The idea of going to China has been on my mind for a really, really long time. However, like a lot of things, it kept getting pushed aside for some other things like finding apartments in NYC, weddings, moving back to the Bay Area, and so forth. I began to wonder if it would actually happen.
Well, I can now say that it finally did. I think two things led to it. First, I began to really take to heart the idea of “Engage” being my word of the year and in January, marked this trip down as a vacation idea for May. Second, Rohit kept me accountable and we talked about it continuously leading up to March 16th when we both booked our tickets.
There was no turning back. The trip would either be incredibly genius or incredibly idiotic, but we decided to take the attitude that always pointed us in the right direction: ride or die.
After some calendar planning, we locked down the trip to follow this itinerary:
- Fly into Hong Kong (2 days)
- Beijing (4 days)
- Shanghai (3 days)
- Macau (2 days) by way of Guangzhou
- Hong Kong (3 days)
It was a very aggressive plan for an 11 day trip, but we were young, able-bodied, and up for the challenge. What could go wrong?
After booking our intra-China flights and hotels and then getting our visas, the real planning began. In the trips I’ve taken the last few years, I’ve tended to know a few places I wanted to check out and then go with the flow. However, this trip felt different. As my dad reminded me, if I just went with the flow, I’d be wasting my time. Fortunately, with this little kick in the butt, I began to see for myself that for a trip like this, you just can’t plan enough.
Days 2-4: Hong Kong
Hotel: The Salisbury – YMCA of Hong Kong
Sights visited: Avenue of the Stars, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon Park, Stanley, Cheung Chau
Restaurants: Macau Restaurant, Seafront Restaurant, Hing Lok Restaurant
The last and only time I went to HK was 20 years ago. I remember bits and parts of the trip, most notably how hot and humid it was and all the counterfeit software they were selling in one of the districts. However, when I landed in HK and took the bus from Lantau Island all the way to my hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui, it was such a different experience seeing it as an adult. Yes, it was still hot and humid and yes, I was still impressed by how great the MTR Subway system is. However, it was just great seeing the familiar skyline even though so much has changed and also being in a city where everyone spoke in Cantonese.
- We found a tailor and got sized up for suits that would be ready during the end of our trip. For two suits, the total cost came out to be a little over $400 US. Tailored-made.
- Cheung Chau is one of HK’s islands and somewhere I had not gone before. What was interesting is that for the restaurant we ate at, we had to go to the local market to actually buy the fish and seafood that we wanted to have and brought it to the chef to cook.
- The trip was my first introduction to Blue Girl beer. It would not be the last time I saw it.
Days 4-7: Beijing
Hotel: Park Plaza Wangfujing
Sights visited: The Ming Tombs, The Great Wall (Mutianyu), Tian’anmen, Forbidden City, Hutongs, Qianhai Lake, Bell and Drum Tower, Yonghe Temple, Temple of Heaven
Restaurants: Great Leap Brewing, Zuǒ Lín Yòu Shè, random Halal place on Ya’er Hutong, Jingshui Café, Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant
When we landed at the Beijing airport and took a cab to our hotel, I was instantly worried. From looking out the window, the smog and air pollution were layered and thick. There was one point when our taxi made a turn onto another highway on-ramp that I wondered if the entire experience would be shaped by wearing a face mask to protect our inhalation. Fortunately, we got lucky. The air cleared out, and we got some great weather as we toured around.
Overall, Beijing reminded me a lot of Washington DC with all of the truly historical sites scattered throughout the city. From the Forbidden City to the various towers and temples we visited, there is so much steeped in history of the various dynasties and empires from the past. Walking up the Great Wall was a whole other experience. As we aggressively hiked to Tower 22 of the Mutianyu part of the Great Wall, I was first struck by the limited number of tourists who make it this far (we did bump into a couple that encouraged us with Rocky jokes), and then by the sheer scale and size of the wall. While panting quite a bit from the steep steps with a backpack full of cameras in tow, I thought about the soldiers who would have to run up and down the wall as part of their duties for protection. Unbelievable.
The other thing that struck me about Beijing was the increasing number of globalized icons present throughout the city. The Wangfujing area where we stayed in contains an enormous number of very high end designer stores (think Gucci and Prada). There are bars like the Great Leap Brewing restaurant, which could have been something straight out of Oakland. The idea of a globalized and connected world really came to a head while taking a break at the Jingshui Café. Even though there was a huge language barrier between us and the baristas, we were able to communicate hipster to hipster what we wanted, where the bathroom was, and what the wifi password was. Despite some major cultural differences, you realize there are a lot of other things that aren’t so different in.
Days 7-9: Shanghai
Hotel: Shanghai Marriott City Centre
Sights visited: People’s Square, The Bund, Nanjing Pedestrian Road, Jazz Club at the Peace Hotel, Shanghai-Hangzhou high speed railway, Hangzhou West Lake, Pudong, The Shanghai World Financial Center
Restaurants: Shen Menlan Wife Seafood Noodles, Ajisen Ramen
If Beijing was a window into the past, Shanghai felt like a window into the future. One of the most mesmerizing sights from the entire trip was being on the Bund during “magic hour” and watching the Shanghai skyline transform into a light spectacle as it got darker. While we were a little annoyed at arriving into Shanghai a little later than anticipated, we ended up being hypnotized by the scenery and spent close to two hours there taking in the scene and taking photos. Going up to the Shanghai World Financial Center, which has an observatory on the 100th floor, was an added treat to seeing Shanghai at a different angle.
We also took the opportunity to take the bullet train to Hangzhou, a city about 165 km away from Shanghai. On the bullet train, the trip took less than an hour and it was amazing wising by one city and town after another. The West Lake, the main destination in Hangzhou, was just amazing to see and made the day trip over there worth it.
Two funny anecdotes:
- When we checked into our hotel, we realized that there was a clear window between the bathroom and the hotel room. We immediately went to work to figure out how to close the blinds in the bathroom.
- Nanjing Road was a bit like Time Square in NYC. There were so many shops and ads throughout the street and it was really cool to see everyone out and about in the early evening. Later that evening – it was a completely different story. Between street peddlers who stood on corners asking anyone walking by if they were looking for massages to just random women who just walked straight up at us asking for something more than a massage, I had flashbacks of Lucerne. Fortunately, we just walked a little faster and got back to the hotel in no time. With a pitstop at KFC.
While we didn’t get a chance to see everything that Shanghai has to offer, it will just make that next visit much more interesting. When we were leaving the city, I definitely felt like I’d be back sooner than I thought. I hope that is true.
Days 9-10: Macau
Hotel: Holiday Inn Macau
Sights: Magic VI, Historic Centre of Macau, New Yaohan
Restaurants: Lei Hong Kei
After Shanghai, we flew to Guangzhou, where my uncle picked us up. After a pitstop in his house in the suburbs, we drove to the port of Macau and parked his car. In China, drivers drive on the right side of the road like in the US. After walking through customs and leaving China (yes, we walked out of China), it was amusing to see the cars driving the British way on the left side.
Like HK, I went to Macau 20 years ago and barely remember any of it. After a fun evening with dinner at this Chinese restaurant my grandfather used to take my dad and relatives and karaoke, we got a chance to explore the historical city center, which was packed full of tourists. The city’s architecture is an interesting blend of European and Chinese styles. It was also pretty interesting to see all of these casinos popping up.
Days 10-12: Hong Kong
Hotel: Sheraton Hong Kong Towers
Restaurants: Tung Po Kitchen, Macau Restaurant, Ding Tai Fung, Japan Boat Takoyaki
Sights: Man Mo Temple, Upper Lascar Row, Victoria Peak, Ladies Market, Symphony of Lights
By the time we got back to Hong Kong, we were definitely exhausted and tired from all the traveling. However, we did get a good chance to do some real sightseeing despite the rainy weather.
One of my personal highlights was being able to navigate through the Ladies Market, a street market full of knockoffs and counterfeit items. I think I put the full use of my Cantonese knowledge in display by bargaining and negotiating with the various vendors. My prized purchase was a knock off Tom Brady jersey, which I bought for $20. As the lady selling noted, it looks authentic because it has the Nike symbol. Score!
Planes, Trains, Automobiles, Boats, and lots of Walking
I joked with Rohit that it felt like we were part of the sequel to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles by the amount of traveling we were doing. Some general thoughts on the travel aspects:
- My cousin warned us that the Chinese airlines would get delayed for no good reason, and he was absolutely right. All of our flights were delayed a bit, but it all worked out in the end.
- The United Club Lounges in Tokyo and Hong Kong are significantly better than those in the US since they feature such amenities like showers, self-service bars, and actual food.
- Boarding and getting off airplanes over there is an old school process involving shuttle buses to the planes and stairs leading you on and off of them. I faked waved to the invisible crowd when we landed in Beijing.
- The subways in all of the cities were surprisingly easy to navigate and highly efficiently.
- Apple Maps, which is not blocked in China, became incredibly clutch as we navigated around the cities.
- City blocks on the map in Beijing turned out to be at least 1 KM. They were freakin huge and added to our 35K steps days.
It’s been a little over two weeks since I returned from Hong Kong, and I’m still on a high from the trip. Taking this trip and vacation is something I am so glad I was able to do and finally make happen. It allowed me the opportunity to see the other side of the world and the life and culture that is often not depicted well in western media. I recently listened to a podcast where John Cusack described his experiences shooting a movie in China and reflecting on how there’s a whole world out there going on beyond his bubble. After hearing this, I totally got what he was saying. Even during the trip, I just remember frequently looking at my watch and thinking how everyone at home was asleep while I was seeing and doing all of these cool things.
I’m incredibly glad that I got to go on this trip with Rohit too. I don’t know when we started to talk about taking this trip, but it was great to finally do it and make it happen for real. Most importantly, I’m so glad we didn’t kill each other by the end of the trip. You can probably thank the Furious 7 movie for that based on the amount of jokes we made throughout the trip.
When I was flying back home from this trip, I was really thinking about how much China is currently undergoing a major transformation that started as it opened up its market and culture to the world. When we left Beijing and Shanghai, I asked Rohit what he thought the cities would be like 10 or 20 years from now. We both conjectured a little bit about this, but the hope I do have is that I’ll be able to see it myself. And hopefully not in that too long of a time period.
One Last Thing…
I took a ton of photos during the trip, which you can see here:
Flickr – May 2015: HK/China
You can also check out this highlights video of some of the stuff I shot during the 11 days: