Canyons, a Crazy House, and Croissants

Dalat, Vietnam:

Greetings from the Future!

Our adventure in Vietnam during the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon continues. As we were only able to book one night in a hotel in Hoi An, an abbreviated visit to this beach town eventually passed as there were absolutely no other hotels within 100 miles (I canvassed the city, I called people, I scoured the internet … nada), so we lit off for the Central Highlands. The French colonizers of Vietnam seem to have had the right idea about dealing with the climate: set up numerous, quaint, hill stations within access to the hotter lowland cities in order to get some respite from the oppressive heat. Dalat is one such place wherein the French built a hill station (See also our earlier trip to Sapa). The weather is mild, there are hills, colonial architecture … they grow strawberries … they make wine with said strawberries. It is gorgeous.

After hopping off the sleeper bus in Dalat , we went directly to the hotel I had booked. Despite booking a room and paying a deposit, we were out of luck. Keeping in mind that we went through a similar song-and-dance in Hoi An before hopping on a 20-hour bus ride, I reacted with some understandable ire. Four letter words and praise of the decisions of Robert Macnamera were employed along with much chest pounding. Things cooled in the conversation when I explained to the in-keeper that I would be keeping their family awake all night by drinking beer and eating soup in their den. While I was busy venting testosterone to non-English speakers, Maria found other lodging at “Backpacker’s Paradise,” which is run by a bunch of saints who agreed to give Maria a bed in their dorm and give me a cot on the floor. We were then bumped up to a private room the next night!

In all fairness to the hotel that reneged on our reservation, some people are born insufferable jerks who lie and steal as a matter of course.

That said, we bounced back and had a great time here!

After all of that excitement, what is there to do in Dalat?

Outdoor Stuff:

Vietnam’s healthy tourism circuit has numerous well-established locations for specific purposes: Hanoi is the capital and where you dodge mopeds and wave at McCain’s flight suit; you can check out the caves in Phong Nha, hill tribes in Sapa, the old capital in Hue with a “Forbidden City”, and you can buy yourself a cheap suit in Hoi An. Dalat is the outdoor recreation mecca of Vietnam. Numerous outfitters catering to the banana pancake eating, backpacker set are available for mountain biking, rafting, trekking to local villages, rock climbing, and canyoning.

Maria and I went with Highland Sport Travel on a canyoning trip. Part rappelling, part rock climbing, part whatever you call that thing where you jump off a cliff and swim around … this was tons of fun.

Highland Sport Travel’s guides exuded professionalism and inspired confidence among the wholly foreign group we were with. The idea of convincing people, in a second language, of the fact that, “hey … all this equipment works, and also you need to listen to my commands to stay safe,” seemed a daunting task but was handled perfectly. Most of the guides had studied English in college and all were attentive to the guests. The trip was a blast and the guides did a great job, even dedicating an additional guide to helping a 10-year-old German girl through some of the more interesting aspects of the trip. (That last sentence might make this trip seem decidedly less hardcore, but I should mention that this was an unusually brave 10-year-old whose father declined to jump off a cliff that his daughter hopped off. I’m imagining there was some awkward dinner conversation that followed in that family.)

We jumped off cliffs, rappelled down waterfalls, and generally had a great day. The entire trip — which took all day, included van transport to and from the canyon, a full lunch, and two guides per our eight person group — cost $25 per person.

Baked Goods: 

The French left the people of Indochina with a bizarre legacy. You can find western toilets with these little spray-hose bidets attached in fairly rural bathrooms across the region. All of the countries of Indochina, as if in a middle finger to their previous colonizers, are communist (Cambodia has elections but the last time the Communist Party lost there was a violent coup, which assured that their Prime Minister, who has been in power since the late 80s, remained in power). Oh …and the baked goods.

While baguettes are on offer throughout Vietnam, I was suspect of cakes, cupcakes, and other desserts. Maria and I found an enormous bakery in downtown Dalat called Lien Hoa. For less than $5, we purchased enough cupcakes and chocolate filled products to give a small elephant diabetes. I’m not talking a dozen doughnuts. I’m talking, “let’s skip breakfast tomorrow,” kind of eating. It was glorious.

Dalat’s Crazy House:

Imagine, if you will, Pee Wee’s Playhouse during construction. A weird, mishmash of a tree-fort, cartoon imagery brought to life, and exposed rebar from walls where, most likely, the whole thing will be expanded. You can get lost here, and I’m sure you could fall and die here if you wandered around in the dark. The “Crazy House” is the design of Dang Viet Nga, a Russian educated, Vietnamese architect, whose designs have previously been destroyed for being interpreted as conveying anti-communist ideals. Interestingly, Dang Viet Nga’s father was Ho Chi Minh’s successor, which allowed for some liberal skirting of the rules with regards to building codes. It costs about two dollars to visit and is well worth a walk through.

Check out our photos from the activities mentioned above, as well as some pics from a hot-pot dinner out with some friends we made at Backpacker’s Paradise, including two Canadians, a New Zealander, a Finnish guy, an Argentine, and a Brazilian:

Phong Nha

Greetings from the future, Dear Readers!

One gorgeous natural phenomena deserves yet another and we are here to document as many as possible for you. (With run-on sentences.)

After a brief (45 minute) pit stop back in Hanoi, we grabbed a night bus for a roughly seven hour trip to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National park. [Note to readers: If you are traveling in northern Vietnam and are not riding a motorcycle, you’re beholden to bus routes, which all pass through Hanoi.]

Phong Nha is a new addition to Vietnam’s tourist trail owing to the fact that, six years ago, the biggest ticket in the area was hidden … underground.

In 1991, a local villager named Ho Kahn discovered the mouth of Son Doong cave, now recognized as the largest cave in the world. Mr. Ho runs a coffee shop in Phong Nha village today and is something of a local celebrity. As the entrance of the cave requires significant gear and technical experience to traverse, exploration waited until a British team could arrive in 2009. For those with a thick enough wallet, $3,000 will allow you a trip through Son Doong via Oxalis Adventures.

Our budget did not allow for this particular journey, but fortunately, the same bedrock allowing for the creation of Son Doong cave, is present throughout this part of Asia.

Karst topography: (There are apparently several people with advanced degrees in geology peeking in here from time to time, if they’d like to add anything, I’ll gladly add it here.)

We have all seen the photos of knife-edged mountains, which bring to mind the stereotypic beauty of southern Asia. Green pillars of earth and jungle towering out of a field of rice paddies with a prominence altogether different from the Rockies or Appalachians. Sometimes these mountains are so abrupt they look as if they were drawn by a child. Triangles? Really?

The shape of these mountains are indicative of limestone or “karst” topography. Maria’s earlier post on our trip to Halong Bay offers numerous, gorgeous photos of these phenomena. Surface rainfall erodes limestone at sharp angles while water makes way into the crevices of limestone, creating underground caves. Those of you who have visited the panhandle of Florida are likely familiar with the numerous sinkholes, lakes, and springs, which dot the landscape due to the limestone bedrock. Some of those aforementioned lakes (Lake Jackson, in Tallahassee, FL) have a tendency to actually “disappear” from time to time when another layer of limestone breaks open, thereby draining the lake.

A drive through Phong Nha — like many other villages from Yunnan province, China all the way to Thailand — boasts glorious vistas. Like many other small towns in Vietnam, Phong Nha is basically one street, with a handful of places a visitor can sleep for the night. A bike ride around town (video of a trip we took) is ridiculously pretty. That said, Phong Nha is set apart from other post-card-pretty towns in Southeast Asia due to one’s ability to pick and choose among a litany of outfitters for caving trips. The aforementioned Oxalis is run by some of the Brits who originally traversed Son Doong and are the gold standard.

Maria and I took a trip through the stunning Paradise Cave, a round trip trek of roughly eight kilometers, all of which was underground, lit with nothing but headlamps. There were only two other guests on our trip along with two guides, making the experience that much more exciting. While I took video of our trip, I have unfortunately come to the realization that, unlike in cartoons, you can’t actually film the eyes and teeth of your friends in pitch darkness.

Historic Significance:

Phong Nha, located in the midst of a mountainous rainforest in western Vietnam, appears lush, untouched, and certainly not a place subjected to a bombing campaign comparable to that seen in the European theater of WWII. The Ho Chi Minh trail ran through this area and America’s efforts to cut off supplies for the Viet Cong involved an aerial bombing campaign. The Viet Cong, conversely, combatted these attacks by constantly shifting the location of the HCM Trail. The end result, a huge swath of land along Vietnam’s Cambodian and Laotian border littered with craters and unexploded ordinances. As Phong Nha is a rural area, much of the rainforest swallowed the initial scarring suffered from the war. Unfortunately, the remnants of the war are more readily visible on locals with missing limbs than they are on the landscape.

A Charity Worth Giving To:

Mines Advisory Group (MAG) works to remove mines and unexploded ordinances from post-conflict areas. Every day, 12 people are killed or maimed due to explosives left behind from war and, over the past 25 years, MAG has worked in 40 countries to clear unexploded ordinances. To date, they have cleared over 5,522 square kilometers of land. We were told that under their current operating budget, it would take MAG (the only organization removing mines in the area), “10,000 years in order to reach certainty that this area of Vietnam is cleared of unexploded ordinances.”

Places to check out in Phong Nha:

Paradise Cave: We paid around $60 per person for this experience, and it was completely amazing. We spent all day wandering through a completely dark cave which ended in a huge swimming hole, lit by a skylight some 70 meters overhead. My photos and video do not bring justice to the experience, which ranks as one of my favorite Asian outings thus far.

Phong Nha Cave: (We didn’t make it here.) A quick boat ride from downtown Phong Nha, which should run you $5-10 for the whole experience. A dry cave, this can be traversed without any real worry as to your clothing. This cave was actually a hiding place for a flotilla of boats, which served as a make-shift bridge for the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Dark Cave: (We didn’t make it here either.) You’ll see a lot of photos of folks ziplining and taking mudbaths and whatnot … this is Dark Cave. There are numerous places offering a dual trip through both Dark Cave and the first kilometer of Paradise Cave. While it looked like a blast, we definitely hit budget after hiring guides for Paradise Cave.

Hang En Cave: (Didn’t make it here either … maybe next time for this one.) Two day treks are run out of numerous outfitters to this cave. While not as big as Son Doong, this trek is somewhere around $200 per person and thereby, decidedly more approachable for a traveler looking for an exciting experience.

Easy Tiger Hostel: This backpacker-friendly hotel offers dorm rooms at a reasonable rate, catering to budget-minded travelers. While we stayed across the street, we found ourselves stopping by the restaurant/ bar on a daily basis to learn about what to do and see in town. The charming and eloquent owner, Seamus, (you’re looking for the Irishman with a mohawk) is clearly working with the intent of being a responsible member of the Phong Nha community. After backpacking for several months, it is very easy to encounter “party hostel” phenomena. Instead of inviting everyone to play beer pong on the roof, Seamus offered information on local history, culture, and charities working to better the area. Seamus holds court every morning at 9 a.m., giving a run-down of all caving tours, local attractions, along with things to be concerned about. Instead of advocating that everyone rent mopeds from him (Phong Nha is mountainous, remote, and presents some dangers to the odd tourist who crashes a motorcycle) he steers people towards both minivan tours along with the less-expensive option of having a local drive a motorcycle for you. Additionally, half of Seamus’s morning speech involves alerting visitors to the problem of UXOs (unexploded ordinances) in Phong Nha. All visitors are made well aware to stay on marked roads and paths and to avoid any off-trail hiking. Additionally, Seamus does a fair amount of fund raising for MAG, who do UXO removal in the area.

The Pub With Cold Beer: This bar/restaurant/shack-in-the-country, allows visitors the chance to select a chicken and kill the chicken if they would like. While part of me morbidly thought I’d like to kill my own lunch, I was actually glad I didn’t do this myself as the woman running the operation (affectionately called “the chicken lady” by everyone in Phong Nha) was able to dispatch our chicken in a manner that involved much less struggle than I would have imagined. The route to this bar is pretty wild and is detailed in the upcoming video. If you are on a motorbike, I would highly advise consulting Seamus about the best (see: most paved) route as we seem to have taken the one where all the roads were made of chocolate milk and Playdough.

Check out our photos from Phong Nha:

Good Morning …

Greetings from the future, Dear Readers!

Morning has broken and in what comes as an inconsistent but exciting bugle call, we are awake.  In any given city, a hive of mopeds begin a growing hum at 4:30 a.m., continuing throughout morning rush hour.  In smaller towns and hamlets, one can hear children playing at 5 a.m.  On the edges of villages, the baying of water buffalo along with the intermittent rooster’s call seem less associated with sunrise than annoyance.  Very early bedtimes are kept around these parts making for even earlier rising.

Where the hell is my breakfast?

Where did the day go?  Is it 6 a.m. already?   In the capital, cafes and restaurants are packed tighter than a Washington D.C. bar at happy hour while a morning meal in a village presents a more subdued ambiance.  Breakfast in a quiet cafe over the owner’s home video of a cock fight.

These things happen.

Coffee, a baguette and maybe we could interest you in a spicy pork soup?

Our travels have taken us beyond the confines of the Middle Kingdom to the domaine of the people from the south, Vietnam.  (In the local language, “Viet” refers to  the Vietnamese people, while, “Nam” means, “south”.) A wholly different country with a history, culture and culinary tradition influenced by 1000 years of Chinese rule, 100 years of French rule and a war with my own country.

Did we mention that our trip coincides with the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon as well as the 50th anniversary of American troops entering Vietnam?  Those holidays didn’t pop up on our Google calendars.

Snap on your helmets and throw two Coke bottles of fuel in your tanks as we’re about to take you across Vietnam!

First Stop Hanoi:

After filing out of the airplane and descending a staircase to the tarmac (which always seems cool as it makes me think that I’m in the Secret Service or something) we immediately got on a bus (which is less prestigious than a motorcade, but we’ll take what we can get) to the terminal.

A visa for U.S. citizens can be secured in the airport, provided that you have already obtained a “letter of invitation” from a travel agency in advance (for which we paid $17).  On arrival in the airport, you need to have $45 in U.S. currency, exactly.  This is the fee for processing the paperwork and there’s no money exchange or ability to get change of any kind in the airport before walking through customs.  If you do not have this money then you now live in the airport or get on a flight back to wherever you came from.

We hopped a cab to our hotel and noticed several things about Vietnam different from China:

Everyone is on a moped.  China has recently become the largest car market on the planet and while there are certainly numerous mopeds on the streets in Beijing or Shanghai, the roadways are equally or more cluttered with cars.  In Vietnam, the preferred chariot is the moped.  My first run in Hanoi has some video footage, which involves me running slowly, trying not to die, and then, finally walking, and trying not to die.  The sidewalks are full of people doing … things while the roads are clogged with people on mopeds.  To put it mildly, I loved it.

Water buffalo are all over the place.  Next to the bank, behind the grocery store, chewing the grass on the median of the roadway.  They bookend any experience that might occur in Vietnam that doesn’t involve extending a visa in the capital.  Water buffalo are everywhere.  If you are not actually in downtown Hanoi, in a government building, three floors from the street,  you’re probably within 300 feet of a water buffalo.  These are not wild animals and are generally ushered around by a boy between the ages of 10 and 15.  I am told that the locals refer to said youth as, “buffalo boys.”

There are tons of white people wearing ridiculous clothing, all over the place.  Generally sunburned, always in jungle pants with elephants on them (MC Hammer, “2 Legit 2 Quit” video kind of bagginess.  I am told this is born from practicality.  It apparently helps with keeping cool, fending off mosquitoes in Thailand or Cambodia, and making you look like an idiot when you walk around the capital of a country wherein nobody from wears said clothes.).  T-shirts that say “Beer Lao” or something in Thai, or “Bintang” (an Indonesian beer).  (I should mention that when attempting to trim my beard, a month ago, I shorted the electricity of a hotel in Beijing.  The building went dark, I felt bad, I have a pair of scissors now.  Anyway,  I now look a bit Hasidic.)  We are now on a decidedly more dedicated tourist route.  In Hanoi, heading south towards Ho Chi Minh City, we are encountering numerous others from Europe, Australia, U.S., etc … who are either heading in the same direction or are arriving from points south.

A recognizable script.  While Vietnam was ruled by China for 1000 years and there are numerous shared words from Chinese, a phoneticized version of the language was created by a French missionary in the 1600s, which was enforced as the official script during French colonization.  I’ve heard a bit about how this was done to aid in growing the literacy rate (learning characters is hard) and I have heard a good bit about how this was a tool of control imposed by French occupiers.  My bachelor’s degree from a football school and several weeks in country doesn’t really allow me to comment here.  While Chinese script is still visible on pre-colonial architecture, everyone in Vietnam reads a script of an Asian language, put to Roman characters, with accents denoting tones.  (Vietnamese, like Chinese, is a tonal language.)  There’s something refreshing about finally be able to read something and not understand it, as opposed to understanding something and not being able to read it.

Some important sights to see in Hanoi:

  • The Old Quarter: Old Hanoi was built out on a plan of 36 streets, named according to the products originally sold in those locations.  Garment street, noodle street, cobbler street, etc … very narrow streets throughout which cars could not possibly (but absolutely did) get through. The preferred mode of transport around here is the moped, which is ever-present.  Today, this district is where one can find the majority of the hostels attracting backpackers.  The neighborhood is an interesting mishmash of local flavor, i.e. Pho noodle stands, next to a beer stall, next to a place that sells French food.  All of this is, from time to time, interrupted by a man who walks by, dragging an amplifier playing Michael Jackson.  Magic tricks and moon walking ensues.  There were also balloon animals. While commercialized, this area was immensely charming.  I really enjoyed wandering around here.
  • Hoan Kiem Lake:  An Asian Excalibur story if there ever was one.  The emperor of Vietnam, credited with removing the Chinese after 1000 years of rule is said to have been guided to do so by the Gods.  A sword was sent to earth, placed in the center of Hoan Kiem Lake for retrieval by the emperor who wielded it to separate the Vietnamese from their Chinese rulers.  Afterwards, the sword was replaced from whence it came.  A pagoda in the middle of the lake marks the spot where the sword did said ascending/descending.  Surrounding Hoan Kiem, you can find numerous restaurants and cafes which allow for wonderful people watching.  This was the best place to run in Hanoi when I decided that I wanted to be a wimp and stop elbowing mopeds for roadspace.
  • Hoa Lo Prison:  Known as the “Hanoi Hilton” by U.S. pilots held there during the war. Taken with buckets of salt, the museum’s curation offers a good bit of information.  Built by the French in 1896 to house political prisoners, torture, beatings, beheadings and inhumane containment in close confinement are well documented during this period.  The remainder follows a basic theme: The French used this prison to commit acts of brutality (noting the number of prisoners per cell along with the guillotine which was used to execute transgressors liberally) while the Vietnamese allowed U.S. service members time to play volleyball and work on arts and crafts.   The home team gets to write the history books I suppose.  John McCaine’s flight suit is on display and nobody took me up on the offer to return it to whatever suburb of D.C. or Phoenix he calls home.
  • Temple of Literature:  Originally built in 1070 by emperor Ly Nhan Tong as a temple to Confucius and the Imperial Academy (Vietnam’s first university), this site now serves to inspire Vietnamese students.  Students having just graduated, crowded the temple with their cap and gowns to take photos.

Here are photos from our stay in Hanoi:

He’s One Bad Grass Mud Horse (Explicit Language)

Greetings from the future, Dear Readers!

The following post contains explicit language, salty talk, and curse words that begin with the letter “f”, in an attempt to describe a facet of Chinese language and culture we have learned about.  The general theme of this post is one where we, the foreigners have learned something that we didn’t know was available to learn.  If you would like to see pretty pictures, there’s one of Maria’s lovely face in this posting.  That said, the picture also contains explicit language, salty talk, and curse words that contain the letter “f”.  Consider yourself warned and feel free to skip over this post if you so choose.

In Nanjing, touring the former office of Chang Kai Shek, the air was a temperature hinting at a warmth that hadn’t arrived.  Willing the weather forward to a time when I might worry more about sunscreen than where I put my jacket, I wore shorts and sandals ahead of season.  Leaving the leader of the Kuomintang’s office by descending a marble staircase and rounding the outskirts of a well-maintained garden, I saw a young man sporting a hat which echoed my innermost sentiments perfectly.

“Fuckin’ Summer,” emblazoned a black baseball cap resting gently atop a young man of roughly 20 dutifully walking the grounds with a man I suspected to be his father.  I can only assume that neither were aware of what the hat said.

English is the language of the world’s most successful pop stars and thereby carries a certain level of fashion appeal.  We have seen dozens of young women with a popular hat that says “BOY.”  I saw an old woman in Qinhuangdao with a sweater proclaiming, “Math Sucks.”  Silly/bad English fashion is ubiquitous in China.

Those of you in the West need only to take a trip to the beach in order to see a cultural parallel.  Tattoos of Asian calligraphy adorn the bodies of numerous bronzed Americans who likely cannot count to five in Chinese.

Sure that means “strength”?  Might want to check on that before you head to Panama City.

Because of the above phenomena, traveling in China with English as a first language, can cause a Westerner to misinterpret, underestimate, and improperly judge surroundings.  A constant influx of t-shirts and signs with improper English can ease one into viewing anything written in English with serious condescension.

This brings me to a photo that I took while in Beijing:

When I took this photo, I was under the incorrect assumption that the shop owner was blissfully unaware of the curse words on display in the marquis of the shop.  “This man, in the capital of the largest country in the world, with a booming tourism industry, does not understand the signage of his own business,” I thought.  I didn’t figure into the equation that this was hinting at a form of humor and subversion way above my head.  (That said, still an insane thing to put in the front of a clothing store.)

On to the crazy zombie-lama thing:

Weeks after we left Beijing, Maria and I were eating in Shanghai with some friends.  A Canadian living in the area asked if we had heard of a phenomena in Chinese social media known as, “The Grass Mud Horse.”  I immediately thought back to the photo and almost choked on my dinner.  What ensued was a well-needed lightbulb into a darkened corner of my understanding of the Chinese language.

Put the kids to bed, the language is going to get intense.

Written Chinese is comprised of thousands of characters for which there are numerous homonyms.  (“red” and “read”…got it?)  Additionally, the spoken language has 4 distinct tones (five, depending upon how specific you’re going to be), which means that pronunciation is extremely important and an improper inflection on a vowel when speaking can change the meaning of “ma” for “mother”, to “ma” meaning “horse.” Additionally, “cao,” when pronounced with the third (falling and then rising) tone means, “grass,” whereas, “cao,” pronounced with the fourth (falling) tone means, “fuck.”  Incidentally, the same character for grass can also be used for the word, “fuck.”

This brings us to the number one vulgar insult that is used in the Chinese language: Fuck your mother.  A mean-spirited, awful thing to say to another, which is also used in China for times when you hit your thumb with a hammer or stub your toe.  (i.e. The entire sentence is used, even when there isn’t an intended subject to inflict this aggression on.)

“Grass Mud Horse”: 草泥马 or “Cǎo ní mǎ”

“Fuck Your Mother”: 肏你妈 or “cào nǐ mā”

Why is this important or even interesting?

Great question!  Two reasons!  Firstly, a lot of Chinese humor involves clever wordplay by leaning heavily on the many homonyms that the language provides.  Essentially, any Chinese standup comedian worth his salt likely has several jokes that end in, “Nah, I wasn’t talking about your mother, I was talking about my horse.” Secondly, many readers in the West are likely aware of the “Great Firewall of China,” which serves to monitor and curtail internet content.  This impediment to internet searches and discourse in China has created a sort of code-talk that, to your average Chinese internet user, is second hand.  So, when someone wants to say something vulgar on a forum in Chinese, without upsetting the monitors of traffic, there’s no need to insult anyone’s mother.  Simply call them a grass mud horse.  They’ll get it.

More to come, from the future!

Somewhere Upon the Sea


上: “Shang” means “upon” or “beside”

海: “Hai” means “Ocean”

Not really a beach town …

Greetings from the Future, Dear Readers!

Today’s post brings us to Shanghai, where you can order noodle soup, dumplings, and a beer in a marble-columned building constructed in the 1800s with drug money.  Do you like neon?  Do you like staying awake all night?  Do you like making money, how do you feel about spending it?  Shanghai is loud, brash, fast, and beautiful.  It is London, New York, Las Vegas, Paris, and a wild west outpost with a retired sheriff.

Of the foreign “backpackers” in our hostel, we met a British man working three jobs (modeling, bartending, and entry-level clerking for a fashion design company) and a Mexican man who was working to import avocados.  They were sharing halves of a  bunkbed.  I seem to remember the Brit having turned the lower berth into an office of sorts.  A large number of the native Chinese at the hostel were clearly working out of the building as well.  A noted change from your average Australian 20 something, Brit-on-a-gap-year, or Israeli fresh out of service to the IDF.  That said, this city has plenty to do for those looking to take a trip.

Looking for enormous buildings that take the form of decommissioned rocket ships? Got it.
European architecture?  Yes!  Traditional, Asian architecture?  We can probably find something for you, but let’s not get too crazy with these requests.  Delicious, local fare?  You bet!  How about Indian restaurants, French food, and a place you can get fresh bagels and a good cup of coffee?  You’re in luck!

I’ll get to some of the sights, but first I want to explain some context (feel free to skip ahead, pretty pictures at the bottom).

When trying to understand Shanghai, one must take into account its history and importance politically, economically, and geographically.

Politically, you can think of Shanghai as an influencer but not a decider.  Shanghai is a New York of sorts, but not at all a Washington DC.  People make money here and couldn’t care much for policy.  Shanghai is a hub of business and finance on mainland China, which also dabbles in fashion, whereas Beijing is a hive of manufacturing and, within the last decade, tech.

Geographically, Shanghai is positioned as not only an excellent port for exporting Chinese goods but also importing.  Shanghai is a gateway to the Yangtze basin, which represents hundreds of millions of people, all within a very short distance.  Suzhou is 35 minutes on a train and Nanjing is another hour, all representing 20 million people beyond the 24 million in Shanghai.  This does not tally Wenzhou, Hangzhou, or any points south.  Read: a lot of people, really close by.

Economically, Shanghai boasts the most profitable commercial center in China, which translates to a noted cultural rift with the rest of the Middle Kingdom.  The urban/rural divide, while present  in the West, poses a more significant division in China due to a more pronounced wealth disparity.  A farmer in Wedowee, Alabama might not have really “got” Seinfeld, not being able to sympathize with the daily stresses of a womanizing standup comedian who lives off of cereal in Manhattan, but the farmer and Jerry could probably both talk about baseball or something … By comparison, a farmer in Qinghai Province might never have had antibiotics, so the prevalence of Lamborghini dealerships in Shanghai is probably going to cause a long, awkward silence while searching for something to talk about.  (There are two Lamborghini dealerships in Shanghai, that we saw.)  Get the difference?

For well over a hundred years,  American boat captains with Philippine crews, German engineers, and French cooks (throw darts at a map and create different combinations at home!) disembarked in Shanghai, rendering the city about as traditionally Chinese as Manhattan is “Field of Dreams.”  This cultural separation between Shanghai and the heartland of China  has bred distrust.

Politicians in Beijing, for hundreds of years, have actively worked to mitigate the city’s influence on national policy.  In the 1700s, Shanghai boasted the most profitable port on the Yangtze, despite being designated as something less influential than a county seat.  Hundreds of years later, the city remains a place that produces wealth for the country, with little influence on the  Communist Party’s overall governance.  1983 saw Shanghai’s tax contribution 33 times less than that invested by the PRC.  Shanghaiers are paving Beijing’s roads.

Do Shanghaiers look down on the rest of those in China?  Maybe?  Do New Yorkers talk of civilization ending at the Hudson River?  There’s some frustration on both ends.

Chinese friends have told me that, “Beijing turns foreigners Chinese, while Shanghai turns the Chinese foreign.”  As mentioned above, the port has proved profitable, thereby enticing foreign investment.  That said, the history of Shanghai’s foreign involvement was shaped as much by the port as by the products being shipped.

The 1,400 pound elephant in the room:

Imagine, if you will, a product that customers will gladly buy, regardless of price hikes, legal restrictions, or negative health consequences.  This product, when used outside the prudent restrictions of medical professionals, breeds large numbers of of people who show up late to work and are generally bad at raising children.  Now, imagine you have a lot of this product and a good idea of a place you can sell it, far from your home where you might have to … you know … deal with the consequences.

In 1838, the UK was selling 1,400 pounds of opium, per year, from fields in India, to buyers in China.  Simultaneously, the penalty for native Chinese opium dealers was death.  This came to a head with the Opium Wars, which initially decided that European and American merchants could ship opium to China.  This climate made financial empires.

Opium’s previous influence on Shanghai’s economy (and the world’s) cannot be underestimated.   The long gone British East India Company’s most profitable endeavor was in opium trade.  Jardine Matheson (they focus on shipping, but have expanded into the role of a holding company.  The trucks with the ladders on them in Hong Kong’s airport are owned by Jardine) posts 57 billion USD in annual revenue today and was started by a doctor who found it more profitable to abandon his practice prescribing this wonder drug and simply focus on shipping it.  Heard of HSBC?  The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation was started in the wake of the Opium Wars as a means of putting all this drug money somewhere other than a mattress.

Shanghai’s architecture and overall layout are owed to foreign concessions with architecture built by European, Japanese, and American corporations.  A walk through the city can, at times, look very much like Paris, especially if one is in the French Concession.  A walk along the Huang Pu River on The Bund is straight out of Europe.  The most prominent buildings: the former HSBC headquarters, the former French Consulate, the former headquarters of Jardine Matheson, all boast Greek columns, domes, spires, and were paid for with drug money.

That said, the Chinese idiom of “旧的不去新旳不来” (jiu de bu qu, xin de bu lai), or, “If the old doesn’t go, the new won’t come,” applies in Shanghai.  The city, like others across China, is in constant flux, with old buildings being razed to make room for new skyscrapers.  Hard to argue with progress.

Today, of course, the economy is decidedly less smack-focused.  We had an absolute blast in this city, here are some of the spots we enjoyed the most.

• The Bund:  The Huangpu River cuts Shanghai in half, dividing the older part of the city, in the west, with its foreign concessions (this area is known as Puxi) from the newer half of the city, with some of the largest buildings in the world in the east (known as Pudong).  The Bund is located on the Puxi side and allows one a walk along the river where you can simultaneously view old, European buildings and peer over the river to see a dizzying light display every night on some of the tallest buildings in the world.

• The World Financial Center:  Pudong’s skyscrapers all have observation decks which charge admission fees.  The Oriental Pearl Tower, which looks like a rocket ship or series of basketballs balanced on chopsticks depending on who you ask, charges over $20 to get to the top.  To avoid these fees, long wait lines, and get an upholstered chair along with a telescope, we would suggest making your way to the building in Pudong that looks like a beer-bottle opener.  (Look to the  opening photo for this post, which  is the Pudong Skyline. The World Financial Center  building is the tall rectangle with a square missing from the center of it.)  Avoid the line for the official observation deck and go tell the attendant at the front that you want to go to “the hotel lobby.”  From here, you will be directed to an elevator with two available floors: 1 and 87.  You’ll be 20 or 30 floors shy of the actual top floor, but you can have a drink and sit in a comfortable chair for less than the cost of the observation deck.  To cross the river from our hotel in Puxi, we took something called the “Shanghai tourist tunnel,” which was very expensive, but was less a subway and more of a lightshow.

• The French Concession: While I never figured out the exact parameters of this area, a good amount of the city was previously under French governance and a lot of this area is still preserved with European architecture.  Have you been in Asia for a while and are you looking for some western food?  This is where you go.  Here, in the French Concession, you will encounter people who can’t count to 5 in Chinese, eating steaks.  It is pretty expensive compared to mainland China standard prices, but pretty standard for the U.S.

• The Shanghai Museum: A fantastically curated, free, museum that will take you through everything from the history of Chinese painting, ceramics, weaponry, money, as well as one fascinating exhibit on some of the different minority cultures in China.  A very worthwhile stop.

• The Propaganda Museum: A hard-to-find (located in the basement of what seemed to be an apartment building) but very interesting exhibit on communist propaganda.  A great place to grab a souvenir.

• Tianzifang (AKA “Tons of Fun”):  Located in the French Concession off of Tai Kan Lu, this refurbished neighborhood of tight alleys and old buildings is reminiscent of Beijing’s hu tong neighborhoods.  The only difference is that instead of the buildings being full of nice Chinese families, they’re full of bars selling giant mango mojitos.  If you’re averse to being in a very crowded area and aren’t in the mood for a very touristy setting, steer clear.  That said, there is much fun to be had.

• Bagelhead: They had bagels.  They had coffee.  They had bacon.  I’m sure you can Google it.

• Local Fare: Xiao long bao and Shanghai sheng jian bao:  While both of these foods were claimed by other cities on our trip, I figure it is worth reminding those reading that you can get these delicious foods in Shanghai as well.  The sheng jian bao were the slightly sweet, flour dumplings, filled with meat and soup, while the xiao long bao were the thin-skinned dumplings.

Our photos of Shanghai are a bit sparse. The shortage can be blamed  on the rain that poured down most of the time we were there and those aforementioned mango mojitos. Still,  here are a few photos of the Shanghai at night:

I’ve been delinquent on posting our videos.

It will take a little bit of patience to view these videos as you may need to let them load for a minute.

Come with me as I get lost in Qingdao.

A staircase you say?  Up a mountain?  In China????

Have you ever thought, “What’s it like to run on the ancient wall of a city while listening to Curtis Mayfield?  Also, what would it look like if we sped up the video really fast?”

The South Capital

Greetings From the Future, in the South Capital, Dear Readers!

Apologies for the tardiness in our dispatches from a tomorrow, which due to VPN issues, fun and an explosion of learning about Chinese culture, is actually some time last week … or earlier. Let me catch you up to speed.

After visiting Beijing, Qingdao and Tai’an, we stopped through Nanjing. With a population over eight million, Nanjing is one of the largest commercial centers in eastern China. While, the idea of touring mega-cities raised second thoughts, we were fortunately convinced to make the trip.

Maria’s former co-worker grew up here, while a friend of mine is currently studying at Johns Hopkins’ Nanjing University partner program for graduate students studying Chinese. Needless to say, my poor attempts at Chinese (beginning with pointing and ending in frustration) were not needed for our dinners with Brett.

Let’s back up and give some historical context to Nanjing fueled by little more than my curiosity and wikipedia …

China’s history goes back thousands of years, but we can break things into dynastic blocks to make the more modern end of things understandable: (Is it more complicated than this? You bet! While I recognize some of our readers are Chinese citizens and brilliant westerners with advanced degrees, we’re just trying to explain why this city is so interesting. Also, I’m not going back thousands of years to neolithic stuff. We’ll start year 1000.) 960 AD-1279AD is the Song Dynasty, 1279-1368 A.D. is Yuan Dynasty (Ghengis Khan’s grandson, Kublai started that one), the Ming Dynasty was 1368-1644 A.D. (ceramics, vases…you’ve heard the name) the Qing Dynasty was 1644-1912 (The Last Emperor … go watch that movie tonight), followed briefly by the Republic of China at 1912-1949 (Chang Kai Shek lost a war to Mao and ran off to Taiwan, bringing that government to the former island of Formosa), and the People’s Republic of China from 1949 to the present.

The city’s name tells us a bit of its history. We began our sojourn in Beijing, whose Chinese characters are 北京. “北,” meaning “north,” and “京,” meaning “capital.” Nanjing’s characters are “南京,” or “south capital.” It was actually the capital of China for some time. After the Ming Dynasty tossed the Yuan out of power (the Mongols) they moved the seat of power to Nanjing, from Beijing, and built a city wall that still surrounds much of the city, providing gorgeous views of Xuanwu Lake (stay tuned for video footage). There are numerous reports that Nanjing was the largest city in the world during the early Ming rule, before the Ming relocated the capital to Beijing in 1421.

In an effort to keep this readable, I will now fast forward hundreds of years to several historical facets of Nanjing, which coincide with places we visited. There are, literally, thousands of books to expound on how important this city is, but we were only there for a couple days, and I want to talk about a Jesus cult that started a war involving people who abstained from sex and didn’t cut their hair. On to the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. Haven’t heard of it? Are you a movie producer? Take note and do further research!

Ever have a bad day? Ever failed a test? Have you ever watched those ads at 3 a.m. after a couple beers and thought, “I could totally become a motorcycle mechanic!”

Hong Xiuquan wanted to work for the Qing Dynasty. As such, he took the requisite civil service exam, which had a very low pass rate and was very stressful. Hong failed this test four times in a row. After a defeat, some people turn to a bottle, some to the Bible, some to yoga. Hong was likely trying to turn to the Bible, but with a bottle in his hand, all while in downward dog.

Hong met a Christian missionary while at a low water mark. There was likely some depersonalization going on, a bit of depression, and a whole lot of “what does it all mean?” Hong began to believe that he was Jesus Christ’s brother. Hong then believed his brother wanted him to set up a heaven on earth. Fast-forward a bit and you have the Taiping Rebellion, one of the largest wars in history.

Haven’t heard of it?

More people died in the Taiping Rebellion than the Civil War … and it was contemporary to the Civil War.

Also … more people died in the Taiping Rebellion than WWI.

The Taiping Army, headed by Hong Xiuquan, overtook Nanjing and used it as the capital for their briefly-lived empire. The city was renamed “天京” or “Taijing”, which means, “Heavenly Capital.” They ran their affairs out of the Presidential Palace, which is the same building complex that Chang Kai Shek and Sun Yat Sen ran the Republic of China from during the years proceeding Mao.

(For more on the Taiping Rebellion, read “Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom,” by Steven R. Platt.)

We toured the presidential palace, which I would highly recommend even for those that aren’t particularly interested in history. The grounds were an interesting mix of traditional Chinese gardens and modern architecture with a heavy western influence evident throughout.

Other places worth visiting:

The Nanjing Massacre Museum: While my tone is normally sarcastic, I’ll have to leave that at the door for a moment. Japan’s treatment of Nanjing during WWII is a part of history that most Americans are not completely aware of. I would implore you to do your own research on this incident as I am not rightly qualified to do it justice. What I can say is that while numbers from differing sources vary, 200,000-300,000 deaths (noncombatants) is a fair number, reflected in Nanjing’s well curated and viscerally moving museum. Spending an afternoon here tells a grim tale of what happens in incidents of extreme tragedy: the best and worst of humanity both available.

The Old City Wall: Like most Chinese tourist sites, this costs money to use. I forked out the 30 yuan to go for a run here, twice, but was a bit heartbroken to think, “why can’t everyone use this?” I have since been told that one can purchase a yearly pass at a fairly reasonable price. (My debt to the U.S. Forrest Service in unpaid car passes for access to trailheads have spoiled me.)

The wall gives one an interesting view of both old architecture (the wall itself, several pagodas in the distance), the naturally gorgeous (Xuanwu Lake), and the progressive (buildings like rocket-ships and mildly polluted sunsets that glow orange and allow you to stare directly into the sun).

Experience Local Hospitality  (“我请你”or, “let me treat”): We met a group of three locals who invited us to dinner and refused to let us pay. There were raised voices, I had my hand on my wallet, there was good food, I kept my money. If you ever get a chance to repay the favor, buy somebody from China a snack today.

(Starting to the right of Maria) Meet Egeria, Joy and Chao!

(Starting to the right of Maria) Meet Egeria, Joy and Chao!

Furthermore, our friend Brett, who is American but has been in China long enough to become unduly generous, took us out to dinner. Brett was able to show us a bit of the nightlife and how a foreigner might find creature comforts in Nanjing. Want to know where to get Indian or Tibetan food on a Tuesday in Nanjing? How about a Belgian wheat ale? Brett’s your man and can explain it to the cabbie in numerous Chinese dialects.

Meet Brett!

Meet Brett!

Zebra Bar (a shameless plug for new friends): Across from the hostel we were staying at was a typical foreigner-friendly bar, which for three days a week is run by Gael (from the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Paa (from Ghana) who have built an entire menu around African food. As a former D.C. metro resident, I’ve had Ethiopian sponge-bread, but this stuff was otherworldly. Fufu, spicey fish, and chicken … it was great.

Did I bury the lead about two Africans living, working and studying in Nanjing? Possibly.

Both Gael and Paa are studying architecture in a language they began learning within the past three years. They both speak three or four languages. How’s that for impressive?

(From left to right) Meet Paa and Gael!

(From left to right) Meet Paa and Gael!

Purple Mountain: We didn’t get there but are told that it is great. To be honest, Taishan was the preceding trip to this, and I couldn’t deal with another stairstep-to-oblivion day trip. That said, we could totally live in Nanjing and will give it a shot the next go-round.

Signing off … from the Future!!!!



Sauerkraut in Shandong

Greetings from the Future, Dear Readers!

Human history has numerous examples where disparate cultures bump against one another, intermingle, and inspire changes that people embrace. That said, it doesn’t always work. The brackish waters where African rhythmic time signatures and European stringed instruments swirled around the ears of five teenagers from Liverpool to inspire The Beatles are the same murky marshes that gave the US car market the Yugo. These cultural exchanges are sometimes accepted and sometimes rejected. Every once in a while, a vanilla bean from Madagascar becomes the most commonplace feature of a Dairy Queen in Waco, Texas, other times the French get Euro Disney.

Today, we are talking about a combination of cultural influences that make something curious, but great nonetheless. Not quite “The White Album,” but nothing that would require a mechanic in Philadelphia to read Serbian in order to perform an oil change either. Today, we are eating sauerkraut and drinking pilsner in Shandong.

A quick crash-course history lesson (apologies to actual historians, Asian experts, Chinese citizens, or people that speak Chinese at a level over and above ordering food and train tickets):

China, throughout its history for numerous reasons, has maintained a very cautious relationship with the West. In order to facilitate trade with Western powers hungry for Chinese goods, the Imperial court ceded some exceptions to a blanket policy of being closed off to the West. Territories, through numerous treaties, were leased to different foreign powers.

In 1557 during the Ming Dynasty, Portugal was leased the territory of Macau. In the late 1800s, during the Qing Dynasty, many more European countries acquired treaty ports, known as “concessions.” Many of the most famous Chinese cities have a history of Western involvement. Hong Kong was deeded to the United Kingdom from 1841 to 1997. Shanghai was actually an international settlement, combining concessions ceded to Americans, British, French, Russians and Japanese. Tianjin traded hands, was occupied by, or was shared at one time by Japanese, French, German, British and American occupiers. The former Western powers all left some influence on the area, in architecture, food or language.

(We will go into more detail on the darker sides of some of these concessions, the importance of these areas in the opium trade in the late 1800s, along with how this later influenced the Opium Wars in our post about Shanghai.)

青岛, or Qingdao as we English speakers know it today, was previously written as Tsingtao under the Wade-Giles format of transcribing Chinese to English. While that previous sentence might seem like more information than any of you need, I thought I’d toss that one out for the beer drinkers that have stumbled on an Asian pilsner at their grocery store and thought, “Why are the Chinese making pilsner?”

Germany was leased the Kiautshou Bay Concession from 1897 to 1914, of which Qingdao was the capital. This relatively small administrative city and fishing port was forever changed by the Germans. The most readily apparent evidence of German influence in Qingdao would be the architecture along with the ever-present availability of China’s first mass export to America and China’s #1 commercial export: Tsingtao beer. While one can purchase this beer in every corner shop and restaurant throughout China, along with any Publix in Florida, there’s only one town on the planet that you can imbibe this beverage fresh from the brewery … in a plastic bag with a straw.

We had the pleasure of staying with our friend Dave in Qingdao, which helped to cut down on costs and see the city guided by someone who knows the ropes. Dave was able to point us to some highlights in the town.

Zhan Qiao Pier: For those of you at home, I’ll wait for you to open a bottle of Tsingtao. Once you’ve taken your first sip, turn the bottle and look at the label. The emblem on the logo depicts the pier down the street from Dave’s apartment building. You can actually see his apartment building from there. Wave, say hello! Hey Dave!

The Beach: Qingdao, today, serves as one of the biggest tourist destinations for Chinese. While it was a bit chilly to take a dip, I took a run through town and was able to take in views of the beach. It is gorgeous, with a boardwalk meandering along the beach, which goes from the old German concession area all the way to Lao Shan Mountain, some 15 miles away.

The Old Observatory: Qingdao is divided into two halves with “old town” referring to the German concession, rife with colonial architecture, and “new town,” some seven miles away, boasting futuristic skyscrapers, golf courses and nightclubs catering to the tonier crowds. (Folks from Beijing and monied Western expats.) In the older, German side of town, there is,in fact, an old observatory, which has been converted into a youth hostel. On the roof of this building, where there is still a telescope, one can buy a Tsingtao and take in the views of the old German concession. We are told that this spot has an all-you-can-eat ribs night. While I can’t recommend the burritos, I am willing to return for the view alone.

Old Town Night Market: While many Chinese towns will have their own extensive markets, which operate both at night and early in the morning, Qingdao had a unique setup. Along with the meandering alleys where locals sell fish, lamb, pork, beef and vegetables, Qingdao had all sorts of marine life on offer. Squid anyone? Octopus? Sea cucumber? Anyone? Anyone?

Additionally, we had dinner in the middle of the night market and caught a bit of dinner theater. Comedians (the audience seemed to love it) and a magician (we probably applauded too enthusiastically for the slight-of-hand to make up for not getting any of the earlier jokes.)

While there was a lot more going on in Qingdao that I’m not capturing here, I am getting sleepy, and you all need your Cheerios.

We’ll be back at it just as soon as you all head to bed!

Stay tuned for Qingdao The Movie. For now, here are our photos: