two days in hong kong

Back in June, while I was still vacationing in China, my mom and I decided to spontaneously go to Hong Kong for two days. During our last week, Typhoon Merbok was wreaking a bit of havoc and brought a lot of rain to the region. That ruined our original plans of visiting another nearby city, and since my mom’s two best friends were free, we decided to go ahead with taking the train to Hong Kong.

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DAY 1

My mom’s friend picked up the three of us from the train station and naturally, after checking in my mom and her friend into their hotel, we headed off to get dim sum at Pak Loh Chiu Chow, a rather upscale restaurant. We got a little tour of Central as we were driving around, trying to navigate the narrow and crowded streets.

After lunch, we went to visit her friend’s new (to us) luxury apartment near Repulse Bay and rest a little. Seeing the place was my mom’s primary reason for coming into the city. It was gorgeous, of course, and had a beautiful view of the bay, marina, and mountains. A super pleasant surprise was when their miniature poodle, Bobby, came running out. He’s about three years old and is absolutely adorable. The crazy thing is that he looks so similar to my friend Candace’s dog, Bagel.

We drove back out for dinner and took a little walking tour of Central and the International Financial Center (IFC) mall. I was able to convince my mom and her friends to let me eat dinner with a friend for a change, so I met Candace for dinner in the mall and we went to a ramen place, Gogyo. The ramen was amazing and we got a side of truffle fries to share. It was pretty exciting having a couple of hours of pure English conversation, and I was telling her about things I found jarring about China/Hong Kong, like the fact that they also use the dollar in HK so it’s a little confusing.

After dinner, I met everyone back at the supermarket downstairs and we drove to the harbour. I convinced Kathy, my mom’s friend’s daughter, to ride the Hong Kong Observation Wheel with my mom and I. Not the tallest or most exciting ferris wheel, but it was pretty cool to see part of the city at night. The ride lasts for 15-20 minutes and costs HK 100.

I stayed over at the apartment since the hotel room was smaller than expected with two slightly larger than twin sized beds. I wasn’t complaining since that meant I got to play with Bobby some more and got the nicest view I’ll likely ever have from any room.

DAY 2

Our plan for the day was to visit Victoria Peak. We took a taxi to the bus stop, just shortly before it started pouring rain. We waited a while for the next bus and by the time it came, the rain had stopped. It was my first time riding a double decker bus in my memory. I can’t believe they let double deckers drive up the hill to Victoria Peak. One time a corner of the bus smacked into some branches which scared the beejesus out of this one guy. Fun and scenic ride, though.

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We went to the observation decks, but the fog that day was so intense. We should have expected it after the rain and periodic drizzling. While waiting, I had a green tea egg waffle with some green tea ice cream, and the waffle was pretty darn good. We also took a stroll along Peak Circle Walk, which was super humid and actually gave me rainforest vibes, but there are a few lookouts on the trail over the harbour and city. It’s pretty remarkable how the trails were built on the side of the mountain back in the early 1900s, given how steep it is. My two favorite things were Lugard Falls, a waterfall on the mountain, and these really amazing trees with a lot of aerial roots. I think they could have been Indian banyan trees.

After coming back down from the mountain, we got a late lunch at Penang Prawn Noodle Shop in Central. I had some ho fun with seafood in their spicy prawn soup base. I love noodles, especially the flat ones.

We then walked off our food and checked out some of the street markets and supermarkets. We picked up some fresh lychee and durian to eat back at the apartment before taking the last express train out at 8pm. That was the end of our very short excursion to Hong Kong.

two days in hong kong

climbing the great wall and other challenges

Funnily enough, I never realized that prior going to Beijing, the only pictures I’ve ever seen of the city were always of Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Great Wall, or iconic Olympic buildings like the Bird’s Nest. I just imagined that the city beyond these iconic destinations would be like the many Chinese cities that have blossomed over the last two decades, characterized by towering skyscrapers and flashy shopping streets. However, what I saw of Beijing made me realize that Imperial China and old Chinese streets are still very much part of the present-day city fabric.

My mom and I traveled with a tour group again, but this time it was with a domestic agency GZL, which is located in Guangzhou with partner agencies in other highly visited Chinese cities. It was a smooth fun-only tour as opposed to the Shanghai tour. We were the only two American citizens in the group of 12, which provided a stark contrast to traveling with Chinese emigrates the week earlier.

DAY ONE (kind of)

We arrived at Baiyun Airport at 4:30pm to check in with our tour group at 5pm, well in advance of our 7:30pm flight with Air China, only to later discover that the flight was delayed for “weather-related reasons”. With no posted departure time for hours, we essentially were just left waiting indefinitely after checking in with our tour group and going through security. It didn’t even start raining until much later (around 9:30pm), which only served to frustrate travelers who felt like they were being lied to and unnecessarily inconvenienced.

We were finally allowed to board closer to 10:30pm (which was really closer to our initial arrival time in Beijing) and promptly prepared for taxi and takeoff around 11:10pm, so we didn’t arrive until 2:30am and didn’t get to the hotel until closer to 4am.

DAY TWO

We convinced our tour guide 小安 or Little An to give us an 8:30am start to the day, considering we got to the hotel at 4am. He was trying to get us to start at 6am, which none of us were having. Our guide was a surprisingly dorky 22 year old, not much older than I am, who just started working as a guide for 4-5 months.

Our first stop of the day was Tiananmen Square and getting to the place was surprisingly tricky, as the area is heavily guarded with security and contains many different above- and underground pathways. Surprisingly, tour groups get expedited access while other visitors have to wait on a much longer line and normally have to show identification and declare their reasons for visiting.

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The Square contains some notable monuments and buildings: the Monument to the People’s Heroes, The Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. Furthermore, Mao declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 in the Square, but Tiananmen Square is also more recently remembered as the site of the 1989 protests.

Standing in Tiananmen Square was kind of a weird experience and it was a pretty smoggy morning. I felt uncomfortable being in such a large open and flat space even though there were so many tourists streaming everywhere. I understood I was standing in a place with so much history, especially visiting just two days after the anniversary of the 1989 protests, yet I was ignorant to most of it. My mom told me what each of the structures stood for, but that was only scratching the surface of all that’s happened in the Square over the couple decades.

After taking ample photos, mostly of Tiananmen, we headed for the National Centre for the Performing Arts, which is colloquially described as a giant egg. The structure is a mix of glass and titanium, making it a rather beautiful structure to behold, in my opinion. There were ample galleries showcasing exhibits on pottery and the Centre’s own shows’ costumes, miniature set designs, and photos.

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We then headed back to the Forbidden City, which served as the Chinese imperial palace from 1420 to 1912 and now houses the Palace Museum. The size of the palace grounds (over 180 acres) and number of buildings (980) are absolutely massive. We ate lunch inside the Forbidden City before our guide took us on a 4-hour exploration of the complex.

Coming off a 2am flight, a 4-hour trek was the last thing I wanted to do. Somewhere between hour two and three, under the beating sun, I was already giving up on taking photos and really hating being there. The buildings were starting to look the same to me, and I was understanding none of the facts or stories Little An was telling and my mom was too preoccupied to constantly translate for me.

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For a pre-dinner snack, we stopped by Wangfujing, a very popular shopping area with many local brands and foods. We had about 30-40 minutes to explore the area and we toured the little snack street, eating takoyaki, dragon’s beard candy, and little baos. There were lots of seafood, like various squid dishes, and lots of fried scorpions and meat kebabs.

Little An had planned for us to watch a show, but with everyone complaining about how tired we were, he was able to postpone it and dropped us all off at the hotel at 6pm. We had independent dinner and evening time. After a bit of resting, my mom and I headed over to the street diagonally across the way with all the restaurants. We settled on a noodle shop where most bowls of noodles fell around 15 RMB (less than $2!). Probably the best meal I’ve had in while, just because I love spicy noodles.

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DAY THREE

Highlight of the day (and really the whole trip): The Great Wall of China!

Thank goodness for the early night the day before because we got going at 6am at our guide’s advice that it is best to get to the Great Wall as early as possible, mostly to avoid traffic and large amounts of tourists. Even though we arrived a little before 8am, I was still shocked at the amount of tourists already there and climbing the wall.

We visited the north section of Badaling, the most visited and best preserved section of the Great Wall. On site, we had the option of paying an extra 100 RMB per person for the sliding cars, which would take you straight to tower 4 and save you the climb from towers 1-4. With only two hours on the Wall, my mom paid for the ride, which I was later thankful for, so we could immediately get to the best views.

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It got harder to climb the closer we reached towers 7 and 8 because of the number of people and a little due to fatigue. It’s amazing how the steps become so deformed with millions of people walking on them each year. But the view and fresh mountain air were absolutely amazing.

Seriously, get to the wall as early as possible (as soon as it opens), because it starts filling up with people fast and doesn’t make the structure any easier to climb when you’re getting jostled on steep stairs and have to wait for people to pass on narrow pathways. It is also easier before the midday sun and heat hit.

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After meeting up with the rest of the group (albeit a half hour late), the guide took us to have an early lunch and got a scenic tour of the small villages at the base of the mountains while driving. We had lunch at a restaurant with food cooked “home-style” by local villagers. We then went cherry picking in what this woman called “her backyard.” There were dozens of cherry trees, planted in about 5 to 6 rows, and they were mostly picked clean already. Most of the remaining cherries sat at the very tops of the trees. Even though the cherries were overpriced at 30 RMB per kg, we picked some and bought them for the experience and to support local farmers.

We then returned to the city and went to see the Summer Palace, a collection of gardens and palaces within the landscape of Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake. It is recognized by UNESCO as “a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design” and I appreciated the various trees that dates back hundreds of years, as well as the lakefront views especially from the Long Corridor.

Later we visited Guozijian (国子监), which translates to School for the Sons of the State, and is also known as Imperial Academy or Imperial College. It dates back to 1306. During the ancient Chinese dynasties, Guozijians across the country served as the highest institutions of learning. The street on which is located also includes the second largest Confucian temple in China (we didn’t visit it). Guozijian Street, in its old Beijing alley style, is also designated as a historical site and is the only street to retain its archways.

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By the time we were done with everything, it was rapidly approaching 6pm, and we were all hungry. However, our guide said that citing delays in the day, we had to watch a theatrical performance before we would be able to get to our restaurant for dinner. The show was Chunyi: The Legend of Kungfu, which claims to have been in production for over a dozen years with thousands of performances. It tells the story of a young monk overcoming his ego to be a great kungfu master. The stunts were impressive and the show was overall entertaining, but I wouldn’t recommend it or declare it as a must-see. It was very much targeted for English-speaking viewers, as the whole show was narrated in English.

We finally got to eat at 9pm at a hot pot restaurant just a short drive away. Hot pot in the summer was just bizarre to me (given the fact that it’s hot), but it was happening. The specialty meat was lamb and there was an assortment of fish balls, veggies, and other sides. We gobbled up the food really quickly and I was even annoyed at the woman next to me who ended up hogging most of the choy for herself. I didn’t understand how everyone else felt satisfied while I was still hungry, but that was just something I was going to have to deal with until breakfast.

DAY FOUR

The next day was an independent travel day but with an option to pay for a guided tour of Tianjin, a nearby coastal city and the fourth biggest urban area in the country. The majority elected to go on this tour while a few others decided to explore Beijing on their own. We picked up a local guide called Little Yan and we immediately took a liking to her for her sweet voice, good humor, and expertise.

She explained some basic language customs of the city and its history, talking about its European influence which can be seen in some churches and neighborhoods. I really liked the look of the city center, especially with the Hai River cutting through. Little Yan took us to Tianjin’s Italian Style Town which dates back to early 1900s and further talked about the Italian influence and other facets of European history.

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Then we went to a mahua (麻花) specialty store, which sells fried dough twists that has been fried in peanut oil. It can be topped with various flavors, like cocoa, peanuts, and black sesame. Mahua is a classic Tianjin snack, so it was fun to see how they’re made and take some for the road.

We then walked to Guwenhua Jie or Tianjin’s Ancient Culture Street, whose architectural style dates back to the Qing dynasty, for a bit of browsing and shopping before lunch at another hot pot place.

After lunch we stopped by Memorial Hall to Zhou Enlai and Deng Yingchao, the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China for nearly 30 years and his wife, also a respected political figure within the Communist Party, respectively. As someone who doesn’t know much of China’s history, this short 30-minute visit was a little bizarre for me. It was definitely interesting to learn about the public reverence this man received in life and after death, for dedicating his life to his country and its politics. I find that it is rare for a political figure to be nearly so unanimously revered by the people.

From there, Little Yan took us on a driving tour through a historic residential district as she talked about its history and pointing out notable houses and residents. Many homes were under the protection of Chinese historical societies.

After we left Tianjin, we headed for dinner at a branch of the famous Quan Ju De (全聚德), which was established in 1864 and is known for its trademark peking roast duck. They paid to obtain the imperial recipe which they then used to sell roast duck to the masses. Unfortunately, I wasn’t too impressed with the duck or the food I had at the restaurant.

DAY FIVE

On our last day in the city, we left the hotel bright and early at 6:30am to visit the Temple to Heaven, an imperial complex of religious buildings. The emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties would visit the Hall of Prayers to pray for good harvests. The Circular Mound Altar was where emperors prayed for favorable weather and its circular shape contributes to its ability to echo, which was believed to enhance communication with the heavens. The park around the outside is very calming and because it’s free for seniors, very popular with the older crowd for morning walks and exercises.

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We then went to Gongwangfu (恭王府) or Prince Gong’s Mansion. It consists of siheyuan-style mansions and gardens which date back to 1777. We were passed off to a museum tour guide who had to direct 80 people throughout the grounds. I thought it was awful since half the time you could not hear what she was saying and she told off people for taking photos while she was speaking. She also brought us to various shops and took especially long at one that was selling prints of the character 福, meaning fortune. At Gongwangfu, there is a glass-encased stele of the character 福 which is based off of the Kangxi Emperor’s calligraphy. People can rub this (technically the glass exterior) for good luck.

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We then took a boat ride as a break for all the walking. It was much needed because next up were the Bell and Drum Towers, which date back to 1272 and were used for telling time and keeping people on schedule during the Han dynasty. We only ascended the Drum Tower, which was possible via a straight staircase with very steep and tall steps and left many people winded. In ancient times, there were 24 drums but only one remains, and it sits encased in glass with very tattered ox hide. We caught the 2:30pm drum performance before leaving. We then got a pedicab tour of the area and took in the old alleyways where many people still live.

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For lunch, we went to this secluded dumpling house located on what seemed to be a random alleyway. Before arriving, my mom was asking why our tour guide was taking us down such “sketchy streets” for lunch and on the side, judging him for never having been there. I was actually the one to spot it, as it had a shiny plaque on top of the doorway and looked more intriguing that most buildings we had passed. The inside of the restaurant was beautiful and cozy, like a little indoor garden paradise, and everyone else instantly felt at ease that we were not being lead somewhere dirty and cramped. We feasted on four platters of over 80 hand-wrapped dumplings and some side dishes.

After our bellies were satisfied from having such a late lunch, we made our way back out to the main road. We then drove on to Olympic Green, where the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games was held. Another local guide affiliate took us on a walking tour and explained the recent history of the Olympic area. He was the one to tell us about Beijing’s north-south or Central axis, on which many of the old city’s most notable structures are built on, because it extends to the Olympic park. We were able to see all the way across the city to the Bell and Drum Towers that we visited earlier in the day.

At the Olympic park, we took photos in front of the National Stadium or more commonly known as “Bird’s Nest” and Beijing National Aquatics Center or “Water Cube”. I thought the area could use more trees as the wide open space lets a lot of wind through and isn’t very pleasant for walking.

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We also took a brief museum tour about children who were sent to the countryside to work in the 1960s and 70s, which detailed conditions of daily life and tragedies. I didn’t understand much of it since there were zero English translations, although my mom explained her oldest brother was sent away for some years and conceptualized it for me in basic terms. The others also didn’t really understand why we were going on this look into history even though they remembered it as part of their families’ and country’s history.

Wrapping up our trip with Olympic park, we then headed to the airport for our flight back to Guangzhou, but en route, we found out it was canceled from one of the tourists’ drivers scheduled to pick her up later that night. When we got to the airport, our guide managed to reschedule the flights for the next morning at 7:35am, but neither the airline nor agency would be providing overnight accommodations. This last announcement created five hours of arguing and bad moods, culminating in an agreement on everyone paying out-of-pocket for a 170 RMB stay at a nearby hotel, which was rather gross but survivable.

My mom and I went out for dinner with two other people on our tour at 11pm. In the commotion, no one had the time to stop to think about food. We managed to find something to eat at a nearby strip of restaurants: some choy, dumplings, and noodles to hold us over until the next morning.

At 4am, we got out of bed to prepare to leave for the airport at 5am, when we heard lots of loud yelling in Cantonese out in the hall. It turned out to be our guide’s next group of tourists, who also had a delayed arrival like we did and were furious at their shitty hotel accommodation for the next four days. They apparently bought a lower-ended package (around 2000-2500 RMB) without realizing, I guess, what exactly they were paying for. My tour’s package was priced at 3800 RMB, although we paid 3200 RMB. I felt bad for our guide, who had to deal with two angry groups consecutively, especially with very little experience.

All in all, Beijing was an okay experience. I would return again for the friends I didn’t get to see and perhaps to see what the day-to-day life is really like there instead of just a tour of the imperial history and typical landmarks.

climbing the great wall and other challenges

that time i (sort of) went to shanghai

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I was halfway through writing a recap about my trip to Shanghai and nearby Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces before I truly discovered and realized the dark reality of the kind of shopping-centric tour my mom and I joined. I don’t look back on this trip fondly and instead it fills me with disappointment and absolute rage as I remember our naïveté. My only solace is that there are others like us on the tour and in the past and that our feelings can be shared with each other and with the world through writing and exposure.

Here is a recap of the mix of cultural and shopping related destinations on our week long tour with Tian Bao Travel and why I ultimately would advise against paying money for this bullshit.

SHANGHAI (上海)

Our first night in Shanghai was our only independent travel time, so my mom scheduled a meet-up with an old friend currently working in the city to take us around for a few hours. We explored Yuyuan Bazaar or Chenghuangmiao, which is the commercial area surrounding the City Temple of Shanghai. Of course, I had to get eat some xiao long bao (soup dumplings) and shengjian mantou (pan-fried baozi) while I was in Shanghai.

After eating a light dinner, we walked over to see the Bund at night, which is the classic tourist thing to do. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve seen it so many times over my friends’ Instagram accounts but I was a little underwhelmed. The thing that I noticed the most was the sheer number of people out and about Shanghai’s downtown at night. It’s seriously suffocating and Shanghai really takes the term crowded to a whole new level for me.

One of my favorite things to do in new cities is take their metro system, so I was happy we got to take the train to a stop closest to the hotel and then a taxi back. Watching the hundreds of people pay for tickets, enter and exit the station, and walking to and from was a whole new experience. People are ruthless when it comes to getting on and off trains. In the few days I’ve been in China, I’ve learned to enter and exit trains with purpose and speed or else you’ll just get shoved aside.

The next morning we met up with our tour group in the lobby and then the 38 of us set out to the city. We ended up visiting Yuyuan Bazaar and the Bund again, neither of which is as exciting in the daylight in my opinion. We only had about half an hour at each location, so we were both glad we went the night before on our own time and being able to thoroughly enjoy them.

HANGZHOU (杭州)

After lunch in Shanghai, we headed to a latex foam mattress showplace and factory for Sealy and with their own products labeled Artiflam. We witnessed the salesperson test the elasticity of a cheaper Costco brand and their brand’s using eggs and dropping a weight on them. The egg broke between the Costco brand, but not for their brand. We even went as far as having a tourist volunteer to put their arm in between two of their pillows and have a weight drop on it (naturally, his arm was fine). Then we as a group spent two and a half hours testing and buying mattresses and pillows, as well as talking to the multiple salespeople in the room.

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From there, we got to Hangzhou and picked up our local tour guide, who would be spending the next day showing us around the city and explaining the culture. Our cultural destination for the day was City God’s Pavilion. We got to the top just a little after sunset and from the third floor, we had a sweeping view of the mountains and West Lake.

On the morning of our third day, our first destination was a teahouse. We learned about what kinds of health benefits longjing tea provides and what conditions produce high quality tea leaves. I was told tea leaves picked in March produce the highest quality tea, while April tea leaves produces the next best quality and is often most common. They cautioned against tea leaves picked in May and anytime after.

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A popular thing to for many people to do in China is infuse bottled water or boiled tap water with tea leaves and other ingredients to make the water taste better. The saleslady showed us that supposedly you can tell what tea leaves are organic by spinning your water bottle and see if the bubbles produced will defuse quickly or not. If the bubbles stay, that means there were pesticides added and therefore not organically grown. I don’t know if there’s any truth to her words.

I was disappointed we didn’t get to tour the tea fields, even though I wasn’t expecting us to. The teahouse was set in the middle of terraced hills cultivated to grow tea leaves. The rolling countryside looked so beautiful. After we ate lunch and dropped off our local guide in the city, we drove on to Wuxi.

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WUXI (无锡)

After lunch, we visited this CCTV period drama filming set and amusement park-type place, where we took a 20-minute boat excursion on Lake Taihu and then watched a 15-minute imperial period military performance.

The next morning, our first stop was a pearl jewelry corporation. I learned that it’s possible for humans to raise clams to produce pearls, although they are valued much less than pearls produced in the wild. I even got to see what it’s like to harvest pearls from a clam, as one of the sales associates cracked a clam open as part of the demonstration.

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While in Wuxi, we also visited Shuaiyuan Redware Museum, which is dedicated to the local craftsmanship of yixing clay teapots, but is also a commercial demonstration store. Yixing clay is also known as zi sha and has been in use since as early as the Song dynasty (10th century). Teapots made from this clay have very special characteristics, including its porous nature and mineral content which enable them to retain the taste of the specific tea variety used with them after a long period of time. Such teapots can range from a few dozen yuan to hundreds of thousands of yuan, and its value depends on the type of clay, artist, and style among other factors.

Fine craftsmanship of a zi sha teapot is demonstrated how the water flows out of the pot and its proportions. Is the water a continuous stream? Can the flow be stopped by plugging a small hole? Does the lid fit perfectly? It was pretty exciting to see the demonstrations and to read about the history of yixing clay and pottery.

NANJING (南京)

We had a long drive to Nanjing after the morning shopping spree and lunch and picked up our local tour guide for the day and a half. Late in the afternoon we arrived at Purple Mountain or Zhongshan Mountain National Park, which contains four famous scenic areas and is known for being enveloped by purple clouds during dawn and dusk. We visited Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum where Sun Yat-sen, who is considered the founder of the Republic of China, is buried. It’s located on the second peak of Purple Mountain and it takes 394 steps to get up there, but the view is stunning and there is so much cultural significance in the whole park. Unfortunately we only had 30 minutes to walk there and back to the meeting point, so I didn’t get to enjoy the view for too long.

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After dinner, we went to see the nightlife in the city near Nanjing Fuzimiao, which literally means Confucian Temple, and is located on the banks of the Qinhuai River. We had about half an hour to explore the dining and shopping streets. I opted to get a large xiao long bao with crab meat because it came with a straw and looked fun.

The next morning our first shopping stop was a jade store called Tian Fu Jewelry. We learned about different types of jade and some signs for distinguishing real from fake, including the way it sounds and how it scratches glass. Like all the other shopping destinations, we spent about 2-3 hours in this shop.

We also went to “reverse glass painting” or “inner painting” artwork showcase, which was being hosted in one of the towers of Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge. Inner painting is a complex Chinese art form which involves elaborate pieces of art being painted inside glass bottles. Due to the strain on the eyes, given the fine brush marks and small viewing hole, many masters retire as early as the age of 50. Chang Feng‘s art was on display and his pieces went from 300 RMB to a few thousand. The artist was also in residence working periodically on a small flask-shaped bottle during the duration of our visit.

SUZHOU (苏州)

In Suzhou, we had another local tour guide who took us on a boat tour when we arrived, as the city is famous for its canals, stone bridges, and pagodas. Afterward we went to see the city skyline on the bank of Jinji Lake. One of the most famous buildings is Gate to the East, which was just recently completed in 2016, and can be seen to the left of the picture below. We were also able to see the sunset and that had everyone oo-ing and ah-ing. Two people were even getting their wedding photos done on the lakeside.

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The next morning we visited a silk store where we were advertised silk blankets and bedding, as well as scarves and other articles of clothing. It was so hectic since our tour guide kept rushing shoppers and only bringing out limited numbers of products for people to choose from. She really made it seem like people had to buy them now or regret it later.

SHANGHAI AGAIN

We returned to Shanghai for lunch and then set off for our second jade stop of the week, called Tian Mai Jewelry. I wrote a separate more detailed post about the exploitation of foreign shoppers that happens within this store. This stop ultimately ruined the trip for me, as I am still reeling at how complicit so many people can be (our tour guide, the sales associates, the “CEO”) in misleading shoppers and grossly marking up prices.

We also made a stop at a place specializing in Chinese medicine, where we also received foot baths and massages. Eastern medicine doctors gave interested people consultations about their health and then made recommendations for medicinal packages, which turned out to be another low-key scam situation. My mom talked about how sometimes she gets bruising and swelling on her legs (due to insufficient exercise and other issues) and the doctor recommended medicine that would cost 900 RMB a month for an unspecified length of time. Thankfully my mom didn’t take the bait on this one, knowing how the effects of medicine must be evaluated over a long period of time and requires constant consultation and conversation with the doctor.

After dinner, we made our final stop of the trip by seeing an acrobatic show and “multimedia spectacular” called ERA: Intersection of Time. Acts included a man balancing on a board on top of a rolling cylinder while flipping bowls onto his head, women doing tricks on bicycles, a man throwing a large porcelain vase and being able to catch it on top of his head, men doing tricks on a spinning giant wheel with three smaller wheels attached, and motorcyclists within a gated sphere. I fell asleep multiple times during the second portion after intermission, mostly because it was bedtime (9pm lol) and less because of a lack of interest.

THE VERDICT

I did feel like I gained some cultural exposure on this trip by learning about tea, yixing clay, and inner painting, as well as visiting Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum. There were things that I would not have experienced on any other kind of tour or even of my own discovery, like seeing the inside of a pearl-producing clam. For a $50 USD base fee, we did a lot, ate a lot, and slept well (usually at least 4 star hotels but one night was pretty awful).

However, the fact that it was a shopping-centric tour really kills it for me. Despite being told we were getting special deals and great discounts, we were often paying market price and more for products. Furthermore, we would be stuck at locations for 2-3 hours until people bought enough to satisfy the corporations. In contrast, we would spend about a half hour at scenic destinations. Of course, I didn’t know what I was going to be in for since my mom made the travel arrangements. I don’t even know if her travel agent or friends who advised her “see but not buy” understand how fucked up the sales strategies and set-ups are.

For people looking to save a few hundred bucks on airfare to China, this kind of tour is usually a recommended remedy. I say just pay the few hundred bucks and save yourself from shopping-induced heartache and not being fulfilled on a trip. Join a real tour that will take you on the fun destinations and let you spend more than 30 minutes there. You usually get what you pay for, so at least make sure your hard earned money is going to reputable sources and supporting the right organizations and people.

I look forward to going back to Shanghai in the future and actually seeing the city by traveling independently. I want to enjoy the recommendations my friend kindly sent to me from her time abroad and more importantly, visit Disneyland.

that time i (sort of) went to shanghai

no such thing as a free lunch

“It’s so difficult, isn’t it? To see what’s going on when you’re in the absolute middle of something? It’s only with hindsight we can see things for what they are.” ― S.J. Watson

Money saved sometimes can still lead to money lost or wasted, and that’s how my mom and I learned that the hard way during our week long tour through Shanghai and nearby Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces.

Tian Bao Travel offers incredibly cheap tour packages to former Chinese citizens who now reside in the US, Canada, and Australia. These “government sponsored” “Beautiful China” tours take Chinese ex-pats and their families across China, hitting up cultural destinations, but the real focus is on the mattress, tea, pearl, jade, and silk factories. No doubt our tour leader and local tour guides make commission on every sale made, so naturally there is aggressive advertising before we get to the locations and spectacular exhibitions by the companies on location.

For about $800-900 USD per person, it covered two round trip fares (New York to Guangzhou and Guangzhou to Shanghai). Buying this package saved $600 USD per person for airfare and the Shanghai tour itself cost about $50 USD, which includes hotel, transport, and most meals. People wet met who were only flying round-trip from cities in Canada paid anywhere between $150 to $500 Canadian dollars. From the sound of it, you probably think: what a steal! Again, as a tour that focuses primarily on shopping for expensive goods, this is a dangerous bargain, as tourists are unwittingly being swindled.

How? These factories that we are taken to cater almost exclusively to Chinese ex-pats and other international travelers. There has to be some reason why domestic travelers steer clear, and that’s because the prices they advertise are not as great of deals as they want you to believe. This is a Reddit thread that I found detailing the psychology behind successful scams in China. These are all strategies I encountered at every sales destination, and realizing how easily employees can tempt people make me a little sick. While I’m not claiming we have been sold fake products, I am doubtful that we paid a reasonable price for most, if not all, of our goods.

How we also got scammed in Shanghai

The worst part of this tour was the last day and one of our last stops at Tianmai Jewelry. where a handful of us were duped into buying products whose prices were grossly marked up. A little bit of internet search at the time would have led me to this Medium article, How We Got Scammed out of $100,000 in Shanghai. That “CEO” played my tour group nearly the exact same way as he did two years ago: giving away jade coins, taking us into the VIP room and showing us products from the vault, talking about how hard it is to earn money, and playing into my mother’s heart and grabbing thousands of dollars.

The CEO showed my mom a pair of twin jade pendants that he was planning to bring to an exhibition but would instead sell to us at a discounted price AND gift us a set of dark green jade pendants with gold animal zodiac signs. The sales associate assisting was on point with his acting, asking how the CEO can so “foolishly” throw away profits like that. How could we even question the expertise and generosity of this CEO? Knowing my mom wasn’t able to pay completely upfront, I tried to dissuade her with no luck and part of me began doubting my own suspicions. Maybe this guy was that “generous.” What makes me even more mad is that David, the writers’ tour guide, was also my tour guide, and he’s been disgustingly complicit for a number of years.

The suspicion of foul play was initially brought up by M, a fellow tourist we befriended shortly after leaving Tianmai. How could so many people have gotten such a good deal on the jade pendants and other jewelry? But the conversation and mounting heartbreak really started between my mom and K, another person we befriended on the tour, at the airport when our flights were delayed for hours. K insisted that we had been victimized and who even knew whether the jade pieces we bought were even real. She said she would get them appraised as soon as she got to Guangzhou and encouraged us to do the same. The night we came back from Shanghai I searched online and I found the above articles and more scam stories, making the hole in my stomach widen even more, and couldn’t sleep until the middle of the night.

the aftermath

The next morning, with a local friend of my mom’s, we found Guangdong Geology, which is a government agency that examines precious gemstones and metals. The man confirmed that the twin jade pendants we bought were, in fact, real and the zodiac pendants were not worth much money, although the sales associate and CEO insisted that the set of 12 (which we were gifted with the purchase of the two jade pendants) was worth enough to be an asset to be passed on for generations. Unfortunately, he did not do monetary appraisals, but he did engage in general conversation about value. We told him how much we paid for everything and although he did not verbally or physically react, I believe I saw shock pass through his face, indicating that we grossly overpaid.

Because we determined that the pendants were real, my mom decided there was not much else we could do, as it is not quite a crime to overcharge as it is to complete fraud by selling quartz as jade. Another strategy was to prove that we were sold products that we did not agree to, meaning that there was a switch, and there very well might have been because we did not take the pendants with us when we went to pay. But my mom was resigned and so was I, a little bit.

Few were tech savvy enough to do sufficient research on the merits of such a tour. Even those who have gone on this type of tour before were too timid (or self interested?) to warn their fellow travelers. But even more despicably, they were actively advised against interfering with sales by David, our guide.

I was one of the three youngest people on this tour. One was a six year old boy and the other was an 18 year old from Canada, who I conversed with about the aftermath of this tour. But he, too, went with his mom to get the jade necklace they bought at a different store on the tour appraised and found they overpaid by 2000-3000 RMB. It only makes me wonder how much we were tricked out of at Tianmai.

lessons learned

If you think something is too good to be true, it probably is.

I hope this post can serve as a warning to those who are looking to, or whose parents are, join a cheap Chinese tour like with Tian Bao. I beg of you to not pay money for this kind of shopping tour, as it is a disgrace to China and all of the meaningful cultural experiences you can have on a real tour. If you’re looking to save money, you will get what you pay for, and I hate to have even more people deceived by companies and people looking to make quick profits.

If you’re interested about what we did on the tour, please read the complementary post here.

no such thing as a free lunch

mad scientists converge

About a month ago I attended the March for Science sister rally in Boston Commons which drew a crowd that was estimated to be upward of 30,000 people. Falling on Earth Day, MFS was designed to rally public support for science funding and research as well as using science as a foundation for policymaking. Additionally, MFS called for greater communication between scientists and the public, so that information is disseminated, learned, and expanded upon. In the light of our current administration’s stance on matters of science and education, MFS and its sister rallies were sorely needed to reaffirm and celebrate the value of scientific knowledge and exploration.

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The administration’s stance on science, environmental health, and healthcarejust to name a few areas of concernis deeply worrisome to me. With their proposed rollbacks on funding of the National Institute of Health, dissolving of key science advisory councils, repeal of the Affordable Care Act, reversals of environmental protection policies, and more, I am scared for the magnitude of the damage being done. Is profit enough to justify destroying our natural parks and environmental resources for resources and taking away healthcare for millions of people?

I don’t think so, and I struggle sometimes to understand why our politicians and fellow citizens are in favor of harmful policies for short-term gains. I acknowledge that there is room for debate in many policies, but ultimately, spite should not be a motivating factor for enacting change.

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The rainy/cloudy, cold April afternoon was a reminder of all the good there is in our communities. Boston’s MFS included a robust list of speakers as well as an area for children. Being that Boston is a hub for some of the country’s greatest universities, healthcare centers, research headquarters, and companies, there was amazing support from universities, professionals, educators, and other community members. MFS’ welcoming attitude for children also coincides with the emphasis that science serves to benefit everyone, especially the youngest of the population. One of my favorite parts of the speeches were the essays from different age groups. The winning writers read their pieces about the importance of science and realities of climate change. It was just so heartwarming to hear from children as young as 6.

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There were many fun signs and sobering messages supporting the existence of climate change, vaccinations and the elimination of deadly diseases, and value of extraterrestrial exploration. The rally was really positive with good vibes, and I hope things like this continue to inspire people and provide motivation to keep fighting. There remains a lot to be done to push back against harmful policies, improving the state of our government, and fixing bipartisanship.

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I will leave off here with the picture of Rosie, the greyhound, and her owner’s very clever handkerchief, which reads: “Pavlov? It rings a bell.”

mad scientists converge

a weekend in cleveland

Cheap flights are both a blessing and a curse because while I get to travel for very low prices, I also find myself agreeing to wake up at ungodly hours (or sometimes, not going to sleep at all) and that makes me feel pretty shitty physically. This past week, I found myself hopping on a 6:35am flight to visit one of my oldest and best friends, Mandy, in Cleveland, Ohio.

THURSDAY

On my first day, many of Mandy’s friends asked me why I was in Cleveland. It’s not exactly the destination most people have in mind when they make travel plans for spring break, so the confusion was understandable. The irony was also not lost on them as I joked about leaving my school just to attend another school. With a cup of mocha iced coffee in hand, I even dutifully followed Mandy to two of her three classes. That was also where I was introduced to two of her mentors and professors, Tony Jack and Insoo Hyun, who specialize in neuroscience and philosophy and bioethics and stem cell research ethics, respectively.

Professor Hyun’s lecture of the day was on human biomaterials procurement, discussing the principles of procurement and payment models. I learned that only two states in the U.S. provide compensation (getting paid in addition to reimbursements) for women who voluntarily donate eggs to research. That’s pretty shocking to me, considering the time and physical burdens that women have to undertake to do this. The lecture was phenomenal, simply because he made everything really easy to understand and I was just really interested in the topic.

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Afterward, we ate lunch at a restaurant on campus called Michelson and Morley and the name is a homage to the 1887 experiment that occurred on campus. It lead to physicist Albert Michelson winning the Nobel Prize and laid the groundwork for Einstein’s theory of relativity. The more you know.

The food at Michelson and Morley is locally sourced and has rotating seasonal menus. Don’t be fooled by the fancy interior because the food is relatively affordable. We shared the flat bread with duck confit, fontina, picked red onion, roasted pear glaze, and arugula. Not going to lie, I drooled a little while eating. For our main dishes, I had the burger (with pimiento cheese, bread and butter pickles, and lettuce on a brioche bun) while Mandy ordered the chicken Milanese (topped with fried egg, arugula, sundried tomato aioli, and pancetta on an onion roll). The herb fries on the side were amazing, as was everything else, and surprisingly I demolished my whole plate.

After that, we walked off our food babies by taking a tour through campus and killed a bit of time until the Food Week keynote lecture on “The New American Food System” by Warren Taylor, founder of Snowville Creamery. As per the event description, it focused on the differences between “extractive” and “restorative” forms of agriculture and how consumers, animals, and the environment can stand to benefit from a return to sustainable production. Taylor was quite the interesting character and I gained a bit of insight into what a sustainable form of dairy farming could look like.

Later in the night for dessert, Mandy took me to Mitchell’s Ice Cream, which sources their ingredients from local family farms and uses local grass-fed dairy. I picked their banana cream pie which includes fresh banana ice cream, homemade marshmallow ribbon, and homemade shortbread crust. Very low-key banana flavor and I think the shortbread is the real winner. She had the fresh strawberry. I can definitely see how Mitchell’s is a must when visiting Cleveland.

FRIDAY

We kicked off the late morning (really noontime) by heading over to Cleveland Museum of Art, which is internationally renowned for its diverse art collection and is amazingly at the doorstep of Case’s campus. The museum’s motto is, “For the benefit of all people, forever.” True to its words, the museum’s main exhibitions are free to all visitors (!!!). One of my favorite collections was their Egyptian wing. I spent a bit of time admiring the art on the sarcophagus. CMA also has quite a bit of post-Impressionist art, even their own Monet Water Lillies, as well as contemporary art, such as Picasso and Warhol.

CMA also currently has a photography exhibition called Black in America: Louis Draper and Leonard Freed, which I found really both stunning and powerful. It was definitely one of the exhibits I spent the most time in. Both photographers showcased the life and challenges of being black in America, especially throughout the Civil Rights era, through portraiture and street photography. From the CMA website: “Both artists were incredibly talented formalists who put that skill at the service of expression. They also shared a goal: to create dignified depictions of African Americans that portrayed them not as victims or heroes but as individuals.”

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Then we met up with Mandy’s friend, Garretson, to take the bus into downtown for lunch. The HealthLine is a free public bus service that runs along Euclid Avenue, the main street, for 6.8 miles in the city. They took me to Barrio, a taco restaurant, where you get to build your own tacos. Mandy described it as “Chipotle but for tacos”, but that does not encapsulate the experience at all. You get to pencil in your selections on a paper menu and the tacos start as cheap as $3 a pop. And they are not tiny whatsoever! I’m used to tacos that can fit in the palm of my hand, but Barrio tacos are no joke. I only wish I took more appetizing photos of my meal. I’m still thinking about the queso and the double soft and hard shell tacos. Sigh.

We then stopped into the Arcade, a Victorian-era structure from 1890. It is one of the earliest indoor shopping malls in the U.S. Some of the upper floors today function as part of the Hyatt Regency Hotel while the lower ones remain commercial and open to the public.

SATURDAY

Getting out of bed Saturday morning was a struggle because Mandy’s sorority formal was the night before and we went to sleep pretty late. The first thing on the agenda was the West Side Market, the oldest publicly owned market in Cleveland. There’s fresh produce, meats, cheeses, sweets, and many other things for sale in the bustling hub.

One place that caught my eye was Euro Sweets because they had the most stunning array of European treats. I got the dobos torte (so good!) and a selection of their macarons (get the earl grey). The unexpected discovery was Czuchraj Meats, which sells homemade smoked meats and has pretty famous beef jerky. One of the employees was super friendly and engaged us in conversation after seeing us try to take a picture in front of the stall. He gave us some beef jerky samples and enticed us enough to buy some jerky and smokeys (akin to Slim Jims). I highly recommend the jalapeno smokey (which actually drew the attention of TSA officers when I went through security the next day).

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Garretson picked us up from the Market and drove us down to see Free Stamp, an outdoor sculpture located in Willard Park. Thanks to Garretson for lending a knee to help me get up onto the sculpture. Mandy and I spent an embarrassingly long amount of time just sitting on the grass contemplating how to get on it while he went to find parking. As such, Mandy wouldn’t let us leave until I got on the sculpture and took some photos.

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For dinner, we headed off to Boiling Seafood Crawfish. Who knew you could find a Cajun-Creole place that sells seafood by the bag in Cleveland? We went for the Ultimate Experience, which included a pound of crawfish, a pound of shrimp, andouille sausages, half a pound of clams, half pound of snow crab, two corns, two potatoes, and a side of calamari. We went with the cajun sauce and a mild spicy level. So good and just the right amount of spice.

There’s definitely something fun and social about coming together over a bag of seafood. I’ve never cracked open crawfish before- definitely interesting to see what’s inside (it’s like a mini lobster). It was a really mouthwatering meal and I can’t wait to do it again.

After dinner, we drove over to Wade Lagoon, which is one of Garretson’s favorite spots near campus. We caught a little bit of light just before the sun fully set and had some fun shooting photos through the cherry blossom trees.

We finished off the night with Belgian waffles and ice cream at Garretson’s apartment with good vibes and good conversations. I napped on and off until I had to leave at 4am for my flight (brutal).

Thanks for a great time, Cleveland. You were a pleasant surprise and delight.

a weekend in cleveland