Category Archives: Travel

Shanghai

As I was wrapping up my time in Beijing, I was feeling a variety of different emotions.   Sad to say goodbye to all of the people who I had gotten to know over the past four months, but at the same time excited to begin another adventure in a new city in China….Shanghai.

Myself, and the two other students from my program at Roger Williams
University, were headed to Shanghai to begin an internship with Gensler, one of the world’s largest and most successful architectural design firms.  Not only was
I getting a chance to work for a company that I have followed and admired for a long time, but to combine that with how much China and the rest of Asia
are building right now, seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime.

Our final presentations were on a Friday night, which gave us one day to pack up before catching an overnight train on Saturday night from Beijing to Shanghai.  The way that the train system works in China, you can only buy tickets ten days in advance of your departure date.  To reserve the tickets, you had the option of going to the train station in person (where most of the time there is no English) or paying a local agency to go to the station for you.  Judging by our student budgets, we elected to go in person ourselves, which of course is an adventure in itself.  We showed up a few hours after the office had opened (ten days before our departure date), and everything was already sold out except the “hard seats.”  We were hoping for “soft sleepers,” where you have a private cabin with four beds; sleep all night, waking up ready to go.  But, I guess that is why you pay a little extra and go with the agency. They still have to buy the tickets in person like everyone else, but they pay people to make sure that they are the first in line wherever tickets are sold.

At first you wouldn’t think the hard seats to be a problem, sure it’s a 14 hour train ride which is pretty long to be sitting anywhere regardless of where it might be, but at least we had seats, how bad could it be?  As we got through the gates and were walking toward our train car, we noticed a man selling what looked like tiny folding chairs.  People who did not have “hard seat” tickets could get a cheaper ticket to stand in the aisle…for 14 hours!  It turned out that not only were all the soft sleepers, soft seats, and hard seats sold out, but the aisles were packed with people sitting, lying down, standing, and all their luggage.  In order to make it from our seats to the bathroom, it was like navigating through landmines, avoiding bags of luggage, folding chairs, chinese families, and all their breakfasts.

Our seats were just as packed as the rest of the train, but we had some interesting characters around us.  The man who sat across from me was built like a freight train.  After some hand signal communications, I figured out he was a boxer from Thailand.  He was extremely friendly and even had a little carry-size boom-box which he loved to play techno music at high volume.  Judging by the size of him, no one really argued.  By the end of the journey, we were joking around and he insisted on arm wrestling me.  Needless to say he destroyed me…twice.

After a long evening, night, and morning, we arrived in Shanghai just before noon.  I have to say that the train ride from Beijing to Shanghai, was an experience I will never forget. If you have the opportunity to take a hard seat or standing room ticket on a train in China, you are guaranteed to be uncomfortable for the majority of the ride, but you will definitely leave the train with some great stories.

Dalian

Dalian was the last stop on our brief vacation before heading back to Beijing and finals at Tsinghua.  The trip began with an overnight boat from Yantai that left at 10pm and arrived in Dalian at 5am.  We paid a little extra to reserve some beds so we wouldn’t be tired the next day and could enjoy the only day in Dalian that we had.  Once we were on the boat, we found our room, which had eight beds in total, three of which were for us.  We went to the kitchen/dining area and got some food, and met some local Chinese men who invited us to play cards with them.  It took a few rounds to understand the rules of the new game because they couldn’t speak English.  Once we had finally figured out how to play, the kitchen/dining area closed and everyone went back to their rooms to sleep.

When we got back to our rooms, it appeared that a small Chinese village had moved into room including two of our three beds.  We had to turn on the lights, and figure the best way to resolve the situation. I pointed to our beds and said “wo de chuáng,” or “my bed,” and hoped for the best.  I guess they understood and knew that they were not supposed to be there, so without saying much at all, some packed up and moved.  Easy enough…

After a few hours of sleep, we arrived in Dalian.  We had a plan to visit a scenic overlook above Laodong Park, which was about a half hour walk from the train station, and try to find some other cool stops in between.

Downtown Dalian First Thing in the Morning

We walked for a few minutes and came across an area where five major roads all converged in a large round-about, which surrounded a small public area called Zhongshan Square.  Within the Square, there was an elderly Chinese man practicing Tai Qi (more formally know as Taijiquan).  I was a little hesitant at first, but just decided to jump in and see if they would let me join or yell and chase me away.  Sure enough they let me stay and even gave me a few pointers.

Approaching and Observing

Learning

Putting weight on the Back Leg

Now a Professional

Afterwards, I was pretty happy I didn’t offend the Tai Qi instructor by inviting myself in because after we finished, he went to pick up his stuff which included a sword bigger than Mel Gibson’s in Braveheart.  He casually picked it up and walked out of the square.  In case anyone was wondering, it is apparently acceptable to walk down the street in China with a gigantic sword, at least if you are casual Tai Qi instructor.

After Zhongshan Square, we made our way to Laodong Park.  Laodong Park was far bigger than we had expected. Within the park, there were several small gardens, a farmer’s market, several lakes, statues, and even some roller coasters.

Laodong Park

It was still a little hazy in the morning, so we tried to give the weather some time to clear up before going to the overlook.  We walked into the central government area called People’s Square and took a look around.  By this time it was getting close to lunch and we were all pretty hungry from the long night and all the walking up to this point, so we camped out in a Korean BBQ restaurant to rest and refuel.

Dalian Municipal People's Government Reception Hall

Dalian Public Security Bureau

Korean BBQ for Lunch

Unfortunately, the weather was still not cooperating when we had finished, but we were running out of time so we headed back to Laodong Park and made the trek up the steep hill to the observation tower.  The first picture below shows how big Laodong Park really is and the scale of Dalian.  It also shows the climb that we endured to take the picture!  From the top, the city really started to remind me of San Francisco with how the city integrated itself with the rolling hills and surrounding landscape.

Dalian Skyline from the Scenic Overlook

Dalian Skyline from the Top of Laodong Park

Scenic Overlook Tower

With a long day coming to a close, we made our way back to the train station. We would take an overnight train back to Beijing which took close to twelve hours.  At this point, I had basically reached the half way point in the trip: Three months at Tsinghua University in Beijing, with a little bit of traveling to Tsingtao, Yantai, and Dalian. The second half of the trip would will include one month Beijing, and then two months in Shanghai.

Sun Setting at the Train Station

Yantai

After 2.5 days in Tsingtao, we bought a bus ticket for Yantai which is three hours North of Tsingtao.  Our plan was to spend the day in Yantai, and then take a ferry that night to Dalian.  Yantai literally translates to “smokey tower.”  This name came about during the Ming Dynasty because locals used large fires to warn the rest of the village when Japanese Pirates were approaching .

Downtown Yantai

As we got off the bus, Yantai looked very similar to the other Chinese cities that I had seen up to this point, a balance of large contemporary structures, spread out among older low-rise structures.  We decided to venture from the bus station to the ferry terminal to get our bearings, and after a quick walk, we found the terminal and still had almost eight hours to kill.  Seeing how Yantai was a coastal city, it sounded like a good idea to go to beach.  Once again we had a “scale-less” map and decided to try to walk to the public beach.  Similar to our experience in Tsingtao, after 45 minutes, we had barely made a dent in the distance to our destination.  Due to the fact that we had limited time, we got in a cab and headed to the beach.

Beach Looking East

Beach Looking West

The beach was located at the Northern tip of the city and took almost 25 minutes to get to by cab (I can’t imagine how long it would have taken us to walk there).  The two Spaniards wanted to go swimming; they got as far as putting their feet in the water until they had enough.  The water was freezing, which was a little surprising for the time of year and our location, but I am told that it doesn’t warm up until July.  With swimming out of the question, we began to explore and found a man with a few ATVs who would let us do a few laps on the beach for a reasonable price, so we decided to have a race, Spain vs. USA.

Race #1

Race #2

Race #3

Race #4

Race #5

USA 1 – Spain – 0

Mt. Laoshan

Mt. Laoshan is one of the major tourist attractions in the area, located on the outskirts of Qingdao.  We had a lot of trouble getting a taxi driver to not only understand where we were asking to go, but also wanting to take us there when he/she knew where we wanted to go.  Similar to most countries in the world, different areas in China have different accents or dialects, in this case, a different accent (We would find out later in Shanghai, that they speak a very different dialect of Mandarin, making some of our Chinese we learned in Beijing useless, but I’ll save that for when I get to Shanghai).  Once we got a taxi driver to agree to take us to Laoshan, it was about a 40 minute drive to the gate of the park.  Along the way, you could really get a sense of the timeline of development in the city progressing from ancient chinese, to European influence, to a modern business center, to again local (more ancient) style outside of the city.  A few of these images are taken from the cab at very HIGH speeds (we had a crazy driver that day, as you sometimes find over here).

Typical Residential High Rise is the Tsingtao Area

Modern Business Center, Performing Arts Center

Outside of the City Featuring a More Local Style

We were dropped off at the gate of the park, paid our admission fee, and then got onto a bus that took us into the park.  We made a stop and a few passengers got off, so we followed thinking this is where everyone got off, only to see the bus drive off a few minutes later when we were taking pictures.  We tried not to panic, make the best of the situation and start to look around.  We were able to locate a sign, pinpoint where we were and started to make our way up the mountain.

Stopped for a Picture of the Water

Getting a Little Shade from a Tree with a Nice View

At the Base of the Mountain, Ready to Start the Climb

As made our way, we came across great features of Chinese architecture and culture.  There were a few small houses displaying the famous Chinese curved roof form.  This is shaped in this way not only to shed water off the building, but the curved surface generates speed to ensure that water is projected away from the house.  You constintly walked past rocks with inscriptions in them, but since I was having a hard enough time with my Chinese, I decided these characters said something like, you are almost there, or it’s just around THIS corner.  Just before we reached our first destination along the trail, we found another small house and terraced garden.  The residents were growing tea leaves and selling to passersby.

Rock Inscription

Rock Inscription

Looking Back to Where We Started

Terraced Tea Garden

After about a 45 minute climb, we reached a paved road.  After a short water break, and got up and began to walk down the road towards a large stone framed gate.  Just past the gate was an amazing overlook to the East side of the park, again showing terraced gardens that led to a small village at the base of the mountain.  After a few pictures, we found another map, and decided to continue up the mountain.  There was a chair lift at this point that would take you to the top of the mountain, and because it was so hot, we wanted to take the lift to the top and walk down.  So we located a trail that we thought led to the chair lift.  We ended up walking directly underneath the chair lift for 15 minutes before we realized that you probably had to take this form the base of the mountain, instead of the halfway point.

Framed Stone Gate

Overlook of Terraced Gardens and Small Village

I wish that we had been counting steps from the beginning of the climb because after we made it to the top, I know the final number would have been something ridiculous.  After seeing people casually stroll off the chair lift, I’m happy we were unable to find it, as I think we appreciated the view a lot more than those who did not make the climb.  At the top, there was a Chinese couple that sold cold beer for less than $1, so we couldn’t refuse that with the nice view that we had earned.

Steps and Inscriptions

Steps, Steps, Some Flat Parts, and More Steps

View From the Top#1

View From the Top#2

View From the Top#3

Cold Beer, Peanuts, and View

We took a different route on our way back down to see a waterfall we found on the map.  Along the way, we passed some laborers building a small masonry structure.  It is amazing to see the differences in construction means and methods in a country like China, especially in such an isolated area like Mt. Laoshan.  They were using bamboo as scaffolding and tieing them off to surrounding trees.  It was getting late and the sun was getting low as we reached the river, waterfall, and dam.  There was one slight problem to the final stop because it had been so hot lately, that the area was in a bit of a drought, so the river was dried up except for a few puddles, the waterfall was more like a leaky faucet, and the water in the dam was very low.  You can imagine if the conditions were right,  this would be a pretty spectacular area, so we were a little disappointed with the result, but with that being said, it was a still great day and I would have to say that this was the best day that I have had in China up to this point.

Small Masonry Structure Construction

Sun Getting Low

Another Garden in a Small Clearing

What Would Have Been an Amazing Waterfall

Water in the Dam Getting Low

 

 

 

 

Tsingtao

Back in the beginning of May, we had a week off from our program at Tsinghua.  Many of the other students from my program traveled outside of China to Vietnam, but because of visa issues and having to remain in the country, I traveled with two Spanish friends to Eastern China.  Our trip started with a high speed train from Beijing to Tsingtao.  Our train left from Beijing South Railway Station (Chinese: 北京南站; pinyin: Běijīng Nán Zhàn) which is great piece of new architecture that opened in August of 2008.  The trip normally would be about 10-12 hours, but because we spent a little extra money for the high speed train, it only took five hours to get there.  Qingdao (proper Chinese spelling) or Tsingtao (western spelling) is located the Shandong province and is a major seaport, naval base, and industrial center.  Among students, this city is well known for being the home of one of the largest breweries in China. It was once a German colony back in the late 19th and early 20th century and when you arrive you can see all of the European influences in the architecture and city design.  There are traditional chinese buildings within the city in addition to a large business district with modern skyscrapers.  So all together, Tsingtao has a unique urban atmposhere with all these different styles and cultures combined into one city.  One interesting thing to note about China, is that there are no small cities in China, at least from what I have seen.  I’m sure there are in isolated rural parts of the country, but I was expecting Tsingtao to be a nice small city by the ocean, when in fact it was a booming city with a population of almost eight million people.

Interior of Beijing South Railway Station

 

Javi (Spain) and Jorge (Spain) Getting Ready to Board the High Speed Train

We arrived at lunch time, and after checking into our hostel we decided to explore the beach.  I thought that the air quality would be better in a city by the ocean compared to Beijing because of the wind and air movement, but smog can be just as bad in Tsingtao as it can in Beijing.  The smog was not too bad on our first day, but still put a bit of a damper on our beach exploration.  Despite the poor visibility, you could still see some very beautiful sites, but this was also the last day of a Chinese holiday, so the tourists were out in full force.  We had more “local celebrity” moments where people wanted there picture taken with westerners.  In the mid-afternoon, we came across newly-weds that were taking their pictures.  At first you think, oh this is a really nice place to have your wedding pictures taken, until we made it to the other side of the hill to see that there were 10-15 couples getting wedding pictures taken.  We walked for down the beach from after lunch until late in the evening, and after checking a map afterwards, realized that we barely even made a dent in the area of the city.  Knowing that we were only there for one more day, we decided to visit the main attraction of Tsingtao, Lao Shan National Park.

Heading East Along Fushan Bay

Local Residents Fishing in Fushan Bay

Contrast Between Modern and Traditional Chinese Styles

Continuing Along Fushan Bay

Small Park Next to the Beach

St. Michael's Cathedral

Tsingtao Street Scene Outside the Hostel