21 July 2011


In no way do I intend to trivialize my experience in China (or anyone else's for that matter), but I will say that the list of places I saw while in Beijing came out of a travel guide. I saw the Great Wall, of course, and the Summer Palace, the Ming Tombs, and the site of the 2008 Olympics. I traveled with my fellow tea scammed for the week that I was there, which didn't help to separate me from all of the other tourists meandering the same route of historic places.

As redeeming as it was to share tales of Chinese landmarks when home and have friends and family actually know what I was talking about, travel is more worthwhile when I don't come home with a host of stories that could have come out of Frommer's. (No offense Frommer's)

It's easy to get lost in the crowd in a new city, but if you're paying attention you might pick up on a couple of things like these to distinguish your trip...

Foridden City take one...

And take two...

Despite the inevitable crowds at The Summer Palace, there's peace to be found on-site at Kunming Lake. You wont regret renting a paddle boat and taking in the sights from afar.   

The PekingUni International Youth Hostel is an extension of campus dorms that will land you in a bunk next to a variety of students and travelers from all over the world. I happened to meet a professor from Shanghai and a lost adventurer whose next stop was Cambodia. I recommend bringing an extra blanket to this dig - the two sleeping options are under the thin blanket provided, or with arms and legs exposed using the blanket as a sort of cushion for the mattress, or I should say board, below.

Down the street from the hostel is Lush Bar, which sits atop a bookstore and some other clothing shops. It's an American-style pub and open mic venue owned by an Australian and one of China's former pop stars. Be careful with the giant electric blue Adios Mothafuckas- after one of those I was singing an old Dave Matthews favorite (off-key and 3 beats behind) to the room of strangers.

We saw an acrobatics show that was a humble Cirque de Soleil with performers so bendy I felt compelled to do more yoga upon returning home.

Immediately after being tea scammed, we stumbled upon what I like to call "the skewer festival"- an outdoor food market with snacks on sticks for strong stomachs, and adventurous eaters. I ate snake and banana cakes. My friends grubbed on chicken stir fry wraps ans silkworm. Also available at this market: starfish, shrimp, scorpion, squid, cat and dog. 

08 May 2011

The Tea Scam

It was hard not to follow Janie. She wanted to practice her English with us. She complemented our beautiful skin. And she offered to lead us out of the cold and away from the swarms of other tourists.

After a long night at the ice bar in Hong Kong and an early morning flight, we were exhausted when we arrived in Beijing. Despite our fatigue, we'd adopted the traveler's "I'll sleep when I get home" mentality, so we headed out to visit Tiananmens Square.

The sun lay close to the horizon for more than half the day, reminding us that we were across the world from home. When it finally did go down, we found ourselves buying expired "2008 Olympics" beanies to stay warm.

When Janie approached us I wondered how she found us, or why she chose us, in the sea of other visitors at the world's largest city square. When I look back at the photos and consider our head wear, I realize how easy it was for her to spot us, even from across the site's 440,000 square meters.

When Janie spoke our language and offered to lead us to a restaurant with some of China's most authentic cuisine, we gladly accepted her invitation. We followed her white leather-shoed footsteps out of the square and into a series of dark streets, all lined with tall brick walls. She adjusted her sparkling headband often, chatting away about her love for the American Pie movies and the Backstreet Boys. We adjusted our beanies further down over our ears as the cold night set in, and continued to follow this stranger who promised a Chinese experience different than the tourist trap at the Square.

We emerged out of the walled alley ways onto a busy street with red lanterns hanging across skyscrapers above. Janie led us to a small restaurant brimming with eaters and imbibers. "It's too busy here," she complained. "Let's go get a beer first."

So we followed her again through the maze of brick walls, disappearing again into the dark network of alleyways. This time when we came out, we were on a darker, quiet street. I wished there were lanterns -it was so dark, and bitter cold, and I was starting to wonder why we'd walked so far for a brew. Wasn't there alcohol on the busy street we'd been on before?

Janie knocked on a dark green door. A grandmother-like woman silently opened it up and motioned for us to come inside. She counted the eight of us, and corralled four of my friends into one small room, and four of us into another. Before I could ask where the beer was and what the hell we were doing, another woman came in and delivered teacups and a variety of herbs to our table. She didn't speak either, but she began filling our cups with samples of tea - ginseng, jasmine, fruit tea, wheat tea, green tea, black tea.

Janie translated. "This is a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. These small cups are meant to be drank in three sips. Place your pointer finger and thumb around the rim of the cup and your middle finger underneath. Go ahead, try it."

We drank the small cups of tea in three sips each. Janie instructed the guys in our group to stack up their other two fingers underneath their middle fingers while drinking, and the girls to point theirs out. This was a sign of male professionalism and female beauty, she said. I wondered if my other four friends were also stacking their fingers in the other tiny room.

Janie taught us "Gan Bei," or cheers, and encouraged us to keep trying the different varieties of tea. I had no idea where in China I was, how I would get back to my hostel, or where the food and beer I'd been promised was, but the tea was delicious so I kept sipping.

Ten varieties of tea later, and yet another woman came in to deliver receipts. They were written in Chinese, obviously, so Janie continued translating. "500 Yuan... each." 

My friends and I stared at each other in shock. We hadn't been given a menu, and we had never expected to rack up a bill of $75 American dollars each. We looked to Janie hoping to find similar shock in her face, but all we saw were her sparkling headband and cheerful smile flashing back at us.

So we paid. We came out of the little room to find our four other friends similarly awestruck by the price of the tea ceremony, and the distinct suspicion that we'd all been scammed.

Janie stayed behind at the tea house, where she had clearly come from in the first place, and bid us farewell before we walked back out into the cold, dark alleyway. We walked away in silence, with absolutely no idea where we were going. We pulled our beanies back down over our ears.

04 January 2011

24 Hours in Hong Kong

I don’t step onto land when I step off the ship in Hong Kong. Instead, I step into a hallway portal that spits me out into a fluorescently lit shopping mall. There’s a Starbucks next to Calvin Klein with a stack of newspapers on the counter all featuring Barak Obama’s face on the front cover. Today is November 13th, 2008.

It feels like a mile of window shopping before I see sunlight. I wait for the ferry from Kowloon Island to Hong Kong Island while Taylor buys an egg something from a street vendor.

 We get off the ferry and onto a two-story cab/bus that weaves between skyscrapers that make me feel as if I’m inside of a video game.

We ride the trolley up to Victoria Peak.

We stroll the Hong Kong Botanic Gardens…

And Hong Kong Park.

We catch the ferry back to Kowloon Island…

so that we can catch the light show at nightfall.

Before the night is through we’ll go over the ferry once more to drink at The Russian Vodka room, a bar made of ice. Too bad I’m allergic to vodka. I went for the parka, anyway.