Amber and I set out on this adventure with the hope of blending in everywhere we went and looking as little like a typical tourist as possible. It proved impossible in China for some reason. But that was ok as we learned. As we approached a Chinese vendor or store check out, they could tell from their first look at us that we had no idea what was going on and their expectations of us were, thus, very comfortably low. In Russia however, we genuinely do seem to blend in. So when we step up to the grocery store check out, set down our collection of the most Russian looking items we could find to sample, and deliver our well rehearsed, and flawless sounding, “zdrastvuyte,” their expectations of us are naturally high and the clerk fires back in break-neck speed whatever question she has already asked a thousand times that day of every other customer. What she gets in return, however, is a look I can only guess must resemble a dumbfounded Minion as we try to figure out was that; “bag or no bag,” “card or cash,” “did you find everything you needed,” “will you be using your membership points today?” We have no idea! We have learned to speak loudly in English while waiting in line in an attempt to lower expectations.
At the southernmost point of Eastern Russia’s Pacific Coast is the bustling port city of Vladivostok. It is tucked into a large bay off the Sea of Japan, with the border of China only 100 kilometers to the west and the border of North Korea 150 kilometers to the south. Millions of tones of shipping pass through the port every year but thanks to its beaches, cafes, night life, beautiful scenery, monuments, museums, and amazing summer weather it has become a premium vacation destination as well.
One week is far too short of time to experience Hong Kong. What an amazingly diverse, beautiful, fun, and friendly place! Whether we were riding the worlds longest outdoor escalator system, hopping a double-decker trolley, or ordering some cuisine unique to Hong Kong, we could not help but feel genuinely welcomed. Navigating the rarely straight streets, seeing the sights, and observing the amalgamation of so many cultures is just plain fun! In addition, the Olympics were on Hong Kong tv’s all over the place. What a great time to be in such an international city! It all felt so, well, international.
Over the years I must have seen dozens of t-shirts, greeting cards and motivational office wall hangings that say something to the effect of: “life is a journey, not a destination”. (I always thought that was just something people with no direction in life told themselves to make themselves feel better.) But I think I am beginning to realize the validity of the concept. Amber and I spent 38 hours straight traveling from our house sit gig to Hong Kong. We rode one bus, two trains, and three subway lines and by the time we reached our hostel we were feeling more like Yaaaawwwn Travelers.
It is hard to believe Amber and I have been in Chengdu for six weeks already! We have seen so much and our time here has absolutely flown by. We have explored many areas of the city, sampled all kinds of food and met so many truly friendly people. Whether we were riding a bus, shopping in a grocery store or buying street food – this city has been very welcoming to us and it has been an amazing experience getting to feel like a real part of it. Here are just a few images to, hopefully, give you a taste as well. (That first picture of Amber with our big blue umbrella reminds me of the Morton Salt girl.)
In China, people refer to the giant panda as their national treasure. Everywhere we look in Chengdu there are panda statues, wall paintings, t-shirts, back packs, kiddy rides and Kung Fu Panda references. The city is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding and people here are absolutely crazy about pandas. (Like this giant atop a building on Chunxi Road.)
The familiar yellow “falling prices” arrow greeted us at the door of the closest Wal-Mart one rainy day. The three Chinese characters used for Wal-Mart are pronounced Wo-er-ma. These characters were only chosen because the sounds they represent approximate the sound of the words Wal-Mart. (If they were literally translated it could mean either “rich like that” or “irrigate you”. Stateside, Wal-Marts are often a culture unto themselves, and we thought visiting one here would be an interesting country to country comparison.The color scheme, sign-age, and layout, initially all felt so familiar. But we did not have to shop long before we noticed little oddities. Not big things at first – not things that made you feel like you were not in the U.S. – no, more just like a slightly alternate dimension. For example: when did Nestle start making Cheerios?
Roaming the city streets and riding the busses we see a lot of faces. We are constantly wondering; where people are going, what is going on in their lives, where do they work, where do they live? It is dizzying to attempt to comprehend the incalculable number of events, in a city (proper) of eight million, that brought any one individual to that exact point in space at that exact moment in time, where we also happen to be – to take note of them and that moment. Sometimes I can capture these moments with the camera.
Our 1200 mile trek inland from Shanghai to Chengdu by fast train started at 4:45 am by fast taxi. The driver picked us up at our hostel right on time and hurtled through the early morning dark, weaving, honking, accelerating, and braking. It was a Sunday morning and, as we rode, we got to catch a glimpse of the weekend nightlife – just before it had to face the sunrise. We got in line with everyone waiting for the station to open to catch the first trains out for the day. The train station reader boards were not as universally readable as the subway system or international airports and we spent a lot of time squinting at boarding platform designations and figuring out the Chinese characters for “departing” “gate” and “security screening”. Our train was one of the modern fast rail lines and it felt much more like a roomy jet inside than a train. It made the trip in about 14 hours traveling at a speed of 200 kph, (124 mph!) We hurtled through farmlands, over the mountains, through tunnel after tunnel and over bridge after bridge. We flew through torrential rain storms, fog, and even saw a little blue sky. Most of the trip the outside of our window was too wet or fogged up to take a worthwhile picture, but I was able to capture just a little of the mountainous countryside, farms, and dwellings in these pictures.The intense green, terraced fields and immaculate gardens were so much the imagery we associate with China. It was beautiful! Having worked in agriculture and planted gardens myself I could really appreciate all the daily work those fields and crops represent.The day ended the same way it started – careening through the dark in a taxi! This driver had all the weaving, honking and braking skills of his counterpart in Shanghai but he accomplished it all while simultaneously chatting casually with his dispatcher over his (definitely not hands free) cell phone. He dropped us off with pin point accuracy and we met the couple we would be house sitting for and, of course, Moose and Matti!
In addition to all the great shopping, food, and city attractions Shanghai has to offer, the city is home to dozens of museums, temples and historical sites. One such site is the Qibao Ancient Water Town. This little town has been around since sometime around 1000 a.d. and is only about ten miles out of the downtown area. We took the subway there one morning for a day of exploring. What gives the area it’s charm is the fact that it is built along the confluence of multiple waterways that intersect with the city streets. While exploring, I lost count of all the picture perfect bridges we crossed that connect the various areas of town. Each street was like something from a China travel guide and there was just no end to the little shops, restaurants, street food and photo opportunities available.