Monday, April 27, 2009


I’m sorry to say I don’t have much to say about coffee in China. The more industrialized and modernized the countries I visited became, the less “local” coffee I could find. I did have a latte in the Forbidden City though. I wish that I had learned more about China before I went there. It’s such an old country with so much history, but it is still a major player in the world today. I think it is important to understand its history because events that happened in China have influenced so many world events in recent history like the Vietnam War and other countries’ failure to assist in the conflicts surrounding Tibet and Darfur. That’s why it took me such a long time to write this post. I didn’t feel right writing about China and all of the historic sites I visited without really understanding the significance of each and why they are considered historic sites. I’ve been waiting to get some free time to do some research (it’s been hard… I’ve been busy trying to catch up on all of the homework I neglected from India to Japan, and now it is finals week! Sometimes I feel like my education is getting in the way of my education). Finally I had some time to sit down and do some reading, and while I know I still have a long way to go in understanding China and how it got to where it is today, I can at least do it a little bit of justice. I’ll try not to give you a history lecture, though. I know that’s not why you read my blog, after all.

My flight from Hong Kong to Beijing left early in the morning (I got myself a café vanilla latte to wake me up, of course). As soon as we landed in Beijing we boarded a bus and were taken to the Beijing National Stadium (or the Bird’s Nest, as you probably know it) and the Beijing National Aquatics Center (the Water Cube) where the 2008 Summer Olympic Games were held. We didn’t get to go inside either one—our time was limited—but we got to walk around the Stadium for a while. The grounds surrounding the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube are huge! I know they need to be to accommodate so many people, but you really have no idea until you get there. The place was swarming with tourists, foreign and Chinese alike but mostly Chinese. The Chinese tourists kept taking pictures of us—three even came up to me and asked if they could take a picture with me! This was a common occurrence the whole time I was in China. It was actually kind of cool—in every country leading up to China I have been so fascinated with the people and here they were just as fascinated with me! After leaving the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube we were taken to the Peking University campus where we would be staying for the next three nights. Peking University is described as China’s Harvard. They have their own hotel on campus for visitors like us. After checking in we had some free time before dinner. My roommate and I wandered around the campus to find an ATM and a convenient store. It was really strange being back on a college campus, watching students walk by or ride by on bikes, backpacks on their backs and books in their hands. This shouldn’t have surprised me, but it was like almost any other college campus I have been on—big homogenous dorm buildings, academic halls made of brick, fenced in tennis courts, a campus store, dining halls… it was even cold in Beijing, so the trees were bare and everyone was in sweatshirts and jackets, much like it would be back in Nebraska, minus the snow. After getting some Yuan (and some Pringles) it was time for dinner. We were taken to a restaurant on Peking University’s campus. In every restaurant I ate at in China they served about eight people at a round table. Each person is provided with a small plate, a bowl, a small cup, and chopsticks. On the table is this giant glass lazy Susan, if you know what that is. It’s basically a rotating surface. The servers bring dish after dish of soups, vegetables, seafood, meat, and rice and place it on the lazy Susan. You serve yourself a little bit and then turn the table so the next person can serve themselves. It’s a lot more efficient than passing food around. And of course, there is always as much tea as you can drink. I have to admit, I think I like Americanized Chinese food more than authentic Chinese food, but I also think we were brought to more upscale restaurants and weren’t served everyday food that the average Chinese person would eat. In fact, we were eating with some Peking students later and even they didn’t recognize some of what we were being served. Anyway, after dinner we were introduced to our student hosts and split off into groups to spend some time getting to know them. The student I was paired with was YaJing. YaJing is a freshman studying history and has lived in Beijing her whole life. We walked around the campus for a while and wandered around some stores before YaJing went back to her dorm to study and I went back to the hotel to sleep.

The next day was the visit to the Great Wall! We had a few stops beforehand though, of course. That morning we got up and had breakfast at a campus dining hall. Chinese breakfast is nothing like American breakfast—they eat dumplings filled with meat, egg drop soup, rice, pickled vegetables, these greasy fried flat breads… it was good, but so different. We visited a cloisonné factory—a Chinese art where they take copper posts, use copper wire to make designs on the outside, and then fill in the designs with colored fired clay—before reaching the Ming Tombs. The Ming Tombs are the burial sites for 13 emperors of the Ming Dynasty, dating back to the 15th century. Only one of the tombs—the Ding Ling tomb—has been excavated, but no others have been excavated since. Excavation of the tomb was started in 1956. Inside was found thousands of articles of silk, wood, textiles, and porcelain, and the entombed bodies of the Wanli Emperor and his two empresses. Unfortunately, because of the lack of proper technology and the political pressure to finish the excavation quickly, the articles were not documented and stored properly. Most were thrown into storage and were ruined by wind and water leakage. Then the Cultural Revolution began in 1966. The Cultural Revolution was a movement started by Mao Zedong, the founder of the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Republic of China. Basically Mao had young students called Red Guards purge China of any western influence, from western books to western trained doctors and scholars from the years of 1966 to about 1976. One of the major leaders of the excavation was targeted by the Red Guards and thrown in jail, halting all further excavation. Then, the Red Guards invaded the Ding Ling museum and stole the bodies of the emperor and empresses and burned them along with other artifacts. What remains today is an empty tomb. Any artifacts inside are replicas of the originals. It was less than impressive while I was there, but now that I know the history behind it, it means so much more.

Finally it was time to go to the Great Wall! After visiting so many countries and encountering so many cultures, I had kind of started to lose that giddy feeling in my gut I get when I travel. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely still get excited for each new port, but by the time we reached China such a state of exhaustion had set in that it was hard to muster up so much anticipation for each new place. But not for the Great Wall. The portion of the Great Wall we visited was about two hours outside of Beijing. I kept staring out the window the whole time, hoping to catch a glimpse of it. The landscape started getting more mountainous and the road was starting to wind more and more until suddenly we rounded a corner and there it was! The Great Wall is one of those places where I always wanted to go, but never actually thought I would. It always seemed far too exotic and mythical to actually be a reality, but there it was. We were given two hours at the Great Wall to climb and explore. You know all those nice pictures of the Wall with its long, flat stretches? Those were nowhere in sight. It was all stairs. Uneven, steep stairs. And it was cold. But I didn’t even care! My adrenaline was enough to keep me going, and after a while I was so hot from climbing I had to take my jacket off. There were some beautiful views of the mountains, faint grey lines skimming the tops where the Wall continued off into the distance, but visiting the Great Wall was less about the views and the climbing than it was about actually being there. After the drive back to Beijing we ate dinner and met back up with our student hosts. They had a party planned for us where we played various games like the limbo and the human knot. After the party a bunch of us went out to karaoke with Robert, one of the students, and a few of his friends for a few hours before heading back to the hotel.

The third day was spent in downtown Beijing near Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. When we first reached Tiananmen Square we were given a couple hours of free time to explore. That was another surreal experience for me. I had seen many pictures of Tiananmen Square with the large portrait of Mao looking down on everything below, so it was so strange to be seeing it in reality. I also knew vaguely about the history surrounding the Square and the massacre that had happened there, and had I known exactly what had happened, I think I would have been even more struck. The massacre at Tiananmen Square happened when I was born, in 1989. Tens of thousands of college students staged a prodemocracy demonstration in the Square. It lasted for weeks until the Chinese Communist Party, afraid of loss of control, injured thousands and killed hundreds of the students. Hundreds more were systematically hunted down and brought to trial for sedition and spreading counterrevolution propaganda. The most shocking thing about all of this is that most Chinese people either don’t know what happened that day or deny that it happened. I didn’t know to ask about it at the time, but a few of my friends on different tours asked their guides about the massacre and all of the guides basically said that it was all rumors or that they had never heard of it before. Nothing about the protest or the massacre was mentioned on my tour. Interesting fact: Mao’s body is preserved and is on display in a building on Tiananmen Square. I didn’t get to see it—again, long lines and time constraints—but it’s there. Instead I walked a few blocks away from Tiananmen Square to see the new National Centre for the Performing Arts. It is an opera house opened in 2007 more commonly called “The Egg” because of its shape. It is dome-shaped and surrounded by pools of water, so when viewed with its reflection, it looks like a giant metallic egg. Once again, I couldn’t go inside, this time because a concert was being performed. But it was still cool. After seeing The Egg I met back up with the group and went inside the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is named as such because it was where the emperors lived and commoners were never allowed inside. It is a beautiful series of temples and living quarters, all ornately decorated and painted in red or gilded in gold. There were giant white marble staircases leading up to each building, each one carved into dragons and clouds. I also liked the gardens toward the back of the Forbidden City. There were beautiful pagodas, crazy coral-like rock formations, and flowering trees. After leaving the Forbidden City out the back gate we went across the street to Jingshan Park, a tall hill that offers a beautiful view of the Forbidden City and the rest of downtown Beijing. After eating dinner we went to the Chaoyang Theatre to see an acrobatic show. It was amazing! Things I thought were impossible were being done onstage right in front of me. There were balancing acts, contortionists holding themselves up in the air by their teeth, up to 20 people on one bicycle, two men jumping rope in giant rotating hamster wheels… so crazy. After the show we headed back to the Peking campus to sleep.

Our last day in Beijing was pretty jam packed. We had our last breakfast and checked out of the hotel before boarding the bus to go to the Summer Palace. While the Forbidden City was where the emperor lived and conducted official business, the Summer Palace was like his vacation home (kind of like Martha’s Vineyard to the White House… kind of). It was so beautiful! There is a giant man-made pond with islands in the middle. The pond is circled by the famed “Long Corridor,” a long covered walkway covered in paintings and murals. There are various temples and lots of trees. It’s all very tranquil. Or at least it would be without all of the tourists. After the Summer Palace we had lunch and finally got to eat the famous Beijing roast duck! We ate it wrapped in a very thin rice pancake with cucumber and onion and a sort of thick, sweet soy sauce. Beijing roast duck is one dish of Chinese food that I did like. After lunch we went to the Temple of Heaven, a Taoist temple from the 15th century constructed by the same emperor who built the Forbidden City and the Ming Tombs. To be completely honest, I was really tired and a little templed out by this point so a few friends and I spent most of our time taking pictures near a cherry blossom tree. Four Chinese people about our age started taking pictures there too, and soon we were all taking pictures together. We even sat in the tree until a security guard came and asked us to get down. Oops! He was really nice about it though and let us finish taking our picture first. After some shopping and one last meal we headed to the airport to fly to Shanghai. The plane had a personal television and movie selection for everyone and a complimentary meal… I actually wish the flight had been longer! We reached Shanghai about midnight.

My one day in Shanghai was split between shopping and eating for the most part. Shanghai is sort of a cross between Hong Kong and Beijing. It is more modernized than Beijing, but not as much as Hong Kong. At the indoor market where we were shopping they have these kind of personal shoppers that follow you around. They’re really there just to take you to their shop, but on the way they help you bargain and find what you’re looking for. At first I found our girl a little annoying—they don’t leave your side, no matter how many times you insist you don’t need help!—but after a while it was nice to have her there. She spoke pretty good English that she learned entirely from working with tourists and helped translate and bargain. She is just 19 and when we asked if she was in school she said no, absolutely not, she is done with school and is just working at this market now. I wonder if that was her choice or if she just couldn’t afford anything else. As far as eating goes… I have to admit, I got a cheeseburger. At McDonald’s. And it tasted exactly like a McDonald’s cheeseburger. I don’t even like McDonald’s in the States, but it was wonderful. Then it was back to the ship and on to Japan.

I don’t think I entirely achieved my goal of not giving you a history lesson, but I think it is impossible to talk about China without mentioning its history, past and present. And I did cut back a lot on what was originally in the post. Anyway, congratulations on making it to the end of this post if you did! I know it was a long one. I’ll try to make Japan’s shorter.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Hong Kong

You all would be so disappointed in me. I had Starbucks in Hong Kong. I know, I know! But really, Hong Kong is such a modern city that every other store was an American or a global brand. I really hadn’t given much thought to Hong Kong before we arrived. I was only going to be spending a day there before flying to Beijing and I didn’t know what I was going to see or do. Hong Kong is so clean and modern, it feels like the United States. In the port area where we were there was a giant shopping mall, even nicer than the V and A Waterfront in Cape Town, full of designer stores and plenty of Starbucks. That was the first thing I saw when I walked off the ship—we had to walk through the mall just to get to the pier! Once outside, the Hong Kong Island skyline is all you see. Giant skyscrapers with logos for Samsung, AIG, and LG flashing at their peaks line the shore, mountains rising up behind them. It’s not like Cape Town, though, where there are a few skyscrapers and low-lying buildings running up to the foot of the mountain. In Hong Kong, all there is is skyscrapers! They cover the ground up to the mountains, and a few even climb up the mountain, towering over the thick foliage below. It’s unlike any city I have ever seen before.

When we got off the ship a few of my friends and I found the subway and took it to Sham Shui Po, a local market. While the area near the port looks like the United States, Sham Shui Po is a whole different world. It is a maze of streets between tall buildings, lines of shops on either side, and two more lines of shops set up on the street! Any space not taken up by a shop was full of people. I’ve never seen so many people in such a small space before. Each street sold something different too. There was a street dedicated to video games, a street for computers, cell phones, toys, food, bags and clothing… It was very neatly organized chaos. We shopped for a while and put our well-practiced bargaining skills to good use before eating at a restaurant called Eat Together, a small, crowded place down one of the streets that I would probably never step foot into in the United States. But it turned out to be so good! One long table runs down the center of the restaurant and everyone, strangers and friends alike, do just as the name says—eat together. We were the only tourists there as far as I could see. After eating some delicious rice, ham, and eggs (weird combination, I know, but you should try it) we left the Sham Shui Po market for Hong Kong Island. We took the subway back to the port, the ferry to the island, and then a taxi to a place called Stanley Market. It was closing, but by the time we got there, I didn’t even care. The drive there was worth the taxi money alone! The roads wind precariously around the mountain and below we could see beaches next to huge resorts. There is so much natural beauty—tons of trees and really green—but modern buildings and apartment complexes still perch intermittently on the sides of the mountain. If you ever go to Hong Kong, I highly recommend taking a trip over to the south side of Hong Kong Island. I wish I had had more time there. We stayed at Stanley Market for a while before catching the double-decker bus back to the ferry. I had always wanted to ride a double-decker! We sat on the top, of course. Once back at the pier we were so hungry and craving pizza—so we gave in and ate at the California Pizza Kitchen in the mall. Between the four of us we took out three whole pizzas and an appetizer! Clearly we had been craving some familiar food. Asian food is amazing, but when you haven’t had pizza in two months, it’s hard to resist. That night I packed for my flight to Beijing—and the Great Wall!—the next day.



On my last day in Vietnam I went to a coffee shop called Gloria Jean’s. I felt like I was at home—the shop was small and crowded with tables surrounded by comfy mismatched chairs, there was “coffee shop” music playing over the quiet din of conversation, people were reading the newspaper over a coffee and a scone before work—except when I looked through the windowed front of the shop, there was Vietnam. Across the street was the seamstress where I had my dress made, down the block was the Rex Hotel (a popular hangout for military officials and war correspondents during the Vietnam War, and home of the MACV daily press conference The Five O’Clock Funnies), and a five minute bus ride would take me back to the port and the Explorer. Still, it was nice to sit there by myself for a few hours and read and write like I normally would back home. After my time in Vietnam, I needed some time to sit back and relax. I had done a lot and learned a lot and needed to decide what to do with it all.

Saigon (technically Ho Chi Minh City now, but most people there still call it Saigon) is exactly like what you see in the movies, but at the same time so different from what I was expecting. Everything is green and thick with foliage, but the city is still modern, new, and clean. Well, parts of it. There are more motor bikes than I thought was possible and the weather is even hotter than I imagined. The low on any one day was 78 degrees! And the humidity is amazing. It’s like breathing water. I say Vietnam is different from what I was expecting, but I really didn’t know what to expect. Vietnam, despite the importance it has with regards to American history, is a country that I knew next to nothing about and even with the brief history we were presented with on the ship, I don’t feel like I was prepared enough for it all. Of course, I am mainly talking about the Vietnam War. Since I didn’t know anything about the Vietnam War, I won’t expect all of you to know, so here’s a very simplified explanation. The Vietnam War was fought between communist North Vietnam and the government of South Vietnam from 1955-1975. The United States supported South Vietnam and got involved in order to stop the spread of communism. There was a lot of controversy over whether the United States should have been in Vietnam at all and over certain war tactics or weapons that were used, such as Agent Orange. South Vietnam lost the war and a communist government was established.

On my first day in Vietnam I had the opportunity to meet with a former UPI (United Press International) photographer. His name is Hoang Van Cuong and he is Vietnamese but took pictures for the United States during the Vietnam War. We met him at his house. When we got there he showed us the memorial he built for the over 200 journalists that were killed in the war. We got to sit down and ask him questions for a while and I think he had some interesting things to say. One question asked was why he chose to be a war photographer. He answered that none of us should ever be a photographer! It is too crazy of a job. He only did it so the rest of the world could see the suffering that was happening in his country. Someone else asked if he ever felt bad for just taking pictures instead of helping. I really liked what he said; “Sometimes history happens in a second, and I had to capture it to let the world know what really happened.” Finally, someone asked how he could ever forgive Americans for what we did to his country. He said that Americans are lovely people. They were just doing their duty, their job. American policy was bad, but not Americans. I wish I had known more about the war then. I would ask him so many more questions now, like what he thinks we should learn from the war. Next we went to the War Remnants Museum, formally called the Museum of American War Crimes. The museum is full of pictures and artifacts describing the atrocities that were committed during the Vietnam War. One photo I saw was an American soldier holding up the charred, shredded remains of a Vietnamese soldier—and smiling. There were also many photos of the deformities caused by Agent Orange, a chemical used by the United States to eliminate the foliage that hid Vietnamese soldiers from sight. Agent Orange, however, also caused horrible deformities in people and the effects are still being seen in babies born today. There were even fetuses on display, preserved in a case, showing babies with multiple heads. I understand that the museum is controlled by a communist government and is probably one-sided—the North did some terrible things to the South and Americans too—but just because the information offered isn’t complete, that doesn’t make it untrue. It was hard to see what my country had done to innocent people, but it was harder to walk into that museum completely ignorant of it all until that point. I couldn’t believe that I had never learned about this in school, and after talking to a lot of other students I found out that no one had learned about it. In fact, later in the day I asked my tour guide how Vietnamese people my age feel about the war today, and he said that most of them don’t even know about it! That shocked me. The war only ended 34 years ago. Their parents and grandparents would have lived through it, and the effects of the war—namely Agent Orange—are still being seen today. I think it is great that Vietnam can forgive the United States so quickly, but not if they are forgiving by forgetting. I don’t understand how we are expected to learn from history if we just gloss over the messy parts. It is the messy parts that we need to learn from. Later that night a few of my friends and I met up with a group of Vietnamese students through a tour group called Saigon Hot Pot. This group is led completely by student volunteers who want to show tourists their country. We were taken to one of the students’ home and taught how to cook Vietnamese food. Our tour turned out to be a little bit special—the whole time we were being filmed and interviewed, and will be on Vietnamese television! It is just a plug for Saigon Hot Pot, but it’s still cool. After eating dinner—and mastering chopsticks!—we went to a café for coffee before heading back to the ship and crashing. It had been a long, exhausting day.

The next day I spent walking around Saigon, shopping, eating, drinking coffee, people watching, and motor bike dodging. I bought a Vietnamese coffee filter and some coffee. Vietnam has amazing coffee, unlike anything I’ve had before! It almost tastes like liquid dark chocolate—very dark and bitter, but thick and flavorful. That evening a few friends and I went to the Drink and Talk café. This place works with the Saigon Hot Pot tours to provide a place for Vietnamese students to practice speaking English with English speaking tourists. When we got there, we sat down with a man from Romania, a Filipino man, and four or five Vietnamese students and just talked! We stayed for a couple hours. The owner brought us a complimentary fruit plate and came in to personally welcome us, as well as see us off when we had to leave. After Drink and Talk we went out for karaoke with some of the students we met the night before.

On my third day in Vietnam I went on a Semester at Sea tour to a Cao Dai Temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels. There are many Cao Dai temples but the one we visited is the main one in Tay Ninh. It’s like the Vatican of the Cao Dai faith. Cao Dai is a religion that developed in the 20th century as a result of so much conflict between religions. In order to minimize conflict, Cao Dai accepts and combines many religions and belief systems like Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, etc. We were allowed to go inside the temple during one of the four daily masses and watch from a balcony above. The service consisted mostly of atonal music and chanting and bells with all of the people neatly arranged in rows and columns on the floor, bowing similarly to how Muslims bow and pray facing Mecca five times a day. Then we went to the Cu Chi Tunnels. The Cu Chi Tunnels were used during the war by the Vietcong (the communist forces based in the South). There are miles upon miles of these tunnels and the people just lived underground for years! The tunnels are tiny, too. We got to go through one and I, at 5’4”, barely fit through the tunnels that were enlarged by 40 percent for tourists! It was an incredibly sophisticated system, so much so that the American soldiers never could beat them. The Americans tried flooding the tunnels, pouring gasoline in them to light them on fire, gassing them with tear gas, sending special forces of men under 100lbs down called Tunnel Rats—but nothing worked. The Cu Chis also used a variety of what were originally tiger traps to catch unsuspecting enemies. These traps would be pits in the ground hidden by brush and leaves. When the victim stepped on top of the trap, he would fall to his death, impaled by bamboo spikes. It was sobering to go to the War Remnants Museum one day, and then to the battlefield the next.

The fourth day I went to the Mekong Delta. The delta was so much bigger than I expected! The water is brown, but from silt, not pollution. The land surrounding is thick with heavy greenery and fruit and coconut trees. The sky that day was blue with big, white, marshmallow clouds… it was beautiful! We took a boat to an island in the delta and, after a trek through the jungle, were given fruit and tea. Then we boarded small four person rowboats, the kind that the Vietnamese used to use to navigate the small canals dug in the islands. We had two Vietnamese women rowing, pulling us through the mud when the water was too low, and dodging the tons of other boats on the canal. Later we were given lunch. It was about 2PM and I hadn’t had breakfast, and I was starving! They start bringing out the food—and it was a giant, whole, fried fish! Head, tail, scales, and all. But then a server came and showed us how to wrap some of the fish with some greens and noodles into rice paper and dip it in a sweet sauce. It was so good! Another four or five courses followed and I was so full! That night I just relaxed on the ship, though I did go out to dinner—and got french fries! They were so good, I don’t even feel bad.

The last day was the day I went to Gloria Jean’s and just wandered around the city by myself for a while. That night we had a barbeque on the ship with burgers and hot dogs (they treat us every once in a while!) and left Vietnam for Hong Kong.