and my family got a good taste of the Chinese tourists being more interested in us and taking pictures with us than seeing the temple and carvings.

We left the temples and went back to walk around the lake until our hunger built up. After, we found a fantastic western restaurant right by the hostel , sorry everyone can’t remember the name but it’s right by the hostel so look by 101 Nanshan lu. This awesome restaurant bar has a rooftop bar , and first floor outdoor seating and (and!!) a selection of 6 or 7 craft brews from California! Hell yea Acme Pale Ale! Translated into Chinese as Beautiful Girl Beer (due to the chick on the front). My parents are doing a good job of eating Chinese food but pops is requiring at least one western meal a day. This works out for me cuz I’m not used to eating western food on a regular basis and its like a mini vacation for me as well. The family went to bed early and I took the opportunity for some on the family micro-brews. Hehe.

We had an early wake up the next day to make our way to the Hangzhou airport for a flight to Xi’an to see the Terracotta warriors. I told you this plan was ambitious!

Return to Suzhou

A 41 kuai 26 minute journey via high speed bullet train took me n the fam fam to the city of Suzhou from Shanghai. I absolutely love the bullet trains. Never have had a problem and have been on trains here many times although the summer crash that occurred between two trains near Wenzhou made me think a little bit about the safety standards. The bullet trains feel like airplanes with lots of leg space. Uniformed stewardesses come by and the train breaks 300km/h , the landscape absolutely speeds by. We only had less than a full day to spend in Suzhou , a city renown for its canals and beautiful gardens. Marco Polo once called it the Venice of the East. So we made sure to stay in the middle of the historic district in a canal town and visit one of the most famous gardens of Suzhou.

We stayed on the lovely Pingjiang St which features crisscrossing canals , 1000 year old stone bridges , and a slight glimpse into ancient life in between the coffee shops and places catering to the tourists. It rained the entire day due to the seasonal wet seasons ( argghhh Plum Rains!!!!!) but we still had a great time. Fantastic just walking by the canals and catching glimpses of the gondolas floating by controlled by the lone singing pilot. Comparisons to Venice are aptly suited.

A walk down PingJiang Rd soon leads to a museum/garden area. We took the opportunity to visit the Humble Administrator’s garden. This garden was owned by a Tang dynasty scholar and was built in-between the years 1510-1526 A.D. Since then it passed hands many times and was granted UNESCO world heritage status in 1997. (I should count the number of UNESCO sites I visited this summer , sooo many!) This garden is huge inside and the amount of upkeep it would take to maintain it is astounding. During a visit to one of these gardens you can really forget you are in a city of 4 million , 10 million including the prefecture around the urban area. They are incredibly relaxing (as long as you avoid the crush of tourists during peak season and rainy season is one way to keep away some of the tourists). In my 4 year ago visit to Suzhou I visited some other smaller gardens as well and was also impressed , I intend to revisit and see the other places I haven’t made it to yet. It’s especially easy to come back considering it costs around $12 and takes 1 hour round trip.

The pops and sister retired in the evening but mums was still looking to walk around so we ventured over to GuanQian pedestrian sleep. A massively long pedestrian shopping street loaded with stores and neon but not as many people as Shanghai’s Nanjing Rd. It’s cool to go check out but nothing really else to say about it. Go there and see. I’m not exactly the shopping type and we didn’t visit any stores but it would be a great place to go if you are in the market.

I regret not having more time to stay here with the family but due to their ambitious see China plans the next day we were boarding another bullet train heading to Hangzhou, the famous city featuring West Lake!

Fam Fam Travels

I can split this seasons travels into 4 distinct phases:

Phase 1 – Travels with the Fam Fam

Phase 2 – Me n’ Oblivs Yunnan Adventure

Phase 3- Solo Lost in Laos

Phase 4- Back to Shanghai for Will I Aren’t and Man Man

Phase 1 was an ambitious romp hitting up some of China’s most well-worn tourist spots. The 12 day journey included wandering around Shanghai , visiting the charming canals of Suzhou , chillaxing by Hangzhou’s West Lake , jetting over to Xi’an to scope out the Terracotta warriors, and ending the trip taking in the wonders of Beijing. I’ve already been to Xi’an , Suzhou , Hangzhou , Beijing, and well I live in Shanghai so it might not seem the most interesting trip for me but I went to Suzhou , Hangzhou , and Suzhou the first time I came to China , almost 4 years ago already back when I had no knowledge of Chinese and no idea what to expect. Re-visiting all these cities were fantastic and this time I had freedom of movement unlike with the pre-packaged tour of last time.

It’s such a weird feeling waiting at the airport for people to arrive whom you haven’t seen for a long time , especially when those people aren’t just mere people but your family! Every grey hair I saw start to come out of customs my heart would leap at the thought of pops coming through with family in town. I hadn’t seen the fam fam in around a year and a half and was really excited to see what they thought about my newly adopted country.

Shanghai was a great time and we visited all the typical tourist spots although I did make it to a couple of attractions I had never visited before. I also still have not yet made it to any of the museums, this will change one of these days. The typical places to make sure you see during a visit to Shanghai include the Bund to take in the view of the old colonial front on the river and compare it to the towering , looming , new neon play world of skyscrapers that exists on the Pudong side of things. A walk down the pedestrian street of Nanjing Rd , a stroll through the leafy shady French concession area, hitting up Yu Gardens and the hectic market place and old street , observing the kinda sad animal and bird market , a trip to trendy Tianzifang for dinner and a drink , and finally the two new ones for me ; Jing An Temple , and scaling to the 101st floor of the Shanghai World Financial Center (SWFC).

More on those later but first a quick note. It’s weird to be a tourist in one’s own city again. Like I didn’t want to be whipping out my camera at everything , gawking at everything , and generally like a lost fool. I’ve acquired this kind of superior smugness when I see tourists in Shanghai. Hahaha , look at them with their maps and guidebooks , how do you get to the Bund??? mwhahaha , idiot idiot you stick the metro card in here when you leave the station! I’ve been in Shanghai a little over a year now and I know my way around Shanghai pretty well and it feels good to have familiarity with such a mammoth beast.

Ok , I’m going to do write-ups of the things to do in Shanghai in my Cool places in SH post so don’t worry about those yet , only so much time ya know but for now I will give impressions of the two new places I visited here with the fam fam. Jing’An temple is a huge metro stop /shopping area/food area with a golden temple smack dab in the middle. I’ve spent quite a lot of time in area and often switch from metro like 7 to 2 here but never have I visited the interior of the temple. It’s not a fantastically huge temple but the architecture is really worth checking out. The wooden carvings are absolutely stunning. You don’t need much time here but a quick look around is worth it. Another feature of the temple which I quite enjoy is that this amazing temple is surrounded by towering glass edifices. From the interior of the temple you can see a giant building wide sized video screen playing advertising. The temple has been at that location since 1247ad and only the last 20 years has seen all this modernity surrounded it.

Next site up is the SWFC. Now this is definitely one of my favorite things to do in Shanghai. It’s a bit pricey coming in at 150 to go to the top 101st floor. This building is (currently) China’s tallest buildings and (currently) the world’s third tallest building. It does proudly feature the world’s tallest observation deck so hah take that Burj Khalifa! But already Shanghai has plans to build a taller one and construction has started on the new NYC World trade center and Saudi Arabia’s insanely (almost 1km) tall Freedom Tower. The whole interior is done up in a hip way with pulsating lights , trippy graphics , and jazz music. The view from the top is mind-bogging. Go up at night-time to be treated to an intense view of the kaleidoscopic neon heaven that is Shanghai.

Okay good for now. Next post will detail the quick trip to Suzhou , we only had a day there and it rained the entire time but is a very cool place. A bit more relaxing than Shanghai if you can ever use that word to describe Shanghai haha.

Back to Shanghai! Did that really just happen?

Well it’s all over and done with, things are returning to normal , its back to the structured and scheduled grind. Gone for now are the days of freewheeling international fun. No more staying up getting silly til sunrise on a Tuesday night, doing whatever I want whenever I want. The sandals have been replaced by socks and shoes, the sleepy villages with massive skyscrapers , and Beerlao by Qingdao. The last guests of this summer have packed up their bags and I once again am master of my own couch. One of these days I’ll actually have some cash again too. How does two months fly by like that ? Once it’s passed where does it go? Fade away forever into the annals of time? Preserved in photographs? Sucked backwards into a black-hole where it waits patiently for the next big crunch and following big bang? Too many questions lets move on.

Here I sit on my computer, the reality of work slowing sinking into the synapses of my brain. NOOOOOO I just want to sit by the Mekong!! I just want to climb mountains!! Where is my giant backpackers bag??? Why can’t I get a Beerlao at every store?? Yikes its back to the thinking already!

What a whirlwind of events this summer! Played tour guide for my family and then for Willyam and Arat. Meet up with my Turkish former roommate in Beijing , visited 8 different provinces of China, endured a 26 hour bus ride from Kunming down into Laos, climbed enough mountains to satisfy me for at the least the next few years, seen waterfalls and caves , expanded my culinary palate with some dog meat, yak meat, preying mantises and pig brains, got ridiculously sick from eating some of the most delicious street food shellfish ever (and not just best of street food im talking like best of ma life) , taken more than 1000 photos , and even managed to find time to relax. As I sit in my office of my new kindergarten job thinking about all the great times of the summer I just can’t believe any of it really happened. Did I really do that? Isn’t what I usually do involves teaching? Yes, yes work yes back to work. I didn’t really leave Shanghai of course not.Work is the norm , yea?

No more overnight buses  and worrying about getting a tuk-tuk, now it’s frets over lease renewal , medicals ,Chinese residency permit renewal, visiting to the police station for registration , lesson plans, and my favorite thing ; waking up early! But I guess it’s all necessary seeing as how my ancient descendants weren’t wealthy merchant princes residing in their chalets in the Pyrenees , or one of my close relative isn’t a defense contractor with the U.S government and well to face the facts , I’m broke as a joke haha (but not really funny). Woe is me back to my 28th floor perch in a city featuring flashy lights , Lamborghinis,fantastic restaurants,  and Gucci bags (though mostly fake ones).

But you know what? It’s okay and I’m fine with it. I really do enjoy living in Shanghai (though the humidity sucks), it’s nice to be back in my turf with my friends ,my new job really isn’t that hard(no more middle school students yess!!) and im compensated rather well for it.  Things will be a-ok as soon as that first paycheck rolls through although now being only 5 days in seems like it will take an eternity before im clutching the red version of Mao’s face in my sweaty palms.

Good thing I can occupy myself with writing on this blog which happens to be free. (Yes yes I know nothing is free and that true costs involve electricity, internet subscription , as well as the medicinal implications of sitting bleary eyed in front of a computer screen for hours) I dedicate myself to writing up this blog for my own enjoyment and also so I can share with all you friends around the world who still remember me (all 3 maybe 4 of you), as well as any random travel loving peeps who happen to stumble upon this site. So get ready for a bunch of upcoming content woo hoo!