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Entries in China (8)

China Can't Shut Us Up

When we arrived in China and had a relatively easy time getting through customs we began to think maybe this whole "communist" thing was overrated. Sure there were a few more guard-types around than other places, but it didn't seem out of the ordinary in any way. Until we tried to get onto our website to post a journal entry.

China has what is known as "The Great Firewall" - it blocks access to millions of websites, anything that can possibly say something bad about the government. Apparently they decided ours was one of these. Yet it is a very random selection - while BBC, Wikipedia, and Reuters are all blocked, YouTube, CNN and USA Today are not. In reality, it is not our website specifically that they have an issue with, it is most likely our hosting company, which probably has some users with questionable content.

So that means for you, our unlucky reader, that we will not be able to create our normal easy-on-the eyes content. While there are ways around the firewall that at least allow us to view websites, because of the complexity of how the blog functions we'll be limited to posting by email and hopefully at least putting some links to our pictures and videos to outside sources. When we get to Vietnam in a few weeks we'll go back and update our posts with pictures and videos, do the galleries and maps, etc.

UPDATE: I have since found a way through using anonymizing proxy servers to do just about everything. While it runs considerably slower (and thus makes doing all the little things to make this website work an extra big pain), we can now pretty much do everything except insert pictures into posts.

The Wall Less Traveled

Like many of you who will be reading this post, both Jason and I had always heard how amazing the Great Wall of China was, yet we could never fully comprehend the sheer magnitude of it all. It's of course one thing to read about it, see pictures or movies, or listen to stories about it - and another thing to have experienced the glory of the Great Wall. Hiking the Great Wall of China was a sublime moment for us in our lives, physically being on this piece of history, in the middle of nowhere, in utter serenity.

The first thing we did right was NOT travel to the wall with a tour group to one of the more popular, aka "touristy" locations. Rather, we hired a private driver to take us to Jinshanling, a much less traveled part of the wall, where we would be able to hike to Simatai and get picked up from there.

It was certainly no easy feat hiking the 7 miles from Jinshanling to Simatai, as many parts of the wall are completely deteriorated, making it difficult to get a solid step. By far the most intense parts were the practically vertical climbs up stairs that felt like they went on for hours. The easiest way to sum up many of the parts of the trek was like being on a stair master on steroids for hours. Considering both of us have knee issues, we were amazed we were able to actually complete it without too many aches and pains (thanks to lots of ibuprofen!!)

It took us a total of 4 hours to complete the hike at a very leisurely pace so we could take in every moment of the scenery. The rolling hills and blooming cherry blossoms were spectacular, and there was something so magical about the whole area. The lack of people around was also quite surreal, considering how overcrowded China is. Of course, we couldn't avoid the hawkers trying to sell their goods on the wall, but they were pretty easy to shake if you firmly told them NO!.

We did however meet up with a couple of great people to stroll along the wall with (and who happened to be staying at our hotel). Kath and Jake were wonderful company to share the amazing experience and tranquility of the Great Wall of China with. We even all indulged in the flying fox zip line at the end of our journey (as well as drinks at the hotel after), which was an adventure in itself (and it also saved us a mile in walking from the end of the wall to where our car was waiting).

By far trekking on The Great Wall of China will be one of those awe-inspiring experiences in our lives, which we know we will always look back on with moving memories. Since we can't insert pictures into posts while in China, click here to see them!

Who Can You Trust...?

That is the ultimate question we keep asking ourselves being here in China – who can we trust. The simple answer is …absolutely nobody. It seems like so many people are out to scam us in some way. We’ve narrowly avoided the “tea” and “art exhibition” scams, where college kids come up to you being all friendly and interested since you’re from America, and ask if you want to join them for tea. Next thing you know you’ve just purchased a $100 cup of tea from their friends shop. Or take you to see their art school and, once there, by some of their art. The only problem is, it’s the same art knock offs sold on the street just for ten times as much. We of course had our friend Jennathan to thank for warning us against this one (after she fell victim to both). Jason’s method of pretending to be Swedish seems to keep the street hustlers at bay.

It doesn’t end there though. Even the concierges at the hotels want to sell you on certain tours, or restaurants b/c everyone gets a piece of the profit. The Sofitel Xi’an recommended a tour to the Terracotta Warriors that was one big tourist trap, stopping at various “craft sites” so that we could sample some of the local wares, aka buy some junky stuff. We were even led to believe at one point that we were at a special factory that was restoring the original Terracotta Warriors, since most of them were in ruins when discovered – however, we came to realize 20 minutes into the tour they were just trying to sell replicas of the figures (check out the video to see our moment of this realization!) and had absolutely nothing to do with the warriors.

By the time we actually got to the Terracotta Warriors, along with thousands of other people, it was hard to really enjoy them (not to mention I think that China has built them up into an over rated tourist phenomenon to make $$$$!) They’re interesting and it’s quite amazing how recently they were discovered, but there’s way too much hutz and futz to make the whole experience happen.

Some of the cheating and scamming we’ve experienced is actually more blatant and in our faces, since we have no recourse in many situations since very few people speak any English (Jason has mentioned several times not wanting to end up in a Chinese prison like Jack Bauer from his favorite show 24).

For example, people have skimmed out amounts of change that we were supposed to receive once we’ve paid for items or admissions into parks. The second night we were at the street market in Beijing the piece of pineapple I bought seemed strangely to be double the amount the local person before me paid, and was clearly a rip off – the smirky girl chuckling with her friend also gave evidenced to that! And if you do happen to find a restaurant with a menu in “English”, you can be sure that the “English” prices are about 10 times what the locals pay.

A major slap in the face was when we had paid a lot of money to get a private car to travel to the Great Wall (of course arranged by our hotel), only to come and realize when we arrived that another couple from our hotel had paid the same amount to also hire a private car – nice of the hotel to let us know we were both going to the same place, on the same day, and doing the exact same trek and maybe recommend we take a car together (considering we were both down at the concierge desk together unbeknownst to each other arranging this). On top of that, once we returned from our all day excursion our driver tried to get an extra 100 yuan from us (and we also heard that the other driver tried to get an extra 40 yuan from the other couple, Jake and Kath) by saying it was for “bridge tolls”.

The most frustrating situation was today at the local pharmacy while buying some necessities, the store literally doubled the price of an item by claiming the price was the one on the top shelf verses the logical one on the bottom shelf (we thought $10 for a TINY bottle of sunscreen was steep).


We’ve just felt much more on alert being here in China and it certainly has colored our experience of this country. I guess I have a sense of what being a full fledged paranoia is about, since this is how we approach our days – who’s going to try and get us next!?!?


That aside, there are some positive aspects of the country. The food is cheap and good most of the time. The taxi’s are really inexpensive, however it’s literally a gamble whether you’ll make it to your destination alive b/c the insanity of the driving here. The Great Wall is truly remarkable. At this point in our travels, I’m sad to say that’s all I have positive to say. Hopefully we get a different feeling by the end of our time here when we get to a more “western” city like Shanghai!

The Lovely Li River

The experience of riding down the Li River almost completely made some of our negative thoughts of China disappear. We could never have come close to imagining how breathtaking the views and scenery would be during this journey down the river.

Taking a boat down the Li River is quite a popular way for people to get from Guilin to Yangshuo. We had a sense that the “boat ride” would most likely be a giant vessel packed with tons of Chinese tourists, and that it might not be the most enjoyable and peaceful way to take the sites in (cigarette smoking, squatting, and spitting isn’t our idea of relaxing yet all too common to Chinese culture). Thus, we did a little investigation and discovered we could take a private speed boat down the river for just $12 more – also, we could bring our luggage with us and spend a couple nights in Yangshuo! We were in.

WOW, Jason and I were in total awe of the beauty of our surroundings as we flew down the river in our private boat manned by our very gracious captain. The large limestone karsts surrounded us almost the whole stretch of the river – for an entire 3 hours we got to view the splendor of the mountains. The day happened to be quite foggy, which created quite a magical feel in the landscape around us. Not even New Zealand could rival this beauty

Not only were the views of the mountains and river stunning, but passing by all of the fisherman on their tiny little bamboo rafts was quite a site to take in. It truly felt like we were in some sort of mystical story, since the images felt so surreal. Even our “bathroom break” was an awesome experience. Our eager to please captain pulled onto the embankment of the river, where we jumped off the front of the boat into yet some more amazing countryside. The backdrop of our pit stop was an open plain where a herd of cows were grazing. We also met a local farmer who wanted to share his birds with us (in other words charge us to take a picture with them), which was actually quite cool as you can see in the video.

We certainly have a new appreciation of China and some of the beauty it has to offer after getting out of the big cities and spending some time in the rural areas. Click here to see all of the amazing pictures!

Cooking & Contemporary Art

Are two things that Jason and I love! Well, for Jason, more eating and not so much art... Who would have thought that the remote region of Yangshuo, China would be the place we’d be able to explore these passions! We heard from several people that taking a cooking class in Yangshuo was a must, so we signed up for the Cloud 9 cooking school, located right around the corner from our Paradise Hotel.

This was the full fledged cultural experience of Chinese cooking, beginning with our somewhat traumatic trip to the local farmer’s market to buy the fresh ingredients for our dishes. Let’s just say this farmer’s market wasn’t exactly what we were used to at the trendy and shi-shi farmer’s market at the ferry plaza in SF Embarcadero.

The experience started off just fine, typical fruits and vegetables lined up everywhere (not the cleanest of environments, but okay). Then we got to the live animal section – chickens, rabbits and pigeons – this I could handle. Slowly things were getting a little stranger – frogs, snakes, snails, turtles, all alive of course. It was weird, but manageable.

Okay, next thing I know our cooking teacher is asking us if we want to continue to the next section of the market, since things were about to get a little more gruesome. Sure, why not – when in China, do as the Chinese do, right?! I’d heard about dogs being eaten in several Asian countries, but to actually walk into the section and see dogs strung up was a little hard. Worst part is, there were caged live dogs awaiting their fate of being someone’s dinner that night – it was a disturbing picture. The pig bladder, heart, brains, lamb penis, and rats were also a lot to handle. Let’s just say we’ve been eating vegetarian in this country since that experience (minus the very clean chicken we prepared ourselves in the class)!!

All these gruesome images aside, the cooking class was fabulous. Our open air kitchen looking out onto the Yangshuo mountains was breathtaking. We chose three dishes to cook – braised eggplant, meat dumplings (chicken and beef!!) and Gung Bao (Kung Pao as we call it) chicken. Of all things, I never thought I’d be grateful to China for getting Jason in the kitchen and cooking for the first time EVER. I think we may have the up and coming JaSAN Can Cook!!! Check out his moves on the video clip.

So, from cooking in the morning to arriving at the Hotel of Modern Art (HOMA) in the afternoon, we felt like things were shaping up in our China experience. This remote hotel located between Guilin and Yangshuo that just opened in 2006 was certainly a unique place to spend some time. The ultra sheik and contemporary retreat is located on 1300 acres of land. In their words this place is “an open air art museum intercommunicating with natural environment".

There are around 200 very interesting art installations and sculptures scattered throughout the landscape designed by over 140 artists from around the world – they all interact with the environment in quite a special way. The only way to describe the surreal experience of being there is like imagining being Alice in Wonderland. Jason and I had so much fun frolicking around this compound on our “hogs”, as Jason referred to our dinky little bikes. From playing in the park, to pondering the meaning of the pieces and installations (more Joy than Jason, who was more interested in the slide and playground), we certainly enjoyed our time at HOMA. We even got upgraded to this really cool room (b/c there was absolutely no one staying at the hotel), which was fun. I guess all it took for China to grow on us is a little bit of cooking and a cool, contemporary art hotel!!

A Good Note To End On!

1047435-782836-thumbnail.jpgThank goodness for this wonderful town of Hangzhou to lift our spirits and moods about China – this has been a definite positive note to end on. After battling some sort of stomach ailment for the second time while being in China, I was ready for something/anything to be nice and easy here. Heavenly Hangzhou located just a 2 hour train ride from Shanghai fit just the bill.

This lakeside town, surrounded by sprawling mountains is gorgeous, and actually considered by many to be the ultimate paradise of China. I can certainly see why people flock to this area to find respite in the beauty and serenity of the lake and mountains. We too discovered this area to be a lovely get away from the chaotic hustle and bustle of most everywhere else we had experienced in the country.

1047435-782896-thumbnail.jpgOur first day here we rented bikes and rode around the entire perimeter of the lake, taking time to absorb all the sites. Even the drivers in this area seem to be a little more laid back, making the maneuvering of a bike along the like-side somewhat manageable, yet definitely scary at times.

We climbed, actually took an escalator and elevator to the top of Leifeng Pagoda, which looks out onto the entire West Lake of Hangzhou. What an amazing view! Our next stop were these little motor boats we noticed along the water, which we rented for a short bit and motored around the lake on. A stop at the local market led to Jason buying a leather belt, and our discovery of Dairy Queen in China – the green tea, chocolate chunk blizzard was delicious.

1047435-782837-thumbnail.jpgIt’s sad to admit, but after my last really difficult episode of stomach “issues”, we’ve been sticking to as much “familiar” food as possible (aka – staying away from Chinese). I must say you never know what you’re going to get in the local dishes here – even if they specify one thing, there usually seems to be some sort of weird, unrecognizable something in the dish that is just too weird to eat. I never thought I’d be so grateful to Pizza Hut for some good meals lately!

Beyond the scenery here, and the easy access to Pizza Hut, the town is filled with “cute” boutique-like shops that seem to carry stuff other then junk. I think this is the only time I’ve used the word cute to describe anything in China, so that says a lot about how we’re feeling about this place.

We are off to Hong Kong tomorrow, which although technically part of China, we hear is worlds apart. For us, that is very good news!!!

Chinese Vs. Japanese

Most Westerners seem to think that Chinese and Japanese are basically the same thing. While there are some similarities between cultures, for the most part they couldn’t be more opposite. Here’s a few of the similarities and differences I’ve noticed:


Japanese drive on the right side of the road.

Chinese drive on the left side of the road.


Japanese love to eat things raw. You name it, they’ll eat it just as mother nature prepared it.

Chinese eat nothing raw. Since everything is covered in filth and disease it must first somehow be boiled or fried. Even vegetables.


Most Japanese people tend to look alike.

Most Chinese people tend to look alike.

(It’s ok – I can say this because I’m Jewish and most Jewish people tend to look alike).


Japanese love top quality, brand name merchandise. They can be seen inspecting most purchases for fine workmanship and materials, otherwise they’ll think they’ve paid too much.

Chinese love cheap crap. They can be seen inspecting most purchases for shoddy workmanship and materials, otherwise they’ll think they’ve paid too much.


Japanese people do not eat dogs.

Chinese people do eat dogs.





Japanese people live for order and politeness. Everything can be solved by forming a line or apologizing for no reason.

Chinese people live for complete and utter chaos. The concept of a “line” is completely foreign, and all problems can be solved by just pushing the person in front of you harder. To my knowledge there is no word for “I’m Sorry” in Mandarin.


Crossing the street in Japan is pretty easy.

You take your life in your hands any time you set foot in a street in China. Or on a sidewalk for that matter. Really, you’re only safe from being hit by a car or a bike or another person when you are in your hotel room. And even then only if you’ve remembered to hang the “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door.


There is very little English spoken in Japan. Unfortunately that made communicating with the locals difficult.

There is very little English spoken in China. Fortunately, that made communicating with the locals difficult.


Hong Kong Has it ALL!

1047435-788502-thumbnail.jpgWe have a new favorite city . . .that is of course still after our first love San Francisco.  That being said, one of the major things we loved so much about Hong Kong was how much it reminded us of SF.  So many cute pockets of restaurants and bars, a beautiful bay, very friendly people (that was of course magnified after how cold people were to us in Mainland China), great shopping and not an overwhelmingly huge city. 

Even the sporadic down pours didn't get us down about Hong Kong, like it did in other places (Shanghai for example).  We just mounted up in our parkas, and hit the streets 1047435-788501-thumbnail.jpgrain or shine.  The public transporation in this city is incrediblly efficient, easy and cheap.  Between taking the trams, subways, ferries and taxis, we got everywhere in ease.  This is actually the one thing that by far exceeds SF, since we all know that muni and BART aren't the most efficient and fast ways to get to all parts of the city.  Our favorite mode of transport in the city by far were our own two feet, where we got some pretty cool urban hiking in.

It was espeically nice how international this city was, with people speaking all different languages around us.  English seems to be the primary language people communicate in (of course Cantonese as well, however everyone speaks English).  So, we had no problem intermingling with the locals for the first time in months, which was really nice!

1047435-788503-thumbnail.jpgWe even managed to muster up a couple fun nights out on the town - the bars and restaurants in this city are incredible, especially the ones we discovered in an area called SOHO (very Marina-like as one friend described it).  AND, one of our favorite things we did was to meet up with Kath and Jake, who we had met on the Great Wall of China earlier in our travels.  Hong Kong is their home now, and we had great fun throwing back some drinks and talking to the wee hours of the night!

Now, we must say good bye to Hong Kong, but will certainly be back.  We're about to have a real change in scenery, culture and climate, as we depart for Vietnam in about 2 hours.  The current temperature is 93 degrees!  Jason's trying to prepare for the intensity of the heat and humidity,