not so forbidding

game overAfter the Great Wall (and the outlying Not-So-Great Wall, aka the Mediocre Wall) we decided we’d sleep in the next morning and catch the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City wasn’t so forbidden—they all let us in as long as we bought tickets. In fact, the only thing that was forbidden was going back in after you went out the back door. Attached is a photo of the brilliant commentary on the signage at the North Gate (tours go from south to north). All in all, we were amazed at how huge, er, how extreme the place was in all respects. We had a little game of “guess whether there’s another palace past this one”. I always lost, all the way to the end. The palaces kept on becoming more and more beautiful the further we went north—that is, the further we came to the emperor’s private dwelling—yet somehow, more and more lonely as well. You really get the feeling of being locked away in the proverbial ivory tower in there. I’m pretty sure there was an ivory tower somewhere, too.

After we finished walking through the Not-So-Forbidden City, we walked northwest of the grounds and ended up walking through Beihai Park (no, not Baha’i Park) at sunset, then making our way back to our hotel/hostel via Yoshinoya, a fast food restaurant with chicken-and-rice bowls, and Three Trees Coffee (see below). We found a pho restaurant not far from where we’re staying; we took a picture for the novelty, but we didn’t go in. We can get all the pho we need when we get back to Vietnam, we figure.  Today, we’re waking up early to see the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace. That means more excitement for us and more photos for you, when you wake up tomorrow.

Miss you all, and, as the postcards say, wish you were here.

first day in beijing

from emails sent on march 15th.

we are in our nice and simple accommodations at the hutong inn in beijing. it’s not very fancy but it is very interesting. needless to say it is enough for the time being. it’s cold here – there’s even snow covering the ground, and the roofs. Quynh is not impressed because we also have “white sand” in Da Nang. 😛

the train ride up from Guangzhou was long, but comfortable; we both managed to get a good sleep, despite our doorless, six-up bunk bed accommodations. the landscape was bleak and industrial for most of the time—not quite the China we’ve been accustomed to seeing in pictures.

[… later …]

First day in Beijing is done; we went out to a hot pot restaurant, which Quynh recognized from having been to one in Malacca. It was pretty amazing. I thought it was filling, but Quynh insisted on going to pick up instant noodles afterwards. She jokes that she’s pregnant but I think she’s just Malaysian. […]

We spent some time walking around through the hutongs (alleys) in the area of our hotel; it really is a neat place. We walked down one that was much like a pedestrian mall, lined with chic, eclectic cafés and shops, and they weren’t (all) pretentious. […we explored] a Tibet-themed shop, much like the “3 Trees” shop on Main St. back in Ottawa. In a strange coincidence, we stopped in a place called Three Trees Coffee—we found out from their wifi. Most people can’t speak much English here, but we end up communicating well enough with our few words of broken Mandarin and the new Chinese-English dictionary on my iPhone.

We signed up for a trip to the Great Wall at Simatai tomorrow, so we’ll be gone the whole day. Simatai is the “Old West” of the Great Wall, although it’s to the northeast of Beijing. It’s billed as one of the most “unspoiled” parts of the Wall, probably because next to none of it has been restored or reconstructed. I don’t think “unspoiled” means “free from hawkers selling overpriced goods” though, since we were warned by our tour guide to stock up on cheap water and snacks here in Beijing before going. It’ll be a whole day trip, with a three-hour bus ride there and back. We leave at 6:20 AM from our hotel and return at around 5:30 PM. Phew. The rest of our stay here we’ll probably be visiting on our own, via the subway—which goes just about everywhere, except, oddly enough, for the train station we arrived from…

together in guangzhou

Quynh and I checked in to Hotel Elan in Guangzhou around an hour ago, after paying a quick visit to a friend at work. We’ll be going out for dinner soon—supposedly to a nice noodle place (“yellow noodles”, to be precise) somewhere. The hotel is nice, small, and cute. A bit salty around the edges, but for the (low) price we’re paying, it’s actually quite a good place. We left Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) at 8:20 in the morning and got in to Guangzhou’s Baiyun airport at around 12:00 local time, for roughly 2h30 worth of flight time. Arriving was a bit confusing, what with very little English posted anywhere, but thanks to my previous experience coming to Guangzhou, we boarded a shuttle bus to the Guangzhou West railway station for only 16 yuan apiece and walked (with only light luggage) the rest of the way to our destination, saving us about 70-80 yuan over taking a taxi from the airport.

China’s cold, compared to Ho Chi Minh City. And it’ll only get colder in Beijing. Quynh is complaining about this but she’s very happy to be in a city with so many shoes. More on that later, of course. Now we’re off to dinner. ????

china-ward and back

lotus lanterns, macauToday in our junior youth group here in Hanoi, we studied a lesson in which Rose, a fifteen-year-old girl who is training to be a nurse, travels to a small village by bus to visit her cousin Musonda and her family. The participants—all Vietnamese junior youth of various ages—learned words like “travel”, “arrive”, “greeted”, and so on. It gave me the idea that I should write a little bit more about my own travels of late, especially to and from China, so here’s yet another not-a-travelogue for you all to read.

After returning from Sapa in the mountainous Vietnamese northwest (look for a not-a-travelogue on that trip soon), my fellow travellers and I were greeted by appallingly hot weather back in the ninth level of Hell, uh, I mean the centre of the Earth, uh, I mean Hanoi. Still battling an infuriating air-conditioner cold, I spent the next few days resting up and packing my bags again (more tightly this time) for a nine-day trip through Hong Kong, southern China and Macau.  My schedule was fairly basic: after the flight in from Hanoi, three days in Hong Kong; then a train to Guangzhou, China to spend another three days; then a bus to Macau for another three days, after which I would fly back to Hanoi and settle down for a long nap—or a long quarantine, judging by the H1N1 paranoia. Arrival in Hong Kong greeted us with the odd spectacle of infrared images or ourselves displayed on a coloured screen, allowing security staff to weed out those who were running temperatures of 38 C and above—if your face showed up in oranges and reds, you were fit for the infirmary. (Sneaky H1N1 carriers used fever-reducing drugs to circumvent this system, giving Vietnam its first few cases in June.)

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cloud cover over hanoi, sunsetmost of the days since we came back from our trip to Sapa and Lao Cai (which deserves its own blog post) have been cruelly hot and humid, wavering between 35 and 45 degrees Celsius, prompting me to tweet the following message a few days after returning from China: “good morning Hanoi. heat is hovering around 40 C and weaker air conditioners are breaking down, including the one at home. -_-;;” After spending almost thirty years growing up in Canada, I’ve never known an agony like trying to sleep in 40-degree weather (104 F) with no air conditioning. Well, OK, trying to sleep with a kidney stone was definitely worse in terms of agony, but this one’s up there too. I spent something like four days staying with Duyen—one of the Baha’is on the Vietnamese Nat’l Spiritual Assembly—and his family, because they have pretty powerful air conditioning. That’s when I learned about the cultural characteristics of air conditioning. Correct me if I’m wrong, but in Canada, 21 degrees C (~70 F) is considered a comfortable room temperature, right? Not in Vietnam. If I set the air conditioning to 21 C I would get smacked. When I discussed it with him before going to bed, Duyen told me he would usually set the air conditioner to 30 C to be comfortable—which made me go O_O.

Above and beyond mere numerical values, people seem to use air conditioning in a different way here, too. I’ve tried setting air conditioners to 21 C here and what actually happens makes the room seem way too cold. Maybe this is because people use overpowered air conditioners in small rooms, or put the thermostats in odd places. I tried setting the temperature to 24 C for a few nights and found that it was uncomfortably cold. What’s more, the air conditioner didn’t seem to shut off at all, it just kept on blowing cold air into the room as if it was blissfully unaware of the temperature. Where I would expect a comfortable, cool-ish temperature, I feel as if I have to wrap myself up into a blanket to keep from catching a cold. All of this just leads me to ask the question: how in God’s name am I supposed to use the air conditioning here?

Speaking of catching colds, by the way, I learned the hard way that I have to be proactive in dealing with air conditioning here in Vietnam when I caught a cold from sitting in an absolutely frigid air-conditioned Vietnamese coffeeshop around the beginning of the month, which persisted until a few days ago, when I agreed to undergo a traditional Vietnamese herbal steam treatment to cure me of my lingering sniffles. It worked, but not after I dragged a persistent cough and cold through three different countries on a trip through Hong Kong, China and Macau—and this at a time just after the WHO decided to label the H1N1 swine flu crisis a pandemic, triggering automatic quarantine if you so much as cough at a border station.

Since then, I’ve been acutely aware of these wide-mouthed cooling machines lining the ceilings or rising up from the floors, and wary for those that are set to some innocuous temperature like 18 degrees C, but which, in reality, are set to Cirno-style “CRYO-FREEZE WITH ENGLISH BEEF” setting. Sigh. …why do so many things have to be so different here?

shoe city

siang in shoe heavengreetings from behind the Great Firewall! At this very moment, I’m coming to you live from the city of Guangzhou, known as the shoe wholesaling capital of China (the world?). there are literally thousands of shops here, all packed into huge buildings and complexes, selling shoes at wholesale prices for buyers that come from just about anywhere in the world. it figures that someone who intensely dislikes shopping for shoes (such as me) would pick a place to go that is internationally famous for selling shoes. isn’t that right? of course it’s right. and that’s okay.

all sarcasm aside, after several months hanging around Vietnam, I’m taking a break for a short trip into China—I figured, why not swing into China for a week since I’m in this part of the world anyway? So I hopped onto a flight from Hanoi to Hong Kong this past Friday, spent a few days hanging around in HK getting hawked by Indian tailors, and just yesterday grabbed a train up the Pearl River to Guangzhou, one of China’s bustling commercial cities. I… don’t know how I feel about China yet. I haven’t been here long enough, and I’m still under the shock of arrival. The first thing I noticed is that I can’t read any of the signs, since they’re all in Chinese (duh). Since I’m visiting a friend while I’m here, I got him to teach me some of the more common Chinese characters, and now at least I know the difference between, say, the Heavenly Cloud Five Gold Shop and the regular Five Gold Shop. (????) I managed to at least buy a bottle of cola and get back some change in Chinese yuan, which is something.

uh, so yeah, shoes. right now I’m in the downtown part of Guangzhou, which is stuffed to the cracks with shoes, shoes spilling out of every street corner basically. they’re gathered here from many different factories in the area and in China as a whole, shown to international buyers, and shipped off by the crateful to shoe stores in Canada, Japan, America, Australia, wherever, you name it. I’m not especially knowledgeable about wholesaleing but these people seem to have gotten it down to an exact science, or rather, made it into a bustling national enterprise. No wonder China’s economy is doing so well. It’s just too bad I’m not so crazy about shoes—if they were wholesaleing, say, smurfs or something that’d be pretty awesome. I’d pay to visit a smurf wholesaler. there must be one in China, I can feel it. Smurf City, here I come.