Category Archives: Asia

Getting Lost In: Beijing (in picture form)

Check out some of the pictures I shot during our trip through Beijing at www.RedKiteStudios.net!

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In the Suitcase: How NOT to tour China (but get to the Great Wall!)

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will have figured out that I am not a tour-group kind of traveler. I prefer the freedom, and the challenge, to plan my own itinerary and my own budget so I can cram as much out of a country or city in a short allotted time by my work. In my experience with tours, even the short ones I have booked once there have been unsatisfying. In Chiang Mai, Thailand we signed up for a two-day hike through the forests that involved several stops but due to time, we didn’t get to dip into the hot springs; in India, our trip to the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort was cut short because we had to stop into a marble factory for a shopping spree that would give our tour guide commission and ended up missing the entire Red Fort.

In China, we hopped on a tour bus that would take us to the Great Wall and to the Ming Tombs, plus feed us lunch. It seemed like a great deal – two major sites, lunch and transportation, all for 130RMB (about  $20!). Lucky us (note the intended sarcasm here), we ALSO got to tour a silk factory, a jade factory, an herbal medicine hospital (with free footrub), a cloisonne factory and attend a tea tasting.

How did we climb the Great Wall (usually an entire morning or day’s event) and see the Ming Tombs (another whole afternoon), eat lunch AND see all these great other factories? Well, seeing that the tour guide gets a little commission every time someone on her tour purchases anything at these factories, you can see where the priorities lay for her. The Great Wall we crammed into an hour and a half of full ascent and descent at an entrance that is not the picturesque ones you always see. (If you climb, you want to go to the Badaling entrance, which is more touristy for a reason, and has cable cars, but is a more pleasant walk rather than a mountain hike like the one we ended up on. Take a public bus that leaves from Qian Men by Tiananmen Square, which will go to the Badaling entrance). The Ming Tombs? Instead of the dramatic greeting of animal statues and entering the dusty tomb of one emperor, we strolled around some room with a fake banquet on the table and some furniture, then left (20 minutes). After that, it was unannounced shopping, shopping, shopping, and commission, commission, commission for our tour guide. We were supposed to see the Olympic stadium as well, which we did from the bus window. Needless to say, we were all pretty peeved (but we did cave and buy some nice things, which we know are government-guaranteed, authentic products and not knock-offs found in the street markets – so no lead paint in my mother-in-law’s tea set.) In the end, we decided not to deal with the Beijing traffic bus ride home and wandered the Olympic park on our own, then took the subway back.

Similarly, my aunt came across a $99 tour of the beautiful cities around Shanghai (Wuxi, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Nanjing) that included all meals, tickets and four-star hotels. However, our mornings were taken up by shopping, and afternoons driving, followed by an abbreviated rushed tour of some garden or temple or boat ride.

How do you avoid this? By doing it yourself. Thankfully, China is a well-traveled country today, and there are plenty of books, signs in English, and English-speaking helpers in hotels who can help you get around. You can also shell out a little more for a private car who will take you there, without taking you to the state-run shops, and allow you to browse as long as you’d like (ask your hotel to book one and be firm and specific that you do NOT want to go shopping). You can also take a street taxi and negotiate a price, but also be firm that you do not want to stop at any shops. Additionally, I’ve heard some hostels have non-shopping journeys as well, but ask to make sure. If you do want to go shopping, don’t try to do it the same day you head to the Great Wall.

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On My Itinerary: Chinese medicinal massage and more

We just spent two hours at a Chinese medicine clinic in the city of Wuxi getting beaten to a pulp on our backs, legs, head, face and feet while watching Chinese soap operas on the TV. In China, there’s not much mercy to be given: there is a lot of formality and politeness, and respecting of your elders and kow-towing to ancestors and all that, but when it comes to traffic, getting on elevators and subways, and getting your body massaged, there’s no politeness involved – no soft music and rose petals and effluraging of the muscles. It was genuinely one of the best massages I’ve ever had.

We joined a tour group that my father found through my aunt, a $99 all-expenses paid trip for Chinese non-citizens from the US, Canada and Australia. For a whole week we’re touring through the major cities around Shanghai which are famous for being picturesque, and so far each one gets better than the next.  It was through this tour we were able to arrange for the massages, though if you are traveling alone you could inquire with your hotel to set you up at one that is not going to try to sell you a bunch of oriental medicines as well. We started from the world-class city lights of Shanghai to the beautiful city of Hangzhou famous for its West Lake with pagoda vistas and cherry blossoms, to Nanjing with its rock gardens, Purple Mountain and ancient city wall, to Wuxi with its giant new Buddhist temple and the enormous metal Buddha standing in the hills. Before this, Jon and I jetted down to the glamorous and rising star city of Guangzhou where we became the country folk, craning our necks to look at the tall, space-age buildings forming the new skyline. Like Beijing and Shanghai, and much of China, the cities are building so fast with some of the tallest, most elaborate and forward-thinking designs in buildings that there’s no question that China will become the most advanced and powerful country in the world, within our lifetimes.

Jon is antsy for his computer back so I will sign off. Til later!

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On My Itinerary: Beijing!

View of Wanchun Pavilion at the summit of Jingshan Park, as seen from the Forbidden City.

14 flying hours later, 12 hour time difference, we’ve arrived in Beijing – the city that’s ever-changing, where the concept of self-consciousness went out the window with Communism. Ideas like waiting in a line for your turn, allowing people to get off the subway before getting on, or not pushing don’t quite exist, nor does picking your nose, hocking lugies and other gross behavior (however, only older men seem to be doing this). However, in this state of non-self-consciousness also comes a personal freedom, in which people go to outdoor dance classes and dance by themselves without a care in the world, where people aren’t shy to try something new and look stupid doing it, where they wear what they want and show true enthusiasm for something they like (“your child is so pretty!”) and true honesty when they don’t (“you look like you’ve gained a lot of weight”). It’s what happens when capitalism meets communism, and it’s a refreshing change from the artificiality and politeness and white lies we deal with back home every day.

Despite that our sleep cycle has been turned upside down, we’ve managed to march out to the Forbidden City, Tian Tan (Temple of Heaven) and the bustling night market of Wangfujing district to examine the scorpions (picture right) and starfish on sticks and tons of trinkets and other souvenirs and candy for sale (this after a four hour nap in the middle of the day today). My 5-year-old niece came on this trip with my sister, and she’s been a real head-turner to the locals who are intrigued by her half Chinese features that they all secretly are jealous she has: white porcelain skin, double eyelids and brown hair, plus she’s just that cute. She gets more attention than Jon with his completely white features, though everyone thinks she is his child. She’s been having a field day singing songs from Mulan, her latest favorite movie, and practicing her version of martial arts around with a new pink princess wand we bought for her along with a Chinese princess hat. the

On the rest of our itinerary: a couple parks built in the 1200s, some shopping, and of course, the Great Wall of China. Then we’re off to Guangzhou, then Shanghai. To be continued!



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On My Itinerary: CHINA!

My Travel Hats is back from hiatus! It’s been a hectic start to 2011, albeit a good one so far, with many, many, many adventures to come this year. Since we just kicked off the Year of the Rabbit at the start of February, it’s only fitting to write about our upcoming travels to the grand land of China.

We’ll be traveling with my dad, my sister and five-year-old niece, who has been obsesssed with going to China ever since she watched the Kai-lan special about going to China. (You can watch the video where they sing “We’re going to China, we’re going to China, I feel so happy!”) In the Kai-lan special, they make friends with pandas who speak English. I hope my niece isn’t disappointed.

This will be my – I’m not sure, 8th? 10th? 12th? time to China. I was one of few American tourists who headed over there in the late 1970’s and then through the 80’s, 90’s and millenium, watching the country move through post-Maoist era into the consumer capital of the world it is today. It’s an incredible transformation to watch, and every time I go back there’s something very new to see. The last time I went was in 2005 for work and I toured the Birds’ Nest Olympic Stadium with a hard hat as it was being constructed.

Though I’ve been over there several times, this is actually my first time purchasing a guidebook. And boy, there are several. I finally settled on the Eyewitness Guide to China, because it has lots of pictures, and my niece would enjoy the pictures. I forget that China has 5,000 years of history, tons of temples and statues and tombs and summer palaces and winter palaces and gardens and pagodas. Even a small town in the middle of nowhere has so many interesting things to see and do and eat. Beijing alone can take a month to cover. Since we are Americans, we only have two weeks and cramming a whole lot of country into this short time.

Some tips for planning a trip to China.

1. Buy a guidebook with Chinese characters written on the maps. The more Chinese characters in a guidebook, the better. Cab drivers have no idea what you’re referring to when you point to the English version, or even to a map, and if you try to pronounce it (especially if you don’t speak Chinese) you’ll get nowhere. You should also ask your hotel to write down the names of places you’re going to, in Chinese, that you can just hand to the driver.

2. Everyone assumes you can get by with English. Correction: if you’re lucky, you can get by with English. Hotels will speak English (at least major hotels). There will be a lot of pantomime and sign language and a lot of confusion. If you don’t know Chinese and you’re trying to pronounce things out of a phrasebook, you’ll also get nowhere. The best you can do is have as much written out in Chinese as possible, including food allergies and where you’d like to go, and point.

3. There’s too much to see in China. If you’re a first-timer, you cannot miss Beijing. People are very attracted to Shanghai, but bear in mind it is just like a westernized city nowadays, so the real history and gems are in Beijing. I would spend a solid week in Beijing and the outskirts of Beijing, and maybe go to Shanghai, plus the surrounding cities of Shanghai (like Suzhou, Nanjing, and Hangzhou) and check out Xi’an – land of the terracotta soldiers.

4. Get a visa. You’ll need to get a visa, and it only takes about four days (if you have an embassy in town). However, the visa fee has skyrocketed for Americans to $140. (Don’t whine about the Chinese – Tanzania charged Americans $100). If you’re not American, it’s $30!

5. Vaccinations. Unless you’re going farming, and likely you’re sticking to major tourist cities, you won’t need any major vaccines. You should already be up to date with your regular vaccinations (MMR), hepatitis A and B, and polio. Typhoid and rabies only if you plan to be outside hiking or working in fields.

Stay tuned for more updates!

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Getting Lost In: Goa!

Now that I’ve been snowbound at home here in Baltimore for six days straight, the only activity outside the house I’ve had is shoveling snow, eating burgers and going to hot yoga. Though I love snow, I really do, and I love having days off from work (thank you, federal government), I think the hot yoga is leaving me a little dehydrated and perhaps hallucinating of warmer places. After listening to yoga instructors pretend to speak Hindi and be Indian because they can hold themselves upside down on two pinkies, I’ve decided to transport myself to the birthplace of hippiedom, the grand poomba of American yogism, and the great center of full-moon parties: Goa, India.

 My first experience with Goa started with my best friend, Karen. She has dark hair and very tan skin.  Her mother, equally tan and dark-maned, speaks with an exotic accent and if you ask Karen about her background, she’ll tell you she’s Canadian (which does not explain anything you’re looking for). One day I pressed her about the un-Canadian features in her family, and she told me her mother’s side was Portugese. But then her mother made a lot of tasty Indian food and left it in Karen’s freezer, because apparently her Indian grandmother made these dishes. And then I was reading my Frommers’ Guide to India and learned about how the Portugese settled in Goa, and I looked up and said “Karen… are you Goan?

Yes, so Karen is part-Goan. She says it’s complicated to explain her whole background, so she just says Portugese. And that’s the quick history of Goa: Portugese missionaries came down to convert the Indians into Catholics and build churches and breed generations of exotic-looking people. Then around the 1960’s, another exotic-looking group of people descended upon the beaches of Goa and gave it the reputation it has today – a nirvana for flower children, floursack pant-wearing stoner hippies who dred their hair and party every night, full moon or not.

Whether you’re a modern-day hippie (i.e. one with a lot of financial independence so you can spend your time backpacking around the world without a care and buy all sorts of drugs. Oh, and the hemp clothes sold at the local markets are targeted exactly for people like you, so please support the local economy and buy them) or a traveling business school student like I was, Goa is a vacation spot for all. Some highlights:

Beaches. There are many. We rented a scooter and scooted along the coast to explore; many had shack-like hotels and restaurants right on the beach. The Baga-to-Calangute area north of Panjim is a ridiculously touristy section that, even if you’re not totally looking for Nirvana, takes away from any restful experience you might have been hoping for. Skip ahead towards the beaches north of that, and the farther north you go, the more rustic and secluded it will become.

Where to stay. In high season, it’s advisable to make a reservation, but if you’re okay with abandoning your original plan and checking out other places, you can. Many beaches come with little huts for very little. We stayed in Anjuna in some $6/day hotel on the beach (I can’t remember the name now but I would not really recommend it) that gave us our own little one-room, two-bed house with one bedsheet each but a full bathroom, even if it came with a frog and a giant cockroach. Though the room did not give me much sleep, the beachview balcony and menu of Indian-or-Chinese food did.

Old Goa. For some history and culture, check out Old Goa inland. It’s muggier and hot, but you can find refuge inside a cool stone church, which was my theory on how the Portugese managed to convert so many Indians (“we offer you our Lord and air conditioning”). Old Goa is a World Heritage site and a good walking tour of old churches and conversion sites from the 1500’s. In the Basilica of Bom, you can view the preserved body of Saint Francis Xavier, the patron saint of Goa.

Shopping. The Global Village market in Anjuna on Wednesdays sells great souvenirs and take-home items, but be warned that many of the same items (claimed to be hand-made in Goa) can be found in other markets around India and even in markets in Europe and South America. Haggle hard. Be aware of extremely aggressive women and young girls who will grab you and force you to look at their items for sale, though it’s okay to say no and walk away after looking at them.

Activities. People-watching is especially fun, from the man-in-tatters doing exercises on the beach to the European tourists who think they’ve turned Indian. Cow-watching is just as fun – they enjoy the beach as much as tourists do. If you must, there are yoga centers around the area, but don’t be surprised if classes cost the same as they do back home and are run by blond women from London or California. Eat delicious seafood in banana leaves and drink fruity lassi (shakes); be aware that during full moon parties, the “Magic lassi” contains items that are not necessarily yogurt and fruit. Full moon parties occur all the time on Anjuna, with drugged-out European backpackers swinging their dreds and braided hair to rave music all night long.

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In the Suitcase: Israel, for free!

My very, VERY lucky sister-in-law has been granted permission to join one of the many Israel birthright trips that whisks her and a group of other young adults overseas to the mystical land of Israel, for the grand total of – $0! (My other sister-in-law is on the waiting list, and sis #1 won’t go without sis #2, which is why I am writing this post completed directed at her to SEIZE THE AWESOME INCREDIBLE (and free!) OPPORTUNITY that she will otherwise regret turning down for the REST OF HER LIFE.) That’s right, if you can prove that you are Jewish in any way, shape or form – even if you don’t go to synagogue and eat bacon sandwiches over Passover – but as long as you don’t practice any other religion, you’re a viable candidate. (Unfortunately, marrying someone Jewish does not grant you this privilege – which I think is unfair, because I actually made a conscious decision to marry someone Jewish whereas the others just were born that way.)

Adults between 18 and 27 and can prove their Jewish background are eligible to apply; those who have never traveled before on an educational tour of Israel, and those who have not lived in Israel past the age of 12 can also apply. I’m not quite sure why 27 is the magic age, but it just is, worldwide.

Those who get placed spend 10 days visiting the Western Wall, Yad Vashem, floating around in the Dead Sea, and tour through Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Galilee, and all other places I have yet to visit myself. They also get the local flavor by meeting other Jewish locals to learn more about their heritage. Jon, who went on a different program during college, also went spelunking through some of Israel’s unique caverns and natural rock formations. Two of my friends met on Birthright and married several years later.

It’s an incredible experience, I’ve heard from many, that non-Jewish tourists like myself will likely never get to have, though my own kids will have the opportunity. The program is very strict about safety and does not allow participants to wander off on their own, ride public transportation, visit other people on their own, or anything beyond the planned itinerary.

How to apply: Go to http://www.birthrightisrael.com for information. Flights depart from multiple cities around the U.S. and Canada. A $250 deposit is required and refunded after the trip. Otherwise the rest of the trip costs… nothing!

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