Searching for Old China

Spoiler alert: Old China most likely doesn’t exist any more, or at least, no where I’ve found so far.  While staying with some friends in Shanghai, it was decided we were going to go visit this charming old historical city an hour away by train, Shaoxing.  It sounded cute enough, and really, after a whole day of the hustle and bustle of busy Shanghai, it sounded appealing to go somewhere quieter.

We found a neat little nature path that led us to this pagoda

We found a neat little nature path that led us to this pagoda

Well, what might have been a charming little city when my friends went there a few years ago is now a city of nearly 5 million people and the only historical parts that remain are a few protected neighborhoods.  I have a suspicion that the newer generations of people are choosing to move elsewhere, and within a few more years, these parts won’t exist much either, except for the tourists.  You can see other signs of this fast-changing city as well-  we took a few pedicabs (where the driver still pedals), but come this fall, all of these pedicabs will need to be converted to electric instead.

Despite our lack of planning, we were able to see quite a bit of the city.  At the train station, we  got a cab and said “take us to the places people go to visit.” Among these was a charming little lake where we took a boat ride and had a nice walk.

Kids could go in these awesome floaty tubes on the lake!

Kids could go in these awesome floaty tubes on the lake!

 

Taking a boat on the lake!

Taking a boat on the lake!

DSC03189

Other parts of this trip made me realize how lucky I am to be living in Beijing in 2014. We asked our pedicab driver to recommend a lunch venue for us, and he took us to a Chinese restaurant. It looked ok, and had a bunch of example dishes downstairs.  Then, the hostess insisted on ushering us upstairs to our table.  After we sat  down, we asked the waitress for menus, and she explained that they didn’t have any menus, and we had to go back downstairs to look at the food examples and decide what we wanted.  Also, the only drinks they had were some sort of apple juice in a carton with aloe vera in it.  You know it’s bad when someone in your group goes “I should have just gone to the McDonalds.”  The food, in their defense, wasn’t terrible, but wow was the whole experience weird.

Housing by the canal in the historical district

Housing by the canal in the historical district

 

Alley

Following on the trend of slightly unpleasant surprises, have you ever gone in a bathroom where the lights weren’t working and then realized that you were glad you couldn’t see the bathroom clearly because it was obviously disgusting? No? Well, I have.  Towards the evening, our  cab driver was taking us to the last little market area he said we had to see.  Part of traveling in China is difficult because you never know when/where you’ll be able to find a nice bathroom, but you also want to drink water  during the day and stay hydrated. It’s a dilemma for sure.  So, this led me to, after wandering around for hours and then finally getting to this silly little market I didn’t care about, ask the rest of my group, “Seriously doesn’t anyone else really need to pee?” So, we asked around and found one.  I have never tried to run in and run back out so quickly without trying to touch anything in my life.

Shaoxing

 

So, overall, it was an interesting and character-building kind of day!

 

 

Skylines of Shanghai

After almost two years in Beijing, I’ve gotten somewhat nonchalant about the “bad air days.” I don’t always check the AQI before I head out of the house, and I often don’t check it when I travel to a different city either. Well, my first trip to Shanghai was educational to say the least.  There I was snapping photos at the skyline in the bay, and then looked back at my camera and thought, “ew.”  The air was most assuredly “hazardous” on the AQI scale that morning.

My morning in Shanghai was... hardly visible.

My morning in Shanghai was… hardly visible.

Other people undeterred and looking over the bay

Other people undeterred and looking over the bay

We took a ferry from one side of the bay to the other!

We took a ferry from one side of the bay to the other!

The wind swept in that afternoon, and as I looked at the same skyline at night, the views were  drastically different. We went to the Hyatt on the Bund which has a bar on the 32nd floor. After paying the cover charge (which includes a cocktail) we could wander around and find a table, surrounded on all sides by gorgeous views. If I lived in Shanghai, this would be the place I’d have a birthday party.

 

Shanghai at night

Shanghai at night

The bar even had an outside hot tub area!

The bar even had an outside hot tub area!

At night we could really see the gorgeous architecture of all the buildings!

At night we could really see the gorgeous architecture of all the buildings!

So, what’s the verdict on my trip to Shanghai?

Con: Oh the air (not like this isn’t something I’m not used to already)
Con: So many people walking around in the shopping areas!

Pro: Starbucks everywhere, yes!
Pro: Eventually got to see some pretty awesome views
Pro: Delicious dim sum lunch at DinTaiFung (probably my favorite dim sum chain in China)

I think living in Shanghai would be fun, and it seems to cater more to international visitors than Beijing.  I’m glad I made it there during my stay here.

 

 

 

China Beach Vacay: Weekend in Sanya

What better way to spend a long weekend than enjoying the gorgeous beaches of Hainan island?  I know walking through the sand and gazing at clear blue water isn’t normally what you think of when you think of China, but trust me, this place exists!  Hainan island is a few hour’s flight from Beijing, and offers a great break from the hustle and bustle of the megacity.

The Raffles beachfront in Sanya

We flew into Sanya airport, and rather than staying in the city where there are plenty of tourists and shopping, we drove about an hour away to a newer resort.  It was gorgeous, to say the least!

Sun setting over Sanya

Sun setting over Sanya

For one thing, the pool in the hotel was amazing, and just steps away from the beach.  Whoever designed this place really knew what they were doing, and special kudos go for the swim-up bar where you can order fresh fruit juice throughout the day when you want a break from your swimming.

 

What a great view for a dinner at the beach!

What a great view for a dinner at the beach!

And don’t worry, I did not spend the entire time in the hotel (as magnificent as it was)!  A huge part of what makes Sanya special are the wildlife and adventure options!  You can take the longest cable car in China to another small island that is actually a habitat for rhesus monkeys. And when I say habitat, I mean they basically occupy the entire thing and you can just wander around and watch them in their home!

 

Dolphins at FengJieZhou islet

Dolphins at FengJieZhou islet

FengJieZhou Dolphin

 

 

Sanya also has an islet/ aquatic zoo on FengJieZhou island.  There, they take care of dolphins, sea turtles, whale sharks, and sea lions in their natural habitat.  I of course paid the extra money to be able to feed the dolphins, ride in a boat and feed the whale shark, give sea weed to some turtles, and even some fish to the sea lions.  It was amazing to see all the different animals.  The rest of this area also includes snorkeling, and a submarine you can take to view the reefs.  You can be as adventurous as you want and go wind surfing or scuba diving.  I was actually pretty impressed with what they had to offer, but my favorite part was getting to see all the aquatic life.

Sea lion showing off his tricks during the show!

Sea lion showing off his tricks during the show!

Also, the prices were pretty amazing compared to similar experiences you might have in other places-  I paid around 30 USD to feed all the animals (greater still considering they even have photographers follow you around and snap great shots from different vantage points!).  Even the monkey island was reasonable compared to what I would expect from tourist attractions in other countries- it was less than 4 dollars for a printed photo of me sitting down with 3 monkeys posed around me!

Reef exhibit at the islet

Reef exhibit at the islet

Dolphin

Overall it was a wonderful few days to spend seeing a different part of China.  I had a great time talking with some of the hotel staff from Sanya and seeing how different their life is compared to the large cities (camp fires on the beach roasting frogs anyone?!).   The one word of caution is of course that Sanya in general doesn’t seem to cater to international tourists as much.  I scraped by with my minimal Mandarin, but it could be a little more difficult for travelers needing everything taken care of.  Still, it was totally worth it, and not just because, while sitting by the pool in the evening, I could look up and search the sky for constellations (a very rare thing when you live in Beijing!).

The pool and beach at night

The pool and beach at night

Sichuan Province: Spicy Food and Cute Pandas

Heading down to Chengdu to see the area and the panda reserves  has been something on my China list for a long time.  I finally got to go there last weekend, and it was amazing!  Chengdu is about three hours from Beijing by plane, located in Sichuan province towards the south of China.  It’s known for incredibly spicy food (including those peppercorns that make your tongue numb), but is also the site for the panda research bases and reserves.

If you want the panda experience, you can go to either the base right inside the city of Chengdu, or the research base in Bifeng Gorge outside the city of Ya’an (about 1.5 hours away).  We opted for Bifeng because the volunteer experience wasn’t available at the Chengdu base at the time.  Volunteer, you say? Yes, I paid for the luxury of cleaning out panda enclosures (including scooping panda poop). And let me say, it was totally worth it!

Panda's looking right at me!

Panda’s looking right at me!

The Bifeng Gorge is up in the mountains in some truly gorgeous territory, up past a canyon (legend has it, a goddess dropped a sword which carved the area into a canyon many years ago).  The whole site was beautiful and it was a nice blue sky day.  Once we got there, we read the volunteer instructions and got to don our volunteer uniforms. Then, it was off to the panda area for some work!  The keepers called the pandas in to some indoor enclosures, and once they were safely tucked away, we could go out into their areas and start cleaning up.  Pandas are quite solitary, so each of the adults have their own area.  We had to take out the old bamboo and sweep up the area so it would be nice and clean for the panda to go back in.

After our bosses were satisfied with the cleaning, it was time to feed the pandas!  They make a “panda cake” out of bamboo and corn meal.  It’s incredibly dense and we had to measure 500 grams and then cut it into slices.  We fed it to our panda, 7 year old WuJing, who grabbed each piece from us and scarfed everything down.  He even ate his veggies (carrots) too!

Panda just wanted to climb

Panda just wanted to climb

Now, we could have also paid an additional 1500 RMB for the chance to have a baby panda sit on our lap briefly for a photo op, and, decided against it.  Through the volunteer experience, I think we got to spend much more time with the pandas- our guide helpfully explained the lifestyle of the pandas and we got to sit calmly and watch them eat.  In the video below, you can also see that one of the young pandas decided he would climb around in his enclosure while we were there!

After enjoying our time with just the three of us and our new panda friends, we walked through the rest of the reserve to see the open enclosures and the other pandas! The little ones were indeed adorable and entertaining- some were napping, and others were chilling in trees and scratching their backs.  It was almost an overload of cuteness.

Those trees look comfy

Those trees look comfy

Cuteness aside, it was simply an amazing experience to be so near these animals that are so endangered in the wild, and to learn about them firsthand.  The reserve in particular was impressive-  the enclosures were clean and very large, and looked as if the pandas would choose to live there anyway, with plenty of natural vegetation and little panda huts.  If I were a panda, I’d live there, especially for the panda cakes.

Baby panda!

Baby panda!

 

 

Shiretoko National Park: Hiking, Nature, and Wildlife in Northern Hokkaido

After touring around Akan, we traveled up through Hokkaido to Shiretoko National Park, which is on the northeastern tip of the island.  A part of it is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, because it is re-claimed natural marshlands.  The park is in an interesting location because it is mountainous forest right on the coast of the ocean!  Shiretoko town has some great seafood, and is a short drive to the park for some day hiking.  The few days I was there were full of hiking through mountains, and looking out for all the wildlife!  While there are many tour buses that go to the tourist sites, I preferred being able to drive a car and visit things on my own time.  Also, the curves through the mountain are really fun to drive on (as long as you keep an eye out for any animals that might be crossing the road!).   One afternoon after a hike, we saw so many deer grazing along the road we couldn’t stop to take pictures of all of them!

Deer in Shiretoko

 Also along the road, we sighted a few foxes that are fairly iconic for Hokkaido.  They were light brown and super cute!  Unfortunately I didn’t sneak any pictures of them, since they ran back into the foliage (cleverly :P).   Also, as we were driving over a bridge, we saw quite a few cars stopped, and figured we should see what was going on.  We looked down into the river, and there were two brown bears there fishing!

Brown Bears Fishing

The highlight of the park, for me, was the hike around the Shiretoko Five Lakes.  This hike takes about an hour and a half, and goes right through the brown bear habitat.   Because of this,  everyone who hikes it needs to pay and register, and also watch a safety video beforehand.  The ranger showed us a chart that recorded all the bear sightings, and there had been quite a few over the last week.  Obviously, the goal is to avoid the bears, if at all possible.  The video showed us how to lie down and play dead if confronted by a bear, and I really hoped I wouldn’t have to use that tactic!   There were no bear sightings for us that day, so it was just a nice leisurely hike through the forest.

Here’s the route.  There is a long and a short option:

Route for Shiretoko 5 Lakes Trail

If you’re totally unwilling to take the bear path, or want a free walk, you can also go to the left and take advantage of the raised walkway that goes through the marshland.  This is great for anyone who has mobility issues, too.  There are some great views and outlook points, and you can see the ocean on your left, and the forest on your right.  When we were there, there was also a school group who toured this part.  Here’s a view of the ocean behind the marshland (although it was taken on a slightly cloudy day):

Ocean Behind Shiretoko

The hike itself takes you to all the lakes, and had some gorgeous views:

Shiretoko Lake

Shiretoko ForestShiretoko Lake

Clouds over Shiretoko

Another option if you go to Shiretoko is to travel even further north and take a boat to see whales.  This is a trip that you probably don’t want to take in winter- We had to drive from Utoro to Rausu to catch the boat, and that pass is closed at the end of October. No wonder! It’s super windy, and even in the fall, the whole thing was encased with fog.  I don’t think it would be drive-able in the snow!  Still, it’s a great option if you’re there in the summer or fall!

On the boat ride, we could also see an island belonging to Russia (I can see Russia from my boat!!).  WE were also lucky to sight some sperm whales on our trip:

Sperm Whale Breath

Sperm Whale Swimming

Overall, Shiretoko was a definite highlight of the week, and was just  gorgeous to walk and drive through.  There was plenty of wildlife, so it’s one of my top recommendations for a trip to Hokkaido.

Lake Akan, Hokkaido and the Marimo!

Looking for a nature vacation in Japan? Hokkaido is where it’s at!   I just spent a week there, soaking up sun, fresh air, and gorgeous mountain panoramas.  Akan National Park is in the northeastern part of the island, and about an hour from Kushiro Airport.   My first stop was the resort town outside of Lake Akan.  There is a slew of hotels there, as well as traditional onsen bath houses and lots of tourist shops.

The lake is also most well-known for the rare algae that grows there, called marimo.  Here’s the process on how it’s formed:

Step 1:

Marimo Step 1

Step 2:

Marimo Step 2

Step 3:

Marimo Step 3

And what you end up with is an adorable ball of algae!

Marimo!

The best way to see the marimo (and get the picture I took above) is to go on one of the boat tours that goes to the marimo exhibition hall.  There you can see a whole bunch of marimo gathered on the lake floor, and learn more about how they are formed.  Lake Akan is one of the few lakes in the entire world where algae does this, so it’s pretty unique.

And, in true marketing fashion, in the gift shops in Akan you can buy your assortment of marimo plush toys, cell phone dangles, towels, you name it!  I have to say- it’s pretty darn cute!

Marimo Sign Post

For some people, Lake Akan might be a little “touristy,” but I still thought it was worth it to go see.  You could just spend a while walking around the lake and enjoying the scenery and great views.  Also, in the winter you could go snow-shoeing.

I also really enjoyed the hotel I stayed in, which had a whole section of onsen.  Basically, there was entire floor dedicated to the bath house area (and it was split by gender, one for women, and one for men).  My hotel also had a rooftop bath, so it was great to go up there after a day of hiking to sit in the hot water and enjoy the cool breeze and gaze at the stars.  Starry nights aren’t really something I get to see in Beijing, so looking out over the lake at night was a real treat.  The room itself was pretty nice, and the hotel provided robes for the guests to wear during their stay, and to make it easier to visit the bath houses.

Silly me didn’t put my robe on right away, so my friend and I walked to dinner and were basically the only people wearing outdoor clothing, everyone else was in their brown robes! After that, I wore them everywhere in the hotel:

Hotel Room and Robes

There were very few non-Japanese tourists in Lake Akan, at least in early October.  I think with the hot springs, it is a very popular place for Japanese people to get out of the city and enjoy some quiet time with nature.  Luckily our hotel had a couple staff who spoke English, but we had to depend a lot on guide books and maps to make our way around.  Still, if you’re up for some adventure, it’s a great place to visit!  My favorite part was looking over the lake and enjoying the sky views (although it was a little rainy while I was there).

Lake Akan Pamorama

 

 

 

I visited many more sights in Hokkaido, and will be posting more of those later!