Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Long Time No Post...China and Japan

It's been awhile since I've put any post up  but it's just been to busy to do it.  China and Japan seem like a blur now, we had only 3 days between Viet Nam and China and then only two days between China and Japan.  Since Japan, I've had a ridiculous amount of work to finish here on the ship, between exams and projects and papers to write.  To add to that, we're down to just over two weeks left of our voyage.  It seems like just other day we were crossing the Atlantic to Spain, its incredible how quickly these three months have flown by.  That being said, I cannot wait to be home to see friends and family, but I'm just as excited to keep seeing the friends I've made on board throughout the coming year.
I don't really feel like nor do I have the time or really the memory to break down each day in China and Japan, so this will be a little different, maybe even a little better.
I was able to hit the 3 major cities of China within 6 days:  Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai. 
Hong Kong was the best, and I'm going to go ahead and say it rivals Rome for being my favorite city.  We made it up to Victoria's Peak in Honk Kong, which had incredible views of the entire city.  It's a mountain peak that stands taller than all the skyscrapers, and gives a great cityscape.  We took a walk along a walkway which winded and hugged the top of the mountain, giving different views every few feet or so.  We had Dim Sum for lunch that day (not spelled right), which is the traditional Chinese style of eating.  Servers just cart around different foods and you pick what you want, as soon as you sit down the kind of swarm the table.  We were at a really nice place, reminded me of somewhere the business elite in New York would go for lunch or something.  Needless to say it was delicious.  I'm a huge fan of pork buns now!
Hong Kong had a feeling of character to it, and by just walking around and exploring the city you could really pick up on that.  The Star Ferry took us a few times across the river where our boat was docked (beautiful location by the way) for a very cheap price.  The boats they use now had been around for over 50 years, and the ferry docks look like they have as well, it kind of reminded me of New York or Chicago subways in their antiquity.  Before going out that night to the LKF area (best bar district I've ever been in), we stayed on the ship to watch the light show.  A lot of the buildings on the opposite side of the river have crazy light schemes going, with lasers shooting off the tops of the buildings and giant white lights, it was pretty cool.
The next morning I began my trip with the China Guide, an independent travel agent that was taking about 200 SASers up to Beijing and the Great Wall.  A lot of my friends were on it, and we were able to choose who we wanted in each tour bus so we ended up in a group together.  The trip was a lot of fun.  The Forbidden City in Beijing was initially a let down.  I only had a faint idea of what it should look like, and we went in the back way and I was thinking "this is it?"  As we moved our way forward, suddenly we came up to the front side of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, which is the main building where the emperor would sit in and such.  It's the classic view that you'd recognize instantly.  There was such a massive crowd pushing it's way towards one of the four open doors that you could look into and see the throne chair (only look, you could not go in).  But for the first time in my life I wasn't worried about getting to the front, because I towered over everyone else that was trying to see it!  I love being tall!  As we kept moving forward to go out of the Forbidden City through the front gates, we saw more and more impressive gates that I was thinking I would see initially.  It definitely didn't turn out to be disappointing at all.
We came out of the Forbidden City through the Tiananmen gate, onto Tiananmen Square.  The gate is the one with the picture of Mao Zedong's huge portrait on it.  Our guide pointed out that it was changed once a year, and the same artist had been hired for life to paint the paintings each time.  The square had some impressive buildings on it but overall nothing crazy.  The one really interesting thing about it was that we, as foreigners, did not have to go through security to get into the square.  All the Chinese citizens did have to go through security....China's a little worried about repeating the past I believe...?
So eventually we made a two and half hour drive out of Beijing one day to a remote section of the Great Wall of China, the Jinshanling section.  We got there at night and had a dinner at the base camp area, (drinks included, necessary since it was about 20 degrees out and we were camping).  So we all took our bags up to the wall, we were given two sleeping bags a piece, and we set up camp.  It was very cold, but how many people can say they slept on the Great Wall of China?  This wasn't the touristy section either, lots of it was broken down with loose rocks and such and steep slopes where stairs use to be.  Kind of like the Sahara Desert in Morocco, it was amazing again to be able to see so many stars in the sky that night as we fell asleep, and I was able to stay pretty warm in the end.
The next morning I finally woke up, remembered where exactly I was at, and jumped up and out of my bag.  As far as I could see, the Great Wall of China stretched all the way to each horizon, snaking its way across the top of the hills into the mountains in the distance.  What a way to wake up!  We made a 3 mile trek that morning along the wall, which just as breathtaking.  It was great to explore the place, going through all the watchtowers, taking in the scenery, and just being alive and experiencing something I will remember for the rest of my life.  Did you know the wall is the worlds longest graveyard?  Workers who built it were buried in it if something happened, and peasants around the wall wanted to bury their dead in the wall, since it protected the bodies from being snatched up by animals.
We got back to Beijing later that day and were able to check out the Olympic village, and see the bird's nest stadium and the Cube.  They were cool, but the area around them was such a waste of space now.  After stopping in the public bathrooms, you could really see how rushed the contruction of the area was and how it was designed just for that one summer (cracks everywhere).
That night we took a sleeper train to Shanghai which was an experience.  It was pretty comfy, you had 4 people in a cabin with bunk beds on each side. I was decently rested the next day when we awoke and made our way back to the ship, now docked in Shanghai, again at another beautiful port.  Shanghai is a HUGE city, the skyscrapers seem to just keep going and going.  The riverfront was a pretty area, but overall I didn't do too much here except hang out with friends and walk around the town.  Very international place, we were nothing like the only foreigners in the city.  Shanghai is planned out pretty well, where Beijing just seemed to be a sprawling and dirty city.  While I could see the smog as our plane descended into Beijing, neither Beijing or Shanghai affected me much pollution wise.  I was told later Shanghai's pollution is actually less than Los Angeles.
But that's a quick blurb about China.  So much to do there I'll have to go back again, someone around spoke English most of them time which is always helpful.  I'll definitely be going back to Hong Kong someday, it would be amazing if I was able to find a career that could get me there for some considerable time.  By the way, our first night in Beijing was the opening night of the Asian Games which was happening in Guangzhou, China.  Never heard of the games or the city?  Because I hadn't either.  Nor have I heard of the Commonwealth Games which were just wrapping up in India before we got there, but these are HUGE deals in Asia and the British Commonwealth.  But Ross and I were watching the opening ceremony of the Asian Games, and without a doubt, they completely out did Beijing's opening ceremony for the Olympics.  It was a huge spectacle, we sat there amazed just watching the television screen.  The only thing I said was "wow, so this is the culture our kids and grandkids will be growing up under".
But Japan was just around the corner.  I did Japan completely independently with 4 friends, and it was a great time, though I could easily spend a month in Japan exploring, and we probably could of used a little more planning in regards to seeing everything we wanted to see.  Each of us bought Japan's rail pass, so we had unlimited travel on their bullet trains.  The trains were the easiest way to get around, they showed up right on time, and stayed in a station for maybe 2 minutes tops and were back on there way.  They were clean, comfortable, and very fast.  We didn't have to purchase individual tickets or anything, just had to show up just before the train left and walk on.
Our first city was Hiroshima on the first day, and since we didn't get in until later in the afternoon, we didn't have much time.  Japanese customs took forever clearing the ship, and the line to get through immigration was about 3 hours.  So by the time we got to A-Bomb Dome and the Hiroshima Peace Park and Museum, much of the day was behind us.  It's a pretty huge park, and it's as pretty as the A-Bomb Dome is erie, and the museum was pretty heavy.  It was an incredibly unbiased museum, showing both Japaense and Allied forces atrocities from the war.  It's main message is that all nuclear weapons need to be destroyed and any testing halted, and even though I only had an hour to rush through it, the museum taught me a lot about the build up to and the actual dropping of the atom bomb, and the effects is still has on people whose parents were exposed to radiation on that day.  It was really erie to walk around and be in the area that was completely flattened and where so many people were killed on that day, but Hiroshima is now a bustling city, you would not even have known something so terrible had happened if it wasn't for the peace park.  We happened to find a little diner along a side street for dinner, and the main cook (possibly the owner?) spoke broken English, and we were able to communicate enough that we wanted Japanese noodles, with chicken, and egg was fine.  It was one of the best meals of the trip!  I've learned by now it's always the random hole in the wall place thats going to give you the best local food for a great price.
Immediately that night we headed off to Kyoto, and the next day we went off to explore the city.  Somehow, during that day the only place we ended up at was the Imperial Palace (really don't know how that happened).  But the Imperial Palace was pretty cool, had some really nice garden areas and had the whole traditional Japaneses look to it.  The palace is where the Emperor even today is still crowned, since Kyoto is the historical capitol of Japan.  There was a festival going on outside of the grounds of the palace, some kind of Farmers Market type thing, and lucky for us they were giving away a lot of free samples.  Lots of sweets, some were good and some were a little strange.  But overall, it was a lot of fun.  That night when we met up with another friend by her hostel, we foudn she was located in more of the historic area of Kyoto, and there was even Geisha's walking around!  We also got to experience an interesting time at a Japanese karoke bar, so Kytoto was pretty cool.  Our first night there we had booked a hostel, but we had no plans for the second night.  Luckily our hostel had one spare room, located right next to all their computers.  It was tiny, with just rolled up sleeping mattresses to sleep on, and a thatch floor, so it felt very traditional.  Lucky us, the sleep wasn't that bad either!
We made it to Tokyo by early afternoon.  All I can say is, Tokyo is HUGE..  They had umpteen different subway lines (shut down at 12:30 each night, how annoying) and the city NEVER sleeps.  Shibuya was a crazy area, home to the largest crosswalk in the world (which we walked several times) where 1,000 people cross every couple of minutes.  Our hostel was located right next to one of the more famous temples in Tokyo and a long market in front of it in the Asakusa district of Tokyo.  There was an amusment park right out of our hostel window, and one of the streets that took us to our hostel on Sunday was littered with people in costumes doing random shows.  There was even a three story stage, right on the street, with actors doing some martial arts show, people rappelling all the way down from the top, jumping from the 2nd level, it was crazy!  And this was happening every 20 feet or so, just right on the street!  Conveyor belt sushi was delicious,, and we were able to see some crazy Japanese fashion styles and some of the fashion districts that sell those styles. 
One night in Tokyo stands out as a good way to describe all of Japan and the fact that sleep was just not a priority there.  We started the night by heading out around ten to the Roppongi, the nightlife district.  We went into the first club that tried to get us in, it was a hip hop club, and we were the only ones in it ha.  No surprise, it was early, but the drinks were only 500 yen (like 6 bucks), so we figured it was a deal.  After being there for awhile, we went looking for another club, and got invited into a club with no cover and free shots for the ladies.  While the bouncer took us up, he talked to us about what we were doing and such, and turns out he was from Nigeria.  So we told him about out time in Ghana, and when he asked how we liked Ghana, I told him that we had all loved Ghana, and sure enough, guys got free shots now too, and he capped all the drinks at 500 yen for us there too!  So it worked out great.  Stayed there for awhile longer, and decided we needed somewhere with dancing.  Even though it was Sunday night we found a place pretty quickly, and by the time it was 3:30am, we needed some food or some sort of break.  So we headed to McDonald's (the only place open!), got some interesting Japanese McDonalds food, and hanged around there for 45 minutes or so, waiting for the subway to open again. Why did we do this you ask?  Oh yea, main point of this night was to get stay up all night to get to the Tsukiji Fish Market, which is the largest in the world or something like that.  So just before 5am the subway started running, and we made our way to the market.  The tuna auction is the most fabled event at the market, but only 140 tourists are allowed in each day, so we didn't make that.  The wholesale market doesn't open to tourist until 9am, but, nobody was there to stop us at 5am!  So we walked around inside of there for a couple of hours, giant tuna, crazy fishes I've never seen, and just everywhere you look, fish being cut up, fish on display, people moving everywhere, crazy seafood, fork lifts shooting around, it was madness (espeically in my slightly buzzed state).  It was so huge we got lost and when we actually wanted to leave, it took us several attempts to find the way we had come.  I will say it was weird going into the market at dark, and coming out to total daylight.  Needless to say, we made our way back to our hostel and by 8:30am our night was over.  It was a crazy night, especially since I left out just about everything that was actually crazy about that night, but thats just for your imagination.
Yokohama was actually a really really nice city.  Coincidentally, Commodore Perry landed here with a fleet of American warships in 1854 and forever changed Japanese history by opening it up to American commercial interests. 
But besides all that, it's streets were full of trees that were changing colors with the season, and it just had a very pleasant feel to it.  On top of that, the day I spent there (we left on the ship the night we arrived) was the one day when everything worked out to a T.  We knew what we wanted to do, and it worked out just fine!  We hadn't seen a garden yet, so a few of us when to visit a garden we were told about in Yokohama called Sankei-en, which is a traditional Japanese-style garden.  The weather that day was perfect, low 70s, and the garden was in the middle of fall, so all the leaves were gorgeous.  There was 17 traditional Japanese buildings from all over Japan brought to the park long ago, so it was very picturesque.  A huge lake was surrounded by trees with bridges going across it, a pagoda rested on top of a hill overlooking most of the park, and the buildings were nestled back in the woods.  We ended the day in our very last foreign country by grabbing some sushi at a grocery store and hustling are way back to the ship.
Japan was a nice start for our transition back to America.  It is a Western influence, and for the most part felt like home.  I can say this though, and I feel like I've said this about every country, and I hope its the same for foreigners who visit the States, but I felt so welcomed and was surprised by how nice people were.  The chef from our dinner in Hiroshima was happy to hear how much we enjoyed his noodle soup.  When we went to exchange our vouchers for our actual rail passes, a man got in line with us to answer our questions, found out a little about us, helped us speak with rail clerk, found out what subway we needed to get to the other station, and then walked us all the way over to the subway station!  In Hiroshima, an older man saw us looking at the streetcar platform a little perplexed, he came over and asked us "A-Bomb Dome?" and we said yes!  He pointed to the platform we needed, gave us the car numbers, and then, since he didn't speak too much English, pulled out a card which had English written on it saying "You pay for the ride at the end".  Have you ever visited anywhere and had someone help you this much out of the blue, not expecting anything in return?  And this were just casual people walking by, not some tourist police (who protected tourist from traffic in Viet Nam) or something like that.  I understand we stand out more in a foreign country, but it was crazy and humbling just how nice people can be.
So we now have three days to Hawai'i.  I can't wait, most people say it's the most beautiful place in the world.  I won't lie though, it's incredibly sad to be back in America.  Leaving Japan was hard since we all knew it was the last foreign country.  Luckily this week has been going by pretty fast with all the class load weighing down on us and trying to hang out with every one as much as possible before we disembark.  In a future post, probably blended with Hawai'i, I'll try to put into words what this voyage has done.  One of the professors on board this morning called it "Quick Global Consciousness".  I think that sums it up nicely.  I can't wait to see what I'll do in the future because of this experience, I know the impact of SAS has barely yet to sink in even.