Archive for April, 2011

5 Star Country

Before flying out of Taiwan back to The States, my girlfriend, Yufen, wanted to go outside of Taiwan for vacation together. Initially we thought about Sabah in Borneo, but when her work wanted to her to travel to Beijing on the first weekend of her time off for training, we decided to travel in mainland China to make use of her company paying for her flight.

Because these plans were rather last minute, I had no choice but to visit Hong Kong first to get my Chinese visa. My original plan was to first arrive in Hong Kong in the morning, have my visa processed during the day, then fly to Beijing that night and meet Yufen at the airport, where she would be flying directly from Taipei. Online, I have seen different accounts on how long a visa takes to be processed, so I took the precaution of searching for cheap guesthouses in case I had to stay overnight in Hong Kong.

March 10
It was fortunate I planned ahead, because when I arrived in Hong Kong, the travel agency at the airport kiosk said that the earliest the visa could be processed would be the next day around 6:30pm to 7:00pm. Fortunately, I had no problem changing my flight schedule to Beijing, the only additional fare was having to pay tax. However, the dilemma was that the latest flight to Beijing from Hong Kong was 8:00pm. I really did not know if I could make it, but decided to take the chance.

After handing my passport and payment to the agency, I left the airport and found a guesthouse for 150HK after some looking. My room had no wifi, but I found a hostel while walking around that did, so I hung around there and used my iPod to check my emails and to also Google map where Yufen’s hotel was located in Beijing. I then spent the night revisiting viewpoints that I’ve visited before on my previous trip to Hong Kong. Thought the skies were gray, it barely rained and the temperature was on the cooler side. Since I consider Hong Kong as just one big massive city, I really had no interest in being there, especially since I’ve already visited Hong Kong before.

March 11
I left my room in the morning and happened to pass by Kowloon Park. Shooting the various birds there was a nice distraction for me until I eventually headed back to the airport to find out the fate of my visa. Arriving at the desk at 5:30pm, they said my passport had not arrived yet and told me to come back around 7:00pm. 6:45pm rolled around and I noticed I was getting really nervous. Again I asked about my passport and the man behind the counter told me to wait by the seats next to their counter and would tell me when my passport arrives. At around 7:00pm, I saw someone come to the back of the kiosk and handed over what looked like two US passports. I waited a little while, expecting the man behind the counter to finally deliver my passport to me, but he never did. Finally, I walked over to the desk to ask him about my passport and realized he actually forgot about me.

Handing my passport with my Chinese visa to me, I dashed off to check in my flight. Elation turned to frustration when I found out my ticket was on stand by and all of their seats were already booked. They told me to wait to see if a seat becomes available. After 7:15pm, they tell me that I have a seat, but I must reach the gate before they close, which was 7:45pm. That I meant I first had to go through security, then pass immigrations, then take the elevator 3 floors down, and finally take the shuttle bus to where my gate was located.

I reached the gate 3 minutes before 7:45pm, although I noticed that the flight took off much later. I don’t know if I caused this delay, but I was happy I made the flight. But instead of arriving at 11:10pm, we arrived at Beijing at 11:30pm. With the combination of the airplane was taxing on the runway for 10 minutes, waiting forever for my luggage to arrive and not yet having Chinese currency, I missed the shuttle bus leaving the airport because their services ended at 12 midnight. Fortunately, they had night buses running, and the only two routes they took was the one I needed.

Stepping outside of the airport around 1:00am, the first thing I noticed about the air was the smell. I was trying to identify it and finally resigned to labeling it as a mixture of ash and coal. The bus sign at the airport said it would take 35 minutes to reach Dongzhimen, which was the stop closest to Yufen’s hotel. During the ride, a lady hops on and sits behind me while making regurgitating noises without hearing any vomiting noises. Finally a lady next to her hands her a plastic bag and proceeds to vomit. After 25 minutes on the bus, I felt the bus already passed by my stop, so I asked the bus driver when we would reach my stop and he said he already passed it. Getting off on the next stop, I felt I could reach back to my destination on foot, so I proceeded to walk north. After reaching Dongzhimen, I was not quite sure where her hotel was. I showed the address to several vendors and they said they didn’t know exactly where, but pointed me in a general direction. I thought I was so close, but I also thought I had been walking too long and far. I felt I had no choice but to finally hire a taxi to take me to the address. But after showing the address to two taxi drivers, they said they didn’t where that was! After a little more perseverance, I finally found the hotel on my own, which was tucked away in a small neighborhood. And by coincidence, Yufen was looking outside of the hotel window and shouted out my name. Under all of these circumstances, I can’t believe I actually made it and was looking forward to some solid sleep.

March 12
I initially wanted to visit the Great Wall the next day, but because of how late I arrived and Yufen having a meeting until 12pm, I decided to save the trip later and walked from her hotel to the Forbidden City. The sun was slightly out and the air was very cold and dry. Beijing was not quite what I expected. It’s very broad and flat, with very little tall buildings. Because the city is very grid like, it’s very easy to navigate, but Beijing is so much larger than how it looks on the map. With so many people visiting the Forbidden City, I decided not to go in. I hate crowded places, especially those packed with tourists. I later learned that if you want to see the architecture of the Forbidden City, go to Beijing, if you want to see the artifacts of the Forbidden City, go to Taipei. Because I did not realize walking to the Forbidden City would take me that long, I took the subway to meet Yufen for lunch. Later on during this trip, I’ve discovered that everytime you go through the subway station, train station, and sometimes the bus station, you must pass your bags through a security machine.

After lunch, we wandered around the older sections of Beijing which was fun until we reached BeiHai Park. The park itself is nice, but it’s so huge that we were exhausted when we reached the other side. We later hung out with two of Yufen’s coworkers after dinner, and finally returned to our new budget hotel after midnight.

March 13
I was hoping to wake up early to visit the Great Wall, but we were so fatigued from yesterday’s walk and I had a headache, so we decided to visit the Great Wall the next day. I felt pretty upset about this because it had already been 3 days since I flew out of Taiwan and I felt I haven’t even started my vacation. So, again we walked around another park, this time YuanMingYuan. Though it has claims to the history of European presence in Beijing, I was rather disappointed with this park.

While in Beijing, I observed many peculiarities of the people there. Like the rudeness of the people there. It’s not uncommon to pay for something then having your change and your item thrown at you with contempt. Or seeing kids walking around with a giant hole in their pants so they can easily urinate on the streets. Of course one cannot forget to mention the amount of spitting that goes on.

March 14
Getting up early in the morning, we headed off to Dongzhimen station to catch the bus to the Great Wall. Because the Great Wall is so long and broken up in several sections, people usually just pick one section to visit. I heard the Badaling section was the easiest and most touristy section, so I definitely wanted to avoid that. Though the Mutianyu section was also popular, I heard the views there were excellent, so that was the section I wanted to visit. However, a lady who got off of the same subway station as us recommended that we should visit Jinshanling instead. She said that it was much less touristy and the wall itself is more wild and authentic, meaning that sections like Badaling and Mutianyu has had many modern restorations. So we took the 980 bus instead of the 916 and arrived at the closest town to Jinshanling. I started to regret this change of decision because after arriving, we were the only ones visiting the wall, so we had to bargain with a local driver from 460rmb to 300rmb to take us to Jinshanling and wait for us to take us back to town.

All in all, it was still a nice trip. The hike was pretty easy, around 4.5 hours. It was definitely not crowded with people and many areas are still in ruins. Parts of the wall that have been restored can be seen by the slight cool gray colors, while the original stones are a warmer gray. The only downside was the overcast weather and brown foliage made my photos quite flat. And some of the local ladies kept harassing us to buy merchandise from them. I was already used to this approach from my experience in Vietnam, so it wasn’t a big deal for me.

March 15
We took an overnight train that left Beijing at 11:20pm and arrived in Taian in 6:45am. This was a nice way of saving time and money by sleeping while traveling. Though the cabins were quite packed, with six beds to each room and no doors, I had a good night of sleep. Taking the 3 Lu bus to Hong Men, we started our hike up Taishan at 9am and reached the peak after 4.5 hours of hiking. The hike is simple, but tedious because of the long series of steps that passes through cultural artifacts that ranged from Chinese calligraphy carved into stones to ancient buildings. There is also the lore that anyone who climbs to the peak will reach 100 years of age.

My initial plan was to stay overnight at the peak of Taishan to catch the sunrise the next day, but overall, I wasn’t terribly impressed with Taishan, especially when you can see the city behind the parts of the mountain range, so we decided to hike back down. Arriving back at the base of Hong Men after 7:30pm, we found out that bus services stop after 7:30pm, so we took a taxi back to the train station. What I found hilarious about the taxi was the cage that was built around the driver. I’m sure it’s for the safety of the driver from possible dangerous passengers, but it looked like a self contained prison for the driver. At the train station, we bought a train ticket to Huangshan for the next day, which leaves at 6:30pm and found a place to stay for the night.

March 17
After having a somewhat relaxing day in Taian, we slept on the train and arrived in Tunxi at 7:30am. From Tunxi, we took a bus to Tangkou, and from there, took another bus to Yungezhan. I originally wanted to go up the west side trail, but because Yufen wanted to bring all of her belongings with her, we took the very easy east side trail, which the majority of the trail can be traveled by cable car. While on the cable car, we were immediately exposed to the breathtaking scenery of Huangshan. It’s no wonder that everyone tells us that once you visit Huangshan, there’s no need to visit any other mountain. Pictures and painting cannot do justice to just how magnificent Huangshan is.

After a little bit of hiking from the end of the cable car, we reached the peak of Beihai and settled for a place to stay that was 200rmb for each person. We later befriended an American traveler, Fred, who was also staying in my room. Living in Colorado for many years, we talked about how we were conflicted about the developments in Huangshan. They were currently building a new hotel, and while it was nice to have facilities available to allow us to stay at the peak, we also felt a lot of development was unnecessary and has taken away some of the beauty of Huangshan. I fear the beauty of Huangshan will continue to erode away as the Chinese government continues to development tourism there. The stairs, buildings, and cables are just too unsightly for me. At least in Taishan, the buildings there are historical.

The area I wanted to see the most was Xihai, which was unfortunately closed until next month. But there were still plenty to see and the sun was pleasant until during sunset when the clouds eventually engulfed the entire sky. The air was very cold and some ice still persisted from the winter snow.

March 18
I got up around 5:00am and walked out into pitch blackness. There was no sunrise to catch due to the heavy cloud development and even snowed for a brief moment. During the day, there was so much cloud coverage on the west side that you could barely see anything. One remarkable moment was when we were at a viewpoint where the cold winds were heavy and you could see nothing but white. Suddenly, the view cleared and you can see the majestic mountains before once again enveloped by the mist and clouds. We decided to stay one more day on the chance I could catch a sunrise the next day. Fred, who we bumped into every once in a while also decided to stay one more night.

March 19
Things only got worse in Huangshan on this Saturday. Not only was it raining, there was just too many people for my comfort. After some consideration about how to get back down to Tangkou, we decided to hike all the way down the west side trail. I knew the first part of the trail would be the most strenuous because we had to hike up Guangmingding. The rest of the trail would head down, but we had to be careful due to the rain and the amount of belongings we were carrying. We started from Beihai at 8:30am, passed Guangmingding at 10:00am, arrived at Pingshan Temple at 1:12pm and finally reached the bottom at 2:22pm. Along the way, Fred catched up to us, who started later than us, and quickly outpaced us.

At the bottom of Ciguange, we took the bus back to Tangkou, and then waited a miserable hour in our bus to leave for Tunxi. I was cold and wet and could see the moisture off of my clothes evaporating. While in the bus, we overheard two Japanese guys, Ryosuke and Masanori, mentioning about the hostel they were staying at in Tunxi, which was the same one we wanted to stay in, so we asked if we can follow them back to their hostel. The hostel is situated on an old traditional street of Tunxi called LaoJie. It’s a really cool street that has traditional Chinese buildings, complete with traditional Chinese doors. The vendors sells things that range from calligraphy brushes, stone sculptures, paintings, tea, and clothes. The area reminds me a lot of JiuFen in Taiwan, but I think better because LaoJie is more open and feels more authentic. The street is an interesting contrast to the modern shopping areas around LaoJie.

It was a happy accident that we passed by the hostel because we ran into Fred again! It was a nice little reunion, and after checking into our hostel, the five of us had dinner together. It was a great time of relaxing from our hike and stuffing ourselves silly. Fred was very generous when he paid for our dinner and headed out to catch his flight to Shanghai that night. The chances of bumping into people you recently met seemed to be contagious because even the Japanese guys ran into a Chinese guy they met while taking the cable car in Huangshan. It was really nice to see them friendly with each other, considering that I’ve heard the majority of the Chinese still despise the Japanese. It was disheartening to overhear some of the Chinese say that the Japanese who died from the recent earthquake deserved it.

Walking through LaoJie, I saw many people carrying their DSL’s and tripods, no doubt taking advantage of the lights reflecting off of the wet ground from the rain. I decided to come back out later when the stores closed to take my photos. After 10:30pm, I went out to take my photos which was now almost completely devoid not only of pedestrians but even other photographers. In this case, luck, calculation, and patience paid off for me.

March 20
After arranging our night train for Shanghai, we spent the rest of the day walking through LaoJie and found one of the best wonton places we have every tried. I was a little put off when I saw the name of the restaurant having the word “Legendary” in front of it, but man, is it truly deserving. It was so good that we went twice that day.

March 21
We arrived in Shanghai at 7:30am, which was raining and surprisingly very cold. This was the only part of the trip that I made absolutely no plans for because it just didn’t look interesting to me at all. The only reason we were there was to visit Yufen’s classmate, Yusi, who went to the same school in Amsterdam. The coldness and wetness did not really make our walk around town that enjoyable, so we tried to find various places of warmth that we could relax in. In many ways, Shanghai reminds me of Taipei, more constricted, tall buildings, department stores, and the presence of many international faces and companies.

One place we found in the Bund had an interesting exhibition on Shanghai’s history. In learning about how the Western’s presence in Shanghai introduced electricity, water lines, and telephones to China, and wondered what it must have been like for the Chinese to just suddenly have massive developments in their culture? In some ways, I wonder if it’s like my own lifetime where I grew up with record players and dial phones, and now having digital music players and smart cell phones.

The only other highlight of wandering through Shanghai was passing by one particular music shop. It was not uncommon to pass by several blocks of stores that had the same exact business. This music shop was no exception, except the people running that particular store were playing their traditional Chinese instruments. I really enjoyed watching them play because you can tell they knew and enjoyed playing the instruments they were selling. Most of the time when you’re buying something, it’s rare to find the seller having the skill to properly use their merchandise.

We met with Yusi later that night, who showed her fiancée’s, Ken, new photography studio. It was unfortunate he had to be in Beijing on that day, so there was not chance to see him on this trip. We crashed at their place that night and prepared to finally leave China the next day.

Closing thoughts
This trip has obviously been a great exposure for me of the people of China, but more than that, it has really given me context about the different nature of the Taiwanese and the Mainlanders. I’ve often heard of the people of Taiwan lamenting that the majority of the world does not recognize Taiwan as its own country, but now I realize it’s not just a difference of government, but the people themselves. One distinguishing feature is that despite the Chinese almost absolute hate for the Japanese, Taiwan has been very welcoming to the Japanese. Ryosuke and Masanori themselves mentioned that they enjoyed visiting Taiwan, but were treading very carefully in China. I can see how maybe the Japanese societal nature of politeness has rubbed off on the Taiwanese, but not to the extremity of the Japanese. I’ve always felt that the Taiwanese were quite international, which is ironic considering that the majority of the countries does not recognize Taiwan as an independent country because of China’s presence in the world. But I now also feel the Taiwanese are more advanced than their relatives in China. The people of Taiwan are warm and friendly, smoking is not allowed in doors, and you hardly see people spitting on the streets.

Yes, China is rapidly growing, but in the wrong directions I’m afraid. It already started when the Chinese government abandoned the use of traditional Chinese characters for simplified ones, followed by their strict form of censorship. Their sense of development is for the sake of revenue and treating resources without respect or consciousness, which I feel Huangshan is already going through.

Make no mistake, I feel Taiwan still has many faults, just as much as America has, but I feel I understand and appreciate Taiwan so much more now.

Backup Backup Backup

Last week, the hard drive on my iMac died. Died completely. Couldn’t even get it to boot from the system install DVD it was that bad. Took it to an Apple Certified Repair store and they got a new drive in there and had it ready for me for pickup yesterday (4/14: I am pre-dating this blog to keep Steve’s on top). Right now, I am restoring my system in its entirety from a Time Machine backup I made the day before the hard drive died. With any luck, I will be using my iMac with all software, settings, files, etc. as it was before, as if nothing had happened.

I was lucky. My hard drive was making strange sounds that I thought were suspicious and after looking up some threads on the Apple Boards, I knew that I needed to make a complete backup of my hard drive immediately. Most of the time, a drive just dies without warning….

So for those of you who work on computers on a daily basis (and that’s pretty much everyone here), let my experience serve as a very important reminder to make a complete backup of your hard drive–not just your work files and such–using Time Machine or other Boot Copy software at least twice a month. There’s lots of good articles and suggestions on software and hard drives that serve this function well. It’s one thing to loose your work, but there’s also all the software you use, all the preferences and plug-ins and other support applications/functions you use on a daily basis without thinking, your mail threads, address book, photos, music, etc. Should you lose these, I doubt any of us can really recall the stuff on our drives well enough to go and download them again from the web. Can you remember all the sites you’ve bookmarked on your browser(s)? Backing up your entire drive for possible system restore purposes is the best insurance against loosing everything.

Another quake in Japan

Just read about another quake or aftershock, 7.4 magnitude, off the coast of Honshu again. Ben: how’s everything going over there? You guys still holding on?