Sabbatical 2011, Part 3


After my visits throughout the US, I decided to make my way to Asia.

House — Overnight; Arrow — Day Trip.
Black — Train; Orange — Plane; Blue — Boat; Green — Bus; Red — Car.

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Hong Kong

What can I say about Hong Kong that hasn’t already been said — and said better, probably — before. The trite saying is that HK is the place “where East meets West”, but I don’t think that’s quite right.

The vibe of the city is undeniably Asian. It is not an East/West melting pot: the population is overwhelmingly Chinese and the speech overwhelmingly Cantonese. The fashion is certainly not Western — or at least it’s unlike anywhere in the West that I’ve ever been. And day-to-day life seems to have strong Eastern roots: for instance, even in the densest urban corners, shopping at the local wet market is still de rigeur.

And yet, there is some indescribable Western-ness about the place. A limit to the feelings of culture shock, despite how truly different the culture is. Maybe it’s just that there’s a McDonald’s on every corner, English has an equal prominence on most signs, and even the familiar 7-Eleven and Circle K convenience stores are present in the subway and on the streets. In the end, I think Hong Kong has managed to trick people into thinking it’s more Western than it is.

That’s not to say that Hong Kong is the easiest place for a Westerner to first experience Asia. That would be Singapore, although HK might be a good choice for second place.

Beijing, China

There is definitely an elite, cosmopolitan feel about the place. Being a foreigner will still earn a lot of stares, but I got the impression that it was mostly from the Chinese tourists (the non-local yokels) visiting the capital. The locals, it seems, are better than this degrading gawking. Even deep in the hutongs, where there’s nary a laowai to be found, the Beijingers (or is Pekingese the right term?) seem intent on being disinterested.

As a major tourist destination, there are of course touts aplenty to try to separate fools foreigners from their money. I was several times approached by people who wanted to “practice their English”, form a fast friendship, and go hang out over tea. (As I understand it — thankfully not from experience — the punchline is splitting a pot of insanely overpriced tea, for which they pay their half from the teahouse’s bankroll.)

The 2008 Olympics definitely made their mark on the city, although I think the whole thing is rather more like Beijing hosting an expensive débutante ball for China’s “coming out” to the international community than an actual worthwhile long-term investment. The subway line to Olympic Park had been shuttered, and both the Bird’s Nest stadium and Water Cube center seemed unused, except for sparsely attended tours. The whole thing reminded me of what I’ve seen in Montreal and read about in Greece — as long as hosting the Summer Olympics involves building a bunch of new venues, the whole thing is an albatross.

Nanjing, China

With less éclat and more grime than Beijing, the southern capital was nonetheless a fun visit, and an interesting exercise in contrasts. This city is not on the standard foreign tourist track, despite the fact that it is a significant city — it does have roughly the same population as New York City, after all. As a result, I saw only a handful of non-Chinese throughout my stay. There’s a certain kind of thrill, I find, to this kind of cultural isolation — almost as if not seeing anyone like yourself is proof that this is real travel.

Nanjing is on the domestic Chinese vacation itinerary, however, which means that the souvenir-sellers and city tour hawkers are still around but completely ignore foreigners in favor of hounding the Chinese tourists. (Probably they would be happy to target both, but I think there are not enough foreigners to make learning English worth their while.)

Internationally-accepted manners have made less of an inroads in Nanjing than its northern counterpart. Expectoration is not only quite common outside, but also present indoors and even in the subway. (I consider myself pretty tolerant of differing cultural norms, but seeing someone hock a loogie onto the subway floor mere inches from where others are standing just grosses me out.) Speaking of the subway, my evening rush hour trip was the busiest I’ve ever been on — Tokyo at rush hour is a close second; Christmas in Hong Kong a more distant third. But unlike the über-polite Japanese, people in Nanjing do not go out of their way to let passengers on and off: I don’t mind having to push and shove my way onto a crowded subway, but I get a bit mystified when I have to (literally!) push as hard as I can to alight.

By the way, half the fun of visiting Nanjing is getting there. I took the high-speed train from Beijing, which covered the more than 1000 km in 3 hours, 45 minutes. The second-class seat was nice: like flying coach but with more legroom and seat recline. I’m generally skeptical of high-speed rail, but if it’s going to work it’ll be in a situation like this: a bunch of large cities in a row with total travel time under 5-6 hours (see also: Japan’s Shinkansen and the American Northeast’s Acela). Of course, with a construction cost of 220 billion yuan and outstanding concerns about build quality, the jury’s still out on whether the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed route is a success. But as a tourist who got to enjoy a fast comfortable trip for less than 500 yuan, it was great for me.

Hangzhou, China

Hangzhou was the sleeper visit of my trip, with heavy rain limiting my exploration of the city. The parts I saw were pretty, but what really stood out for me was the fashion. Hangzhou’s dress style seemed edgier than I’d seen elsewhere in China — for example, leather short-shorts and patterned fishnet stockings were surprisingly common. Maybe Shanghai is like this, and the influence has made its way to its southwestern neighbor…? Nope, not in Shanghai; perhaps the trend is confined to Hangzhou…?

I’ve also noticed an odd trend during my time in China: that all the hotels I’ve stayed at have offered hourly rates. And while I’m lodging relatively cheaply, the hotels I’m staying at are not sleazy dumps. Hotels of the same quality in the US would never consider such a thing. I wonder if this is the result of continued pressure for young people to live with their parents until they get married and buy a home combined with increasing cultural acceptance of premarital sex. Maybe this is the Chinese equivalent of the Japanese love hotel?

Shanghai, China

Shanghai is the first Chinese city I’ve visited that gives off a real metropolis vibe. Of course, Beijing and Nanjing are both very large cities, but they don’t feel that large. I think it’s because they have pockets of skyscrapers here and there with endless low-rise development in between. Shanghai, in contrast, has a larger dense core. It still is nowhere near as intensely dense as, say, Hong Kong or New York; more like a Chicago or Singapore. It’s weird to say that a city of more than 20,000,000 people doesn’t feel that big, but it’s true.

The other thing that is striking about Shanghai compared to the other Chinese cities I’ve visited is how much less historical it seems. In Beijing and Nanjing, I could hardly walk five meters without tripping over some amazing Ming dynasty remnant. Shanghai has some history to it, but basically there’s no getting around the fact that this place was a backwater until relatively recently. Because of that, Shanghai really feels like the epitome of “modern China”.

As a random aside, I ran into an odd foreigner on my third day in the city. Or rather, he ran into me. As I was walking through the busy subway station at People’s Square, he sidled up alongside me and started asking me about taking the subway to the airport. Whenever strangers single me out and launch into a conversation, I become wary of being scammed — but using a white guy as the bait would be an unusual twist. I put my backpack and wallet-and-passport-carrying pocket on lockdown in case this guy was the distracting accomplice to a pickpocket, and then tried to help out despite the randomness of him singling out another tourist for transit help. Apparently taking the subway to the airport was his Plan B, but the rain-induced lack of taxis had forced him. Unfortunately for this guy, he was completely and utterly clueless. He needed help finding the ticket machine, the station he was going to, the amount he had to pay, and how to get to his subway line. Hell, he needed help figuring out which airport he was going to! Seriously! Shanghai has two, but he didn’t have a clue. Mind you, the Shanghai subway system has good English signage as do the automated ticket machines. The whole process does not require any interaction with a person, so there’s no concern about having trouble talking with someone whose English isn’t up to par. But the whole thing makes me wonder: did this guy never take the subway during his whole stay in Shanghai? How did he get around? Surely not by taxi if he was having communications difficulties with a machine whose English was perfect. Good luck to him; he will surely need it. Now that I think about it, I hope I sent him to the right airport…

Luckily, my own trip to the airport was a lot simpler (or at least better planned). I took the high-speed maglev train, which was awesome in a huge boondoggle kinda way. With a top speed speed of 431 kph, it is the world’s fastest train (and the fastest I’ve ever traveled on land). But it is basically a “maglev to nowhere”: while one end is conveniently anchored between the two airport terminals, the other end is in the middle of Shanghai’s Pudong suburbs. To actually get to the city center, you have to transfer to the Metro and continue for six more stops. Ironically, the same Metro line goes to the airport itself, albeit more slowly. And the inconvenient city terminal is not the maglev’s only questionable build decision. Note to transit authorities: if you are dealing with a large number of people with luggage (say, at an airport), expecting everyone to climb several flights of stairs is an epic design fail. An after-thought service elevator does not make it all better.

At the airport, I had another fun encounter. Security was worried about the small Phillips screwdriver I carry (and have been carrying continuously since March on the 13 flights I’ve taken during that time). Apparently, I’m suddenly at risk of stabbing someone … or surreptitiously disassembling my laptop mid-flight; honestly, I’d guess my nail clippers are a bigger threat. They offered to let me check it, but traveling carry-on–only made it seem silly to just check a $1 screwdriver — I mean, can I just put a luggage tag on it and chuck it into the hold? Long story short, I now need to buy a new mini electronic-repair screwdriver.

Taipei, Taiwan

Taipei was an interesting mix. Its legacy as one of the Four East Asian Tigers is still clearly evident: from a clean and efficient metro to the modern-yet-stylish Taipei 101, the evidence is hard to miss here in the capital. And yet, it was the less sleek and touristy parts that really grabbed me: the families just hanging out with their young kids at a neighborhood temple, the wide sidewalks next to endless shops teeming with shoppers、browsers、pedestrians, or the local night markets with hole-in-the-wall restaurants serving food to diners sitting on plastic patio furniture.

I was also interested to note a relatively strong militaristic streak at the tourist attractions I visited. Members of the military were visibly present at nearly every one and several sites had hourly “changing of the guard” ceremonies. I wonder if this is due to genuine security concerns, or if it to impress the increasing numbers of mainland tourists, or if it just an expression of nationalistic pride.

Lastly, I can’t help but mention the amazing National Palace Museum, which I’d guess has the most definitive collection of Chinese history on earth. As opposed to the museums I saw in China which — while impressive — consisted mainly of formerly-private collections donated to the state in recent decades, the National Palace Museum benefits from the Kuomintang’s brief rule of post-imperial China. As a result, the NPM contains a huge collection of items owned by various emperors for thousands of years that were removed to Taiwan from the mainland before the Communists gained control. While the mainland is (understandably) still upset over the loss of much of its national patrimony, it’s hard to fault Taiwan and the KMT overmuch in hindsight given the massive and deliberate cultural destruction that occurred later during the Cultural Revolution. Of the many items in the NPM collection, I was particularly impressed by the collection of original 19th-century treaty documents and (despite the viewing crowds) the 7.5-inch-long “Jadeite Cabbage [bok choy] with Insects” carved from a single piece of jade.