Semester at Sea

This semester I will be on a ship taking classes and traveling to different countries. I will visit Cadiz, SPAIN ~ Casablanca, MOROCCO ~ Takoradi, GHANA ~ Cape Town, SOUTH AFRICA ~ Port Louis, MAURITIUS ~ Chennai, INDIA ~ SINGAPORE ~ Ho Chi Minh City, VIET NAM ~ Hong Kong/Shanghai, CHINA ~ Kobe/Yokohama, JAPAN ~ Honolulu/Hilo, HAWAII ~ San Diego, USA.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

11112010 - 11162010. Ni Hao, China!

When we got off the ship in Hong Kong, we realized we were docked at a mall – the jet way from the ship opened up literally in the middle of the mall. First we spent some time looking for an ATM, but the mall was a maze. It was the biggest one I’ve ever seen! By the time we found an ATM and made a few other pit stops, it was lunch time. We stopped at a place called BLT Burger and discovered how expensive Hong Kong would be – I had a Diet Coke and mozzarella sticks off the appetizer menu and it was $14! It was really good though!
Someone had told us that a cool thing to do is take the tram from one side of the island to the other for sightseeing. We took a taxi to one side of the island and hopped on the tram. It was slow, but it was still fun. We didn’t make it to the other side of the island though because we found an area that we wanted to explore. First I stopped at a little stall to get coffee. The place looked a little sketch at first, but it turned out to be the most delicious coffee! We walked around a little and then found an outdoor market on one of the side streets. It was full of all kinds of Chinatown-like stuff. We got some tights and socks since we knew it was going to be very cold in Beijing, and then we started to head back to the ship since it was getting dark. We changed quickly and then ran out of the mall so we could catch the Symphony of Lights show that they do every night at 8pm. It was like the synchronized Christmas lights show some people do on their house, but it was with all the big buildings across the river. Most people thought it was lame, but I loved it! After that we went to Soho and had a really good dinner. Soho was so pretty and fun – there were a lot of British expats walking around, and the whole feel of the place reminded me of Chicago or New York. Also, while we were there we went on the longest outdoor elevator in the world! Haha

After getting ready, eating breakfast, and packing, we didn’t have any time to explore more of Hong Kong before we left for Beijing. We took the metro to the train station and then a two hour train ride to Guangzhou in mainland China. The train was so fancy…it was like an airplane. From there we took the metro again to the airport. The airport was nice, and it was HUGE. I was really surprised for some reason. We checked in for our flight and then got dinner at a “fast food” place. I got “fried noodles in soy sauce” which was basically just lo mein. It was so good! I was relieved that my first encounter with real Chinese food was a success.
Not long after that we boarded the plane, which was also super fancy. There were little TVs on the headrests and there was a long list of movies and TV shows we could watch or music we could listen to. I watched Shrek 4. :] After they came around with drinks, they served dinner. I asked for vegetarian because foreign meat kind of grosses me out. It wasn’t bad…I stuck to the rice, roll and orange and left the tofu alone. Haha Anyway, we finally got to Beijing and were immediately hit by the cold weather. We got in the line for a taxi, but there was a lot of confusion because they didn’t understand the address for the hostel. None of them spoke English, so I still have no idea what was wrong with it. One driver finally agreed and said he knew where it was, but like so many other taxi drivers we’ve encountered, he just drove to the area, stopped the car, and started asking people on the streets. It got to be a little frustrating because it was past midnight, we had been traveling all day, and all of his stopping was running up the meter. We were able to pantomime our concern, and he turned off the meter. It took a while, but we eventually made it to the hostel. It was in a side street that looked a little scary, but it was really nice inside! We checked in, got settled, and relaxed for a little bit. The bed was so soft and cozy…it was one of the best night’s sleeps I’ve had in a while!

The next morning we were up bright and early to take a trip to the Great Wall. We booked it through the hostel because it was cheaper than going through a tour company, and it was less of a hassle than trying to take a cab there and do everything on our own. It turned out to be a good decision because the tour was perfect. The drive was almost two hours, and I slept most of the way. We got there and had about three hours to do as we pleased. We decided to go in the direction that was a less intense hike but was longer. We had to take a chairlift to the entrance, but it was so crazy to actually be on the wall! It was a more intense workout than I had expected – there were a lot of stairs and steep hills. It was absolutely beautiful though with all of the mountains in the background and the weather was pretty mild. I would have loved to be there in the summer when all the leaves are green. We walked as far as we could go, about 4km, and then turned back. We took a toboggan down which was so much fun!! I felt like a bobsledder or something. Haha At the bottom there was a little shopping lane, and naturally we had to buy panda hats! Then we walked past all the fruit vendors and tried samples of everything.
We walked to the restaurant to meet the rest of the group for lunch. The lunch was really good! It was basically rice and a lot of vegetable dishes in different sauces. There was even something that was similar to orange chicken! I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.
After lunch we went back to the hostel. We put on more layers and drank some coffee to warm us up. Then we went out to walk around. The sun sets really early in China, so it was already dark by the time we went out. We took some pictures in front of the Forbidden city with everything lit up, walked by Tiananmen Square, and then went to a night market. It was all lit up and pretty, and it made me think of Christmas. I got some Starbucks along the way…my first since August! I tried the toffee nut latte, and it was soo good! Our first stop in the market was an “everything for 2 yuan store”, which is about 33cents. We picked up a few random things and I got some $3 North Face gloves because my hands were sooo cold. We walked through the rest of the market and then went back to the hostel.

The communism was pretty obvious  - there were soldiers marching everywhere we went and each light post had a camera on it; it all reminded me so much of the book 1984.

On our way back, they were doing a water show to music in front of the Forbidden City, so we stopped to watch. It was really cool! We ate dinner at the hostel because we were already kind of over Chinese food (it wasn’t bad, but it was just so oily). And it seemed like everything I saw on the streets had some kind of sketchy meat in it.
After dinner we started talking to one of the guys in our room. He is American but teaches English is Korea. We had a great conversation, and it was interesting to talk to him!

We were up bright and early again to pack everything into our last day in Beijing. We went to the Forbidden City and saw the Winter Palace. Then we took the metro to the other side of town to see the Bird’s Nest they built for the Olympics. It was cool to see, but it didn’t seem as spectacular knowing that the government displaced so many people in order to build it. That was the weird thing about China – everything seemed like a façade they were using to flaunt their growth and progress, but it seemed like underneath it all was something not so pretty. It’s hard to say what China is really like because first, I wasn’t able to connect with any Chinese people and second, no one is willing to say anything that might get them in trouble. Everything might be great, but deep down I don’t think it is. In my economics class we’ve been talking about what promotes development and it’s interesting because it’s not always democracy. In fact, an authoritarian government is somewhat necessary at the beginning stages of development, BUT democracy is needed later on for a country to fully develop. Therefore, China has done well with the government promoting progress and growth, but it will be interesting to see how long they can continue to grow while still remaining communist.
That was a long tangent, but anyway after that we went to the Summer Palace, ate lunch and then went to the Silk Market. I had heard such great things about this market, but I was a little disappointed. They didn’t have anything different from Vietnam, and it was all generally more expensive. So we just walked through and soaked up the experience – it was similar to Vietnam with all the shop keepers grabbing our arms and asking us if we wanted a watch, a shirt, some shows, jewelry, cameras, etc.
The night market was a lot cheaper than the Silk Market, so we went back there one last time. Then we picked up our stuff at the hostel and took the metro to the train station to take the night train to Shanghai.
The train station was crazy – it was PACKED with people. We boarded the train and as soon as we got on, we started to panic a little. We had gotten “hard” sleeper tickets because they were a lot cheaper than “soft” sleeper. I knew that it would be a chair instead of a bed, but I figured how bad can it be? I was definitely spoiled with the train and the plane at the beginning because it was pretty bad.
First of all, when we got on our car, every seat was taken and people were standing in the aisles. My first thought was that we had gotten there too late and would have to stand or sit in the aisle the whole night. I was freaking out but then I realized that our tickets had seat numbers on them. We found or seats and kicked the people out who were sitting there.
Then I realized that the seats were more like a bench and we were facing another bench with a table in between us. The seat by the window wasn’t too bad, but if you were in the center or the aisle seat, there was no way to curl up and you literally had to sleep sitting up straight. It was pretty cramped too – I couldn’t stretch out my legs without kicking the guys across from us. We tried to make the best of it though. We started to talk to the guys across from us but they didn’t know any English. They put in movie that was in English and had Chinese subtitles. I watched it for a while, but then I got really sleepy. I tried to sleep sitting but that didn’t really work. Eventually I gave up and curled up in a free spot I found in the aisle. It wasn’t much better, but I was able to get a little sleep. I woke up super early and eventually I just gave up trying to sleep. I listened to some music and watched out the window. I couldn’t find the bathroom on the train and not a single person spoke English. With everything combined, I was completely miserable by the time we got to Shanghai, but I was thankful to be there. I was about to pee my pants, so I ran to the first bathroom I saw. I guess it wasn’t a good decision though because it was the most disgusting and archaic squat toilet I’ve ever seen. We went to the taxi lane again and again we had trouble with the address (I think someone on the ship used Google translator for the address because when someone told us what it meant it made no sense). Again, the driver took us to the area and then stopped to ask people along the way. When we finally got to the port and I could see the ship, I almost started crying with joy.
I ran straight to the shower…it felt soo good to be clean again! We got lunch on the ship and then watched The Social Network which we had picked up in one of the markets. Even though we had already cleared customs in mainland China, the immigration officials had to check our passports, which took a few hours, before we could leave the ship again. Once our passports were ready, we went out to explore Shanghai. We saw some other SASers on their way back to the ship and asked them what we should do since we hadn’t looked up anything for Shanghai. They told us about a cool area to go and a place to do a tea ceremony. We went there and the whole place was really pretty. They gave us great directions because we were able to find the tea place, but when we got there, they were already closed. I was super bummed. We walked around a little more and then went back to the ship. I was so exhausted that I ended up going to bed not long after that.

The next morning we went to another part of Shanghai and ended up in like a market type shopping plaza. Then we found a Subway and had lunch. I didn’t really taste like normal Subway, but it was still really good. We went back to the same area we were at the night before and walked around. I felt bad that I spent most of my time in Shanghai shopping, but there wasn’t much else to do there – it was similar to Singapore in that they are both “mall cultures.” When I talked to others they felt the same way, so I didn’t feel as bad.
Before we went back to the ship, we went to the famous Bund and took a bunch of pictures with the beautiful skyline. It was such a gorgeous city! We went back on the ship and sailed down the river towards Japan later that night!

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