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.

 

 

 

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.

Peony Festival in Henan Province

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I wasn’t really sure what to expect at the Peony Festival, aside from flowers, of course.  The festival happens every year in the spring time, and in mid to late April is when most of the blooms are out. Luoyang is a city of upwards of 6 million, but it’s clear they’ve made a large tourist industry out of the festival.

PeonyFestival

There were vendors everywhere, outside the temples, and inside the festival.  When I visited the Longmen grottoes that morning, I had seen lots of funny hats, and at first I thought, Well, maybe it’s a trend to wear funny hats on tours?  Then I saw the vendors and realized all the hats with huge fake flowers were from the peony festival.  I really can’t make fun of them too much, because I ended up buying one- I just couldn’t resist!

PeonyHat

Of course, then I was a foreigner wearing a funny hat, and I ended up in lots of peoples’ family photo albums.  At one point, one of the vendors sent her young son over to me to give me a few flowers as a gift.

PeonyGreenhouse

Capitalism aside, the actual flowers were really fascinating. During this week, many different colors of blooms were out, including white, pale pink, bright pink, purple, and even some yellow ones.  I couldn’t help but take lots of photos.  Peonies are quite large blooms, so the stems have to be really sturdy to hold them up.

PeonyYellow

It had rained the day previously, so everything was well-watered.  The day I went was very nice, and I even got a little sun burned. I am still thinking of the cold winter days of Beijing over the last few months, I guess I have to adjust back to warm weather!

Peonywhite

Overall it was really interesting to see how this small place has turned into a tourist destination.  The flowers were gorgeous, so if you find yourself in the area between March and May, it’s a fun trip.  The festival itself really only takes a couple hours to tour around, so you’ll probably want to look up some other things to do in the area. To read what else I did in Henan province, you can read my blog post on the Kung Fu school.

PeonyPurple

Mutianyu Great Wall in the Spring Time!

GreatWallWelcome

I took advantage of the nice days this weekend for my second trip to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. I find this part convenient because it is about an hour (or two) from Beijing, and it is less touristy than other parts, like Badaling.  Also, in the spring  time you can take cable cars and toboggans.  I visited this same part in January and had a completely different experience, seeing the wall covered in snow, and very few people  visiting.  This time, the weather was nicer, and there were lots of people about. Still, I felt like it was a really nice day, and not as crowded as it will be in June!

GreatWall3

After buying our entry tickets, my friends and I took the cable cars up to the watch towers, where we could then walk down the great wall.  If you don’t want to splurge for the 60 RMB ticket, you can hike your way up, but it’s quite a ways! When I went there in January, we only went to Watch Tower 8 because we had to walk, but today I think we went up to  Watch Tower 20-something.

GreatWallCableCar

Once we were on the wall, it was really nice to look out and see how far it stretched. Luckily, the air quality was pretty nice today (although I’m sure it still qualified as “unhealthy”).

GreatWallMe

GreatWall1

I really enjoyed walking along the wall today because I got to see the area full of vegetation. I feel like we didn’t have much of a spring in Beijing- it went from winter cold  to summer hot in the span of a couple weeks. Still, I’m glad the weather has changed, because this means the tobaggans are ready to go! Basically, after walking along the wall for about an hour, we got to ride sleds all the way down.

GreatWallTobaggan

It was a lot of fun, and I highly recommend it! I wish our group had waited a little bit longer, because we were behind another group that was choosing to go quite slow. We would have liked to go faster! Still, we sort of turned it into toboggan bumper cars and had a great time.  It probably took about 5 minutes, maybe a little more, to go all the way down on the track.

GreatWallLunch

After all the hiking and our mini adrenaline rush, we had worked up quite the appetite, and headed to the Schoolhouse, which is a neat little restaurant right by the Great Wall. They specialize in sustainable meals, and grow a good portion of the produce they sell.  Everything was really fresh and delicious, so if you find yourself looking for a meal at Mutianyu, I recommend it! It’s best to make a reservation though, especially if you go in high season (July and August), since it probably fills up with tour groups.  They had crayons to draw on their menus, and I couldn’t help but share my artistic representation of my trip to the Great Wall. In this photo, you can even see the Wall (the real one) in the background!

GreatWallDrawing

Overall it was an awesome way to spend the day, and I am glad that I live in quick (depending on traffic) driving distance to such a neat historical site!

I’ve uploaded  the video of my toboggan ride (thanks to my GoPro camera strapped to my head), which you can view here:

Shaolin Kung Fu in Henan Province

This weekend I visited a small Kung Fu school in Henan Province, Wusengyuan (武僧院). It usually isn’t open to visitors, but they made an exception for our tour group! At this school, students pay to take classes for up to three years, at which point they can be invited to stay at the school and continue learning the art of Shaolin Kung Fu.  The school becomes like a family, with the teacher knowing the names of all 200 students.  Although the average age is six or seven, the youngest student there was only three years old!

Sign for the school.

When we visited, there were various groups of students practicing basic skills, jumps and leaps, movements in groups, and even boxing.

Although there were students of many different levels, they really impressed me with some of the movements they could already perform.  One of my friends noted it included a lot of gymnastics, and I have to agree. Just look at how high some of them were jumping!

     KungFu12    KungFu4

With the group drills, there was always a student calling out the different movements, so I got a chance to brush up on my Chinese numbers 1- 10.

KungFu1

Although I’m sure it’s hard work, most of the students looked like they were really enjoying themselves.  In addition to learning kung fu, the students have to take lessons in all the normal school subjects as well. This means they only get one day off every two weeks.

KungFu14

My question was, how do they determine who has to be the one to get jumped over? 🙂

KungFu7

In addition the tumbling, the older students were also practicing boxing, breaking bricks with their hands, and training with wooden posts to practice their hand attacks.  It was really fascinating to see all the different areas of the school, and the variety of lessons they were learning.

The school itself was set in a gorgeous mountain area, which is probably much cooler in the summer than Beijing!  There were many paintings all over the walls.

KungFu9     KungFu10

Just when we thought our visit was concluding, the teacher decided to give some  challenges to some of the more advanced students.  This included breaking bricks with their hands. The student below has only been studying at the school for one year.

The teacher explained to us that the students have the option of becoming monks once they go through the school. It was clear to us that he leads this school because he loves Kung Fu. He also showed us what it really means to be a kung fu master. He brought over a long piece of iron, and when my tour guide said that it was for breaking over the head, I was a little dubious. And then he did this:

We probably spent a couple of hours at the school, and I was very thankful they allowed us to visit and watch their practices.  It was really interesting to get a glimpse of what it might be like to be at full-time kung fu school, and the skill of the students was really impressive.  Thank you to all the students and the teacher for allowing us to visit, and thank you to China Culture Center for organizing the trip!

A trip to Benxi Shuidong National Park

I spent the last week in Shenyang, enjoying some more cold northern China weather, and decided to get outside the city a bit to see what’s out there! About an hour away is a good mountain for winter sports, but since I’ve already seen the Harbin International Ice Festival, I decided to go see a different nearby site instead- the water caves at the Benxi Shuidong National Park.  These caves actually have a river running through them, so you can take boat tour to see the different cave formations (in different colored lighting of course).  If you ever find yourself in Liaoning, China, it’s worth a stop to go see.  Because the park has a lot to offer as far as hiking trails, I suggest going a little later in the year than I did.  The caves of course are accessible year round since they stay about the same temperature, but I wasn’t very tempted to walk around outside considering all the snow and ice covering the ground!

Benxi Lake

There is a small lake as you walk to the entrance of the caves, as well as a small museum.  This is why I think it would be a great spring or summer mini vacation, since there is actually quite a lot to see if it’s not all covered in snow!

Benxi Tower

The park is about an hour and a half from Shenyang if you drive there directly, but you can also take a bus to the city of Benxi and then take a taxi or tourist bus to the park as well (total two hours).  My taxi driver turned park navigator snapped a photo of me outside the cave entrance:

Benxi Me

Luckily the visit to the caves required no advance planning on my part- upon entering the park I paid a fee (150 RMB) that granted me entry to the different sites.  As I entered the cave, I just joined the line and hopped in a boat!

Benxi Entrance

The cave itself was really impressive, as they had installed lights to show many of the different formations.  I enjoyed the colored lights, but I think some people might want to see normal lights to get a sense of what the stalagmites really look like.

Benxi Lights

What is it like to take a boat tour through a cave? I planned ahead and brought my GoPro Hero 2 along on my journey with me, and took a video of some of my journey:

I’ll post a more detailed entry later on what it was like in the city of Shenyang, but I hope you liked seeing the water caves! Next time you go to a park, don’t forget to love the nature there, even if it’s covered in snow.

Benxi Sign