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7/6/2015 Behind again

Looks like the travelogue is going to be running a day behind again. I was hoping to avoid that but got back to the hotel kind of late tonight and realized that there was no way I could both organize today's photos and get the write-up done without staying up super late, which I'd rather avoid. But here's Saturday and Sunday's entries.

Day 14 (Sat July 4th): Getting ready...
I was originally planning to go to the Shanghai Botanical Garden, but it was drizzling for most of the day and Connie was feeling a little off so we decided to wait and do it another day. In the end, we hung around the hotel for a while, I did some reading, packed for the trip to Yunnan tomorrow, and the like. Since there isn't much to write about, here's some RCC's instead.

Random China Comment: Sticking Out
Much like in Japan, in China if you're not Asian, you tend to stick out, with the only real exception being at major tourist attractions (like the Forbidden City and Great Wall). So don't be surprised if you attract some attention from the locals. I've had a handful of people say hi to me in passing or chat a little bit (though not as many as in Japan), and in certain areas lots of people have come up to offer me fake brand name goods or try and invite me to an overpriced tea house. I should also note that foreigners tend to attract some stares (the Japanese are usually polite enough to at least pretend they're not looking, the Chinese are more obvious about it). So, if you're really shy, it might take some getting used to.

Random China Comment: Moving in China
In the US, it's pretty common to move to a different town/city or even a different state to find a suitable job. I'm a good example of that, going from my home in Colorado to jobs in Florida and then Hawaii. While that can still happen in China, it's apparently a lot less common. According to Connie, while there's nothing stopping people from going and living in another city, at least temporarily, getting an ID card for your new area (which is used much like a driver's license here and, as such, a local one is required for some things) can be rather difficult. In the US, changing your driver's license to a new state is mostly a matter of gathering together some proof of ID and residence papers and then standing in line for a while at the DMV. I'm not sure what the process is here but apparently it can be difficult or even impossible to do on your own. Some companies are willing to help employees from other areas get their ID cards changed, while others prefer to just hire locally in the first place to avoid the hassle. Just another way in which things here differ from back in the states.

Day 15 (Sun July 5th): Kunming, A New City in a New Province
When planning out this China trip, I decidedly that, if possible, I didn't really want to spend the entire time in the Shanghai area. Connie and I talked it over a bit and decided to spend one week in the Yunnan province, a part of China that neither of us had visited before, and that week starts today. Yunnan, for the record, is in the south west part of China, bordering Burma, Laos, and Vietnam, and is home to a large number of minority ethnic groups. It's a really mountainous area and known as one of the more clean and natural parts of the country. It also has a number of popular tourist destinations. While most of the rest of this China trip was kept fairly loose schedule-wise, I planned the Yunnan visit more like my normal trips (in Japan, or last year's Beijing portion of my China trip), though Connie helped out with some of the elements. We'll be based in two different cities over the course of the week, the first being the provincial capital of Kunming.
I had booked a pretty early flight from Shanghai (we could have taken a train, but it would have meant a solid day or more of traveling), my rational being that we'd get in early enough for half a day of touring. That was all well and good, but I forgot to take into account what time of day the subways start running, so we had to take a cab. Way more expensive than the subway, but still very reasonable by US standards. The flight itself was on China Eastern and took about 3 hours. We actually had a really big nice plane with a center row and TVs in every seat, which I really didn't expect. Free breakfast and free checked suitcases too. I guess Chinese airlines haven't cut nearly as many corners as the US ones have... Really, the only knock against the flight was a 25 minute delay but, for China, that's not too bad.
When we landed in Kunming it was cold and foggy with a strong breeze and rain. Fortunately, by the time we got to our hotel, the rain had stopped, the fog had lifted, and things has warmed up a little. I splurged a bit (by China standards) on hotels for this Yunnan trip, getting a really nice room with a queen bed, good internet (yay!), and all bamboo decor for about $50 a night. After settling in, we headed out for a slightly late lunch. Since we were both pretty hungry, we ended up heading for the nearby restaurant I'd originally had marked for dinner. Due to all the minority groups living in Yunnan, there's many types of restaurants here that you'd have a very hard time finding elsewhere in the world (even in other parts of China). The one we ate at was called Yingjiang Daiweiyuanv (a recommendation from my tour book; no idea how that's pronounced), which features Dai cuisine. Honestly, it was one of the most unique places I've eaten in years. Connie and I had a pretty hard time choosing what to order, because they had a giant menu and just about everything in it looked so different from anything we'd had before that it was near impossible to guess what it would taste like. While it had all the typical meats and veggies you'd expect, the preparation ranged from a bit different to extremely unique. In the end, with a little help from the waitress, we managed to settle on a few dishes. From left to right, there's spinach and spices (I could pick out garlic, cilantro, and chilies) cooked in some kind of leaf, shredded dried beef (kind of like a soft jerky), and a spiced grilled fish. There was also chicken soup in bamboo. The spinach and fish were especially awesome, and both were spiced in rather unique ways. Both were also a bit on the hot side. Fortunately, the beef and chicken soup (which used black skinned chicken) had no chilies at all, so they were good for cooling down. And honestly, there were much more adventurous items on the menu like the mushroom and ginseng or the various kinds of bugs (not my thing, but still). It was really different, very good, and a lot of fun and I would love to eat there again sometime.
After lunch, we walked around the northern edge of the nearby Green Lake Park. Green Lake is aptly named, as it's covered in lotus plants this time of year, many of which were in bloom. There were even some white lotus flowers, which I don't recall ever seeing before. We also happened upon a large group doing some kind of ethnic dance (Connie thinks it was Tibetan, but neither of us was totally sure). The rain started again at some point, but as an extremely light drizzle, to the point where I didn't even bother with my umbrella.
We skirted the edge of the park for a bit before turning to the side, snacking on red bean filled buckwheat cakes, and walking uphill a bit to Yuantong Temple, which is the most important Buddhist temple in Yunnan, dating back around 1,200 years (though it was renovated and expanded a few times throughout its history). Upon first entering, the only especially notable looking things about it were the fancy gate and the really low ticket price (a bit under $1 per person). Though Connie and I both agreed that the architectural style was a bit different than the norm. After walking past the first hall though, it became a whole lot more impressive. The use of water was especially striking and like nothing I've even seen before at a Buddhist Temple, giving it a bit of a garden feel. The temple buildings surrounded the entire pool and extended back up the mountain behind it (though we weren't able to go up to the higher ones). And, while I couldn't photograph it, the main hall had two large (20+ feet tall) dragon statues, one on each side of the Buddha, another very cool and unique element. There was an interesting looking bronze Buddha as well. Really, it was a very pretty and different temple. My tour book really didn't give it enough credit. Oh, as a little aside, I spotted a cat sleeping up on a roof, in line with all the little decorative figures. Or maybe it's trying to stare down that guardian monster...
Then it was back to Green Lake Park to explore a bit. While you can just walk around the edge of the lake, it actually has numerous islands connected by bridges, which make for the nicer stroll. There's bamboo groves, more lotus, some black swans and other birds, and a lot of little tea shops and pavilions where locals hang out to chat, play games, sing old folk songs, and the like. There's also a section with a bunch of vendor stalls (many focusing on local specialties), some with amusingly odd English.
Around the time we finished exploring the park, the rain picked up a bit so we headed back to the hotel to take a break and plan for tomorrow before heading out once again for dinner (at which point the rain had stopped again). Since we'd had a big lunch, we decided to keep it simple and try a local specialty, over the bridge rice noodles. So named because, as the story goes, it was created by a woman who had to cross over a bridge in order to bring lunch to her husband. We went to a place across the street from the hotel that looked like a bit of a hole in the wall on the outside (and in the first dining room), but had a rather fancy dining room in the back complete with various ethnic performances (which we caught the last 20 minutes or so of). As for the noodles themselves, they were kind of like shabu shabu (Japanese hot pot) in that you get plates with meat and vegetables and a giant bowl of hot broth (not shown in the picture) to put them in. Unlike shabu shabu though, you're supposed to add rice noodles as well, mix the whole thing up, and eat it like a noodle soup. It was fairly good but the broth was extremely spicy, and ended up pushing both Connie and I a bit past our level of spicy food tolerance for the day.
All and all, it was a very fun start to our Yunnan trip and I'm really looking forward to the coming days.

Random China Comment: Air Travel
While Chinese airports haven't really impressed me (I especially disliked the Beijing airport last year), air travel works similarly to the US and, if you fly a lot, you shouldn't have any trouble with a domestic flight in China. And, in fact, it seems at least some of the airlines here don't penny pinch as much as the US so in-flight snacks/meals and free checked bags still exist. A couple things to note though, they use old fashioned metal detectors for airport security rather than the fancy but questionably effective body scanners that have taken over in the US, though I was able to keep my Lionheart pendant and watch on without setting it off. Didn't have to take off my shoes either, though I did have to take off my cell phone and take my laptop out of my bag. Also, China still follows the old "no electronics can be used for 15 minutes after take-off and before landing" rule, so keep that in mind.


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7/3/2015 Back in Shanghai

As usual, vote with the TWC button to see the new bonus comic! I was able to get three days worth of travelogue finished for this update, so I'm totally caught up again! We'll see if that lasts though... Anyway, on Sunday morning Connie and I will be making our way to China's Yunnan province for a week exploring an area that will be new to both of us. Assuming the internet works as advertised, updates will continue normally.

Day 11 (Wed July 1st): Shanghai Aquarium
There was still a chance of rain today (the last for the week), and Connie wanted to take things little easier after the two very full days we just had in Hangzhou, so we decided to visit the Shanghai Aquarium.
On the way, we passed a building where Connie said that new mothers can stay to rest and recover after birth. That's nice, but their choice of English words could have been better...
The aquarium is actually right near the Pearl Tower (which I visited last year, see the Day 3 entry) and a number of Shanghai's other tallest buildings.
The aquarium itself is nicely laid out, mostly divided into areas representing fish in different parts of the world (the Yangtze, the Amazon, etc.), often with a fancy decorated area to match. Some were fish I've seen quite often, others I didn't recognize. There were a number of more unusual fish in their collection, and they even had an exhibit of albino fish. Some personal favorites included the saw fish, Grass Eels, and the large jellyfish display.
But the real highlight of the aquarium is its underwater viewing tunnels. There's actually several of them and the last one is enormous, going through multiple tanks. It's easily two or three times longer than any others I've been through.
I don't know if I'd put the Shanghai Aquarium on my must see list, since there are good ones elsewhere, but it's in my top five aquariums so it's definitely worth a stop if you've got the time.
That evening, we ate at Din Tai Fung, a restaurant I'd spotted the other day. It's a very famous chain with branches all over China along with a few in Japan, Australia, Korea, and the US. It's actually won a lot of awards from major US publications as well. Anyway, their specialty is Chinese dumplings, which you can watch them make. They have other things on the menu too, but the dumplings are the biggest draw and they have a much larger variety of them than most of the other dumpling places here in Shanghai. We got soup dumplings with chicken, mushroom dumplings, vegetable dumplings, a vegetable dish, and a soup made from sweet rice wine with rice and black sesame mochi balls inside. The dumplings were amazing, especially the chicken and mushroom. Being a soup dumpling, there's a lot of liquid inside the chicken ones, so you're supposed to place the dumpling in a soup spoon, poke a hole in it, and then eat it and drink any soup that came out. The mushroom ones lacked the soup element, but had one of the best mushroom flavors I've ever encountered in any kind of dish. The vegetable ones were good too, though didn't have quite the same wow factor. I also really loved the soup, which was sweet with only the tiniest alcohol taste and flavored with little bits of dried flower. I'll be looking for a recipe once I get home... In the end, Din Tai Fung quickly went on my list of favorite China restaurants, right up with Nanjing Da Pai Dang. Now if they'd just open a branch in Honolulu...

Day 12 (Thu July 2nd): A Temple and a Garden
Now that the weather has improved, Connie and I decided to do some outdoor stuff in Shanghai. Our first stop was Jing'an Temple, which is the most prominent Buddhist temple in Shanghai (as a side note for those of you who have read my past travelogues, remember that China has far fewer temples than Japan, so it's not like there's a ton of them around here). While the original temple dates back over 1,800 years, the current temple was built in the 1900's and massively renovated just recently. As such, while it maintains a classic look, the structures are all pretty new. The monks are rather modern as well, we saw a number of them using smart phones... As you can tell from the pictures, it's a very fancy temple with lots of gold and even a big pagoda in the back. While the complex itself is limited in size, I don't see many temples with so many floors. One thing you might also notice from the picture is that they make extensive use of both that four direction lion motif and an elephant one as well, neither of which I've often seen used. Not shown are all the large Buddha statues in the various temple halls. There was one made out of what looked to be marble (which I don't normally see Buddhas made from) and a giant 15 ton sterling silver Buddha. Their current goal is to make a 2 ton solid gold one, which may explain why the ticket prices are a bit on the high side. Regardless, it's a pretty cool temple and I'd say it was worth the visit.
Afterwards, we went to the the old timey shopping area around Yu Garden. A lot of the buildings there are probably recreations, but the whole area still looks really cool and it's a fun place to browse the shops. We actually ended up eating lunch at the local branch of Din Tai Fung (the soup dumpling restaurant from yesterday), which is still awesome though a little off the main drag. In addition to more chicken and mushroom dumplings, we got a rather interesting preserved beef dish along with some delicious red bean and chestnut dumplings for dessert.
After we'd had our fill of window shopping, we headed into Yu Garden itself. I visited both the garden and the shopping area last time I was in China (see the Day 4 entry), but it was fun to go back and this was Connie's first time in the garden itself (it's really easy to overlook cool spots just because you live in the area). She was surprised by how big and nice it was. Honestly, I think it's just as good as the famed Suzhou gardens (though they're all very unique, and very much worth visiting as well), with new sights and details to notice around every single turn. While we were there, we got to talking a little bit about how expensive it must have been to create due to the sheer size and detail. So I looked it up. Turns out it was built by a high ranking imperial official back in the 1500's, though in the end the expenses helped financially ruin his family...
A break back and the hotel and then dinner at a nearby Japanese / Korean place wrapped up the day.

Day 13 (Fri July 3rd): Jewish Refugee Museum
Connie and I kept today's touring kind of short since we had some things to do (like laundry) in preparation for our trip to Yunnan early Sunday morning. A while back, Connie had taken a Jewish history tour of Shanghai and one location was the city's oldest synagogue, Ohel Moshe, now a museum dedicated to Jewish refugees in Shanghai during World War II, when over 14,000 Jews came to Shanghai to escape the Nazis. Though kind of far from most of the city's main tourist attractions, it's right near a subway station, so still fairly convenient to visit. The building is no longer used as a synagogue, aside from the occasional special event. The first floor has regular tours in both English and Chinese (I was surprised at how many Chinese people were there). The old Chinese man who gave the talk was very nice and informative, though he had an extremely strong stereotypical Chinese accent, so I really had to listen closely to tell what he was saying. The third floor of the synagogue contains a small Holocaust museum while the courtyard and former matzoh factory in the back houses a little cafe and the refugee museum, which contains information about what life was like for the Jews living in Shanghai during the war. Definitely a niche subject, but fairly interesting.
We headed back to our usual mall for lunch and ate at a combination Shanghai and European style restaurant. I got a fig and pear drink and aside from the usual Chinese vegetables there was a rather unique (and good) breaded chicken with lemon sauce and seasoned beef ribs steamed in a lotus leaf (which took a while to cook, but was quite good). Then it was back to the hotel to take care of that aforementioned stuff.

Random China Comment: Beggars
Unlike Japan, China has its fair share of beggars. I haven't seen any around Shanghai's major tourist destinations, but they do pop-up in some of the less high profile areas. And, despite a number of signs saying it's not allowed, they seem fairly common on the Shanghai subway's always busy line 2. Had one or two show up in train station waiting rooms as well. While they seem mostly harmless, Connie is rather suspicious of whether or not most of them are actually disabled and/or destitute, so scams could be common here. And, while most of the ones I've seen seem fairly harmless, we did encounter a couple of extremely aggressive beggars, one of which I think was loudly cussing me out in Chinese. So you may want to be careful if you encounter any.


7/1/2015 Hangzhou

Let's get right to the travelogue. Due to the whole overnight trip, I think it's going to run a day behind for a while. Hopefully I'll be able to catch up by Monday, but we'll see what happens...

Day 9 (Mon June 29th): Hangzhou
Hangzhou is a small city to the south of Shanghai. I meant to get there last year, but didn't have the time, so I wanted to be sure to go on this trip. Since it's only about an hour by train, I'd normally do it as a day trip, but Connie wanted to spend the night so we ended up booking a hotel (on a side note, Connie found a really nice but reasonable priced hotel that even had soft beds (a rarity in China)). Of course, an hour by train didn't take into account the 45 minutes or so it took us to get to the proper train station (the area we're staying isn't near the right subway line for a quick trip there) or all the time needed to buy train tickets and wait for the train. I really just need to assume that a trip involving a train here will always take far longer than in Japan. Anyway, it was a really foggy day, but I was still able to watch the scenery on the train ride. Seems the area between Shanghai and Hangzhou is mostly farms, along with crumbling concrete houses (presumably still occupied) to go with them.
After arriving (a bit later than I thought we would), we took the subway a few stops (look what I saw, but didn't try, along the way), checked into our hotel, and then headed to West Lake, Hangzhou's main draw. The fog limited visibility quite a bit (and made the day very muggy, in addition to the heat), but the lake was still pretty with its with boats, islands, and lotus. There's a nice walking path all the way around the lake, which Connie and I followed. While the lake was very crowded where it borders Hangzhou's main downtown area (and was also lined with fancy shops and restaurants), and rather noisy as well with singers and dancers scattered around the area, it got a lot quieter and more relaxed the further we went.
There are a number of attractions and points of interest along the lake. The first one we came across was a temple dedicated to an ancient ruler of Hangzhou (which was once its own kingdom). It was a nice little temple, and had an odd iron pavilion in the courtyard.
We continued on, passing by tea houses, small gardens, and the occasional odd statue, while dodging the small tourist transport carts that passed from time to time. It was fun, though really hot. I wish the Chinese vending machines (which were scattered along the path) were as nice as the Japanese ones...
Anyway, after a while we came in view of Leifeng Pagoda (translates to Evening Sunlight at Thunder Peak Pagoda) which is one of the lake's most famous attractions. A little while later and we actually reached the Pagoda (on a side note, I climbed the stairs, Connie took the escalator, and I still made it up first). While the original structure dates back over a thousand years, it was damaged centuries ago during a war and eventually collapsed in the 1900's. You can still see the original foundation (and throw money on it, if you want), but the pagoda itself is a modern recreation. Not that it matters too much, since you can still get a great view from the top. One of the floors also has a series of panels depicting a popular legend of an immortal white snake who took on human form and fell in love with and married a mortal man, fought to resurrect him after his untimely death, and was eventually sealed beneath the pagoda by an evil monk.
After we left the pagoda, we visited the large temple across the street, which made for a quick but scenic diversion. I think I mentioned it before, but in ancient China places were given very poetic names. Now, on this sign the first and second lines are entirely separate, but I thought the arrangement was funny...
Still further on, we reached a very long causeway which cuts across part of the lake. While you can continue along the shore instead, it seems to be the more popular route. By then, the sun was starting to get low (it's a really big lake, and we didn't start our walk until early afternoon), but we pressed on, passed the tombs of some famous historical figures, and made it to Solitary Hill Island, which is close enough to the shore to be connected by a bridge. The picturesque Seal Engravers' Society compound was there, along with Louwailou, one of the area's most popular restaurants, where we stopped for supper. Finally, we walked the last couple of miles in the dark, completing our circuit of the lake. I was actually rather impressed that we made it the whole way given our start time and that Connie, while in fairly good shape, isn't as used to really long walks as I am.
To wrap things up, we caught one of the evening's fountain shows back near where we started. As a note, only the second part of that video has the proper music, the music in the first part was some performer with a very loud stereo and a sax who insisted on playing while the fountains were going.
While I do wish the fog hadn't been so thick, it was a very pleasant day. Due to the late start, we didn't have time to see all the attractions around the lake, but I enjoyed myself quite a bit. Hangzhou is a very nice city (one of the nicest I've seen in China so far) and West Lake deserves its good reputation.

Random China Comment: "Hot" Guys
Well, that's what Connie calls them. Anyway, on hot days, it's fairly common to see guys (often older men, but occasional younger ones as well), with their shirts rolled up just above their stomachs walking around, hanging out, and just going about their business. Once in a while, you'll see one with just an unbuttoned shirt, but the roll up is far more common. Nothing wrong with it, I guess, but it is a little strange to see.

Day 10 (Tue June 30th): Hangzhou Songcheng
Hangzhou Songcheng wasn't originally on my list of places to go in China. In fact, I didn't even know it existed until a couple of weeks ago when I happened across and internet article listing the world's most popular theme parks (based on attendance numbers). While most of the list was filled by every Disney and Universal park in the world, there was one Chinese theme park and I noticed that was actually in Hangzhou so I did some research. Well, their English web site left much to be desired, but it looked interesting so Connie did some more research and we decided to check it out.
We got tickets from the concierge at our hotel (a little cheaper, but a bit of a hassle due to a network issue that caused a processing problem) then hopped a bus nearby. As a note, since the buses tend to not have any English, getting to the park without Connie's help would have been tricky, though not impossible.
Hangzhou Songcheng is a theme park based on ancient China, specifically Hangzhou at its peak. As such, the majority of the park is designed like a romanticized Chinese town. There are restaurants and snack stands, many where you can watch some traditional items (like barley malt candy) being made, some displays and exhibits on ancient life, and plenty of little shops. Though there are also more theme park like attractions such as play areas, a mirror maze, and some haunted houses.
There's also lots and lots of different shows. Some, like the different types of puppet shows, are very traditional. Others, like these dancers, not so much (despite the mostly traditional outfits). After walking around that section for a while, Connie and I climbed an artificial mountain lined with Buddhas and small temples. There was a giant Buddha statue and replica Buddhist cave you could go through at the top. Some nice views of the rest of the park too, not that you can see the view especially well in this photo...
We snacked a bit for lunch (figuring theme park street food was probably much safer than the regular variety), happened across a cool martial arts show, then found a good vantage point to watch the ball throwing show. It's about the daughter of an official choosing a husband by tossing a red ball into the audience. The guy who catches it becomes her bridegroom to be and gets to take part in the rest of the performance. While we were up high, we also spotted this. Not really sure what was going on there...
After that we rushed off to see the Romantic Show of Songcheng, which is essentially the park's main attraction (as a note, it's not included with the base ticket price and it can fill up fast, though there are multiple performances each day). It's an hour long show that's something like a fancier version of Shen Lun (the Chinese dance and culture show that tours the US) with a little bit of Cirque du Soliel thrown in. They even allowed photos and videos. It started with a bit about early civilizations and then jumped ahead to the time when Hangzhou was the capital of China, with the emperor throwing a big birthday party which included delegations from various other countries. Then there was a pretty epic battle against the invading Huns (who, historically, did win eventually, though they were beaten back a number of times) followed by sections based on the white snake story and another famous Chinese fairytale romance. Finally, the last part focused on more modern elements of Hangzhou like its famous tea and the scenery around West Lake. It was a really well done show all around and both Connie and I really enjoyed it.
Afterwards, we spent a bit more time exploring the remainder of the park before deciding to head for the train station. While we did walk through the entire park, we skipped a few exhibits / attractions here and there and didn't see anywhere near all of the shows, so I could see some people spending an entire day there (for us, it was around 5 hours).
Unfortunately, the ticket line at the train station was really long and, when we finally got to the front, the earliest train we could get tickets for wasn't for another two hours. Buying train tickets in China in advance really does pay off, though it requires you to be rather rigid with your plans.
And that was our Hangzhou trip. It was a lot of fun and I could definitely see myself going back next time I'm in China. I could easily spend another day or two seeing the rest of the sites in Hangzhou proper, and there are a number of other areas nearby (small towns, a wet lands park, etc.) that look worth visiting.


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