A Travellerspoint blog

September 2019

East Asian Immersion: Kyoto

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Once we decided to center ourselves in Beijing for the trip we had to decide if we would spend the whole six weeks in China or if we would spend part of the trip in another country. We'd had great experiences in Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei on our prior China visits and there were still a lot of east Asian countries we hadn't visited. The problem was I wasn't comfortable going to most of them because we were still fresh off Spenser's frightening asthma attack in Mississippi. Eventually we decided it had been long enough since our visit to Tokyo that we could use a Japan refresher so we settled on Kyoto. I was confused when I researched the flights from Beijing to Kyoto because they all required a plane change in Tokyo, hundreds of miles to the east. Soon I realized that the major international airport in the area is not in Kyoto, but Osaka. Even though Osaka is Japan's second largest city (if counting Tokyo and Yokohama as one), I'd heard very little about it as a travel destination and assumed it was a relatively colorless large city. Once I started reading about Osaka I realized there was so much of interest there that we would probably want to spend more time in Osaka than Kyoto. However, it made more sense to do the Osaka visit last so that we wouldn't have to get all the way back to the airport from Kyoto the day we left.

The flight from Beijing was only three hours but the ease of that leg was deceiving. The Kansai airport was a madhouse and we had to find our way to the Japan Rail office to get the discounted tourist tickets for the train to Kyoto. Once there, we waited almost an hour on line to buy the tickets for a discount that wasn't worth the trouble. We didn't have assigned seats and the car we boarded was completely packed. Fortunately enough people got off at early stops that we were able to get the kids into seats but I had to stand for the entire hour and a half. By the time we arrived in Kyoto it was after nine and we were in dire need of sustenance. There was nothing but noodle vending machines in the station but we found an underground mall just outside and we were able to get in to one of the restaurants just before they stopped seating for the night. One of the many great things about Japan is that the staple foods you can find anywhere are really, really delicious. We ate udon, ramen, and sashimi ravenously and emerged from underground with renewed energy. We were going to need it since the bus we had been instructed to take didn't seem to be taking us in the right direction. All I had was the GPS on my iPhone since we hadn't purchased a SIM card for Japan. Our Osaka host would be providing us with a portable wifi and we had figured we could get through three days in Kyoto without our own internet access. The bus driver shook his head when I asked about our stop and we clambered out to the street at the next opportunity. It was close to midnight and we had no clue where we were. We found a taxi fairly quickly and the driver appeared to be in his mid-eighties, although he could easily have been older. We showed him the taxi instructions our host had provided us and he looked at it blankly. At this point we capitulated and began using our AT&T international wireless service so that we were able to get directions on Google Maps. At first we tried handing the phone to the driver to put on his dashboard, but he made it clear he had no idea how to use the navigation. Instead we held onto the phone and I quickly looked up the Japanese words for left, right, and straight ahead. Somehow we got close enough for Mei Ling to recognize the street from the Airbnb photos and we tumbled out of the cab. Twenty bucks for the fare and ten for activating our cell phone service meant that we hadn't exactly saved money by skimping on the Japanese SIM card.

Our Airbnb was a machiya, a traditional wooden townhouse whose interior was classically styled with sliding paper doors, tatami floors, and exposed wooden beams. Even though I'm below average height even by Japanese standards, I still had to duck through the doorways and wedge myself into the toilet and shower rooms. The biggest surprise was the bathtub which was a round well sunk about three feet into the floor. I don't think most elderly people or anyone with a significant physical disability could have negotiated it. I have to admit it was fun tossing all three kids into it and pretending that I was making soup.

The other draw of our Airbnb was that it was centrally located, just across the Kamo River from the main downtown attractions. The river originates in the mountains north of Kyoto and courses south through the eastern part of the city before merging with the larger Katsura River. Kyoto historically had trouble with flooding from its rivers but with improved drainage and concrete reinforcements the Kamo seems to have been welcomed to the urban landscape. People stroll the promenade on the western bank which is also lined with restaurants that feature balconies for outdoor dining. The entrances to the restaurants are on Pontocho Alley, a pedestrian street that runs parallel to the river.

Japan doesn't have the culture of buying fresh food at community markets that is shared among most other East Asian countries. Typically these types of markets in Japan are mainly geared at tourists, but they are still a good way to experience the variety of Japanese cuisine in a lively setting. Nishiki Market is the only street market for food that I was able to find in Kyoto. The market takes place every day on a long covered arcade whose narrowness ensures it is consistently crowded. The market features snack stalls, small restaurants, grocery stores, pickles and dried foods, and some boutiques selling traditional art and tableware. Most of the customers were clearly tourists and prices were generally high but not exorbitant.

We were able to feed ourselves pretty well, first with rice bowls in a restaurant and then with fresh seafood prepared a la carte at the market. It's hard to resist live oysters and sea urchins that are being opened right in front of you.

On the way back to the bridge we took a quick walk up and down Pontocho Alley to scout out possible dinner locations. It was a little early for most of the establishments to be open but the vibe seemed very promising. Pretty much every building appeared to be a restaurant.

Kyoto is much smaller than its neighbor Osaka but much better known to Western tourists. One of the reasons for that is areas like Gion, a neighborhood just to the south of our Airbnb on the eastern side of the Kamo. Gion is the most historically preserved neighborhood of Kyoto, full of machiyas and traditional teahouses where customers are still entertained by geishas. There are many women wandering Gion in geisha-type costumes but the vast majority are tourists who have rented them for the day to spice up their photos.

Gion is also the site of several important shrines including Yasui Konpira-gu where people crawl through a narrow hole in a creepy-looking rock completely engulfed in white prayer strips. The sight of people emerging from the hole seemed like it might have been the inspiration for more than one J-horror movie.

Just to the east of Gion is the Higashiyama area which contains a small network of pedestrian streets that are a hive of tourist activity during the day. Of course the scene was very commercial which rendered the traditional architecture of the buildings irrelevant. It was a great example of what I call Epcot Syndrome, in which an authentic location over-commercializes itself to such an extent that it becomes indistinguishable from the Disney World pavilion for its country. The best known streets are Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka, both of which include long staircases lined with shops.

One of the more enjoyable parts of our walk was when we took a side street seeking a shortcut. The street eventually ended in a dead end, which explained why the tourist crowds completely vaporized as soon as we turned off the main pedestrian artery. It turned out to be a great opportunity to experience an authentic Japanese neighborhood in complete peace and quiet just a hundred meters from the artificial madness.

The morning flow of tourist traffic in Gion leads to Kiyomizu-dera. Visiting shrines is the main way that tourists in Kyoto keep themselves busy and prove the completeness of their experience on social media. Our preference is for markets and neighborhood walks but it's hard to visit Kyoto and forgo shrines entirely. The shrine sits atop a hill that requires the ascension of several flights of stairs. At the top are views of the city to the west and a forested mountainous area to the east. Kyoto reminded me a little of Seoul in that there are some impressively wild and uninhabited areas within the densely populated urban expanse. There was quite a lot to see outside the formal entrance to the shrine so we decided not to join the hordes of tourists lining up to pay the admission fee.

We still had some time before dinner so we took the bus north to the Philosopher's Path close to the eastern edge of Kyoto. I was expecting to find this well-known walking trail quite crowded on a pleasant Saturday afternoon but as it turned out we saw hardly anyone at all. The path follows the course of a shallow canal that is fed by mountain springs in the area, and derives its name from the philosopher Nishida Kitaro who used it to reach Kyoto University from his home in the early twentieth century. The path is lined with cherry trees but I was glad we weren't there during sakura season so that we could have the walk to ourselves. Despite the absence of foot traffic in that moment, a bank of colorful and elaborate vending machines testified that the path had the potential to be overrun with thirsty visitors.

Once we had completed the scenic portion of the path we continued our walk into residential areas alongside the canal. We hoped to come across a restaurant but the neighborhood seemed to be devoid of commercial activity. We didn't mind the opportunity to see some immaculate and uniquely Japanese houses in a completely untouristed corner of Kyoto.

Soon we abandoned the idea of stumbling upon a restaurant area and I employed the Restaurants Nearby function of TripAdvisor, which has often proven invaluable in our travels. This time was no exception as it guided us towards the major avenue in the area where we found several restaurants. We chose Okariba and were greeted by an elderly man with a serene demeanor who directed us to a booth containing a wooden table with a central robata grill. The stools were short sections of logs with cushions on top. He quietly whisked away a sign on the table that marked it as reserved. We didn't try to speak any English and neither did he, but he produced an English menu with pictures of intriguing dishes such as grasshoppers, horse sashimi, and grilled boar. Crisp and refreshing beer arrived in large frosted mugs and was a welcome companion as we worked our way through most of the items on the menu. The proprietor was never far away, beaming at our kids. A few other groups showed up at the door while we were seated and he turned them all away. I had a distinct feeling that we probably would have encountered that same fate if we hadn't had the kids with us. I think he sensed that we really needed his restaurant at the moment we walked in, and we returned his generosity by eating as quietly and courteously as we could. Looking back on our stay in Kyoto it's clear to me that this evening was the highlight of our visit. A warm welcome and delicious food after a peaceful walk in a beautiful place, and best of all we had discovered the real Kyoto without another tourist in sight.

The next morning we had to brave a downpour in our plastic ponchos. Fortunately our first destination was the Daimaru department store food court so we made a quick detour upstairs and bought the kids some real raincoats. According to the forecast it was going to rain frequently for the rest of our stay in Japan so it seemed like a smart investment.

Japanese department store basement food courts, or depachika, are the stuff of legend and have influenced food culture all over East Asia. I still have vivid memories of my first experience with them in Tokyo thirty-five years ago. The enormous selection of sashimi and cooked foods at Daimaru was overwhelming. It was like eating at a restaurant with a menu the size of a phone book, with all the time in the world to browse the selections and choose whatever made our stomachs growl the loudest. It's certainly not cheap eats, but still less expensive than eating equivalent food at a restaurant. We put together an enormous meal of roast cod, conventional and exotic sashimi, and seafood salads and consumed it in a basement coffee shop.

Based on my research from travel guides and blogs, most Western tourists in Kyoto spend their visit traipsing from shrine to temple to shrine with an emphasis on the ones with the most impressive visuals. I knew I wanted to visit Ryoan-ji because I had memories of being there with my parents as a teenager, and that made its neighbor Kinkaku-ji an obvious choice as well. I knew exactly what to expect if we went to see the famous torii gates at Fushimi Inari Temple or the Sagano bamboo forest in Arashiyama: crowds of tourists jostling each other for the perfect Instagram photo. We decided to keep the impression we had of those places from the flawless pictures on the internet rather than spoil the illusion.

Kinkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji are just outside the northwestern edge of the urbanized Kyoto area, in the foothills of the Kitayama mountain range. Kyoto is surrounded on all sides except the south by mountains which create a sharp delineation between urbanized and wilderness areas. A very detailed and interesting description of Kyoto's topography can be read here. Kinkaku-ji can be accessed from downtown by an easy bus ride. Now that we had paid for internet access and were using Google Maps, getting around Kyoto by bus had become quite easy. The only downside was the frequent fearful looks our hyperactive kids elicited from middle aged Japanese women as they hopped from seat to seat.

Kinkaku-ji is probably Kyoto's number one tourist attraction because the pavilion's upper floors are covered in gold leaf. Cover pretty much anything in gold leaf and people will come to see it. Try it with your house! In terms of the history or cultural significance of the temple, I doubt one in twenty of the visitors had a clue and we were no different. I only learned later that the golden pavilion is a modern reconstruction of the 14th century structure that was burned to the ground by a schizophrenic novice monk in 1950. The temple was crowded but not obnoxiously so and it was possible to get a few pictures without being photobombed. It's unquestionably a splendid building in an attractive setting, but we didn't linger very long.

Most people take the bus between Kinkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji rather than walking twenty minutes, but we were too impatient to wait. Three buses passed us as we walked between the two temples, but we got to take a close look at the exterior of the Insho Domoto Museum of Fine Arts which was a very intriguing structure in its own right.

The Zen rock garden at Ryoan-ji is one of the emblematic images of Kyoto. We arrived in the late afternoon not long before the 5 PM closing time and were rewarded with a relatively empty temple. The symbolism of the rock garden has been lost over the centuries, if there was ever any at all. Lover of greenery and landscaping that I am, I prefer the less photographed moss garden at the rear of the temple. It wasn't the first time that I've retraced the footsteps I took as a child traveling with my parents, but it was one of my clearer memories and elicited some contemplation about the passage of time. I was sharing an experience with my own beautiful wife and children that my parents had originally given to me, and I could imagine the pride they would have felt if they were still alive.

I had researched a couple of fun and unique food experiences for our last evening in Kyoto. At Alpha foods & drink, close to Nij┼Ź Castle, we bought a Cloud Coffee and a potted plant chocolate dessert. The cotton candy cloud suspended over the steaming coffee will eventually melt and "rain" into the coffee, but our kids didn't have enough patience for that. They were also highly amused by the diapered terrier that roamed the cafe.

Menbaka Fire Ramen is unquestionably a tourist trap that no Kyoto resident would want to be caught dead in. In fact, the first thing the staff asks when you enter the restaurant is which country you come from. The truth is I'm not averse to touristy stuff if I think it's fun, I just won't go somewhere only because it's considered obligatory. Also, I couldn't wait to see the kids' faces when the flames shot up in front of them. Fortunately the restaurant is well-prepared for the selfie aspect of the experience. As soon as we sat down they cautioned us that it was not safe to take our own video as the flaming oil was poured, but they placed my phone in one of the many holders that was attached to the kitchen equipment in the ceiling. The video came out much better than any I could have managed on my own, and the kids' jubilant expressions were very gratifying. The ramen itself was perfectly good, although I'm not enough of a ramen enthusiast to say if it was in any way distinguished from any non-flaming ramen we might have encountered in another restaurant.

Menbaka had been fun but we weren't about to let a bowl of ramen be the coda of our eating experience in Kyoto. We returned to Pontocho Alley and picked the most promising izakaya we could find. We tried almost every grilled skewer they had on their menu, from sweetbreads to Camembert, before returning home for our last night in the machiya. We had accomplished all of our goals in our two days in Kyoto and we were excited to begin our much longer visit to Osaka.

Posted by zzlangerhans 10:23 Archived in Japan Tagged kyoto japan travel shrine blog tony kiyomizu-dera kinkaku-ji ryoan-ji friedman machiya Comments (2)

East Asian Immersion: Beijing part III

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For our second stint in Beijing we decided to stay to the west of the center, in the Haidian District. We had a suite in an upscale business hotel that we'd been provided with by one of Mei Ling's friends from the Chinese community in Miami.

On our first night back we only had time to visit Qianmen Street, a pedestrianized shopping street just south of Tiananmen Square. Almsot all the stores had already closed, but it was cool to see some of Beijing's most famous gates and forts illuminated in the stillness of the night. It was the closest we would come to a Western tourist's experience in Beijing.

In the morning I saw that we were within walking distance of an interesting-looking park called Yuyuantan Park, which takes its name from the large pond that occupies most of its area. Although Beijing is one of the largest cities in the world not to be built near any major river or coastline, it contains many canals and small lakes which are sourced from natural springs. Many of the park lakes are connected by the canals and there is even a boat that can take you from the Beijing Zoo to the Summer Palace five miles away. Yuyuantan is also connected to one of the canals that eventually leads to the Summer Palace. When we arrived at the west entrance to the park and looked out over the pond it was hard to believe we were still in the center of Beijing. We were almost the only passengers on a good-sized boat that ferried us to the narrow strip of land in the center of the pond that supports the steep marble bridge.

Yuyuantan Park was a good example of why it's sometimes better to toss away one's guidebook and let Google Maps help you explore a city. While most of the Western tourists in Beijing were slogging and sweating their way around the Forbidden City that morning, we were enjoying a leisurely walk through lush greenery surrounded by water. Everywhere around us were the rhythms of daily life in Beijing, from locals strolling with umbrellas to the elderly men taking a dip in the pond. In the distance we could appreciate the hypodermic elegance of the CCTV tower.

We continued our exploration of modern Beijing at Wukesong, a neighborhood that's only known to Westerners for its large market for second-hand camera equipment. The area is now the site of a large outdoor mall with upscale restaurants and boutiques. We found an outpost of a chain restaurant that specialized in whole broiled fish smothered in savory sauces.

A welcome surprise at the mall was an exhibition of sculpture by an artist named Wang Yi, about whom I could find nothing in the English language internet. His compositions featured bald, middle-aged men in apparently uncomfortable situations such as being attached to puppet strings or tightly packed into a monument. Placards in front of the sculptures provided rather abstract, inoffensive explanations of their meanings. Perhaps it was just my unconscious bias at play, but I couldn't escape the impression that the artist was engaged in a subtle protest of totalitarianism. What could be more subversive than tricking your oppressor into celebrating your defiance by misrepresenting its true message?

The mall also featured long, tubular slides that never would have been insurable in the United States. They were accompanied by long lists of rules in the inimitable Chinese style such as "The drunk is not allowed to take part in this game."

We spent much of the afternoon at an acrobatic show that Mei Ling's friends had given her tickets to. Some of the stunts were truly terrifying, as were the apparent ages of the performers. Mei Ling ran into some of the girl acrobats during intermission who claimed to be teenagers but looked much younger. They told her they had been exclusively training and touring with the troupe since they were ten years old, but we suspected they had probably started at age seven or younger. Outside the kids got to hang out with one of the older acrobats who was taking a smoking break.

We still hadn't visited all the food streets in central Beijing and the most promising of the ones that were left seemed to be Huguosi. We were fortunate to encounter one of the local specialties at the first storefront we came to. Beijing yogurt can be recognized by the distinctive white ceramic jars with blue cow labels. We meandered down the colorful street and eventually settled on a skewer restaurant where the highlight was perfectly-crisped chicken feet. Huguosi had a more authentic feel than Nanluoguxiang and was much more focused on food rather than shopping or souvenirs.

The next morning we took the metro way out northeast almost to the 5th Ring Road to meet yet another of Mei Ling's friends at the 798 Art Zone. I had fond memories of this unique art district that had arisen from the occupation of a complex of abandoned factories and warehouses in the mid 1990's. There was still a lot to see in terms of sculpture and street art, but 798 had changed a great deal since my last visit eleven years earlier. I remembered large galleries that were full of beautiful abstract art and so few visitors that the staff often accompanied me around the exhibits to answer any questions I had. The area was much more crowded now, with many Westerners, and a large industry of coffee shops and various forms of tack. The galleries were smaller and more numerous, and many had given over space to selling things like posters and T-shirts. We searched in vain for the inspiring displays that I remembered and then succumbed to the growing impatience of the children with our efforts.

In the evening we hooked up with more Chinese contacts for a banquet at a Yunnanese restaurant in the Wudaokou neighborhood. I wasn't that impressed with the food, but the design of the restaurant and the epicurean market upstairs was very appealing.

Back at the hotel I saw Cleo preoccupied with the pen and notepad while the two boys were watching TV. We were busy packing and I didn't pay her much attention. In the morning I came across the pad on my desk and I was shocked to see that Cleo had started her own travel journal. She had recently been asking questions about my blog but I hadn't realized how interested she was. Sometimes I wonder if I've surrendered to some kind of delusion by making travel one of our family's highest priorities. I've thought that perhaps our kids would be better off spending the summers at camp with friends instead of being dragged around to places they're too young to appreciate. Seeing my seven year old starting to click not just with the joy of travel, but the idea of sharing her experiences with the world was a true epiphany that reassured me that I haven't lost my mind after all. I also had to remind myself not to underestimate my daughter. Before long I think she's going to be taking over this blog.

On the way to the airport we passed one of the strangest skyscrapers I've ever seen, which in Asia is saying a lot. Thanks to the internet I learned it's the tallest tower of Pangu Plaza and the curvaceous upper floors are intended to resemble the head of a dragon. In 2016 the building was seized from a billionaire real estate developer as part of a corruption crackdown and it is now the Chinese headquarters for IBM.

As it turned out this would be our last sight of Beijing on this trip. We had planned to return for another stay in Beijing after Japan but events took us in another direction. We didn't make it to a couple of the food streets on my list but after experiencing Nanluoguxiang and Huguosi I doubt we missed much. Beijing may be a better city now than it was in 2008 for a lot of people, but for travelers like us it has lost much of its appeal and I really don't know if or when we'll be back. We boarded our plane with great anticipation for our first visit to Japan since Cleo was a baby.

Posted by zzlangerhans 11:28 Archived in China Tagged travel china beijing blog tony night_market friedman wukesong huguosi yuyuantan Comments (6)

East Asian Immersion: Qingdao part II

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The kids weren't too happy about having been so close to the beach without getting to set foot on it, so on our second morning in Qingdao we started out at No.1 Bathing Beach on Huiquan Bay. The sand was much lighter and finer than what we'd seen by the Zhanqiao Pier the previous day. To the east we could see pagodas atop Xiaoyu Hill, a well-known scenic outlook.

We followed the shoreline southward, eventually ending up at a shallow wading spot where the kids could pick snails out from between the rocks. There were some large rocks to climb on and the decrepit remains of concrete piers that faded away into the sea.

We were now at the entrance to the Badaguan Scenic Area, a neighborhood dating back to the German concession of the early twentieth century where Westerners of many nationalities constructed mansions in different styles. The ten roads in the area are named after important strategic passes from Chinese history and each is planted with a different species of tree. Some of the more famous mansions have been converted into tourist attractions while others remain residential. Although the neighborhood is unusual for China, it doesn't seem much different from any upscale area of an average American city.

We still had most of the day ahead so we took a long metro ride to May 4th Square, the most remote on my list of things to see in Qingdao. The square is named for a popular protest against a clause of the Treaty of Versailles which transferred German concessions in Shandong to Japan rather than returning them to China. The protest culminated in the Chinese government's refusal to sign the treaty. The most recognizable feature of the square is the blood-red May Wind sculpture that symbolizes the movement.

Aside from the ubiquitous soap bubble vendors there was a surprising lack of commercial activity around the square. We found a seafood restaurant where king crabs were practically crawling out of their tanks but the prices were exorbitant and clearly targeted for tourists.

For lack of better options we headed towards a mall located within a cluster of gleaming skyscrapers. The interior design seemed to have been heavily influenced by MC Escher. We tried an indoor playground but the prices they quoted us seemed insane. Was this really China? The place seemed fairly crowded so clearly there was a decent slice of the population willing to pay the exorbitant admission. Instead we let the kids try a virtual reality ride and browse a toy store until it was time for dinner.

We started our last day at Qingdao at a restaurant where they steamed live shellfish at the table. Mei Ling didn't have her camera ready for ours so she took some video at a neighboring table. The shellfish are steamed in broth that is boiled by a gas-powered furnace built into the table. Watching the shrimp trying to flip themselves out of the pan as shells slam shut with loud clacks is a little disturbing but it's an integral part of the Chinese emphasis on food freshness.

Mei Ling had heard about another daily market in the northern reaches of the city and we took another long bus ride. I'll never say no to a market but this one hardly justified the journey. It was a particularly hot day and there wasn't anything we hadn't seen at the previous market, with the exception of the vendor selling stir-fried chicken embryos.

One of the obligatory activities for visitors to Qingdao is a trip to Laoshan Mountain. The problem for us was that without our own car there was no easy way to see the most interesting sights, which were widely dispersed in the area. Our only option would have been to take a ninety minute bus ride to see just one or two temples and some scenery while taking the risk of missing the last bus back into town. After debating it for a few minutes we decided we'd be better off visiting Qingdao's largest city park instead. Zhongshan Park is supposed to have one of the best cherry blossom displays in China but we were a couple of months late for that. We were still able to entertain ourselves by strolling the beautifully landscaped paths and eventually found the lake where we rented a paddleboat. Afterwards we followed a very strange mechanical sound to an astroturf field where an elderly man was adeptly spinning a device on a string. I'd seen street performers with these before but never one that emitted sound. Some research later informed me that it's called a whistling diabolo.

As we left we saw a multicolored display of runner cutouts across the street. One of the things I love about modern China is that these whimsical installations pop up where they are least expected, without the slightest context or explanation. It's a good reminder that sometimes the best art isn't in museums or on pedestals, but integrated into the urban environment instead.

We ended our visit to Qingdao where it had begun, at Taidong night market. It was just too good to visit only once. We had enjoyed our stay in Qingdao but the city didn't have the same magical quality as Dalian. I wasn't disappointed though, because I've traveled enough to know that an experience like Dalian comes along very rarely. Now it was time to return to Beijing for a few days before our highly-anticipated stop in Japan.

Posted by zzlangerhans 08:08 Archived in China Comments (0)

East Asian Immersion: Qingdao part I

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After our great experience with Dalian we were energized to continue with another mid-sized coastal Chinese city. Of course, in China mid-sized means 5-10 million people which would be the largest city of most countries. These cities may not be well-known internationally but the sheer number and density of residents means that there are always interesting things to do and see. Qingdao is on the southern coast of the Shandong Peninsula, which along with the Liaodong Peninsula to the north separates the Yellow Sea from the Bohai Sea.

Like Dalian, Qingdao occupies its own smaller sub-peninsula but is not anywhere near as isolated from the mainland. Aside from the roads leading north to the rest of the Shandong Peninsula, Qingdao is connected to the Huangdao District to the west by a tunnel and the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge, one of the longest bridges in the world. To the east of Qingdao are Laoshan Mountain and the surrounding national park, which is filled with Taoist temples, mountain springs, and waterfalls.

Once again our Airbnb was in an upper floor of a tall apartment building, and our views from the balcony were the best we'd had in China. To the east we could see past some interesting skyscrapers to Qingdao Bay and then Huiquan Bay. To the north were a middle school and the tall apartment complexes of the Badaxia residential district and to the south we had wide open views of Tuandao Bay and the Yellow Sea. The most interesting feature of the apartment itself was a hanging bubble chair in a sunny alcove of the main bedroom. The last thing we did every morning before leaving the apartment was to pry the kids out of it.

Meiling was able to find two night markets in Qingdao. Naturally we went to the larger one on our first night, even though it was a long haul by bus. The boys conked out as soon as a seat opened up for them.

As son as we got off the bus at Taidong it was clear that we were at a major evening destination. We arrived at a wide pedestrian street lined with boutiques and neon billboards and packed with people. We passed by a beer store where people were buying plastic bags full of beer from a huge keg. I won't even drink beer from a plastic cup, let alone a bag, so we compromised on a small plastic cask. I found the beer hard to drink as it was warm and had a strong fermented taste, not at all like the Tsingtao that comes in bottles.

The Taidong night market occupied two side streets off the main pedestrian boulevard, and it was a tour de force of Chinese street food. The number of vendors and variety of food were overwhelming, as were the dense crowds moving through the narrow lanes between the stalls. Fresh fruit and shellfish were especially impressive. The main challenge was making sure we didn't get too full before we were sure there was nothing else we wanted to try.

By the time we got back out to the pedestrian street darkness had settled but the crowds showed no sign of abating. One particularly interesting sight was the enormous and intricate murals painted on many of the apartment buildings that lined the street. The murals obviously represented some kind of coordinated municipal effort but such ostentatious decoration seemed quite out of character in China. I was reminded of the huge wall murals we saw in Spain or even the luftmalerei of Bavaria.

Our Airbnb in Badaxia was somewhat remote from the center, necessitating a bus trip to get to most of the Qingdao's attractions. Fortunately we were within walking distance of the city's largest municipal market, which provided an amazing array of produce and seafood within a cavernous warehouse.

The best part of the market was the food court, where we were able to bring our own seafood purchases and have them cooked to order. One thing that had changed from our last visit to China was that almost anything in markets could be purchased using WhatsApp. All that was necessary was a cell phone to take a picture of the vendor's QR code and a Chinese bank account, which we had access to through Mei Ling's family. Apparently the system is much less susceptible to fraud than using credit cards. We bought the most interesting and appetizing stuff we could find and the restaurant turned it into a delicious seafood feast.

There are several coastal areas which have been called the Chinese Riviera, but Qingdao is the only one that I know of in the north of the country. The southern coast of the city facing the Yellow Sea is composed of a series of semicircular bays that allowed the formation of long beaches. Since we live in Miami we don't travel for beaches, but our kids never get tired of them and it can be fun to experience the activity on the busy boardwalks. Qingdao has numerous beaches that are generally referred to by numbers, and I never bothered to figure out which was which. One of the most popular was the one on Qingdao Bay, just a short walk from the center of town. The sand was an uninviting shade of dark brown but there were a lot of people sitting on the beach in street clothes and dipping their feet at the shoreline.

At the eastern end of the beach is a long pier called Zhanqiao which projects into the center of the bay, and at the end of the pier is a traditional Chinese octagonal pavilion. People were lined up outside the pavilion for a historical photography exhibition which we passed on. From the pier we could see the island Xiao Qingdao (little Qingdao) which is connected to the mainland by a short causeway. Xiao Qingdao consists of a small park and a lighthouse, which wasn't enough to attract us for a visit.

The busiest road in central Qingdao is Zhongshan Road, which dives into the city opposite from the entrance to Zhanqiao. Several blocks north of the beach we spotted one of Qingdao's iconic landmarks, St. Michael's Cathedral. The cathedral is a remnant of the brief period of German control over Qingdao in the early twentieth century. Although the Germans lost their concession at the outbreak of World War I, several buildings with German architectural influence are still present in Qingdao. Construction of the neo-Romanesque cathedral was eventually completed in 1934 using Catholic diocese funds. The building was substantially damaged during the Cultural Revolution, the saddest aspect of which was the destruction of the 2400-pipe church organ. The cathedral was subsequently restored at the government's own expense after the repudiation of the Cultural Revolution in the 1980's. The cathedral is possibly the most beautiful sight we encountered in Qingdao. From Zhongshan Road a wide cobblestone street leads up to a low hill where the church sits in an expansive square. It's a very popular place for group photos and the toy vendors make sure the air is never free of bubbles.

Another famous building in central Qingdao is the former German governor's residence. This mansion is so opulent that the governor who ordered its construction was forced to resign after the Kaiser received the bill. Despite the rapid arrival of sunset we raced through the streets trying to find the mansion before it was too dark to see. Unfortunately I couldn't use Google Maps because of the firewall and Apple Maps ... well, the less said the better. I had a VPN but it wasn't compatible with the Chinese cellular service we were using, so we were reduced to getting directions from bystanders which ultimately led us to the wrong building. Still, it was an interesting walk through an attractive part of Qingdao.

It was now dark and we never found the Governor's mansion. However I pulled this aerial photo off the internet so that you can see what we missed. The website I took the photo from has a wealth of information about the brief German colonial era.

The other major night market in Qingdao was back on Zhongshan Road, although the entrance was so low profile we had some difficulty locating it. Pi Chai Yuan was definitely more touristy than Taidong, but the setting in narrow alleys with bright and colorful signage was more visually appealing. The food also tended to be more exotic than in Taidong, probably to be more alluring to the tourists and their cameras. One dish I hadn't seen before was blocks of tofu that were covered with a wispy white fungus or mold that had been allowed to grow on them. Eventually we came across a vendor selling various deep fried bugs and other creepy-crawlies, which brought back fond memories of Xingshun night market in Shenyang two years earlier. We settled on a large scorpion and a couple of squishy caterpillars, of which the scorpion was definitely the more enjoyable.

We had been going nonstop on our first full day in Qingdao and we'd seen some great markets and scenery. The best part was that we still had two full days to go and plenty of things left on our itinerary.

Posted by zzlangerhans 16:36 Archived in China Comments (0)

East Asian Immersion: Dalian part III

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I normally fit about two days of travel into a blog post, sometimes three, so it's strange to find myself working on my third blog post about the four days we spent in Dalian. I never expected there to be so much worth seeing and so many opportunities to take great pictures in this unheralded city. I'm not usually a history buff but I was motivated to look into Dalian's past to try to understand how it became such a unique place. I learned that thanks to its strategic location on the Bohai Strait, Dalian passed through a number of powerful hands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The British, the Russians, and the Japanese all controlled the city between 1858 and 1945. There are still some architectural remnants of these occupations in the city, but I couldn't see how that distant past had much influence on the fascinating landscape of modern Dalian. Fortunately I have the best research resource a traveler could ask for, my Chinese-born wife, who could provide more insight into this recent transformation than a hundred hours on the internet.

Dalian's location and history of occupation probably made it a mildly interesting city to visit in the 1980's, but its captivating skyscrapers, squares, and parks are a much more recent development. Essentially all of this can be laid at the feet of one formerly illustrious mayor of the city, Bo Xilai. Bo was a scion of a prominent Communist Party family which was purged during the Cultural Revolution. He emerged from a labor camp in the 1980's and worked his way back into the Party, now that the pendulum had swung in another direction. Despite an apparent lack of connection to Dalian or Liaoning Province, Bo was assigned to a government position in the area and worked his way up through party ranks to become the mayor of Dalian in 1992. He oversaw the construction of Xinghai Square at the site of the former city garbage dump and was also responsible for the creation of Labor Park and several museums. In 2001 Bo became governor of Liaoning and in 2007 he ascended to the highest level of the Chinese central government. Between 2007 to 2011, he was the most prominent rising political star in China and many assumed he was on his way to being president. All of that ended in 2011 with a murder scandal that led to uncovering of widespread corruption and eventually life imprisonment. It seems that during Bo's few years of enormous power he decided to make Dalian a showplace of modernization, likely intending to use the city as a staging ground for a run at the presidency. Once he was a member of the Politburo, Bo likely diverted domestic financial resources to Dalian and also was involved in numerous foreign investment deals which led to the enormous number of skyscrapers that are still being built. Whether the city can sustain its growth now that its benefactor has been disgraced remains to be seen. It seems impossible that there would be enough wealthy citizens and businesses to fill all the new skyscrapers, so perhaps Dalian is destined to become a futuristic ghost town. I feel fortunate to have been able to see the city in possibly its greatest moment.

We kicked off our last full day in the food court of a Chinese department store not far from Eton Place. I'd seen how China was developing these food courts along the model of Japan and Korea two years earlier in Mudanjiang, but the size and sophistication of this display was quite impressive. There was a mouth-watering selection of produce, delicatessen items, and freshly-prepared fast food that was fundamentally Chinese but had enough international spin to generate a cosmopolitan atmosphere. Just as striking was the liveliness and amount of foot traffic in the food court despite the relatively high prices. Ten years ago a scene like this would have been hard to imagine outside of Shanghai.

We had a long bus ride through the southern part of Dalian to the Laohutan Scenic Area. This part of the peninsula is filled with stocky little mountains that have residential communities packed into the narrow valleys between them. It wasn't unusual to see apartment buildings jammed up against steep hillsides and I wondered how safe they were from landslides.

The bus dropped us off in front of Laohutan Ocean Park, an expensive theme park that contains an aquarium and a coral museum and features live performances with marine mammals. We had one of the world's most renowned aquariums coming up soon in Osaka so we gave the theme park a pass and walked across the bridge over the Ziyou Canal towards the famous sculpture that gives the area its popular name of Tiger Beach. The enormous marble tigers seemed to be leaping through the evergreens at the base of the hillside. A couple of souvenir vendors were demonstrating a styrofoam model plane and didn't seem to mind when the kids took it over. From the hill above us cable cars were transporting tourists across Laohutan Bay to the aquarium.

Close to the tiger sculpture is the entrance to Bird Singing Woods, which is part of Laohutan Ocean Park but has a much more reasonable entry price as an individual attraction. This is a quite impressive bird park housing thousands of birds on a steep hill covered in netting. There are apparently 150 different species of birds in the park, but the most prominent were guinea hens, spoonbills, and peacocks. Feeding the birds was encouraged, naturally with the birdseed that was on sale inside the park. The birds were quite experienced and aggressive and our kids were no match for them.

Most of the visitors stayed at the base of the hill but we followed the path to the top where the peacocks were clearly in charge. Even with their tails closed, these are incredibly beautiful birds and there were an amazing number of them perched on branches and railings. The netting filtered and diffused what little sunlight made it through the clouds and it was easy to forget that we were in a bird sanctuary and not atop a mountain far from civilization.

Back on ground level we were just in time to catch a show with parrots that were trained to fly into the crowd and ferry bank notes from the audience back to their handler. The combination of entertainment and con-artistry was quintessentially Chinese and I was happy to contribute all the small denomination currency I had to the endeavor.

The coastal drive through the mountains along Binhai Middle Road is supposed to be another highlight of Dalian, but we didn't see anything remarkable from the windows of our taxi. Eventually we found ourselves back at Xinghai Square, where we ate dinner at a Japanese restaurant and let the kids have another round of entertainment in the amusement park. It was a much foggier evening than our previous visit and the skyscrapers seemed like ghostly apparitions in the mist.

On our first visit to Xinghai Square we'd missed the evening light show at the fountain. As the moment approached, people began streaming to the center of the oval where there was an enormous circular pool. The water jets had already started to shoot into the air, illuminated in vivid colors and accompanied by haunting violin music. I tried to hold the kids back, expecting the crowd to become too dense for safety, but they were able to get all the way to the front. As the fog slowly lifted, the sparkling, disembodied cables of the Xinghaiwan Bridge came into view behind us.


We had finally worn the kids out and by the time we had found our way back to Zhongyuan food street for a late snack the older two were out cold. In the morning we went straight to the airport for our flight to Qingdao. Mei Ling stopped briefly at a cosmetics counter at the mall in Eton Place where the salesperson's T-shirt provided us with an optimistic farewell from one of the most fascinating cities I've ever visited.

Posted by zzlangerhans 21:46 Archived in China Tagged travel china liaoning dalian travel_blog laohutan xinghai_square tony_friedman zzlangerhans Comments (0)

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