Tuesday, 31 August 2010

China - The first beer festival

Day 18

Hello everyone!

A 75 minute morning flight took me to my final port of call on the wonderful and enlightening adventure. The flight was short - the bus from the airport to town was longer - but I was a world away from the glitz of Shanghai.

Qingdao is a popular tourist spot for the Chinese, particularly people from Beijing wanting to spend some time at the beach. Internationally, it holds a different allure - it is the home of Tsingtao, China's national beer. Those who know me understand which of the two aspects I held in higher regard.

When planning the trip, Qingdao was always in my mind - mainly because you can get the ferry back to Korea - but I struck gold whilst researching. In the final two weeks of August, Qingdao plays host to a massive beer festival. Jackpot.

I had one day in Qingdao, and my one day was going to be spent drinking beer. I persuaded three other people from my hostel - a Finnish guy who spoke Chinese, and two Germany girls - to join the party. After I briefly fell asleep in the common room, we got lunch and were soon on our way.

Well, we tried. There are not enough taxis in China, but the problem was especially bad here. We tried to flag down a taxi outside a hospital. The German girls pushed their way into a taxi at the expense of a tired-looking young woman...holding a tiny baby. British manners took over, and we eventually found another cab. Beer festival HO!!!!!

It is a strange sight. It resembles a fairground. The German girls were instantly disappointed - it was no Oktoberfest, after all. The idea of festivals like this is that there are various tents, each sponsored by a different brewery, and you sit down and...drink. Our first port of call was the Krombacher tent. Another thing I didn't expect was the volume - each tent had a stage, and each stage had very loud shows on throughout the day and night.

The Krombacher tent had some interesting shows. Initially, a group of Chinese girls singing a random Chinese song...before breaking out into 'Wannabe' of Spice Girls fame. They were followed by a random guy, who we didn't think was anything special. That was until we saw the screens behind him blowing his trumpet. He seemed to be on a familiar television show. It looked awfully like the set to...Pop Idol?! Naturally, we then assumed this guy won ChinaIdol sometime. Bit of a crossroads in his career, this festival.

We moved on to the big one - the Tsingtao tent. It was packed, so we were ushered to a table to sit next to a group of Chinese guys. There were very few foreigners visible, but we had expected this, and were keen to make some Chinese friends. To do this, you share your drinks. However, before we had even got halfway through our first beer at this tent, the Chinese guys next to us were pouring us beer. Not out of a glass. Not even out of a pitcher. Out of a PLASTIC BAG. It's how they do out here - locals buy Tsingtao in bags that you get in a supermarket. There were hooks on the underside of the tables to hold the bags. You can drink directly out of the bag - using a straw. Remarkable.

Also remarkable was the method of drinking adopted by the Chinese. They love to hit cups together, like many countries. Unlike many countries, doing this obliges you to finish your drink. This happened every two or three minutes, and was ultimately too much for the German girls to handle, so they left, citing the fact that they hadn't slept the night before. But me and my Finnish friend continued to drink at this rather rapid pace.

The sharing extends beyond drinking. On the other side of us were some university students, who gave us lots of beer and...ostrich meat. Really tasty stuff, albeit with too many herbs on it. We were in another tent for a bit before leaving - something I don't remember doing. The next day was spent being hungover and trying to find my boat.

Love you all


Monday, 30 August 2010

China - The first world EXPO

Day 17

Hello everyone!

'In terms of social and economic importance, the world EXPO is the third-largest event in the world, after the Olympics and the World Cup.'
'70 million people will visit the EXPO in Shanghai.'
Make no mistake folks, this thing is huge. I spent 12 hours at the site - many spend three or more days. I saw 22 pavilions in total, so will try to make this as concise as possible. Though that's not something I'm normally good at...

Upon getting through the gates at 9.30am I sprinted straight to...a water fountain. 36'C was the temperature they were announcing over the tannoy, and I'm not sure if this is worth dying for. The lines for each pavilion were rumoured to become quite large - and having seen the Saudi Arabian line at 9pm, I can believe that an 8 hour queue does exist - I opted to hit out the big European pavilions ASAP, before the lines became unbearable.

(1) Denmark - wait a minute, since when was the land of bacon a big gun? Since they brought the famous mermaid statue over, that's when. It's smaller than I thought - the rest of the pavilion was poor.

(2) France - a five minute queue allowed me to see a lot, including paintings by Frenchmen such as Millet, Monet...and Van Gogh?? And a funky robot.

(3) Spain - a lot of hype about this one, so I was glad for only a 20 minute line. Awesome video with sexy Spanish dancer in front of it. She pulled a fan from her cleavage, which was...artistic. No idea about the giant baby, though.

(4) Italy - my longest wait of the day, at 45 minutes. It was too much for some - two people behind me started fighting. Chinese people don't know how to queue. It was worth the wait - a Ferrari, Max Biaggi's bike, floating chairs and an orchestra sticking out of a wall. Never seen so many types of pasta in my life.

(5) Africa - many countries are too small to have their own pavilion, so are clumped together. Most of these were of little interest. Highlights were Burundi, which had awesome pottery and drums; Eritrea, a colourful pavilion with a giant camel (not real) and million-year-old skull (real); and Cameroon, which had a virtual penalty shootout machine. Scored one, missed one. Interesting drum show as well.

(6) South Africa and (7) Argentina were average so, after aborting any attempt to get into the USA pavilion, I headed for (8) Brazil. The fifteen minute line was fun and disgusting in equal measure - from a girl squatting in an empty, but very public, part of the line to a clown making balloons for people. But the inside, with great videos, touch screens and sports balls as the ceiling, was one of my favourites.

(9) Canada was good - I was going to go on the exercise bike but was interrupted by two exciteable girls wanting a picture with me - as was (10) Mexico, which was filled with artefacts and funny masks. Whilst there I got talking to a French family, and we headed for another pavilion with a lot of hype.

You can get into your own country's pavilion without queueing if you show your passport. I tried to get 'la famille' into the (11) UK pavilion on my ID, but no luck. They didn't miss anything. All it was was seeds in acrylic rods. At least I didn't queue. They also had an image of Cardiff's greenery - I insisted on the security guard taking the photo for me.

After speedily seeing the (12) Caribbean, (13) Croatia and (15) Slovenia, interspersed with an opera show in (14) Austria, I headed to the Asian zone. The line for (16) Australia moved quickly, and it was the most fun and vibrant pavilion I saw. There was a moving screen theatre show which was very impressive. We also got a great view of Lupu bridge, lit up like a rainbow bursting across the river.

From this point, time was against me. Decent pavilions were seen at (17) the Philippines and (18) Malaysia - the latter having excellent satay - before heading to my final important destination - (19) South Korea. The lines were huge for this all day, but I had a trick up my sleeve. Not a passport, but my ARC foreigner's card. And a smile. 'An-nyong-ha-se-yo', I say as I present my card. She says something back in Korean. I smile. She looks around, and then opens the fence! Well played, 매트.

Unlike Britain, the queue jump got me into a great pavilion. The design was slick, the girls looked like Korean Air stewardesses - a very good thing - and there was loads to see and do. More than (20) Uzbekistan and (21) Iran. The latter had a message from 'Dr Ahmedinijad, respected President', which made me chuckle.

Time for one more. What better way to finish than with...(22) North Korea! I quite liked it actually, good aesthetics. There was so much more I wanted to see. Some lines were obscene - I aborted attempts for Russia, India and the USA, and didn't even get to the Middle East. It is an exhausting day - there are so, so many people - but totally worth a visit. Two beers and out - and onto my final destination in the morning!

Love you all


China - The first Xiaolongbao

Day 16

Hello everyone!

I arrived in Shanghai at 10.30am after a somewhat uneventful 18 hour train from Hong Kong. The pace of my trip quickens somewhat from this point. Tomorrow's schedule was occupied by one attraction - the world EXPO - so I had this day to see as much of Shanghai as possible. 3...2...1...GO!

My first port of call was a quirky one, and not one that is high on the list of most tourists, but it was of great interest to me. I went into an innocent, communist-style apartment block in the suburbs of the French Concession and headed down to the basement. What I found was the wonderful Propaganda Poster museum.

After Deng Xiaopeng became leader in 1979, many items of Chinese propaganda were destroyed. Of the few items that survived this cull, many are located in this museum, and it is a fascinating insight into the thoughts of Chinese leaders during the Cold War era.

As you would expect, there is a lot of positivity for Mao and his ideas depicted in these posters. Some of the quotes about harmony and success were cute and hilarious in equal measure. As you would expect, there are also a lot of anti-imperial, anti-American posters. What I didn't expect were posters promoting the Black Power movement, and Egypt's right to the Suez Canal. The latter example shows that Britain was not immune to criticism.

As a Politics and Modern History graduate and someone with a keen interest in the Cold War, this exhibition really appealed to me. I could have stayed for hours, but there was a lot more to see. Shanghai is bigger than London. After walking through the beautiful French Concession - like in Beijing, parts of Shanghai feel like a European suburb - I went to Yuyuan bazaar, on a tip from a girl on the train. I was after a very famous food - xiaolongbao.

The place that sells these pork and crabmeat dumplings is a Shanghai institution, which explained the frighteningly long queue for the takeaway booth. 30 minutes later and I was holding a precious tray of sixteen xiaolongbao. Five minutes later I was holding an empty tray - all I'd had the previous 24 hours was banana bread, so I was in no mood to savour them. They were fantastic, though.

Gluttony over, I headed to Shanghai's piece de resistance - the Bund. Like your standard promenade; but with historic European architecture on your side of the Huangpu River, and crazy Chinese skyscrapers on the other. It was a beautiful stroll. I then hopped on a ferry to the other side, Pudong, to get a close-up view of China's tallest building, the Shanghai World Financial Centre. It's the one with the big hole in it. Feng shui, maybe.

I went to a slightly smaller tower, the Jinmao Tower, to get a night view of the skyline. A mere 88 floors. In spite of what I was told when trying to buy a ticket, it was a clear view. I would have been more impressed it I had seen this before Hong Kong, but it was still decent.

I've been very impressed by Shanghai, and wish I had longer to explore more of it. I still have one more day, of course, but only one thing is happening tomorrow - EXPO!

Love you all


China - The first dim sum

Day 14

Hello everyone!

No sex in our room - Kelly glared at the American to warn him off it for a night - so we were feeling fresh, even though Esther and I had been up until almost 2am. We were also excited for our breakfast.

Dim sum is a Hong Kong specialty, and is globally famous. In spite of these two factors, I had absolutely no idea what it was. I was eager to know, so people opting not to explain it to me left me entering the fancy, traditional restaurant with a blank mind.

I left with a blank mind. It is difficult to explain, and was all a bit of a blur. Jade and her friend Valencia - who studies at Cardiff Uni?! - did all of the ordering. The all-Cantonese menu would have been an ordeal for us. Then dishes were brought out in random clusters, filling our table before filling our stomachs.

We got some strange stuff, but it was food we had sampled before - chicken foot, tripe et al. The shrimp dumplings were superb, even though we often lost its interior broth when we picked them up. The spring rolls were great as well. I, sometimes intentionally, kept dipping items in the wrong accoutrement, which wound Jade up to the tightest of coiled springs.

What was interesting was the fact that it was mostly older people eating dim sum. I don't know id there is a generation gap, but if there is then the younger ones are missing out on something special. Great stuff, even though I felt like I doubled my body weight in the process.

Jade and Val took off, and we headed over to Lantau Island to see the world's largest seated Buddha statue. To get to this you have to take a cable car, and it was at this juncture that we discovered that Matt has an issue with heights. Rocking the car and predicting when the cable would snap wouldn't help assuage his fears, but it had to be done. The views were pretty good.

Up top we got our first sight of the Buddha. We struck gold, as a show was about to begin. You know those uber-cool Shaolin monks? Yeah, them. Well, little versions of them, at least. It was quite probably the second coolest thing I've seen in China (nothing will top the Great Wall). Some of the gymnastics and use of weaponry was ridiculous. One guy did five backward headstands in a row. IN A ROW!! I can only just about do a forward roll! Amazing stuff.

We hiked up to the Buddha and had a peek around, before deciding to make the long journey back to Hong Kong Island. We had one final mission - Victoria Peak at night. A one-hour queue and ten minute tram ride later, and we were looking in awe at one of the most beautiful panoramas in the world.

It had been over 10 hours since we had last eaten, so we decided to splurge, and went to a restaurant which had a view of the harbour and Central below. Any notion of a tight budget disappeared at this moment, but it was worth it. Had my first fish and chips since coming to Asia as well, and that certainly didn't disappoint.

Matt and I went to the party district, Soho, afterwards. No, it's not the gay district like it is in London. However, like Soho in London people dress rather well. We were a bit out of place in our dirty shorts and flip-flops. We ended up going for a couple of drinks in one of the few bars that had no dress code or cover charge - an Irish pub playing classic Irish music such as...Akon. It was quiet though, so after a few games of Connect 4 - more pubs should have that as an option - we headed back.

I love Hong Kong. It is one of my favourites. But now it was time for me to go solo, and head back into the mainland of the PRC. Next stop - Shanghai.

Love you all


China - The first Bruce Lee statue

Day 13

Hello everyone!

Our leisurely morning was rudely interrupted by my realisiation that I had to collect my train ticket for Shanghai at least 24 hours before it departed. I thus bombed to the train station, and gave three different time and locations were I would try to meet the rest of the gang.

1.30pm at Stanley market - fail. Mainly because the bus ride was very long, but the beauty of the areas it passed through - particularly Repulse Bay - meant that I wasn't overly bothered. Hog Kong is so much more than skyscrapers and ships, and I love it more because of that.

I could have stayed at that market for longer, but had no desire to buy anything other than liquids. So onto location number two. Our hostel at 3pm - fail. Mainly because I didn't even try. Instead, I tried to intercept by heading straight to point three - Mong Kok station for 3.30pm.

We were heading there because - stay with this - Matt's brother used to study in Austria with a girl from Hong Kong called Jade, and she had agreed to meet us to give us a more authentic tour. I had her phone number, so waited at the station for a few minutes - looking for the big white guy - before realising I would have to pull out one of my favourite tricks - convincing a stranger to let me use their phone. It worked first time in Tokyo - it didn't here. The woman unconvincingly argued that her phone was blocked because she hadn't paid a bill. First man I tried? More than happy for me to call. I haven't seen such blatant sexism from women since my driving tests.

Mong Kok at 3.40 was thus a qualified success. Jade is younger than all of us, and to call her a bundle of energy would be a gross understatement. Girl of strong opinion, too, as we quickly discovered upon purchasing a Hong Kong favourite - the egg tart.

I mentioned that I used to sell these in Greggs. Wow, that's a lifetime ago. But these are different. They're served hot. I mention this subtle difference.
After briefly trying to convince her that there was nothing I could do about that - and that they do taste good cold - I ended up backing down. I had more pressing concerns, as my camera had finally gone to techno Heaven. For good, this time, as the lens gears broke.

I'm not going to criticise Jade; she was wonderful, both as a person and a guide. We were introduced to stinky tofu (nice), curried fish balls (very nice) and a market where you could actually bargain (very very nice). Korea football shirt for US$7 - yes please!

We walked through Hong Kong park for a while before arriving at the Avenue of Stars. This is like the Hollywood version, but for natives of Hong Kong - many of whom Jade didn't even know. We found Jackie Chan, found Bruce Lee, and found Chow Yun Fat. That was all we needed. The Bruce Lee statue was a bonus. I don't feel I did him justice with my kung fu kick, however.

From here, we could see the Symphony of Lights - this time with music. So much better with the audio supplement. We then went to get wontons in a 'famous' restaurant - like much of Asia, many places are famous for no reason - which also came with fish balls. And fish skin.

Balls were a theme of the food that night. Jade took us to a chain restaurant that sells mango - and not much else. We were ordered by our guide to try mango with rice balls. It was a good choice, though we were stuffed afterwards.

We dragged our weary bodies onto the tram and headed back to the hostel, safe in the knowledge that were picking up from where we left off in the morning, at least on the food front. Bring on the dim sum!

Love you all


Saturday, 28 August 2010

China - The first Symphony of Lights

Day 12

Hello everyone!

Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of China, yet it feels like you are stepping out of a LOndon train station. Initially we pegged it as a combination of three cities: San Francisco, for the hills, trams and coastal elements; London, for the street names and winding roads; and a major Chinese city, for the bustle and bright lights. However, I managed to work it out later in our stay. Hong Kong is Singapore's older brother; bigger, brasher and more adventurous.

I had three days in Hong Kong. Kelly and Matt had five, as their trip ended here before flying back to Seoul. We agreed that we would get every major aspect of Hong Kong covered before I left on the Saturday. It wasn't just the three of us this time, though. Kelly and I were very excited at the prospect of being reunited with Esther, a friend from our TEFL course and Kelly's housemate in Prague. She'd taken a couple of weeks off from studying in Melbourne to meet us. Via Bali, naturally. Lucky girl.

The first stop was the number one attraction - going up to Victoria Peak in the old tram. Well, it's quite modern thesedays, but quite a feat when it was first used in 1888. Before it was built, the posh Brits were carried up in cabins by the locals. Good old colonialism.

Even with a bit of cloud cover, the view was stunning. It is where the richest people live, so the apartments up top are pretty decent. But you don't go to the Peak to look up. You go to look down. The view of Central and the harbour is straight from a Hollywood blockbuster. I can see why so many movies are shot here now.

We hiked down from the top. Longer than we thought - probably because we arrived at a different exit to what we intended - it was nonetheless beautiful, especially the less developed southern part of Hong Kong island. Though the exit was wrong, we still found our next point of interest - the world's longest escalator!

What a let-down. And a lie - it's the world's longest 20+ escalators-in-a-row escalator. Not happy, though the sight of British food nearby made me happy. Less of that than I expected, actually.

Hunger was a constant theme of our waltz through the markets, which again seemed a bit of a disappointment - a lot of crap and not a lot of negotiating. The Shreddies monster was doing a number on our stomachs, so we dived into a local cafe. I ordered something I was surprised I was yet to sample - sweet and sour pork. Better than home, but not a meal to remember.

To get to this latest market we had crossed the harbour on the famous Star Ferry, and we did so again to return to Hong Kong Island. HK$2 is a bargain to ride that thing, but I guess some people use it to get to and from work. It is cool at night, something which I struggle to say about the Symphony of Lights, a light display using the skyscrapers - a symphony with no music is always going to be questionable.

Reading over this blog, Hong Kong seems like a bit of a disappointment. Far form it. In some cities I feel a natural connection - New York, Istanbul - and I feel this here. It's not always about the attractions - the vibe just seems right here, and I can't wait to go again tomorrow. Even after the lack of sleep from people having sex in our room all night.

Love you all