Sunday, March 30, 2014

Shanghai #China2014

In my post about Beijing here, I left out one of my favorite experiences. So I have to share that real quick.

The night after we hiked the Great Wall, we had massages. We paid about $20 a person for an hour. So these two woman came to our hotel room. (30 minutes early I might add, so we had to change and they just watched). But it was great! The massage was fantastic, but they spoke no English, and we spoke no Chinese. Yet still, my lady wanted to talk to me! She kept hitting me on the arm and yelling, "Hello! Hello!" and then rambling in Chinese. I wouldn't understand then she'd start acting it out. The acting out included her writing in my journal and hopping around our room like a bunny. Yes. It was confusing, hilarious, and somehow still relaxing. Such a great experience.

After we left Beijing, we flew into Shanghai late at night and had some time to get settled into our fantastic hotel the next morning, we were off!

Day 1 (in Shanghai)
In the morning we ate our delicious hotel breakfast and were off on another group tour. Again, I'm so happy we did a tour because we had no idea where to go or what to see, and all our transportation and food was included. We started the day by visiting the Oriental Pearl Tower, which is a rather iconic landmark of Shanghai. We were able to go to the observation floor and a sky bridge. This would have been AMAZING, had it NOT been cloudy. It was so sad, because we couldn't see anything.


From there we went to the first floor to walk through a museum, and for us, we stopped and got some gelato. Best decision we made.

After the Pearl Tower, we went to the Pudong area. This is the riverfront area of Shanghai, it overlooks the skyscrapers and the water. It was beautiful and a nice large boardwalk. We enjoyed some time here. Again, it was really cloudy, so all the buildings just disappeared into the clouds, but it was still neat to see.
What our view was that day
What our view should have been
That night, we went to the Shanghai Acrobatics show. A lot of the acts were to cheesy music with weird costumes on a small, cheap stage, but it didn't stop the performers. They were amazing! There were a lot of acts we had seen in Cirque du soleil.


Day 2- Shanghai
This was by far my favorite day in Shanghai, and one of my favorite all around days in China. I am SO happy we got to experience this! Suzhou was our first stop. We went to a cute little garden. We just walked around and explored. It was really nice. I loved walking around this town too because of the great alleyways and unique architecture.



Before moving on, we stopped by a silk factory and watched the process of them making the silk. It was a straight up sweat shop. But so cool to see!

Next we went to Tongli. This city was built on canals kind of like Venice. It was such a beautiful and quaint little town. We were able to take a gondola ride through the water ways, and walk around on our own. I could have spent days here. I absolutely loved it.




That night we went with a cute couple from our group to get food. By this day we COULD NOT eat anymore Chinese food. We ended up at Pizza Hut. Pizza has never tasted so good.

Day 3- Shanghai
We were signed up for another group tour this day and decided to cancel. They were going to a Buddhist Temple, shopping, and on a cruise alone the Huangpu River at night. I'm sure it was great, but we were just so tired of tours and were a little burnt out on this last day. We decided instead to go around on our own which worked out great.

Our main focus for the day was shopping, which we did plenty of. We went to the "knock off" market first. I'd been looking forward to this the entire trip. Fake Prada, Rolex, and every other brand you can think of? We had found a shopping area in Beijing like this and LOVED it, but didn't buy much because everyone told us to wait for Shanghai. So naturally I had high expectations. We eventually just left without buying anything because we couldn't stand the pushy vendors with ridiculous prices. They were all SET too. We'd been told we could bargain a ton, but they wanted way more than we were willing to pay. But, other people were willing to pay their prices, and that's why it wasn't working out for us. I'm sure we could have found deals or made some good purchases, but we weren't willing to pay much, so it didn't work out.

We went instead to a kind of souvenir market and city bazaar. We found lots of great and unique shoes for Jake, unfortunately they were all about 5 sizes to small. We got a few things and just walked and looked around. It was beautiful, crowded and so fun! Jake searched and bargained for 3 hours while we were there for a terracotta warrior statue for a price he wanted. He finally got it, and I broke it within 5 minutes. I still think this was my favorite part of the day. He's still upset with me.


We went on a few dirty backstreets as well. It's funny that China is as advanced as it is, but when we went just off the flashy streets it was just dirt and poverty. It reminded me so much of living in Peru.

Day 4- Shanghai
This was our last morning here and we just got ready and headed to the airport for our 1 and a half flight to Beijing, 14 hour flight to Houston, and 3 hour flight to Utah...

Shanghai was great to us and it was a beautiful city. We loved the surrounding areas in Beijing, but Shanghai beat it as far as the city goes. This was such a great experience and I'm so happy we were able to do all we did. Mostly because, that flight is not worth making again.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Beijing #China2014

Read about Shanghai here.

This post may turn into a giant advertisement for Chinaspree.com. But they deserve the credit. Jake and I were wanting to go to China but figured that was a kind of distant goal, until a friend led us to this website. We book our ENTIRE 9 day trip for $1200 a person. This included all our transportation, two meals a day, all our tours, 5 star hotels in both Beijing and Shanghai, and roundtrip airfare from the U.S. as well as Beijing-Shanghai flights. We thought the deal would be too good to be true, but everything was better than we could have expected while we were there. If you're thinking about going to China, I HIGHLY recommend this company.

As lame as tours can sometimes be, we wanted to do one here because we would have had no idea how to get ourselves around, or what to do. This country was completely foreign to us. The tour gave us a good deal of free time as well as tour time though and it worked out just right.

I'm sorry this post is going to be really vague and not very descriptive. There's just too much that we did and saw to write it all down. Our days were jam packed full of sight seeing. But I will cover the basics. 

Day 1 in China
We started our journey to China flying out of Houston on a 14 hour flight to Beijing. We landed at 5 a.m. on Saturday, where our tour guide was there to pick us up and transfer us to our hotel. We got in, got settled, cleaned up and napped before we were off on our free day in Beijing.

We had heard about the Panjiayuan Market that was only open on weekends. We headed there first and were not disappointed. We spent hours here and didn't come close to seeing everything. There's thousands and thousands of people and vendors. And super cheap souvenirs and various Chinese artwork, novelties, pottery and jewelry.




At the market we purchase a delicious looking (disgusting) chicken (tofu) meal. It didn't turn out the way we expected. 

We should have read the map a little more closely
After the market we headed to the Llama temple. We had heard much about it and expected a great beautiful building. We got there and there was one tiny room. We later figured out we hadn't walked down the street far enough to actually reach it. Oops.

We got back on the subway and exited near our hotel. Come to find out, "near" was actually close to 10 miles away from our hotel. We kept walking thinking we were close and ended up spending a few hours lost on the streets of Beijing. We had a great time however and enjoyed the view along the way.

Day 2
This day was our first day of touring with the group. We all loaded onto the bus and headed to Tienanmen Square. Unfortunately, the actually square was closed as all the government was meeting. However, we walked past on our way to the forbidden city. We were both amazed at the vast size of the place, and the beauty in the structures and architecture. We could have spent all day here.
Guard at Tienanmen Square




We did eventually leave and went to our first optional tour. If you ever do a tour to China, I highly recommend this one. We got on the back of a rickshaw and had a driver bike us through the old Hutongs of Beijing. They were old government issued homes that traditionally had courtyards but have slowly depleted as people expand their living quarters. At the end of the ride we were invited into the home of a local Hutong resident who cooked us one of the most delicious meals I've ever eaten. It was amazing just sitting in her home, enjoying her stories and taking in the culture.



After lunch we walked around Behai Park and then took a break at the hotel. Afterwards we also had a tradition Peking Duck dinner included in our tour. The preparation was interesting and the duck yummy.


Day 3
The Great Wall of China. What else can I say? It was simply amazing. We had to drive out of the city on our bus. We first stopped at the Sacred Way of Ming Tombs. It was freezing cold outside so most people just rushed through, but Jake and I loved it! So we took our time and our guide had to drag us out.


From there we went to a Jade factory. This was definitely a government mandated stop for tours to make. All proceeds from products purchased went to the government, and they left plenty of time for shopping. But it was really neat to watch the workers carving the jade by hand.  We ate lunch, more Chinese food, and then to the wall.

We visited the Badaling section of the Great Wall and were just left several hours to explore and climb on our own. Jake and I climbed to the furthest point possible for us to hike. We were able to look over on the old wall that has not been restored. It was all beautiful. The whole experience was just surreal and stunning. The wall was steep and slippery at parts. We were fighting the exhaustion, but it was all worth it. It was a chance of a lifetime and we were so happy to be there and experience it.
These stairs were not made for the weak.
Old sections of the wall.
 I also love that Jake was a celebrity. But he also loved it too. Everywhere we went people were trying to get a picture with him. One of my favorite moments, the first time it happened, we were on a tour and a man sneaked into our group and stood next to Jake. We were all distracted as the man's friend held a camera to take the shot. Jake finally put his arm around the man and said, "we might as well do this right." And posed for the camera. The man was thrilled.
So more people wanting their picture with the tall white man on the Wall.
After the Great Wall, they took us to the Olympic Park where we were able to see the Bird's Nest and the Water cube from the 2008 Beijing Olympics.


Day 4
Besides going to the great wall. This day was probably my favorite moment in China. We started the morning at the Temple of Heaven. As we walked in we saw locals dancing, doing tai chi, playing games, singing, the whole shebang. Not only did we see them, but we went and joined them. It was so fun to just surround ourselves with the culture and take part in some of their daily activities. We observed so many "unusual" behaviors by our standards, but enjoyed the same pleasures as the locals along the way.


Jake found a dance partner.
After, we walked around the Summer Palace. Another large park with beautiful buildings and scenery. I had the worst bathroom experience of the trip at this spot and almost lost my lunch. Most of the bathrooms we used were fairly clean by China standards. This one had no running water however and workers just splashed buckets of water into the squatters (not toilets) to clean them out. If you can imagine that then being splashed all over the floors and walls... It was bad.


After our touring this day, we were transferred to the airport for our flight to Shanghai.


First impressions of China
I cannot believe how much the government in China controls. (They might even shut down my blog for saying this).
  • For one, the June Fourth incident in Tienanmen Square is not taught, talked about, or known by most citizens. Our guide for instance only heard about it from American tourists. 100's-1000's of people were massacred by their government that day, and they cover it up. 
  • They control all media and speech that reaches the public.
  • They control much of the personal choices of citizens, such as work, home, schooling, etc.
  • When you BUY your home, you have to give it back to the government after your time allowance is up. Possessions do not stay in they family, they stay with the government.
  • They control the number of children you can have for crying out loud. What I did not realize about this law is that if you do get pregnant, the government will mandate you get an abortion.
  • They can take control over your personally owned company at any time they please.
I could go on and on with the government control over the people. But another thing that shocked me was the amount of study and schoolwork by school aged children. Most are there ALL day.

They also highly value teachers. Teachers are paid at the same rate as doctors. College education is also paid for, and housing is subsidized for teachers. 

Finally, I have been to several third world countries and I didn't expect China to be one of them. It almost was. Sure they have the huge cities, advanced technology and nice cars. They consider themselves a developing country, and for the most part, it is. When you look outside of the advancements and business centers however, there was so much poverty, filth and unhealthy lifestyles and living conditions. I think this shocked me more than anything. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Life Lessons as Taught by a 10 Year Old.

I was outside with some classes today at work. As I was standing watching over the playground, I noticed a girl run past me for the edge of the field. She had a new, very cute haircut, but was pulling her hood over her head as she frantically ran by. I watched for a minute to see her reach her destination at the edge of the field where she sat and began to cry.

I started walking towards her to see what was the matter. On my way there however, I noticed a girl stop to offer her care. I stood and watched for a moment as I witnessed the most profound selflessness and love from this 10 year old girl. There she sat with someone in need, giving her outward support and sincerest attention for a girl not even in her class, or her own grade for that matter. Someone with whom she has very little contact.

As I approached, I quickly snapped this shot before they noticed me there.
I was so touched by this moment of pure love and compassion that I found it difficult to interfere. As I talked with the girl, she told me someone had made fun of her new haircut. She was feeling (understandable) self-conscious and belittled. All it took was a hug and some quiet reassurances from younger, unfamiliar student.

That younger student reaffirmed to me today that there is nothing more important in this life than to offer our unconditional love and services to our fellow human beings. She was a perfect example of what Christ continually taught as He professed, "Love one another, as I have loved you."

Through His example and hers, I know that there is something so irrevocably moving in how we reach out and help those in need, no matter the situation. It is a great reminder that my littlest efforts can make a world of difference to a person's day, and ultimately the feelings they have for themselves and the world around them.