A Travellerspoint blog

Around the World 2015: India's Golden Triangle and Taj Mahal

We had originally planned to visit Delhi and the Taj Mahal, so I had reserved one night in a hotel in Agra before we left. We figured we would sort out our transportation to Agra once we arrived. At the Tara Palace in Delhi, the manager had made us a reasonable offer to send us on a three day tour of Jaipur and Agra with a personal driver. I didn't know much about Jaipur, but we had already seen most of what we wanted to in Delhi so at least it would be something different. We set off fairly early in the morning on what would prove to be a five hour drive in an old car with weak air conditioning. We didn't have car seats for the kids, but fortunately the highway was in very good condition and our driver was very conservative. At least our kids were safer than the ones in this vehicle.
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We got to experience Delhi traffic as we departed through Chor Bazaar in the center of the old city.

Our highway lunch stop was a bit of a misfire, as I quickly realized that the restaurant was very overpriced with bland food and the only people eating there were Westerners on a similar itinerary to ours. We didn't have any choice at that point, but once we got back to the car I made it very clear to our driver that we weren't going to be earning him any more commissions at tourist stops. From on now, we were going to eat where the Indians ate.

Once in Jaipur we drove straight to City Palace, a complex of ornate pink-hued palaces and temples spread over a wide area. It was pleasant enough to walk around in, aside from the brutal heat which was worse than anything we'd experienced in Delhi.
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After an hour we retreated to the main road where we encountered the Hawa Mahal, a 18th century palace whose rear facade resembles a pink beehive. The ornately-latticed windows were reportedly designed to allow the woman of the royal household to watch the goings on in the street below without being observed.
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We spent a little more time walking up and down Hawa Mahal Road checking out various street vendors and buying a few snacks, but it was really too hot to enjoy ourselves so we drove to our hotel and checked in. The air conditioning and cold drinks were a god send. In the evening we had a reasonably good restaurant meal and then went to the Johari Bazaar, a large complex of shops where the main emphasis was jewelry. We weren't very interested in that, but there were enough food vendors and other things to see to keep us interested for a while.
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We weren't sorry to leave Jaipur for Agra the next morning. I'm sure there's a lot we didn't see, but in terms of markets and street life the city was a pale shadow of Delhi. Once we arrived in Agra, we didn't have to wait long for our first sight of the Taj Mahal. Our driver dropped us off at a rooftop cafe I'd read about in the crowded neighborhood south of the palace and had a beautiful view of the surreally beautiful building. It was a fine appetizer for our visit.
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We walked north through the busy bazaar south of the Taj Mahal to get to the Great gate, Darwaza-i rauza. If I hadn't seen the actual mausoleum from the cafe rooftop, I might have thought this formidable red sandstone and white marble structure was the Taj Mahal itself.
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Once through the gate, we were face to face with the beautiful white mausoleum. at the far end of a long rectangular fountain surrounded by short cypress trees. At this point I allowed myself a moment to savor our accomplishment. We'd made it here with two small children who could barely walk on their own, and Mei Ling pregnant to boot. One by one we were seeing the most incredible sights the world had to offer, and we hadn't let anything stop us.
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The exterior of the mausoleum was amazing up close as well, with complicated architectural designs and detailed, colorful decorations in the white marble. Around the mausoleum was a wide platform of white marble tiles where Indian visitors sat in groups. The four tall white minarets at each corner of the platform added to the sense of majesty and serenity. The crypt chamber was surprisingly plain, in keeping with the Muslim prohibition against elaborate decoration of graves. Between the crowds, dimness, and lack of memorable detail we didn't find any pictures worth taking once inside.
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As always, the kids were a big hit with the Indians, who often asked if they could take pictures of each other holding Ian.
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In the afternoon we visited the Kinari Bazaar, a large market next to Agra Fort. It was just as gritty as the markets in Delhi, but it felt great to be in the mix of activity in the street and part of the daily rhythm of Indian life. I was briefly tempted by a sugar cane juice vendor, but I had second thoughts after seeing the thick blanket of flies covering the crushed cane.
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Our driver had a lot of difficulty finding the restaurant I'd chosen from TripAdvisor, but eventually we had a pleasant meal of the local specialty which was reminiscent of savory crepes filled with meat and vegetables.
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I'd reserved a deluxe hotel room at a four star hotel in Agra before leaving Miami, but it was still very inexpensive compared to even an average hotel in the US or Europe. The kids got a kick out of the lavish interior decor and the friendly, uniformed staff.
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Our driver did much better with the highway stop on the way back to Delhi the next morning. We put together a good lunch from a mix of cheap stalls attached to the service station. Cleo had bonded quite well with our driver at this point.
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As we approached Delhi, we could see a very impressive-appearing temple on the eastern bank of the Yamuna River. Since our contract extended to the end of the day, we asked our driver to take us there once we'd had a chance to freshen up at the hotel. The temple turned out to be the Swaminarayan Akshardham, a gigantic complex whose construction had been completed only ten years earlier. Unfortunately I can't present any pictures of this amazing building because the guards were extremely strict about enforcing a no photography policy. Everyone was patted down at the entrance to be sure they weren't bringing in a camera or cell phone. Signs were posted everywhere threatening horrific penalties for attempting to smuggle in any such device. The only picture I have of us at Akshardham was taken from outside the perimeter fence.
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The main temple, or Mandir, or Akshardam is one of the most awe-inspiring structures I have ever seen. In terms of pure visual effect, it vastly overshadows even the Taj Mahal. The temple is constructed entirely from the highest quality pink sandstone and white marble, and cost about 60 million dollars to build. In the US, it probably would have cost five times that. Every inch of the stone was decorated with intricate carvings. The opulence of the complex is testimony to the enormous wealth of the Swaminarayan religious organization, the Hindu sect that built the temple. As with the grandiose cathedrals we've seen in countless poverty-stricken Latin countries, I couldn't help wondering why the enormous wealth amassed by religious organizations couldn't be used to provide genuine assistance to the helpless members of the communities rather than these opulent and ultimately useless edifices. It wouldn't surprise me if after a couple of hundred years have erased the stain of modernity, Akshardam becomes more well-known as one of the architectural wonders of the world than the Taj Mahal. Since we weren't allowed to take any photographs, I ripped a couple of pictures from the web to try and illustrate the magnificence of this temple.
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The next morning we were taken back to the Delhi airport for our flight to France. Our last memory of Delhi was of the pigeons flying around inside the departure area.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 12:44 Archived in India Tagged jaipur taj_mahal agra Comments (0)

Around the World 2015: Delhi

Jack Kerouac said "The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time". I could say the same, if one substituted cities for people. That's why my favorite city in the world is the one I grew up in, New York City. The closest runners up are also among the largest and wildest: London, Tokyo, Shanghai, Bangkok. But no one who claims to be a lover of city greatness can be complete without a visit to India, home of some of the most populous and frenzied cities in the world. Naturally my first choice in India would have been Mumbai, but as luck would have it there were no direct flights from Guangzhou so we chose Delhi instead. It might not be quite as riotous as Mumbai, but it had the bonus of proximity to the Taj Mahal.

It might seem insane to have taken my pregnant wife and two small children on a first visit to India, but I was terrified that we would lose the ability to travel internationally for years once number three came along. I simply couldn't stand the idea of not having seen India until I was in my fifties, if not later. In the end, I figured we could hack it for six days even if it turned out to be more difficult that I expected. My biggest fear was the possibility of everyone getting gastroenteritis. I wasn't sure how we could handle two sick kids while possibly being sick ourselves. I resolved to be militant about what went into our mouths, especially water.

We didn't have to wait long to experience the uniqueness of India. As soon as we entered the terminal we encountered a vivid sculpture of disembodied hands making complex gestures against a background of concave copper disks. The effect was vaguely spiritual, somewhat artistic, but unmistakably Indian.
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A long delay at the visa-on-arrival desk was terrifying, in that I was sure that the driver the hotel had provided would give up on us and return to the city. However, once we finally escaped the terminal with our baggage he was dutifully awaiting us. The horde of frenzied touts gathered outside the gate made me inordinately grateful that we had prearranged our transportation. Since there were minimal Airbnb options in Delhi, we had booked a hotel in the old part of town far from the areas that tourists usually frequented. Our driver brought us to Tara Palace which we found to be clean but otherwise very basic. It was far too late to do anything except collapse into our beds.

The main advantage of Tara Palace was that it was in close proximity to two of our priority sights in Delhu, the Chandni Chowk market and the Red Fort. On our first morning in Delhi, we woke early and made sure the kids were fed with the complimentary breakfast before setting out for the market. I had researched Delhi fairly well, so I was expecting it to be hot, crowded, dirty, and poverty-stricken. In fact, Delhi exactly matched my expectations, but there's an enormous difference between expecting something and experiencing it. We found Chandni Chowk quite overwhelming. The sidewalks were so crowded and obstructed by vendors that most people walked in the street despite the omnipresence of honking cars and motorcycles. We soon found ourselves joining them. There was virtually no sense of personal space as we were bumped and jostled constantly. There were gruesomely crippled beggars everywhere. Lording over everything was the incandescent Indian sun, which seemed determined to suck sweat out of every pore of our bodies.
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Within minutes we had rechristened Chandni Chowk "the Choke", and so it would remain in our minds for the rest of our stay. The Choke wasn't actually a market, but rather a main street on which several markets resided. Rather disappointingly for us, few of these markets emphasized food. Fabric and hardware were much more the order of the day. However, we were able to find enough vendors of freshly peeled vegetables and deep-fried samosas to assuage hunger until we found a place we could actually sit down and eat.
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After walking west as far as we could stand the heat and the crowds, we doubled back the way we came. At the eastern end of the Choke is the Red Fort, a 17th century residence of the Mughal emperors. The site is a large complex of many buildings and structures, with the most imposing being the Lahori Gate that one encounters at the entrance. The abundant trees and well-manicured lawns were a pleasant respite from the madness of the Choke.
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We headed south past our hotel towards Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India. Our goal wasn't so much the mosque itself as the markets which clustered around it.
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The small square in front of the mosque was a beehive of activity. Vendors were doing a brisk business selling snacks, clothes, and toys. Food stalls were placed strategically around the square, while other hawkers simply set up shop in the middle of the crowd or occupied the staircase leading down to the Meena Bazaar. Mei Ling found her beloved meat skewers fairly quickly.
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About this time we noticed people were paying an unusual amount of attention to us, especially considering how crowded and chaotic the area was. We've been in lots of exotic places from Morocco to Israel with the kids, but it was unusual for people to come up and ask to be photographed with us. Even more surprisingly, it was mostly young guys who would be expected to completely ignore families with kids.
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South of the mosque was a predominantly Muslim area of narrow streets where everyone walked in the street because the sidewalks were completely occupied with various vendors and food stalls. We continued to notice the unusual friendliness and familiarity of people in the area as we strolled around.
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We could easily have found a place to eat in that neighborhood but I wanted to check out a more upscale area called Connaught Place. On a map, Connaught Place looks like the hub of the city. It consists of three concentric rings and eight spokes, many of which continue outward to become major traffic arteries of the city. It was built almost a hundred years ago as a central business district, and is now packed with cinemas, hotels, and international restaurants. I had been advised to stay at a hotel in Connaught Place, but I was glad to have chosen our location in the old part of town. Like any modernized part of an ancient city, the area felt somewhat sterile and generic. Dinner was OK, but not memorable. After dinner I made an attempt to get a local SIM. I bought the card in an official Vodafone store and the salesman told me it would start working in a couple of hours. As I expected, it never did.
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The next day I discussed our plan to visit the Taj Mahal with the hotel manager, and he offered to sell us a three day package tour of Jaipur and Agra to depart the next day. He threw in a driver to take us anywhere we wanted in Delhi that day. I knew the price was probably higher than I would find if I shopped around, but it was low enough that I didn't feel like taking the trouble so I accepted. Soon enough our driver came by and we requested to be taken to the INA market. Mei Ling was looking sprightly and quite pregnant in a local outfit she'd bought the previous day at the Choke. Like everything else in India, INA was a bit of a culture shock. The facilities were even more basic and grim than what we'd seen in poorer parts of China and Colombia, and the air was thick with flies which swarmed over the piles of raw meat and fish. Nevertheless, the market was bustling with people and the vendors seemed to be doing a brisk business.
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Mei Ling can't watch food being made anywhere without itching to get involved, so she provided some free labor to some of the bread and dumpling makers. Afterwards we had a chance to sample some of her efforts.
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Adjacent to the INA food market is the Dilli Haat textile and crafts market, which is much more of a destination for Western tourists. We'd already seen quite a lot of clothing at the Choke, so we didn't linger long there.
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The next market was a wash out as far as food was concerned, having only a few of vendors selling nothing particularly new or interesting. However, we did encounter some gentlemen playing carrom, which fascinated Mei Ling and the kids. The players spoke perfect English and provided us with hot tea and pleasant conversation while they played.
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Our next stop was Lodi Gardens in the southern part of central Delhi. This beautiful park was built around several 15th century tombs.
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By this time we'd become accustomed to friendly locals picking up our kids and playing with them.
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One interesting thing that happened as we were leaving the gardens is that while Ian and Mei Ling were walking hand in hand, Ian suddenly tried to pull away just as Mei Ling was changing direction. Ian cried out in pain and then sat on the ground holding his left arm and crying. Mei Ling tried to coax him up but he kept crying and wouldn't use his left arm at all. Fortunately, I knew exactly what had happened based on my experience as an ER doctor. Ian had a nursemaid's elbow, which is caused by pulling outwardly on a small child's outstretched arm. The traction causes the elbow joint space to gap open and a ligament slips into the joint, causing pain with any movement of the elbow. Fortunately, it's very easy to get the ligament to pop back out of the joint using a number of techniques. My favorite is the supination/flexion technique, in which the child's hand is turned palm up and the elbow is flexed. If one holds the child's elbow with the other hand, one can usually feel the pop as the elbow bones realign into correct position. If that technique doesn't work, an alternative is the hyperpronation technique in which the child's hand is rotated palm down and then turned as far as possible without causing pain. I included diagrams of both techniques.
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Ian's elbow reduced easily and within a minute he was using his arm normally. I felt enormously relieved that thanks to my background we'd avoided a visit to an Indian emergency room, which was a very unappealing prospect. It occurred to me that every parent traveling with young kids should know to avoid yanking on their outstretched arm from below the elbow, and should also know how to reduce a nursemaid's elbow if it ever happened to their kid.

Once we'd returned to our hotel, we decided to return to the area south of Jama Masjid for dinner at Karim's. This century old restaurant is a landmark of old Delhi. The only table to be had was on a crowded balcony where I had to hold Ian on my lap to prevent him from crawling around on a floor covered with dropped food. The dishes were basic but fairly good, although I'm confident I've had better Indian meals in New York and California.
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The coolest thing that happened to us in Delhi was that after dinner, we stumbled onto a Muslim wedding. A procession of decorated cars slowly trundled past us and we followed them a short distance to a reception hall.
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Mei Ling was ushered into a separate room full of women in brightly colored saris, while I brought the kids into a room where some scholarly-appearing men surrounded the festively-dressed groom. The invited guests made sure I had a good vantage point so that Cleo could see and I could take video. As always, Indians of every religion went far out of their way to make guests feel welcome.
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We couldn't stay at the wedding too long because it was getting late and we had an early departure for Jaipur in the morning. Despite the late hour, the main street south of the mosque was still packed with people going about their business like it was the middle of the day. The throngs of brightly-dressed people and swerving vehicles created a visual and auditory sensory overload.
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The next morning we set off by car for our three-day tour of India's Golden Triangle.

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:56 Archived in India Tagged delhi red_fort chandni_chowk jama_masjid dilli_haat karim's lodi_gardens Comments (0)

Around the World 2015: Guangzhou, China

China is a huge and diverse country. Even after five previous visits, I only felt like I'd seen at most five percent of what was worth seeing in China. I was looking forward to adding to that with a visit to Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province. While Guangzhou may be only vaguely familiar to Westerners, it is one of the ten largest cities in the world by any form of measurement, and possibly the largest by metropolitan area. It's better known to Americans by its Anglicized name of Canton, and as the origin of most of what Americans and other Westerners consider to be Chinese, or Cantonese food. Guangzhou is well-regarded throughout China for its food, especially seafood, and is famous for its markets. For Mei Ling and me, that's nirvana.

Like most of the world's great cities, Guangzhou is intimately associated with water. Around the city, multiple river systems converge to form the wide and powerful Zhujiang (formerly Pearl) river which splits and rejoins itself countless times forming numerous small islands in the river. Our hotel was in the Shamian Residential District, a tiny rectangular island formed by a narrow canal of the Zhujiang River. Shamian was clearly an enclave of the wealthy. It had a wide central street with a beautifully landscaped park running down the middle. The park had well-maintained exercise equipment and a running track. The buildings were relatively new and attractive, and the shops and restaurants on the island seemed to cater to expats.
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As soon as we'd dropped off the bags, we headed across the canal to the Guangzhou's busy pedestrian zone. Mei Ling and Ian split off for a rendezvous with an old friend while Cleo and I ate a snack at a tiny alley restaurant that served a delicious salad made with crunchy fish skin. As is so often the case with dishes that I absolutely love in Asia, we were never able to find that salad again during our visit. Mei Ling still hadn't found her way back once we'd finished eating, so we went to the spa next door to get our feet nibbled by tiny Garra rufa fish. Cleo made a valiant attempt but eventually her two year old mind couldn't overcome her natural instinct to keep her feet from being bitten.
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Mei LIng eventually rejoined us and we spent some more time exploring the main pedestrian street Shangxiaju and snacking before heading back home for an early sleep. We still had to recover from our grueling train journey and flight earlier.
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The next day was a market day, of course, so we met up with Mei Ling's friends and crossed the Renmin Bridge across the Zhujiang to Haizhu, the largest river island in the Guangzhou area. We spent an entire day wandering from market to market at the western tip of Haizhu. I was disappointed that I couldn't convince Mei Ling to buy the sandals with the incomprehensible Chinglish slogan.
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Later we crossed back north across the river and circled back towards Shamian, where the enormous Huangsha seafood market awaited us. One of the more interesting discoveries there was sand worms, also known as peanut worms. We couldn't resist buying a bag of these unappetizing pinkish-grey tubes and eventually brought them to the most well-known seafood restaurant in the market where they were prepared for us with a garlic sauce. They tasted like garlic sauce.

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The next day we spent a little more time exploring the neighborhoods close by our hotel and then took a taxi to Liuhua Hu Park in the northern part of the city. The beautiful park was full of serene walking paths and grassy lakes where locals were boating. One of the highlights was watching some guys playing jian zi, the Chinese version of the hacky sack game I saw Mei Ling playing in Seoul.
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In the evening, we met up with Mei Ling's friend Guo Guo again and explored one of Guangzhou's upscale modern malls before having dinner in a hot pot restaurant.
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We decided to check out of our hotel the next morning. Another of Mei Ling's old friends was driving us southwest to the city of Kaiping, and it would be easier for us not to go back to Guangzhou at all. We walked back across the canal for one last meal at Huangsha market.
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On the road, we stopped at a special restaurant Mei Ling's friend knew about where we seemed to be the only customers. The specialty was paddlefish, which had a wide paddle-shaped snout. Several of them were swimming in large tanks at the restaurant. I tried looking them up afterwards, but couldn't find any convincing identification of what we had eaten. They're clearly not the same fish as what is commonly described as a Chinese paddlefish, which appears to be practically extinct. Hopefully the ones we ate weren't endangered!
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The only reason to visit the Kaiping area that I'm aware of is to see the eerie, multistory diaolou houses that were built intermittently between the 15th century and the early part of the 20th century. Some of the structures were constructed to serve as watchtowers, while others were multifamily residences. The mysterious diaolou reminded me of the imposing towers of Bologna, whose builders and true purposes have largely become obscured by the passage of time. In the area we explored, the diaolou arose incongruously from rice paddies that could only be traversed by narrow flagstone paths.
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On the way back east from Kaiping we stopped in the coastal town of Zhuhai for dinner. The star attraction here was Zhuhai Wanzai Seafood Street, with a long seafood night market on one side and a row of seafood restaurants on the other. Mei Ling immediately went to work on buying delicacies for us to bring to a restaurant. The best part was watching her negotiating for a huge horseshoe crab.

Refrigeration for the seafood probably hasn't changed in a hundred years. Here you can see how the guys on the ice truck carve up and distribute their product.

We spent the next day in Shenzhen, hanging out with yet another of Mei Ling's old friends. We spent a few hours in one of Shenzhen's many theme parks, of which the most interesting part for the kids was the monorail. In the evening, we had yet another seafood banquet at a coastal restaurant where we picked our food from tanks.
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The next day we crossed into Hong Kong, where we had less than twenty-four hours before our flight to India. Fortunately I'd been to Hong Kong twice before, so I'd already seen most of the interesting sights and markets. We stayed in a luxurious hotel suite on an upper floor of the Nina Tower, one of the most prestigious hotels in Hong Kong. We'd gotten a very low rate thanks to Mei Ling's local connections.
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In the morning before our flight we hung out in the busy Sham Shui Po market area of Kowloon, where we window shopped for a couple of hours and tried some snake soup.
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I wasn't sorry to be heading to the airport once again. I'd been waiting a long time for my first visit to India.

Posted by zzlangerhans 17:25 Archived in China Tagged hong_kong guangzhou guangdong shenzhen zhuhai kaiping Comments (2)

Around the World 2015: Mudanjiang, China

Of all the countries I've visited, there's none that I prefer to China. I love Europe, especially the big three of Italy, France, and Spain, but nothing compares to the incredible markets, food, frenzy, and natural beauty of China. Now that I'm married to Mei Ling and my children are partly Chinese, I'm permanently joined to this foreign country and culture that is positioned diametrically opposite on the globe from the place of my birth. At some point Mei Ling and I agreed we would visit her family in China every other year so that we would still be able to spend some summers in Europe. The bonus is that there are so many other countries in Asia we've never visited, and traveling to China is a great excuse to stop over in some place that is completely new. The only downside is that Mei Ling's family lives in Mudanjiang, a mid-sized city in northern China with very little of interest for travelers. I like to think of it as the "Cleveland of China". This was my second go round in Mudanjiang, and after the excitement and novelty of Napa and Seoul I wasn't thrilled about six days of schlepping around in familiar neighborhoods and markets. Nevertheless, visiting the in-laws is non-negotiable so I resolved to try and have as much fun as possible.

Mei Ling's brother in law insisted on meeting us at the airport in a small taxi, which meant the four of us had to squeeze into the back seat and pile bags and strollers all over ourselves, the roof of the cab, and projecting improbably from the trunk while secured by a bungee cord. I half expected to show up at the family apartment missing half our belongings, but on arrival our property seemed to be intact. Mei LIng's sister, her husband, and their son live in a nice two bedroom apartment on a upper floor in a newly-constructed building close to the center of town.
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Everyone had already met Cleo two years earlier when she was a super cute one year old, but as I expected Ian was able to upstage her this time around.
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Mei Ling's younger brother also showed up and was staying in the apartment and her parents were in and out the whole time. Given the number of people sleeping in the apartment and the strain on the single bathroom, I insisted on booking a room in an inexpensive hotel nearby where I stayed with Cleo. Mudanjiang may not be the most interesting place in China, but that doesn't mean the food isn't awesome. We had some amazing restaurant dishes encompassing everything from sea snails to stir fried cow trachea.
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We had some spectacular home-cooked banquets as well. Mei Ling is the best cook I've ever known, and both her brother and brother-in-law are professional chefs. There was a visit to a market most days, which was followed by several hours of bustling food preparation and then an incredible multi-course meal.
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One thing that always seemed to be constant is that whenever we sat down to eat, there was always plenty of Snow beer.
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Aside from shopping for food, cooking, and eating our days mostly consisted of walks around the city center and visits to the little amusement park downtown where the kids could bungee bounce or catch minnows.
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Eventually our time in Mudanjiang came to a close. Mei Ling was more sorry to leave than I was, but it was great to have seen her and the kids reconnect with her family. We had a brutally early wake up call to catch a train to Harbin for the flight to Guangzhou.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 11:23 Archived in China Tagged mudanjiang Comments (0)

Around the World 2015: Seoul

Northern California was great for scenery and wineries, but once we got on our way to Seoul our minds were focused on markets and food. European farmers markets and fine cuisine are all well and good, but nothing can beat the sights, smells, sounds, and tastes of an East Asian street market.

One place that we'd decided to spend a little extra money was on business class tickets for Mei Ling and Ian (as her lap child) on the longer flights in the itinerary. She was six months pregnant and sitting upright for ten or twelve hours at a time wasn't an option. The added benefit was that both kids were a lot calmer on the plane when their sibling wasn't nearby to set them off. The flight from San Francisco to Seoul was actually easier for all of us than the flight from Miami to San Francisco despite being twice as long. We crossed the dateline so despite having left on Monday morning we didn't arrive until late Tuesday evening. Neither of us spoke a word of Korean and the taxi drivers didn't speak any English at all, so trying to get from the airport to our Airbnb was quite an ordeal. In fact, our first taxi driver seemed to be unable to find his way out of the airport and eventually dropped us off where we had started. Our second driver did a little better, but still had to pull over a few times to consult his maps as well as call our hostess before eventually dropping us off at about 9 PM. Our Airbnb hostess met us down at the taxi and was amazingly helpful as we struggled to get our bags and the exhausted kids up to the Hello Kitty apartment.

Yes, the Hello Kitty apartment. The only Airbnb we could find in central Seoul large enough to accommodate us was entirely decorated in Hello Kitty accoutrements. Hello Kitty bedding, furniture, wall hangings, you name it. We were staying in the abode of Hello Kitty's number one fan in the universe.
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Once we were settled into the Hello Kitty shrine, we were faced with the formidable task of finding dinner at 10 PM in a country neither of us had ever visited before and in which neither of us could communicate. Our hostess had pointed us in a general direction, but all the nearby businesses seemed to be closed up and dark for the night. I was coming to grips with temporary starvation as the last act of our arduous Pacific crossing but fortunately Mei Ling's food-seeking instincts took over and she led us to a multistory building where we found an open restaurant on one of the upper floors. Surprisingly it was fairly crowded and we were able to get a decent dinner. Our first Korean meal in Korea was a success.

One of the best things about our Airbnb location is that it was just a short walk to the Namdaemun market, which my research indicated might be the best street market in all of Seoul. We made a beeline for it the first morning. It was great to be back in an Asian market for the first time in two years. Everywhere we looked there were fruits, vegetables, live things swimming in tanks, and lots and lots of street food. There were lots of small alleys packed with tiny restaurants serving similar foods.
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At one point Mei Ling came across some older ladies playing Jegichagi, which involves keeping a small beanbag-like object in the air just using one's feet. Mei Ling used to play it as a little girl, but her technique seems to have gotten a little rusty.

We were determined to try at least one thing we'd never had before, and we eventually settled on some bright red sea squirts which we took to a restaurant to be prepared. They were pretty bitter and I couldn't finish my half, but at least my curiosity was satisfied.
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We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening hanging out in the Myeongdong area to the east of the market. Myeongdong is a large pedestrian zone packed with shops and restaurants. We had dinner at a Korean barbecue and then walked back home for a solid night's sleep in Hello Kitty land.

The next day we headed on foot to the east where there were two large markets, Gwangjang and Dongdaemun. On the way we passed through a neighborhood consisting largely of hanok, small traditional Korean houses that date back hundreds of years. Despite a large number of restaurants in the area, everyone in the neighborhood seemed to have chosen to line up for lunch at one particular noodle shop.
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We encountered Gwangjang market first and quickly realized it had more and better food options than Nandaemun.
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We snacked at a few different stalls and eventually settled down at one of the live food restaurants where the very friendly chef chopped up an octopus and a sea cucumber for us. Just to be technical, this video does not show the consumption of live octopus. It shows us eating a freshly killed raw octopus whose tentacles are still moving because the cut nerves are still firing.

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Dongdaemun market wasn't much further to the east but we were stuffed from Gwangjang so we walked a little further to Dongdaemun Design Plaza. The complex contains a Museum of Design as well as various galleries and shops devoted to design.
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After killing an hour or so, we doubled back to the Dongdaemun market where we found a long alley with a huge choice of food options, most of which were stews and soups. Eventually we settled on a hotpot restaurant with steaming, spicy bowls of seafood soup. large_11056461_1..839691821_n.jpglarge_10615421_1..564470576_n.jpglarge_154559_102..178051465_n.jpglarge_1484698_10..197663663_n.jpg

The next day we took the Metro across the Han River to Yeoeuido-dong, a relatively new business development on the bank of the river. We toured 63 SkyArt, a modern art gallery on an upper level of one of the tallest buildings in Seoul. We happened to be in Seoul during the annual blossoming of the cherry trees, so once we descended to ground level we took a pleasurable walk along the water's edge through the pink-crowned trees.

Just to the southeast of Yeoeuido-dong is Seoul's largest fish market, Noryangjin. We've been to some amazing fish markets including Tsukiji in Tokyo, and this was possibly the best we've ever seen.
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After a couple of blissful hours of inspecting everything that's ever been known to swim, crawl, or just remain motionless in Korean waters we bought a couple of delicacies to take to the upper floor and have prepared in one of the many seafood restaurants at the market. Ian wasn't satisfied with our own dishes and decided to sample some food from our neighbors.
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After Noryangjin we took the Metro back across the Han to Itaewon-dong, which is known as an international and cosmopolitan area full of restaurants and entertainment venues. Unfortunately, we inadvertently got off at a stop slightly to the west of our desired location. It seemed like a short walk so I decided we would walk instead of taking a cab. This ended up being a rather poor decision as my two dimensional online map did not show me that our route involved climbing along the side of Namsan mountain. Who ever heard of a mountain in the center of a busy city? After much grueling work, we eventually crested and descended the giant hill and found a barbecue where we were able to get a decent meal. Mei Ling wasn't too happy about the climb, but as usual the route to forgiveness went through her stomach.
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Up to this point we hadn't visited a single one of Seoul's ancient palaces despite residing a stone's throw away from Gyeongbokgung, the largest. We've never been much for historical sites but I couldn't help wondering if we were missing something, and I didn't expect to be back in Seoul for at least a decade. On our last day there weren't any major markets left in the center so we decided to walk east to Changdeokgung, which seemed like it might be the most visually pleasing of all the palaces.

Changdeokgung was pleasant enough, especially because it had more greenery and water than the other palaces, but there wasn't anything to make me regret not spending more time checking off traditional tourist sites in Seoul. I've seen plenty of pagodas in Japan and China, and I'm definitely not sophisticated enough to pick up on the distinctions between the Korean designs and the others.
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A short walk from Changdeokgung is Bukchon Hanok Village, a more touristy concentration of hanok with well-preserved houses amid quaint narrow streets. We had lunch in one hanok that had been converted into a restaurant.
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We spent the afternoon at the weekly Hongdae Free Market near Hongdik University, where students and other vendors sell artwork and crafts. There were also street acts and a playground full of kids. One girl about Cleo's age but a lot heftier started bullying her for some reason, so I stepped between them right as she was about to push Cleo over. The other girl lost her balance and fell lightly on one knee. She got up and after a pause started crying loudly and ran to her parents who were chatting with a group of people a short distance away. She dragged her mother over and jabbed her finger in my direction and complained loudly in Korean. I ignored them and kept playing with Cleo, but out of the corner of my eye I could see Mom looking back and forth between her daughter and me with a totally confused look on her face. Finally she just patted her daughter in the direction of the slide and went back to her friends. The girl gave me one last dirty look and I stuck my tongue out at her. She briefly started to go back after her mother but then thought better of it. That was about as close as we came to an international incident during the trip.
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We eventually had dinner in the same area and then headed home to get some rest before our morning flight to China.

Posted by zzlangerhans 04:18 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

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