Monday, October 27, 2008

Days 63-65: Vladivostok, Russia

Well, two things in Vladivostok were better than I was warned about on board: the people were a bit nicer that I expected, especially at customs, where I was whisked through, and the temperature, at least during the day, was a bit warmer.

The rest...?? Well, to put it lightly, it was either exactly what I expected or far worse. I understand that, by human nature, I would be comparing Vladivostok with the last place I had visited, Japan, which is like comparing apples and oranges.

In any case and by any standards, the city was dirty. It didn't feel rich, although by Russian standards it was. Prices were exorbitant for all things: hotels, Internet ($4/hour), food (half a liter of kefir for $1, a decent lunch: $5). Taxis didn't have meters--i.e. some did, but many of the drivers refused to turn them on and gave a set rate of 300 rubles ($11) for a distance that took 5 minutes to reach by foot. Random security checks, bureacracy far worse than almost anywhere else, etc.

The good thing is that I rarely see drunk people here during the day and night. Poor people, yes, but not many drunk people. Perhaps this is because I am rarely out late, because it feels a bit dangerous (okay, maybe more than a bit). Three quintessentially Russian experiences hit me here already, which I will share:

1.) My stay at Hotel Venice. Now, such a name hints at elegance and comfort, but this was probably more akin to a -5 star hotel. In fact, many locals had never heard of the hotel. It was probably closer to a Love Hotel, minus the anomity and the choice to stay one hour or longer. This place was dirt cheap, located in a few barracks a few minutes' walk down from the railway station. The cheapest rooms went for 600 roubles ($23). There was a foldable bed with sheets and a blanket and that's about it. Well, and some electricity. For 700 roubles, which I opted for, there is a drawer, a free telephone that rarely works, and a bigger room. I was warned that I would hear everything my neighbors were doing, and, surely, that warning didn't disappoint. The bathroom facilities were shared, but I dared not use any of them. The hotel actually was taken off the Internet hotel registry and does not allow foreigners to stay there, which beckons the question: "how in the world did they let me, a foreigner, stay?" Well, in short, I met a young man my age at the train station, who was waiting for a train that leaves in 5 hours. He had a Russian passport and turned out to be a great guy, so he volunteered to register him in the room, but in reality I would be sleeping there. And that's what we did.

2.) Unfortunately, since the hotel doesn't allow foreigners, they obviously don't do the government-mandatory foreigner registration. And I couldn't go to a local government migration office and tell them that I had stayed there. So I went to the Migration Department Office about 15 minutes by foot from Hotel Venice only to find out that it opens at 10 a.m., and not 9 as I had expected. Then I waited in line for about 2 hours until someone would talk to me. I made up an excuse how I had a hotel reserved (Hotel Amurskiy Zaliv), but because it was so expensive, I ended up canceling it (true) and spent the whole night at a discoteque (half-true, as the second half of the night I spent trying to fall asleep in Hotel Venice). She asked me what the address of the discoteque was, and before I had a chance to answer, she added that it was ludicrous that I had done something like that and how if I spend my nights at a nightclub it would be impossible for me to obtain registration. She probably thought I was being sardonic and was very rude, but all I could do was smile, knowing that what I was telling her is the truth. This would mean I am breaking a Russian law that mandates all foreigners to register within 72 hours of their first entry into Russia (minus weekends). I didn't know what to do and thought of calling Svetlana, a nice Armenian girl I had met at a nightclub the night before, to ask her if we could write her address as my temporary place of stay in Vladivostok. Then I realized that it's fruitless, since I had a tourist, and not a guest, visa. After all of this wasted time, I went to a real hotel and asked them they would register me, although I would not stay there (obviously, I would pay for the registration). They refused, and told me that I had to stay there in order to obtain my registration. Heartbroken, I came back to Venice and had thoughts of ditching Russia for the next ferry back to Japan ASAP, only to realize then that this basically means I am cutting my trip halfway and returning back to America--without a ticket back to America as is (via Japan). So I asked them at the reception desk what to do and the people at Venice, who were rude at first but lightened up after they realized what a cool guy I was, recommended a Hotel called Moryak (Sailor). Apparently, Hotel Moryak had rooms for only 1,200 roubles ($44), and they took care of the registration work. Well, surely, this worked. But $45 was too expensive for a Soviet-style economy class-type room. Nonetheless, I had no choice--and Vladivostok has a huge shortage of budget accommodation. This was the cheapest normal place in town (obviously, excluding Venice, which is not normal by any standards, although this was quite an experience), and they did registration for only 20 roubles ($0.80). Unfortnately, luggage storage the day of check-out is not free and is about $2 per bag. God, I still can't believe how, out of despairity, I am paying such high prices for a total lack of modern facilities and almost a total lack of service. Well, at least the location is good.

3.) I was queing at the train station office to find out the price of a ticket to Mongolia from Irkutsk when two Russian security officials and one female accompanying them approached me and asked me to show me their passport. I obliged, sensing that they were real workers and not scam artists. Then they told me to continue inquiring about the ticket and then follow them, which I did. They checked everything I had in my bag, inspected me, asked me some questions, and then let me go some 15 minutes after the whole ordeal started. All without a general explanation of why and what, even when I asked. They just told me afterwards: "Beware, this city has a lot of freaks, so keep your valuables with you at all times... and now at least you'll have something about Russia to tell everyone back home about." ............ "That's for sure," I replied. ................

Days 60-62: The Rus' Ferry

Okay, if anyone was wondering the same thing I was ("why aren't there 'any' Japanese on this ferry?!"), I realized the answer the moment I got on board.

A typical Russian lady (tall, blonde, and brusque) barely looked up when talking to me. Then, after several minutes, she became nicer and allowed me to check in several hours early. I looked around and saw dozens of Russian men loading the ship with cars and other items. By the time I went to sleep and woke up, I had realized that the only normal guy on the ship, generally speaking, was the one sharing a room with me by the name of Anton. He was a computer programmer and not a car buyer like the others--and only drank a bit of beer. At night there were many liters of beer and tons of vodka being consumed amongst the other men, a fight or two broke out, etc. And the weather outside was harsh, so it rocked the boat quite a bit. And there were the typical Russian woman protege-cum-??? on board, too, albeit only about 20 of them. All in all, it was about 120 people: 20 staff, 80 men, and 20 women.

Indeed, even before this ferry took off, I felt as if I had already arrived in Russia, even though it was docked at the Fushiki Port outside Toyama city. Japan felt like a completely different world: politeness, hospitality, etc. While Russians are hospitable in a completely different way, and while the ship served Russian food, which I had missed so much and was thankful for, I realized that I miss Japan and do not want to go to Russia. In fact, the only reasons I was taking this ferry to Vladivostok was because 1.) I wanted to experience the Trans-Siberian Railway, 2.) I wanted to see Moscow and St. Petersburg, and 3.) it was the cheapest option to do all three. Apparently, since only an oligopoly of 2 airlines, JAL and Vladivostok Avia, operate the route, there is barely any competition, which results in high prices. This means whereas a round-trip ticket from Tokyo to Moscow, which includes some 24 hours of flying total, costs about $1,000, a one-way ticket from Tokyo to Vladivostok, taking about 2 hours, costs $900. I didn't have much of a choice here. :)

The Japanese people would feel out of place on a ferry like this, much like I had. At least I speak Russian and liked the food, but for the Japanese this would be like entering a different world. Unsurprisingly, the one Japanese man there was on board had his own VIP room.

Finally we had arrived in Vladivostok, one of Russia's premiere port cities some 40 hours later. And this is where the Wild, Wild West begins. ...

Days 58-59: Tokyo, Japan

On my night bus to Tokyo I had realized that I had crossed the halfway point of my journey. I had seen Southeast and much of East Asia and would soon be venturing into Russia, Mongolia, and Europe. After reflecting on my favorite places, I realized that Kyoto, Busan, Hangzhou, and Halong Bay were my favorite places I had visited in the last 2 months.

Upon arriving in Tokyo and visiting the places I had not visited last year, such as the infamous Yasukuni Shrine (notorious for commemorating 13 Japanese war criminals and being the lightning rod behind rising tensions between Japan and both Korea and China whenever a Japanese PM visits it), I had realized that I really, really like this city. And here is why.

First, Tokyo is not only super clean (like many Japanese cities), but for a city of this magnitude --the biggest in the world, with some 26 million people in greater Tokyo-- it works. People, like most Japanese, are ultra kind and polite. There is always something going on, so it's never boring. There is always somewhere to go, and the prices are not as high as many think. A decent lunch can be had for $5 (500 yen).

I experienced the typical Tokyo experience by first visiting the famous Shibuya crosswalk. Shibuya is famous for the world's biggest diagonal crosswalk, and it's hard to explain the energy that one feels when walking through there; it surely feels like one of those once-in-a-lifetime adrenaline rushes. The district of Tokyo is known for its 25-and-younger fashionistas, shopping for hip clothes and other accessories. It's the younger crowd that usually hangs around here, and Tokyo's infamous Love Hotel Hill is located here also. (For information on what a love hotel is, which is another quintessentially Japanese experience, click here: I also visited Ginza, which is infamous for being Tokyo's answer to New York's Fifth Avenue: a conglomeration of expensive and trendy stores, selling anything from mainly clothes to cars and exorbitantly priced food, albeit a few cheap eateries. At night I visited Roppongi, which is Tokyo's gaijin (foreigner) haven, frequented by gaijin in search of clubs and bars where to hang out. Shinjuku was also a terrific experience: the typical stereotype of Tokyo, with hundreds of neon lights, cafes, people of all ages and Shinjuku Station, one of the busiest in the world, with about 3 million people passing through it daily. And then Akihabara, Tokyo's eletronic haven, was one of my final stops: here there are about 500 stores selling discount electronics of all types, with the culmination being Yodobashi Camera, a nine-story $1 billion electronic hypermarket.

I love Tokyo. I don't know what there is about it, but this is a great city I would definitely consider returning to some time soon. Of all the cities I have visited on my trip so far, the only two I would definitely consider returning to some day are Busan and Tokyo. I don't know what it is about Tokyo that intriques me so much, but this hidden aura truly is mistifying.

Days 56-57: Osaka, Japan

Osaka is a city that's hard to like until you've moved into the very core. The Allied Powers destroyed most of it during WWII, and the only real tourist attraction is Osaka Castle, which is truly beautiful.

Luckily, there is a great downtown district with literally thousands of stalls, izakaya (cheap Japanese eateries), shops, clubs, bars, etc. There is even Amerika Mura, literally American Village, which features many U.S. cafes, bars, and eateries such as Wendy's.

The city also has some very poor districts which reminded me of China. For a while I felt as if I had returned back to some parts of China, only without a visa. There were homeless people sleeping and rummaging through garbage, a lot of dirty streets, etc. But that was only in the district my hotel was located in. However, not all was bad in that part of town: either because it was such a poor part of the city or for another reason, there was probably the only 50-yen vending machine in town. Most of the other vending machines are from 100-150 yen. (FYI, one yen is roughly equal to one U.S. cent.)

I liked Osaka for the nightlife, even on weekdays. It is a great party city, but in terms of tourist attractions, it can be skipped for the nearby smaller but culturally much more interesting Nara. Thankfully, after Kyoto the last thing I needed was even more temples, as in Kyoto I had visited some 15 of them--and Osaka provided just the nightlife vacation that I needed, so to speak.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A few more pics...

The first pics are with some girls I met in Guangzhou, who also happened to be visiting the city like me. They are both are China.

The other four pictures are with two guys I met from Russia who were studying Mandarin in Harbin. We met in Beijing and went drinking to McDonald's after buying a bottle of vodka... since it was raining outside and we couldn't drink inside the hostel. We bought french fries as a chaser and asked for three extra cups. It turned out great, as did the pics. Have a look. ...

And some pics from Guangzhou...

Some pics from Shenzhen (finally!)

So my memory card--the one with the majority of my pics--is still locked. I found a service center, but it was closed on that day (last Sunday). I will try to find another service center some time soon, but I had saved these pics onto my USB drive before, so I will upload them now. I still want to upload my pics from Hangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, Dandong, Seoul, and Busan, but I cannot while the card is locked. I tried and the computer declines my request. Most of my pics from Dandong, Seoul, and Busan are on a different card, though, so they can be uploaded with relative ease once I find more time. I hope to get my card unlocked soon, though, because some of the pics on there are excellent.
Whatever the case, enjoy these "salvaged" pics for now.

Days 52-55: Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto is one of those cities like Rome, Paris, or London. Indeed, each of these cities is very different, but they each have one feature in common: as Lonely Planet wrote, these are cities that every person should visit at least once in their lifetime.

And after visiting Kyoto, I agree.

It feels very different from Tokyo, as it is Japan's cultural, not economic or political, capital. With over 2,000 shrines and temples (total), the city offers a cornucopia of cultural heritage and beauty. If one gets lost, no matter what the street is, within 10 minutes he or she will stumble upon another temple. Perhaps this is why I like the city so much: getting lost, which I tend to do quite a lot, is actually fun. In its small corners it feels extremely laid back, but just ten meters away is the main thoroughfare, with shopping malls and heaps of people--as well as ultra-modern shinkansen (bullet-trains) not too far off in the distance. It feels like a city of contrasts, with one foot in the present (or future) and one stuck in the past.

Hidden in the alleys of the city (especially in the Gion district), late at night one may find a geisha. Kyoto only has about 100 geisha and maiko (apprentices). A geisha is a traditional female Japanese entertainer, whose skills include performing various Japanese arts, such as classical music and dance. Contrary to popular belief, they are not prostitutes, though they have to remain single during their tenure as a geisha; in other words, if a woman marries, she can no longer be a geisha. I did see one too many of them in Kyoto, though, including two geisha walking around and taking pictures of each other on their cellphones, which leads me to think that there are many knock-off geisha here. Luckily, I did happen to catch a glimpse of a real one late at night escorting a client somewhere.

The weather here, as in Korea, is great in October. Warm during the day, cool in the night--and little, if any, rain. Along with Hangzhou and Busan, Kyoto is definitely on my Top Three list of cities I have visited on this trip.

P.S. So I did get to try soju on my ferry from Busan to Osaka, which was great. The ferry, that is. It has a karaoke bar, a free concert, more space than the Dandong ferry, two restaurants, a store, etc. All of this came at approximately the same cost as the Dandong Ferry, so the PanStarLine ferry is definitely better. Anyhow, a Korean let me try some soju, which was only 20% strong. It didn't taste as bad as everyone says it does. When I asked him, he said that it is still made from rice, and that the prohibition was lifted after the end of the Korean War. So, contrary to the information in my previous post, soju is NOT made from chemicals and is safe to drink... within reason. :)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Days 50-51: Busan, South Korea

Unfortunately, I slacked off in Seoul since I had 4 nights there and was slow in my sightseeing. See, had I known better, I would have picked up the pace and spent less time online, all of which meant I could have come to Busan one day early. But it was not to be for one main reason: I didn't want to go to Busan.

What a mistake I made.

The explanation here comes from what I gleaned from Lonely Planet's characterization of Busan from its latest edition of Lonely Planet: Korea. It said that the city lacks a cosmopolitan feel and is very laid back. Basically, it seemed to say that after Seoul, this is like going to a fairly boring place.

This could not be any further from the truth.

For one, though Busan (formerly spelled Pusan in English) is certainly smaller than Seoul (4 million people vs. 12 million), it is not any less lively at night. It has a terrific fish market; the Semyeon downtown area is bustling for blocks and blocks with street food, shops, cafes, bars... literally everything--and this was on a Tuesday night, when I was there. I could only imagine how crowded it gets on the weekends and Friday night. In the summer and early autumn, Busan's two main beaches, Haeundae and Gwangalli, are teeming with people. It is a huge port city, too, perhaps larger than Incheon (maybe I am wrong, but it is a major port hub in any case). A very pleasant city that reminds me of Hangzhou in some aspects (probably due to its romantic feel).

It's a shame I came here for only one night--and I arrived late from Seoul as is, and now I have to catch a ferry to Osaka in a few hours.

Well, perhaps this means I now have a good reason to come back here. I enjoyed Busan more than Seoul, even judging by the little time I had in Busan. Seoul was great, but Busan was out of this world for what I expected. Perhaps it's all relative to my expectations: I didn't expect anything particular from Busan, while from Seoul I expected a Tokyo-like atmosphere in all districts, which I didn't feel so much. While Seoul certainly has some glitzy Shanghai- or Tokyo-like suburbs, many of the streets are business or residential districts with not many people in the day--perhaps many of them commute to the Central Business District for work.

But I would like to come back to Korea some day. My experience here was great. Seoul is cool... and Busan is amazing. And the Korean people here have all been, without exception, very honest and courteous to me.

Days 48-49: Seoul, South Korea (continued)

Seoul is a pleasant city. Civilized, orderly, timely. The streets are clean and English is spoken much more so than in China amongst all strata. The best part when visiting in October is the weather: aside from the first half of my first day here, the skies have been clear all three days and the temperature in the day-time is about 22 degrees Celcius (roughly 70-75 F).

The party area on weekends is near Hongik University, while Itaewon is the bar haven and is always busy.

But anywhere I went, I could not help thinking about the plight of the North Korean people. No matter what I did--eating, drinking, going out and having a good time--I was constantly thinking how something like this, depending on the particular activity, was either illegal (listening to Western pop music) or completely controlled (moving from city to city) just some 40 kilometers north of where I was. It's even more unusual to know that the people in the North have no idea of what life is like in the South; they think life in the South is poor and untidy and that North Korea is a rich country. This sounds preposterous based on any and all observations!

In any case, Seoul was a pleasant place to stay. I enjoyed it a lot. I didn't try the local brew, soju, though, even though is was extremely cheap: about 960 won ($0.85) per bottle! I was going to buy a bottle at that price for sure... until someone told me that this Korean version of vodka is made from chemicals now rather than rice, since the present laws came into effect during the Korean War, when making soju from rice was deemed illegal due to a massive shortage of the crop. In any case, upon hearing the words "chemical" and "vodka" in one phrase, I quickly reconsidered. Luckily, I can still try soju when I come back to Chicago... if I ever have the urge. All of the Koreans but one I met in Seoul said that, while they all drink it, it tastes disgusting and gets a person hammered fast.

Korea is very different from China in all aspects. I enjoyed both a lot, but the food, people, culture, etc. are very different in all aspects. I like that. The last thing I would like is to go from one country to another to find out that the two are very similar, without any noticeable differences. Luckily I did not encounter this so far anywhere in my travels. Japan, which I will be visiting after Busan, is surely much different, too.

P.S. The picture above is an aerial view of North and South Korea at night. Check out the massive lighting and electricity in the South, whereas a total dearth of electricity, save for one speck of light, is coming from the North. Very eerie.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Days 46-47: Seoul, South Korea -- and the DMZ

The Dandong Ferry to Incheon wasn't the most pleasant journey I've had, but for the price I will not complain. It was by far the cheapest way to get from Dandong to Korea, even if my cabin was very tiny--just enough to recline and sleep, but not turn (with ease). Incheon, with about 2-3 million people, is about an hour from Seoul and is considered a big Seoul suburb. Seoul's population is about 12 million, or roughly a quarter of South Korea's total. It is its undisputed political, cultural, and economic capital.
A few hours ago, I came back from the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. This is the place that Bill Clinton called "the most dangerous place in the world." Unfortunately, he wasn't exaggerating. Demilitarized couldn't be further from the truth, by the way, as the zone extends two kilometers south into the Republic of Korea and 2 kilometers north into the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. There are land mines in numerous places, barbed wire is everywhere, as are border guards, etc. North Korea's million-man army is stationed along the border, as is much of the country's artillery. It is said the North can flatten Seoul within an hour. From the South Korean side, nearly 30,000 or 40,000 U.S. soldiers are stationed. It is a very interesting, albeit tenuous and de facto unofficial, "peace."
What's interesting is the wildlife that has flourished inside the DMZ in the last 50 years, since there are no people there. There are many rare species that have flourished there, which is perhaps one of the only good things that has resulted from the divide of this one nation into two separate and very different countries.
Panmunjeom is a place where these two world's meet. One is a capitalist world, a country that is the world's 12th largest economy. The other is the Hermit Kingdom that has been isolated for the last five-and-a-half decades; it is the world's last Stalinst dictatorship and a place where many freedoms we in rest of the world take for granted today are simply nonexistant. It is also a place of the world's most extreme personality cults: Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. Scott Fisher, a blogger right now living in South Korea, writes that "It's the edge of the known world butting up against a nation of people trying desperately to keep it away." My tour, unfortunately, included everything but Panmunjeom, which lies exactly at the 38th parallel--the demarcation line. Although the true border swings and winds around that parallel, Panmunjeom is smack dab in the middle and is where the UN-sponsored armistice talks are held in several barracks. The barracks were built exactly half-way into North and South Korea each, and visitors are allowed to enter the building but must leave through the same side they entered from. Basically, you can technically cross into North Korea, but you can't leave through the door that is on the North Korean side if visiting from the south--and vice-versa. The visit to Panmunjeom apparently is precluded by a signing of a waiver to respect all rules, no taking of pictures, and admitting familarity with the strict rules. A strict dress code is observed, too, purportedly so that the North Koreans don't use foreigners and the way they dress in propaganda. From the South Korean side, tourists are taken to this town on a UN car, since South Koreans and 22 other nationalities (among them Russian, Vietnamese, Chinese--hmmm, I see a pattern here) are not allowed inside, as decided jointly by the U.S. and UN. Again, I did not see Panmunjeom, but I did see the third infiltration tunnel that the North had dug and the South had discovered several decades ago. My tour also visited the Freedom Bridge, Observatory, and other sites. Unfortunately, we couldn't take pictures at most "hot" sites, but it was an interesting visit.
One more--and final--note of interest is the quixotic dream of reunification, which is a touchy subject for southerners. Many think it will come one day--some think soon, some think not so soon. But the fact of the matter is that though many southerners want it, they hesitate when questioned about the financial cost. When East and West Germany reunited, at least the East was somewhat developed, but even for Germany reunification came at a very high price. However, for South Korea, the true cost can be as high as $1 trillion, as estimated by economists, considering the antiquity of the North Korean infrastructure and industry. There is a lack of nearly everything in the Hermit Kingdom.
Perhaps one day its people will get to reap the same benefits and freedoms that many of us have today. Only time will tell as to when that day will come, if ever, but hopefully it will come sooner rather than later.
P.S. The pics of the DMZ here are courtesy of Dan Harmon and Scott Fisher. Check out Scott Fisher's excellent memoirs of his visit to North Korea on . All of the three pics in this post and more are from this link.

Days 44-45: Dandong, China -- and Sinuiju, North Korea

First of all, I want to apologize for not uploading more photos in the past 2 weeks. In Shenzhen I had no time to do that, whereas in Guangzhou the Internet was way too expensive in my hotel--and Internet cafes were too far away from where I stayed. Finally, in Beijing, I had Internet access, but my memory card malfunctioned. It still says it is locked for "write protect," so I will take it to an Olympus or Fuji service center here in Seoul to get it checked out. It should be a piece of cake for the experts to unlock. In any case, I wanted to upload my photos from another memory card in Dandong, but, strangely enough, this blog was blocked in Dandong. Not in Beijing, not in Shanghai, but in Dandong, of all places. It seems that the Great Firewall, as it is known, is controlled more by local authorities rather than the central government. I never encountered Wikitravel blockages in Beijing (for the English language version, at least) like last year, but in Dandong sites such as The Economist were blocked. Even foreign currency conversion sites were blocked. Anyway, I am in Seoul, South Korea, right now. I have quick, good Internet here, but don't have much time right now. Hopefully within the next day or two I'll upload the 100 or so pictures I've been wanting to upload for the past few weeks. The three pictures uploaded on this post of Dandong are not mine, although they are not any different in substance. I found them all on Google and will upload my own pics hopefully tomorrow or the day after.

Dandong, China, was bigger and more modern than I expected. There are many shopping centers, several KFCs, and many western-style clothing stores. Most people, such as me, come here to see the North Korean border. Luckily, there is also a ferry that goes from Dandong straight to Incheon, South Korea. The standard price in econ class is $141 (960 RMB), but since I locked in a student fare back when I was a student, I only paid 780 RMB ($111). The journey takes 16 hours, but more on that later.

Dandong was interesting. It felt like a small Chinese city, which it is, with only some 640,000 people. It had a recently remodeled but propaganda-laced America Korean War Aggression Museum. All of the exhibits excoriated the Americans no matter what. The museum felt like it was built back in 1960s China. Nonetheless, it was very interesting. The basic gist of the museum was as follows: Americans started the Korean War and are to blame; the North Korean "brothers" deserve their independence and are China's friends; and South Koreans are American cronies. There is some semblence to the truth in some of the aforementioned, but the museum just beats this horse to death one too many times. After three exhibits, it starts to be very redundant, but that did not make it any less interesting because of the topical issue of the war.

Aside from that, the only other attraction in Dandong--and the most popular by far--is the ferry along the Yalu River. There is a Friendship Bridge between North Korea and China, which is probably only about 200 meters long. This is the bridge that is North Korea's window to the outside world, as some 60% of its Chinese trade comes from here. I witnessed cars and trucks passing by about every minute or two. This bridge was built after the North Koreans blew up a neighboring bridge some time ago, which effectively cut it off from the outside world. Near these bridge-and-a-half are several vendors selling North Korean souvenirs, such as the worthless North Korean currency, North Korean cigarettes and stamps, and pins of Kim Il-Sung. I bought all of them except the pin. Now I regret I didn't buy the pin, since I have exactly 25-30 yuan remaining (exactly how much the pin cost).

We took a fast 30-minute, 50 RMB ($7) ferry up to about 15 meters away from the North Korean shore. We saw several commoners, who all seemed to be dressed the same. We saw border guards with guns and several fisherman, one of whom waved back to us (!) after someone from our ship yelled anyong haseyo (Korean for "hello"). I also saw boys playing basketball and some girls entering a building. There were many boats, trucks, and construction machines parked. There was also a ferris wheel, which has apparently never been in use and was built simply to serve as a propaganda tool. Once our boat had come back to China and the sun had set, it was dark--and a very different story. The China-North Korea border could not have been any more different.

In short, it was an eerie scene. The Chinese half of the bridge was illuminated and "shining." The North Korean half, though, was pitch black. In fact, it seemed as if the bridge just ended half-way through--just where the Chinese half ends and the North Korean half begins. Sinuiju, the North Korean border city, only had a few specks of light coming from one place, whereas Dandong was alight all over. I can only imagine what the natives of Sinuiju think when they see Dandong at night and compare the scene to their own plight. It's a depressing picture, to put it mildly.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Days 33-44: Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing, CHINA

Having last been to China just over a year ago, I didn't expect many changes. However, perhaps because of the Olympic Games and/or other reasons, the changes are plenty--and much for the better.

There is still the incessant queue-cutting and spitting, but aside from that, everything feels different. The locals are more friendly. The food is great. The air and streets are much cleaner. Chinglish, the usually humurous but at times confusing jibberish when translating directly from Chinese to English, is rarely seen. Prices are still low, even with a rapidly appreciating Chinese yuan. Beijing's Tiananmen Square, hitherto swarmed by beggars, is now empty of them.

Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that last time when I was in China, it was on a tour. This year, however, I am alone. I definitely feel the difference. China is most enjoyable when explored at your own pace. There are more opportunities to try the local cuisine, which is usually great. Alas, at the tour last year, we were, generally speaking, fed the same bland Chinese food for 12 days straight. No Friendship Store visits either. Now I don't have to endure any of this--and the streets also seem void of the erstwhile ubiquitous sexworkers, too, which is a pleasant surprise. In short, my experience this time in China is many, many times better, as are my impressions of the country and the people.

For a short list of what to do and not to do in China, read below:

1.) DO bring an English-Chinese phrasebook with the Chinese characters included next to the translation. Pointing to something in the book is a great way to get by, since many Chinese don't understand English or a foreigner's pronunciation of their language.
2.) DO NOT go for a massage for 100 yuan. First, there's a massage and a "massage." For the record, I went for the real massage. But in any case it's a scam! There are mandatory drinks that are not included for the price. The massage girl begs for tips and says she'll give a bad massage if she doesn't get any. Then she orders more drinks without telling the payer the price, which are priced exorbitantly. And then there is a room charge. It comes out to more like 500 yuan (about $73) when this is taken into account. Luckily, I only had to pay $42 because I got a better deal with no room charge once I saw that on the menu in fairly small letters on the bottom and negotiated an opt-out, but it's best to avoid these places regardless.
3.) NEVER agree to go to a hotel if you only know the name and not the address! I was taken to three different Bai Yun Hotels in Guangzhou because I told the driver "Bai Yun Hotel." Apparently, in Guangzhou everything is "Bai Yun": Bai Yun Airport, Bai Yun Hotel, Bai Yun International Hotel, Bai Yun City Hotel. Heh, only the last one--and some $30 later--my hotel was found.
4.) ALWAYS make the taxi drivers use the meter. Taxis are very cheap in China, but if they don't use a meter, it may be a scam or they will ask for too much money outright. And always ask for a receipt in case something was forgotten in the car... not that this is guarantee of getting the item back. Not by a long shot. But it's worth a try.
5.) TAKING a digital photo of an address or street is a smart way to get by. If ones gets lost, he/she can always walk up to a local and point to the picture with the address and they'll point you in the direction. But keep in mind that it might not be the right direction. ;)
6.) JUST accept the fact that China is different. It'll make for a much more pleasant experience. Comparing things and being disgusted by some things that are different than back home will not make the experience any more pleasurable.

This list will be continued in one of my future posts... Many, many more things have been left out. In short, China is a terrific place to go for vacation. In Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou it is very, very hot and humid. Hangzhou and Shanghai, in central China, are best visited in October, right around the time I was there. The temperature is great--not hot and not humid, but not cold either. Beijing, north of Shanghai and not too far from Mongolia, was noticeably colder, but this was a small anomoly, so to speak, according to locals. Today it'll be warmer by 5 degrees Celcius, so it should be very good weather.

China was celebrating its National Day: the 59th Anniversary of the Founding of the People's Republic of China. What this means is as follows: one week off for many Chinese, which means travel, travel, travel within their country. Sightseeing, visiting relatives, etc. Train tickets on certain routes, such as Shanghai-Beijing, are very hard to come by. They are usually sold out days in advance. Crowds are massive nearly everywhere in the cities I visited. In Hangzhou it took me over an hour to catch a cab; Shanghai's population seemed to soar from 18 million to 40 million overnight--without exaggeration. It seemed 2-3 times more crowded than a year ago, owing to the holiday. In any case, this can be a great or horrible time to sightsee, depending on how one views this. I actually like it, aside from the one hour wait for a cab. It is a great experience and opportunity to meet many Chinese people from all over the country, most of whom speak their own distinct languages but also know Mandarin.

People, in short, are very curious and friendly to foreigners. Sure, there are the scam artists everywhere, but it's not that much different from, say, scammers in other places. They exist everywhere. A prudent traveler should never be put off by them or fall for their tourist traps. Indeed, even I have fallen twice for a scam (the massage and an expensive taxi ride), but I was fairly lucky. It's best to avoid these people and to sightsee smartly.

At least I've been very lucky this year never to have gotten, to the best of my knowledge, a forged 100 yuan ($14) banknote. Last year they were ubiquitous and people always check their authenticity in stores, but I have had no problem using mine. Probably that's because I never bought a souvenir from a street seller, who oftentimes swap a real 100-yuan banknote for a fake to an oblivious foreigner.

I didn't have much time to sightsee in Shenzhen... I didn't even see the city center. It's a city literally right across from Hong Kong. Set up as a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in the late 1970s or 80s, it has grown to a city of about 10 million people with few tourist sites, but a lot of money. It is a dangerous city, too, for about half of the population, if not more, are migrant workers. Guangzhou is also a rich city, but smaller--"only" about 3-4 million people. Nevertheless, it is a great city with a lot of shopping (especially leather) and pedestrian streets. The food in Guangzhou (Cantonese cuisine, which is sweet) is terrific. Hangzhou has about 6 million people and is a very enjoyable city. Many Chinese go there for their honeymoon, since it is a very romantic place with a placid and beautiful West Lake. There are about 40 West Lakes in China, but this is the original one. Shanghai is only about 1 hour on a fast train or 2 hours on a bus from Shanghai, China's version of Tokyo, with neon lights, more shopping, and a plethora of skyscrapers. And now I am in Beijing, China's capital, with numerous historical landmarks, the Olympic stadium which is now open to the public for 50 yuan, and many other things to do.

Sorry for not updating this blog for a week. I'll try to update it more regularly henceforth.

Tomorrow I am going to Dandong, a city many Chinese have never heard of in Lioning Province. Dandong, a city of about 640,000 people (a village by Chinese standards, since the country has more than 150 cities with populations of 1 million of more), borders North Korea--in fact, the North Korean village of Sinuiju can be seen from across the Yalu River and the Friendship Bridge linking the two countries. I can't wait to catch a glimpse of the "Hermit Kingdom," as Americans are not usually allowed to visit North Korea, so this will be like tasting a bit of the forbidden fruit. And I'll be sure to take many pics.

In the meantime, enjoy these pictures from the aforementioned cities. And please do comment! I read them all. :)