From January 10 until February 10, I was traveling with my friend Ting all around China. The following is a set of emails over the course of this trip that I had sent to family and friends.
"Live from Hong Kong"
January 12, 2007
I just thought I would send a little email while I had the chance to stop in an internet cafe here in Hong Kong. My friend Ting and I arrived around 11:30pm local time last night (it's 7:30pm local time right now) and immediately went out on the town because we were both starving and in need of a drink after 24 hours of planes and airports. Fortunately for us, Hong Kong seems to never sleep, so we had no problem finding some food. I got my hands on some roasted pigeon and fried noodles--the pigeon was good and was made better by the little roasted pigeon head being on the plate along with the meat. I made the comment to Ting that half the girls I saw looked like prostitutes to me, but she thought I was crazy. Turns out, when we met with a family friend of hers this morning, he confirmed that the area where we were that night actually is rife with prostitution, so I may have been right. I guess my ho-dar is right on target. We've also seen these "reflexology" places all around the city, which offer foot massages meant to stimulate all these different parts of your body via pressure points. Many are open around the clock. Anyway, a guy we spoke to on the plane said that he tried it one time and his feet were in pain for 3 days (and our guide book says that the best part about the "reflexology" is when they finally stop). They apparently get pretty rough with your doggies, but we're thinking that we need to try it out at some point just to see what it's all about.
We're staying in a hotel in Kowloon, a little east of where the mafia operates. Apparently, most of the electronics stores that display only the brand name (e.g. Sony) but not a store name are mafia fronts. This morning, we went by the Po Lin monastery to see the "big Buddha," which was big. We've been wandering around Hong Kong Island since then, stopping in some crazy antique shops, an old temple, and a locally famous hole-in-the-wall restaurant with some really good beef and noodles. Hong Kong is kind of tricky; usually, English gets us by, but in some places, like holes-in-the-walls, English doesn't cut it and nothing is in English. Why this is tricky is that Ting speaks Mandarin but Hong Kong is a predominantly Cantonese city, so her Chinese is often ineffective here. We've been surviving just fine, though. Tonight, we're either going to go up Victoria Peak for an aerial view of the city by night (sooooo many more skyscrapers than any American city), or going to a highly recommended jazz club since we kind of feel it's too cloudy today to really enjoy the view. The cloudiness will be apparent in pictures we took that you may see in the future of the big Buddha. There's also a nightly light show that's put on using synchronized lights on the city's skyscrapers bordering the harbor that we are hoping to catch.
Tomorrow, we're taking a day trip to Macau, the Las Vegas of China. We're kind of playing it by ear and are not entirely sure what we're hoping to see, but we'll be back in Hong Kong for tomorrow night and will leave for Guangzhou the next day. We've read and have been told that in the month leading up to the Chinese New Year, crime increases dramatically, largely in the form of robberies, muggings, and the like, because people get desperate for money in their desire to get home for the holiday. Well, the month that we'll be here is the month leading up to the Chinese New Year, so we're being as vigilant as we can be, wearing our little money belts under our shirts and all of that business (a la Eurotrip).
I'm going to conclude the email here, but I hope everyone is doing very well. Feel free to email me, and you can expect a few more random emails over the course of the trip.
"Live from Guangzhou"
January 15, 2007
Tonight is actually our last night in Guangzhou, a city consisting largely of commerce and industry. It isn't exactly a place where one would travel in order to see history or traditional Chinese culture. However, it has provided me my first opportunities to break away from the typical tourist routes and hotspots and see behind the glitz and glamour of China. It's been interesting; for the first time in my life, I've been the target of stare after stare simply for being white. Oftentimes, people look confused when they hear Ting ask directions when I, the white boy, am standing there, as she doesn't have an accent and therefore easily passes as native Chinese, rather than Chinese-American. They seem to wonder what she's doing with me. Other times, when we're just walking around the city at night, they look at her as if she must be a hooker, because obviously an Asian girl walking down the street at night with a white guy must be a hooker (or so goes their thinking). I suppose in this regard, we've both been receiving our fair share of weird looks.
Guangzhou, moreso than most places in China, seems to highlight the dichotomy between the haves and have-nots in China. The poverty--the homeless, the beggars--are much more visible here, and typically bear some sort of physical malady, such as being an amputee. Whether they were an amputee (or born without the limb) before becoming homeless, or they lost a limb due to being homeless and suffering from who knows what health problem, I can't say. Either way, when they see a white person walking down the sidewalk, they perk up, as anyone who can visibly be discerned as a foreigner is assumed to be rich. Countless beggars have picked me out of the masses of people to ask for money, and I usually oblige, so long as I have some relatively small denominations handy and don't have to dig around my pockets too long. I've discovered that if you stop walking to hand it to them, beggar after beggar will converge on you seeking some sort of monetary gift. What really caught me off guard, though, was when I was walking down the street our first night here, and a little boy grabbed my pinky finger and was walking along with Ting and I. I laughed at first, thinking he was confused and that his parents were just behind him, but he kept walking, clutching my finger. It eventually dawned on Ting and I, when we realized that no parents seemed to be walking behind him, that he wanted money. When I gave him a yuan, he walked away. (Really, the beggars are not that terrible so long as you keep small denominations handy, as they're all very grateful for a single yuan, which amounts to about 15 cents.)
Given the industrial base for much of this city, the smog here is terrible. If you've been to Los Angeles or know of the smog there, this is Los Angeles times ten or twenty. The many skyscrapers begin to disappear into the distance even when they are really only...maybe 10 blocks away? Between the smog and the cigarette smoke, which permeates everything, including our hotel, I woke up this morning with a bit of a cough.
The main touristy site that we visited here was the Temple of the Six Banyans, which possesses a tall pagoda tower: 9 levels on the outside, but 17 floors on the inside. It was originally built around the year 1100. We snapped quite a few pictures in the course of climbing up the tower, so I'm sure most or all of you will eventually see some of the images, either directly from me or on facebook or something. Aside from that temple, Guangzhou actually has a beautiful waterfront district, which kind of reminded me of Paris along the Seine. There's a colonial history here, at least in that part of the city, which is evident in the architecture. Now, this area is home to the US Consulate, and many Americans (and other Westerners) have to come here to pick up their adopted babies, almost all of whom are girls.
Tomorrow morning, we're flying to the Yunnan Province, where, according to my guide book, we will see a lot of "mountains and minorities." We'll be visiting a few different cities within the province, so it should offer a variety of things to see and do. Of course, I'll write more when I get a chance. To everyone: Keep in touch and let me know what you're up to. (If you reply, be sure to only reply to me and not the entire list by accident.)
"Live from Dali"
January 18, 2007
Welcome, everyone, to the latest edition of my travels.
Tonight I'm writing from a bar in Dali on (fittingly) "Foreigner Street." I know, you may be thinking that if the street is named after the '80s rock band, it is out of context and unfitting, but I believe it's named after all of the foreigners that frequent this particular street. Dali is a small city in the northwest part of the Yunnan province flanked by mountains on its west side and a lake on its east. The mountains seem pretty imposing; I suppose they could be called the foothills of the Himalayas, as Tibet is pretty darn close. Both Ting and I really wanted to go there, but the weather this time of year is prohibitive. Dali, on the other hand, remains pretty temperate year-round. The city is beautiful, and enclosed within an old city wall. There are tons of shops selling finely chiseled jade merchandise from the vast jade deposits which are supposedly around here somewhere. I picked up a couple items. Our cab driver from the train station to our hotel (which itself is pretty... pretty) seemed to be really nice and knowledgeable of the area, so we hired him to take us around the area today. It was quite a bit cheaper than hiring separate cabs for each trek. We went by a small fishing village and had a couple of the villagers take us out on their rickety boat as they pushed it around the lake with a long pole. We also stopped by a Bai (the ethnic minority most prevalent here) village where they introduced us to a lot of their customs. While there, most of the visitors were more enthralled by me, the whitey, than by everything that was going on in the village area. One man in particular had his camera on me for probably five minutes straight; I eventually took a picture with him, causing him some embarrassment. Others asked if I was a celebrity (seriously).
Before Dali, we were in Kunming, another city in the Yunnan province. We found some really good, really cheap food here. I tried out a straight razor head shave for the first time, and liked it quite a bit. It was out of necessity, though, since my hair clippers were blown out by an outlet in the previous hotel. Kunming provided what is probably my favorite site to date--some monastery or temple or something built largely during the Ming dynasty up in the mountains (I forget its name at the moment). Largely a series of stone corridors and stairways built into the mountain, with temples scattered around, it was pretty incredible and overlooked the city. We made the mistake of walking down rather than taking the minibus, though; our feet were killing us after the hike. However, it allowed us to walk through a more impoverished part of the city where probably no white guy has ever walked before, which was pretty cool. It was definitely off the beaten trail. We also stopped by a very awesome temple outside of town, known in English as the Bamboo Temple, I think. There were over a hundred really intricately carved, life-sized figures, as well as just a very beautiful temple. The pictures we took should demonstrate this. Though the pictures of the carved figures are contraband, we managed to snap a few anyway. Also while in Kunming, we found a large military surplus market--really a series of small shops selling military surplus from the PLA and the US and British armies, surprisingly. I found a few souvenirs here. Another thing we've seen a lot of in shops such as these, and in regular clothing stores, is Che Guevara stuff. His image is almost as common as Mao's.
The most interesting bit of the whole trip so far also happened here in Kunming. I had to take my parents off of the mailing list for this one, though; I'll update them on the more PG material separately. Ting and I went to get a massage (yeah, you already know where this is going) before catching our overnight train to Dali. It was only going to cost about 50 yuan, or around $7, for an hour-long full-body massage, which is about the going rate. We head back in the parlor, which was nice and clean and everything else. So we start getting our massages as one would expect, but when it's time for me to roll over from laying on my stomach to laying on my back, the masseuse, who spoke scarcely a word of English, seems to think it's time to start with the "happy ending." Her hands started to wander more than I would've cared for them to. It took about 20 minutes to convince her that I really just wanted a massage and had no desire to pay extra for a "happy ending," despite her telling me that it's "very good... veeery good." I suppose that "full body massage" is intended to be as literal as imagineable, but I left feeling both violated and cheated, as the 20 minutes spent defending my conscience were 20 minutes of massage time lost. The train ride afterward, however, was pretty uneventful, although cramped in submarine-style sleepers with cots stacked three-high.
Tomorrow, we're taking a bus to Li Jiang, another city in northwest Yunnan, edging ever-closer to Tibet. I hope everything is going well with all of you.
"Live from Xi'an"
January 25, 2007
Since my last email, I've moved north to the city of Xi'an. But before I describe my time in Xi'an, I'll take a few steps back and lead up to where I am now. Given as this trip so far has felt like one long weekend, my sense of time has become even more distorted than it normally is, so I apologize for any confusion of days in the course of writing.
Traveling from Dali to Li Jiang, the three hour bus ride through the countryside and mountains highlighted something that I had already noticed. If you recall early on in learning English grammar the principle of the understood "you," where everyone recognizes the existence of the word "you" even in certain situations where the word is not actually present ( i.e. "[You] Go to the store."), then you can also understand one rule of the roads here. Consider a two-lane road, opposing traffic, such as that traveled by the bus en route to Li Jiang. Even with this winding mountain road, the principle of the understood third lane is obvious. This understood third lane, which is by no means marked on the road, normally exists directly on the center line, making it the space between the opposing lanes of unyielding traffic daftly but frequently used by bold drivers to pass the myriad slow-moving vehicles (such as the three-wheeled jalopies crawling down the road at 5mph), squeezing between the vehicle to be passed and the oncoming traffic. Though normally on the center line, the understood third lane is sometimes shifted deeper into the oncoming traffic, carelessly forcing them to merge onto the shoulder (if it exists), depending on how little the passing driver values life. The principle of the understood third lane becomes confused when applied to urban areas, however. As the roads become wider, explicitly consisting of multiple lanes for each direction of traffic flow, it would make more sense in reality for the lines to be eliminated altogether, as urban drivers hold no concept of "lanes" and prefer to follow the path of least resistance, regardless of how perilously close it may bring them to other cars, concrete barriers, small children or the infirm. Knowing that the roads here are full of Asian drivers only exacerbates one's concern. (I keed! I keed!) The cramped bus ride to Li Jiang was actually pretty nice, as the Yunnan province offers a respite from the smog plaguing much of China and the views of the beautiful landscape were thus unhampered.
Li Jiang would be an incredible city to see if not for how touristy Old Town (or Ancient City) has become. This ancient district, full of winding cobblestone streets that stretch back centuries, are no doubt beautiful, but the equally beautiful buildings that line them are now full of shops touting the same wares over and over again targeting the many tourists, domestic and international. The lack of diversity and authenticity to these shops damages the overall impression, and makes Old Town more beautiful to see when the shops close their often beautifully carved doors. Nevertheless, the city, with its small, stoned-in streams that are split in every direction to follow nearly every street in Old Town, is quite endearing. Within the city, we visited a very picturesque place called the Black Dragon Pool Park, or the Jade Spring Park, on the edge of town, and at the base of Elephant Hill. We took plenty of pictures here, so you'll get a chance to see it. But in search for the authentic (granted, the Black Dragon Pool Park has its history and is exempt from my comment about Li Jiang's artificial feel), Ting and I journeyed outside of Li Jiang to a Naxi (another ethnic minority) village bordering a large lake, flanked by imposing mountains. We ventured out onto the lake in another old beat up boat pushed through the shallow waters by a pole in the hands of an able villager in order to catch a glimpse of the many nearly extinct species of birds that call the area home. I won't lie; my knowledge of birds is dismal and I probably could not appreciate what we saw as much as some could (such as Dr. Russell, for those of you who have went through the BMZ 115 and 116 course series at Miami). We had the option of riding horses around the lake, but in the interest of my ability to walk comfortably for the following few days, I elected not to do this. Despite the natural beauty of the area, our favorite site at this stop was the Naxi man who greeted us; his shaggy yak fur (just a guess) cloak combined with the hip black-framed sunglasses, except without any lenses in them, and the moustache he wore only on one half of his upper lip, created a look strange enough to be envied by the edgiest of fashionistas. Our stop here was just on our way to the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge. I haven't been to the Grand Canyon before, and the geography cannot be said to be extremely similar anyway, but I imagine the Gorge is almost (but not quite) as breathtaking, with its raging river flowing between sheer cliffs and mountains shooting up 3900 meters, according to one sign. The water took on a jade color, just as the stone so often intricately carved in the area. While walking the trail through the Gorge, a couple of the military-looking personnel who stand along the trail to make sure the visitors behave, are safe, and don't damage the "environmental hygiene" (as the many signs put it), stopped Ting and I. They asked her to ask me if I would record on their megaphone a message stating, "Be careful. Falling rocks. Please stay to the inside of the trail." I laughingly obliged and recorded the message, so if you ever visit the Gorge and hear such a message, listen closely as it could be me warning you of impending danger.
In order to get to Xi'an from Li Jiang, we needed to return briefly to Kunming, as no flights went directly from Li Jiang to Xi'an. Our flight from Kunming to Xi'an was delayed for a few hours due to some heavy fog in the area, and it never really cleared before they finally okayed the flight anyway. When we landed in Xi'an, it seemed the same fog was present, and I came off as pretty naive when I asked about it. It turns out that the smog here in Xi'an, the cradle of Chinese civilization, is even more intense than what I saw in Guangzhou. Walking around the city, where the buildings even at the end of some of the longer blocks become nearly invisible, leads one to believe one must have cataracts. The smog extends well beyond the edges of the city of about 7 million people; visiting the famous Terra Cotta Warriors, which is 20 miles east of the city, smog still envelopes everything. The Terra Cotta Warriors did not disappoint, as the scale of such a mausoleum, built well into the years B.C., is astounding. We also visited the Huaqing Hot Springs and Pools east of Xi'an, which I actually thought was one of the more beautiful sites (and interesting histories) we've visited on this trip--at least, the original portions. Other parts have merely been rebuilt to exhibit the unearthed ancient hot springs pools used by the emperors of numerous dynasties and their concubines. We were able to wash our hands in fountains pouring out the springs' hot waters, and actually had the option of bathing in it, which we declined for time considerations. The waters were really nice; I wouldn't mind having my own hot springs. Since Ting has family and family friends here in Xi'an, and since one of them is an official in the government, the Chinese government treated us to a free trip to both of these locations, covered our entrance fees and tour guide fees, and treated us to a very nice and large lunch at an expensive restaurant. Her family friend, who is the government official, could not come on the trip with us himself, but another government spokesman and the chauffeur accompanied us to the meal. I guess I can never again claim that I have never received anything from Communists. (It is worth noting here that Communism in today's China means something very different from the Communism normally conjured up in one's mind. China is very capitalistic, indeed.)
Within Xi'an, we have checked out the city wall, which cannot be missed if you tried. Wrapping around almost the entire city--forming a 5 by 6 mile box, I believe--it is the largest intact city wall in China. The Shaanxi History Museum was well worth our visit there, as it houses a history of the area and of Chinese civilization stretching back to the first traces of human life in the region. As the cradle of Chinese civilization, there is plenty to display from the Shaanxi province. We also stopped by the Bell Tower (which is of far different design than any of you Miami University friends would be familiar with) and the Muslim Quarter, which contains several stretches of shops and restaurants and is just past what is called the Drum Tower. Oh, and of course I would be mistaken to not mention our VIP entrance at some Xi'an club, where we drank our share of aged Scotch. Even the hotel here told Ting's parents (who, do not forget, are Chinese) that "there are foreigners in those rooms. You can't disturb them," when they called the hotel and asked to be connected to her room.
So how about the roads in Xi'an? The understood third lane principle is still in effect. I will dub this brief segment of the email, "Why did the table cross the road?" in honor of its random and adventurous nature. Riding around Xi'an has been an experience unto itself. The game "Frogger" has been brought to life here; I've seen people rolling tables like giant wooden wheels across busy streets, I've seen little kids pop a squat and potty through their slit pants on street curbs (I also saw this at the base of an escalator in a tunnel that passes under one of the busier streets), and, I ask you, how do you make a left turn at an intersection where the very heavy cross traffic does not have a stop sign or stop light, and is three (official) lanes thick in each direction? Naturally, you drive partway out into the cross traffic, driving in the wrong direction between these lanes of traffic until you can cut over the rest of the way onto the correct side of the road.
Tomorrow is our last full day in Xi'an, and on Friday, we catch a train to Beijing. I apologize for the verbosity of this particular email, and until next time, I hope all of you are doing well.
"Live from Shanghai"
February 8, 2007
Hello friends and family,
I'm writing this time from Shanghai, which is now (I'm pretty sure) the largest city in the world that I've visited.
But since the last email, we've visited Beijing, Harbin, Suzhou and Hangzhou--the latter two were more of a side trip from Shanghai, as they're both pretty close. Beijing offered quite a few must-see spots, including the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Great Wall just outside of town, and a couple other less famous sites whose names I can't recall at the moment. I even got to see the infamous--and dead--Mao Tse-Dong in person. After he died, they had his body preserved and put on display in his mausoleum, which borders Tienanmen Square across from the Forbidden City. The line to see his body was enormous, and we were shuffled through very quickly, but many people took a moment to honor their former Communist dictator with a rose (so many, in fact, that I would guess there to have been around 4,000 roses laid in his honor by the time Ting and I walked through). Ting suspects, and I agree, that the flowers, like Mao, are preserved so that they may be collected at the end of each day and resold to visitors each day after; in other words, we suspect there to be quite the profitable capitalist scheme right at the mausoleum for one of the world's most famous communists. Tienanmen Square itself was pretty bland and unscenic--just a bunch of pavement. The Forbidden City, on the other hand, was quite impressive if for nothing else than its scale. "City" really is a fitting word for its name, because it is plenty large to be one. I might be wrong, but I suspect the ol' hometown of Norborne would fit inside it a couple of times. Unfortunately, two of the main palaces were under renovation when we visited, so we weren't able to see everything perfectly. I would have liked to have been able to go inside the main palaces that were closed off simply so I could compare the level of decadence with Versailles outside of Paris.
While around every turn was another picturesque detail (the garden in the rear of the Forbidden City was, in my opinion, its most impressive feature), my personal favorite site while there was not extravagant at all, but was very simple: at one point, I turned my head after Ting drew my attention to see a mother holding her child (perhaps two or three years old? I'm terrible at guessing kids' ages) so that the child could poop on the ground, on the centuries-old paving stones in one of the Forbidden City's courtyards. I apologize for not taking a picture to prove it to you, but it made my day anyway. The Temple of Heaven and Great Wall offered no similar experiences, but the Great Wall was probably my favorite site we have visited. The portion we visited was more tame than many of its access points around Beijing, but we did not feel like crawling up stairs on all fours (which is required at some other sections) when the possibility existed that our hands could be numbed from the cold. As it turned out, the weather was not so bad that day. Ah, and I could not finish describing Beijing without mentioning the Silk Market, which is a large market touting every counterfeit product imaginable. The difference between these counterfeits and most others, though, is that these are for the most part well made (sometimes very well made) and quite convincing. Of course, I would never be able to tell the difference anyway, but for those with a more discriminating eye, they would face a challenge with most of these products. The bargaining is fierce, and as a white guy, they expect to get much more out of me because I'm supposed to be more ignorant yet wealthy. The problem they faced was my utter apathy in regards to whether or not I left the market without the item altogether, combined with small-town frugality. Rather than bargaining, I would simply state some really low price that I might actually consider paying and not budge from that price. This frustrated the vendors, who would sometimes grab my arms as I walked away, because they wanted me to stay and haggle and offer a little more money. I was unwilling, and one time had to literally lift a girl up and set her aside so I could get out of her stall--she kept stepping in front of me and trying to push me back in, so drastic measures had to be taken. Despite all this, I did leave with one backpack that I really liked (for which I paid about 1/9 of the price they originally stated: "I give to you for special price!" "What is this special price you speak of?" "Normally 500, but for you, 450." "No, I'll pay 50." ...everything is always a "special price").
We took a train to Harbin in the northern stretches of China after visiting Beijing. As soon as we got off the train, we were greeted by much colder weather--I don't believe it ever got over 10*F while we were there. That probably doesn't sound too bad to many of you back home right now, though, because I've seen a few global weather forecasts that have not been so kind to the American northeast and upper midwest. Anyway, Harbin was included in our trip because of its amazing Ice Lantern Festival, which is just a huge ice and snow sculpture extravaganza--the scale of the sculptures is massive, to the point where the creations are the size of buildings (and often are recreations of famous buildings that you can walk through and climb atop of). To make it better, the sculptures are all lit up beautifully, often from inside the ice so that the entire thing is glowing. It made for one of the more amazing things I've seen here. Unfortunately, both of our cameras had battery issues the night that we went to see the ice sculptures, so we weren't able to take nearly as many pictures as we would have liked. Oh, and they also had ice rinks with part-bicycle/part-iceskate contraptions that you could ride around 'til your heart's content (or, in my case, 'til my hands were numb), as well as big ice slides. My butt was hurting after I decided to slide down a large banister made of ice on one of the ice buildings, though, because I neglected to look at the surface on which I would be landing.
Also in Harbin, which was actually built and settled by the Russians along the Trans-Siberian Railroad, we stopped by the best example of Russian architecture we could find, which was St. Sophia's Church. I had saved the last chapter of The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky (the book I had been reading) to finish while here in Harbin, figuring that I may as well finish the Russian author's novel in as Russian a setting as possible. After Harbin, we flew south to warmer weather in Shanghai and spent a couple days here before taking our side trip to Suzhou and Hangzhou, and, as an age-old Chinese proverb boldly asserts: "Up in Heaven there's paradise. Down on Earth there's Suzhou and Hangzhou." Additionally, Suzhou has often been referred to as the Venice of the East, in light of its many canals that crisscross the city. Suzhou is largely known for its amazing Chinese gardens. We only took the time to visit one--The Humble Administrator's Garden--but it did not disappoint. In fact, visiting the garden made me question whether the administrator could have possibly been humble. Perhaps something was lost in translation. Nevertheless, these Chinese sure know how to make a nice garden; they would surely provide plenty of inspiration for any modern landscaper or architect. The best thing about Suzhou, though, was the selection of foreign goods markets where one could (and we did) buy one's share of very nice goods meant for export to Western markets, but sold for cheap in China instead. Unlike many stores in China, the name brand items sold here are actually real. For example, I bought something like 16 Armani and Louis Vuitton silk ties for about USD $65 altogether. I was more interested in looking for such dress clothes because, naturally, I had a three piece suit made for me before leaving Shanghai.
Following Suzhou (which, other than the gardens and one or two scenic roads, I actually thought looked rather dumpy), we took a bus to Hangzhou, which seemed like a pretty affluent city. Marco Polo once described it as paradise, or something to that effect, and the famous West Lake, on which the city has a waterfront, has inspired centuries of poetry, music, and paintings. I, personally, did not feel compelled to write any poems, compose any songs, or paint any paintings, but it was quite nice, nevertheless. We took a boat around the serene lake to scope out it and its islands. Almost all of the city was destroyed at some point by an invasion or something, so that whatever Marco Polo saw was nearly entirely gone, but it was still nice--just not as old feeling as I would have hoped. One of Ting's uncles in the area took us out to a pretty amazingly produced theatrical show taking us through the history of the Song Dynasty by way of music, dance, acrobatics and the like. The most amazing part, though, really was the production, which I'm sure would rival if not beat anything on Broadway. Outside of the theater, there was this weird park area that had a series of water...games?...that very much reminded me of several of the challenges on Most Extreme Elimination Challenge. It was hilarious to watch people, but Ting was the only person I saw fall in. (Sorry Ting, it was funny!) Also nearby, but before dinner, we picked up her little cousin from an international school (K-12) that he attended. It was definitely one of the strangest sites I saw while in China, but unfortunately did not have a camera handy. The school, on its campus, had a full-sized replica of the White House and the Washington Monument, as well as a massive, nearly full-sized, recreation of Mount Rushmore outside. So bizarre. I've since read about some newly wealthy Chinese businessman building a full-scale reproduction of the US Capitol outside of Shanghai.
Now, back in Shanghai, we're just rounding out our last couple of days before catching the flight back to New York City. We still have a few things to see around the city, but nothing too special. Shanghai is a pretty modern place and doesn't host quite as many historic sites as one might suspect--at least, not to my knowledge.
A few extra thoughts on China: everyone really loves to spit (specifically, to hawk up phlegm) all over the place. At first, this immediately noticeable phenomenon I thought might have been due to the smog, but I myself never felt compelled to spit, despite breathing the same air for a month. It seems that it really must be cultural. I've heard, actually, that Beijing is trying to outlaw this unusual-to-Western-eyes practice in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. Also, from my observations here, the Chinese seem to have a fascination with all things that glow. Their cities have all been lit up like Las Vegas--everywhere that neon lights can be afforded and can fit, they're placed, it seems. Also, the Japanese influence of really bad perms (that is, for hair) has spread in full-force to China. I've now seen the worst hair styles on this planet. My only disappointment is that while I have seen all sorts of Engrish/Chenglish on signs all over China, I have not come across a good place to buy Engrish/Chenglish t-shirts, as I had so wished to do. Anyway, I will end this ridiculously long email now and offer my best wishes that everyone is doing well.