Racing Through China’s Cities

Posted by on Jun 15, 2013 in China, Featured | 1 comment

Our last stop in Asia before heading home for our first break in travel was China, so large geographically that you could combine all of the other Southeast Asian countries and it wouldn’t even touch the landmass of China. We only had 10 short days to see this gigantic country so we strategized to see the highlights and experience both cities and countryside. I have to admit that I liked the countryside better (nicer people and more beautiful). But the cities seem to really showcase who the country is today:  a splash of tradition and ancient sites with an emphasis on the new and modern. We started in the capital of Beijing, spent 48 hours in the flashy modern city of Shanghai, and ended in the chaotic, but thriving Hong Kong (who, just for the record, I am still not even sure that it actually is even considered China even after several Google searches).

Tianamen Square- Beijing

Tiananmen Square – Beijing

China is an interesting place. While it felt like one of the few truly modern countries that we visited in Asia, its people were surprisingly the most difficult to communicate with (in Beijing especially, very little English was spoken.) Based on our observations and what we have learned from friends living in China, the Chinese are extremely focused, if not obsessed, with being the biggest, best, and most advanced in the world. They build tall skyscrapers, are wildly competitive in business, and seem to know that they are poised to become an even bigger worldwide economic force. They also seem beyond strange to me as they can be very rough around the edges (spitting on the side of the road, yelling loudly, pushing to get in front of you) yet very timid at times. While Chinese culture can be quite conservative, it is also normal for men to walk around with their shirts halfway rolled up exposing their well-fed bellies….I still haven’t figured this one out (Are they hot? Have they just finished a huge meal and simply feel the need to give their stomach more room?) And for as civilized as I expected the country to be, I would be walking down the street to see a baby pooping on the sidewalk….the Chinese do not have their children in diapers. We learned the hard way that they instead clothe their babies in pants with a huge slit in the back and the kids go to the bathroom wherever they have the urge…on the side of the road, in a park, etc….WHAT!?! Yet, no matter how confused I may have been while traversing this nation, it is clear that there is a lot of ancient history, many significant sites, and countless things to experience.

Mike and Kat Great Wall of China

Great Wall of China

We began our whirlwind tour of China in Beijing. Upon arriving, I was immediately struck by how communist the city seemed. It was orderly, stark, and quiet.The architecture was drab and the pollution was so thick that the sun never seemed to come out. But being the capital city of China, we discovered that it had plenty to offer in terms of historical sites. We made the obligatory trip to the Great Wall, toured ancient monuments like the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the Summer Palace, and discovered an “off the tourist beaten path” bar and restaurant scene. The thing that baffled me about Beijing was the lack of English spoken.  When we went to a local restaurant to sample the famous Peking duck (which made Beijing worth the trip…delish!!!) our hotel insisted on writing our order down in Chinese characters to assure we could communicate with the wait staff. After easily traversing other countries during the past few months, we did not think we would need such hand holding.  But we quickly learned that without menu pictures or translations from the hotel, we would not be eating recognizable foods in Beijing.

Mike Summer Palace Beijing

Summer Palace – Beijing

After our historical jaunt in China’s populous (20 million people) capital, we flew to an even more populated (23 million people) Shanghai for two quick days. We took full advantage of having our friend, Brad, living in Shanghai to show us around. In direct contrast to Beijing’s monotonous architecture, Shanghai has one of the most impressive and iconic skylines I have ever seen. And I could not get over the drastic juxtaposition between old and new.  Mike and I would find ourselves weaving through old streets lined with small fruit stands, old bicycles, and locals selling steamed dumplings and forget we were in such a massive metropolis. One glance to the sky would remind us that Shanghai is not only modern but growing by the minute as you cannot miss seeing the impressive skyscrapers and construction zones. While I liked Shanghai more than Beijing, there were significantly less sights. Instead, we spent our time strolling through the streets and discovering different neighborhoods.  

The Bund - Shanghai

The Bund – Shanghai

We were fortunate that our hotel was down the street from The Bund, the ultimate illustration of old and new Shanghai. The Bund is a grand outdoor walkway along the Huangpu River with soaring skyscrapers on one side and old buildings of various architectural styles on the other. And, being the Francophile that I am, I really enjoyed meandering the French Concession neighborhood which transported me to Europe with its gorgeous tree lined streets and quaint cafes. Brad also showed us a side of Shanghai that we wouldn’t have explored on our own. He introduced us to our first taste of dim sum (could not get enough soup dumplings) and brought us to a vibrant fashion festival complete with a chic catwalk set against the skyline. I have to admit that, even though I felt a little out of place with my perpetual flip flops during the fashion show and again while trying to grab a drink at a swanky roof top bar, I thoroughly enjoyed the glitz and glam of this amazing city. Next time I will just make sure I have heels and lipstick instead of safety pin hems.

Old and New Shanghai

Old and New Shanghai

After two bustling cities, Mike and I spent a few days relaxing in the countryside and gearing up for our final stop before heading home: Hong Kong. What is Hong Kong? Is it part of China? Still somehow linked to the British? Nope. After doing some research, it turns out that Hong Kong is considered a Special Administration Area of the People’s Republic of China….and I still haven’t a clue as to what that means. What I was able to gauge is that they operate under the slogan “one country, two systems”.  After ending a 100 year contract under British occupation in 1997, the people of Hong Kong are able to keep the status quo for 50 additional years.  This basically means that they have a completely autonomous government with unique currency, but rely on China for defense and foreign affairs. After spending time in Hong Kong as well as other parts of China, I can clearly see the distinction. Interestingly enough, a friend of ours who lived in Hong Kong for several months told us that most people living in the city either identify as a “Hong Konger” or as “British” but rarely as Chinese.  It will be eye opening to see what happens in 2047 when China will most likely absorb Hong Kong…communist government and all.  

Hong Kong Symphony of Light Show

“Symphony of Light” Show – Hong Kong

English was widely and fluently spoken in Hong Kong and, at times, I felt like I could have been in any other big city. In fact, I rarely felt like I was even in China. Ironically, our hostel was situated above an indoor international market that smelled and looked like India. Overall though, Mike and I enjoyed Hong Kong. We stayed in Tsim Sha Tsui (TST), a major tourist area at the base of the Kowloon peninsula across from Hong Kong island. This location was key as it allowed us to easily access the ferry across Victoria Harbor, stroll the Avenue of the Stars (Asia’s version of Hollywood Boulevard situated along the river making for a great stroll and people watching experience), shop on Nathan Road (the longest street in Hong Kong), and watch the Symphony of Lights show (a nightly fourteen minute coordinated light and sound show showcasing the skyscrapers of Pudong across Victoria Harbor…pretty cool). We couldn’t get over how impressive Hong Kong’s skyline was either. One day, we took the tram to the Peak, the highest natural point in Hong Kong, to enjoy the stunning views of Victoria Harbor from the island side.  Even from this vantage point, the skyline was sublime.  We stayed until sunset to capture photos at every time of day and joined the dozens of Asian photographers.

Kat Hong Kong Skyline from The Peak

Hong Kong Skyline from the Peak

Even though our time in China’s cities was brief, we hit the highlights and got a good feel for the country overall. Ten days is obviously not enough time to see and experience everything, but I think seeing the mix of countryside and three very different cities allowed us a glimpse into this country – a unique mix of old and new with a laser focus on the future.

One Comment

  1. Kat-You captured my exact feelings of Beijing. Tony & I got a good laugh remembering the children defecating in the middle of The Forbidden City!

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