Taipei, Taiwan, cityscape, including Taipei 101
Downtown Taipei, scene of many late-night strolls
(photo by Chris; click to enlarge)

During the period of my life when I was studying abroad in Taipei, Taiwan, I was an inveterate walker. Whenever I visited a new place, I would buy a map and set out on a peripatetic exploration at the first opportunity. And while in Taipei, I routinely spent long stretches of time walking around the city by myself at all hours, familiarizing myself with its geography and making serendipitous discoveries.

One of those discoveries occurred late one night when I was walking down a narrow sidestreet. I came upon a forklift that was unceremoniously picking up cars parked on one side of the street and depositing them on the other, proceeding car by car down the block. The scene was so surreal, and yet the manner in which the driver was going about his work was so casual, that I could only stare for a moment, chide my lying eyes, and then resume walking. In the years since, I’ve sometimes wondered whether that strange sight was actually just a product of my febrile, sleep-deprived brain, which was on constant stimulus overload back in those heady days abroad—especially since it was the dead of night, and I had quite possibly been drinking beforehand. Now, however, after a quick search online, I have video evidence that such things do happen (in Taiwan, at least):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Pu83oVW6qo

For all I know, this sort of thing is a routine occurrence that the locals don’t even bat an eyelash at. At the time, it felt as if I had wandered off into some kind of Bizarro World where people with forklifts could do whatever the hell they wanted, where Dude, Where’s My Car? had a radically different plot, and where street cleaners had a better option than punishing hapless residents with $40 parking tickets. (I make this comment as a former San Francisco resident who, like many others, unwittingly helped fill the city’s coffers by sometimes forgetting to move my car.)

But just as one person’s geeky is another person’s cool, what seems absurd in one society is completely normal in another—a fact I’ve often been reminded of during my adventures in China (and probably just as often living in the United States, which I’m well aware is by most international standards a strange country). In any case, it’s nice to know that this, at least, was not something I merely hallucinated.

Chinese New Year fireworks icon with text - 150 x 150To celebrate Chinese New Year in China, especially with family, is a fun and fascinating experience: the festive atmosphere, both at home and out on the town; the excessive consumption of food and alcohol; and, perhaps most exciting of all, the fireworks. In 2003 I spent Chinese New Year in Shanghai, and the amount of gunpowder detonated in that city in the 16-day period from New Year’s Eve through the Lantern Festival (on the 15th day of the lunar year) absolutely blew my mind. As a childhood pyromaniac who hadn’t indulged in fireworks in many years, I was on fire with excitement—though to some degree it was like being in a war zone, with so many fireworks going off at certain times that you could barely have a conversation outdoors and had to be constantly on guard against wayward rockets. My father-in-law and I burned a completely unjustifiable amount of cash on long strings of firecrackers, big batteries of missiles, and various other explosives. I strolled through the city streets, tossing firecrackers to and fro and setting them off in every nook and cranny to magnify the sound of the explosions. Obnoxious and environmentally irresponsible, to be sure…but also gloriously Dionysian, especially because it seemed like everyone was doing it. To put it simply, I had a blast. But I’m fortunate to have emerged from the experience with all ten fingers and all five senses intact.

In celebration of the lunar new year, I present some spectacular photos and a couple of video clips that will give you an idea of what the experience of celebrating Chinese New Year in China is like. We at CIT are looking forward to another successful year, and we’d like to wish all of our family, friends, and customers a prosperous Year of the Dragon. Thank you for your support!

Chinese New Year Fireworks Photo Gallery

Click on any photo below to open a full-sized version in a separate window.

Chinese New Year fireworks exploding in Shanghai, China fireworks exploding during Chinese New Year in Shanghai, China
Explosions amidst residential buildings…
(photo by Jaye Zhou)
…now THAT’s what the Chinese
term
熱鬧 (rènào; “lively”) means
(photo by Aapo Haapanen)
Chinese New Year fireworks exploding in Shanghai, China Chinese New Year - Shanghai fireworks store - Marc van der Chijs
Viewing from high-rise balconies is hazardous
(photo by Harry Alverson)
Fireworks stores pop up during the New Year
(photo by Marc van der Chijs)
Chinese New Year fireworks boxes - Christopher Chinese New Year fireworks - fountain
Let’s hope they’re well-shielded from stray sparks
(photo by Christopher)
“Fountains” light up streets and alleyways
(photo by Fox Z.)
extremely long strings of Chinese New Year firecrackers in Taipei, Taiwan Spectators turn their backs and shield their faces during a massive Chinese New Year fireworks explosion
Mile-long strings of firecrackers scare away evil spirits…
(photo by Ming-Yang Sue)
…and people, too, if they know what’s good for them.
(photo by Ming-Yang Sue)
a street covered by firework remnants left behind by Chinese New Year firecrackers in Taipei, Taiwan fireworks exploding during Chinese New Year in Shanghai, China
Firecracker aftermath
(photo by Ming-Yang Sue)
There is an ironic beauty in all
that potential destruction…

(photo by Jakob Montrasio)
view from the Bund of Chinese New Year fireworks exploding over the Huangpu River and Pudong in Shanghai, China Chinese New Year 2011 - Hong Kong fireworks - N.C. Burton - small - 300 x 200
…especially in picturesque places,
like Shanghai’s Huangpu River…

(photo by Sebastien Poncet)
…and Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour
(photo by N.C. Burton)
Chinese New Year fireworks over Hong Kong Island in 2009 Chinese New Year fireworks - fire - Jinjian Liang
Hong Kong’s 2009 Chinese New Year fireworks
(photo by N.C. Burton)
China during the Lunar New
Year: a country on fire

(photo by Jinjian Liang)

Check out these video clips to get an even clearer idea of just how crazy it can get (you might want to turn down the volume first):

Creative Commons photos icon - 75 x 75Our company and this website have benefited enormously from the generosity of Flickr users (and photographers on other sites as well) who have made their photos freely available for our use through either a Creative Commons license or the special permission they have given us. We’d like to express our gratitude for their generosity and “pay it forward” by licensing a number of our own China travel photos for noncommercial use. The slideshow below features a few samples, but many more of our photos are available in our Creative Commons Flickr set, and more will be added soon and in the more distant future. We hope that people out there will be able to put some of our photos to good use. And although the license is a noncommercial license, we will gladly consider requests for commercial use too—just contact us by e-mail and let us know what you have in mind. If you’d like to use any of our photos, just credit them to China International Travel CA, and link to our homepage (www.chinatravelca.com) where possible. Thank you, and thanks again to the many generous photographers out there!

[slickr-flickr type=”slideshow” search=”sets” set=”72157628946766605″ items=”10″ align=”center” captions=”off”]

In 2004 my wife and I took a trip with some friends to Jiangxi, an inland province that, while no doubt changing rapidly, is still lagging behind the coastal regions in terms of development.  Although it wasn’t the most luxurious trip I’ve taken in China, a little less comfort and a little more local flavor make a trip more memorable, and this one was certainly both fascinating and stimulating.  While there, we visited Mount Lu (廬山, Lushan) and a truly poor local village, among other places, but one experience that also sticks out in my memory is the raft trip we took at Longhushan (龍虎山), whose name literally means “Dragon and Tiger Mountain.” (I was told that the area’s ridges and peaks suggest the forms of a dragon and a tiger, though as in many other places I’ve visited in China, the resemblance seemed pretty vague to me.)

One thing about China is that you can truly get away from it all there, especially in inland rural areas like Jiangxi.  This raft trip was a profoundly relaxing experience.  Check out the trained cormorants catching fish for the fisherman on one of the rafts!

On our Yunnan Highlands Local Culture 11-Day Tour, you might see cormorant fishermen in action on Lake Er at Dali.

Waaaaaarm beer!  Peanuts!  Get yer warm beer and peanuts!  A bamboo raft trip at Longhushan: just like a baseball game, but without that loud obnoxious drunk shouting and crowding your space, and without the threat of a foul ball bashing your head in unexpectedly, and…Ok, it’s nothing like a baseball game; it’s much better, though that beer could have used a little refrigeration. And that raft vendor could use a little more charismatic sales patter.

Our tours that include Guilin feature a raft trip like this one; those that include Dali, the Three Gorges, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Zhouzhuang, and/or Suzhou all feature gondola or boat trips that you may find even more relaxing or stimulating.

During the last part of the trip, we walked overland as the bamboo rafts were portaged past an impassable section of the river.  It was a good opportunity to get some footage of the beautiful farmland in the area, record the deafening sound of the obnoxious local cicadas, check out an ancient Taoist temple (where an immortality pill was created by a Taoist master, who unfortunately doesn’t seem to be around any longer to tell us how he did it), and take a rickshaw ride.  At one point during the walk, a local man started to talk with me, and you can hear him saying that I look like an American before the conversation is cut off.  (The identification of “Caucasian” with “American” is very common in China, and comments like that always make me want to launch into a lecture about why such assumptions are wrong—but maybe he just meant that my flagrantly casual clothing and wide-eyed, foolish manner were unmistakably American, in which case I can’t argue with him.)  After the raft trip resumed, we watched a flashy “cliff acrobat” rappel down the side of the mountain as a prelude to a “hanging coffin” show; the area was once home to the Guyue people, a minority (non-Han) culture that placed its coffins in grottoes in the cliff face.  Unfortunately, either my battery or my tape ran out at that point, so I was unable to record what followed.

If you’re interested in these “hanging coffins,” our tours that include the Three Gorges feature a boat trip that will allow you to see similar ones.

Although Jiangxi attractions like Longhushan and Mount Lu aren’t featured in our tour packages since they aren’t popular destinations for Western tourists, we welcome you to contact us to arrange a custom tour to Jiangxi (or anywhere else that isn’t included in our tour packages).  I highly recommend both of these places for adventurous tourists.

The boy held out a piece of fruit and looked into my Western eyes.  With the confident familiarity of someone who frequently came into contact with foreign tourists, but with no discernible greed or manipulativeness, he asked me for some paltry sum for it—an amount that he no doubt knew would be insignificant to me, though I’m sure no local would have paid half that much.  He and his brother smiled, along with the other village residents standing around us, and their smiles were genuine.  Their warmth touched me across so many divides: age, ethnicity, upbringing, culture, geography, material wealth.  But it also made me intensely conscious of all of those divisions.  I was moved both by a kind of sympathy for the limitations that I knew this boy’s life would be lived within and by an unexpected jealousy that I would never experience the kind of life he seemed to be living quite happily—a life uncomplicated and untainted by the questionable influences of modern American life.  More than anything, what touched me was a profound sense of the beauty of the place and the people in it.  Standing there on that long staircase that climbed up the side of the gorge from the waters of the Yangtze, I felt that this moment was the culmination of many years of dreaming for me.  For so long I had wanted to stand in this place, to see these sights, to talk with people like this, to feel these feelings, and it was all more meaningful than I know how to communicate to anyone.

I gave the boy what he had asked and thanked him in Mandarin. I was caught so off guard emotionally that I didn’t think about what I was doing, and I’ve often wanted to smack myself for not saying more, for not giving more.  It was such an inadequate gesture, inadequate to express all that I wished I could somehow share with him and with everyone there. But maybe in the end that simple response was the best thing I could have done.  Would offering more money have seemed like a kind of insult?  Was there anything I could have said that would have been understood better than a heartfelt “thank you”?

That encounter occurred during a Three Gorges cruise on my first trip to Mainland China in 2001.  Although I’ve had any number of memorable experiences in China of every kind, probably the most emotionally profound experiences I’ve had have been in my contact with people living in China’s rural areas.  The sense I always get when I’m in China of life being lived more deeply, with more immediacy and more vitality, is magnified in areas that are less touched by modernization and Westernization.  The people living in these areas seem more there—less distracted, less needy, less divided, in the way that modern media technology, consumer culture, and the faster-paced life of cities seem to make us all.

On a trip to Jiangxi a few years later, I had a similar experience in a small rural village, a place that was definitely not part of the China promoted by flashy tourism advertisements and government propaganda.  A member of our group of friends had grown up there, and we were invited to spend a day with the locals.  I was told that I was the first foreigner (or perhaps they meant the first Westerner) ever to visit their village.  Who knows whether that was literally true, but I definitely felt like a bit of a celebrity, with a group of local children constantly crowded around me.  They were fascinated with my camcorder and had me play back recordings of them several times so they could see themselves.  As  with the boy in the Yangtze village, the untainted joy of these children left a deep impression on me.  But instead of trying to capture the experience in words, I’ll let this video footage tell a little of the tale:

I hope that everyone who travels to China is fortunate enough to have experiences like these with the local people.  They’re easy to find, even while in a tour group and even within a big city, if you’re open to them.  To say that they can be life-changing may be a cliché, but it’s not an exaggeration.

 

A can of Pabst Blue Ribbon found in Yingde, Guangdong Province, China, with Chinese characters on it
Locally produced PBR: A dubious sign of progress
(photo by CIT)

Why is it that it’s mostly the dregs of America’s popular culture that get exported and embraced abroad? Why can you find bootleg DVDs of crap like Steven Seagal’s latest direct-to-video masterpiece Born to Raise Hell all over the place in China, but no one’s ever heard of The Wire or Breaking Bad? Why is Justin Bieber famous in China’s major cities, yet Wilco is completely unknown there? And why is it that Pabst Blue Ribbon can be purchased at a convenience store in the middle of nowhere, but a good bottled ale might as well be the Holy Grail?*

Here in the Bay Area it’s trendy (or was—let me check my watch cell phone) to drink PBR in cans, since all the hipsters who drank it ironically started a cultural shockwave that led to otherwise sensible people drinking it in earnest, but come on. Let’s not pretend that Pabst Blue Ribbon is even in the same league as, say, Prohibition Ale.

Now that I’ve finished my crotchety-old-man rant, the story behind the can in this photo is that I came across it in a convenience store in a remote mountain area of Guangdong Province in 2009. I was minding my own business, looking for a tasty beverage amongst all of the local products, when the sight of a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon smacked me upside the head. Laughing at the randomness of it, I bought this can to document the unexpected thrill of coming across something so familiar in such a foreign place. I’m sure I ended up drinking it too, but in fact the local bottled brew was better than PBR.

As it turns out, Pabst has a partnership with a brewery in China to produce the beer locally. Anyway, I just think a PBR can—such an iconic piece of Americana—with Chinese characters on it is funny. And random.

If you’re interested in visiting Guangdong to see what random discoveries you can make there, take a look at our Pearl River Gourmet Cuisine Discount Tour or contact us for custom tour arrangements.

* Happily, real progress is being made on this front—I have found good beers in China, both local and imported. Most of them are relatively wimpy lagers, though.

After our leisurely stroll through downtown Hong Kong (see Part 2 of our HK trip), we decided to take a ferry to Cheung Chau (長洲), a small island in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. I had fond memories of it from a previous trip there in 1997.

The cliché that the journey is more important than the destination can be quite literally applied to a ferry trip in Hong Kong (though in our case the destination was pretty sweet, too). Although Hong Kong is a terrifically stimulating environment, it can also be stressful, but a leisurely, comfortable ferry ride forces you to relax and smell the figurative roses—roses that in this case happen to be colossal towers of glass and steel, along with the magnificent mountain and ocean scenery that surrounds them. Depending on how hot it is, you might choose to enjoy the view from an indoor seat, where the Asgardian air conditioning system will make you feel like you’re closer to the North Pole than the sweltering South Pacific. Personally, I’d never want to miss the breeze and the sun on the outdoor deck. The only thing that could have possibly made our trip better? A cold six-pack of Tsingtao.

Click on any photo below to open a full-sized version in a separate window.

A view of the skyscrapers and wharves of downtown Hong Kong from the Cheung Chau ferry A distant view of the Kowloon waterfront and a ship from the Cheung Chau ferry

Left: As you pull away from the ferry terminal, you have a great view of some of the tallest buildings in the world, including 2 International Finance Centre and the Center. You’ll also see a great variety of vessels in the harbor (one of the busiest in the world, of course), some of them pleasantly quaint, such as this tugboat.

Right: In this photo you can see Kowloon’s International Commerce Centre, the tallest building in Hong Kong and #4 in the world, which was still under construction at the time this photo was taken. The ship in the foreground appears to be some kind of naval vessel.

A view of the buildings of downtown Hong Kong from the Cheung Chau ferry A view of Hong Kong Island from the Cheung Chau ferry

From the ferry, you can enjoy constantly varying views of endlessly varied Hong Kong. And as you cruise farther away from Hong Kong Island, a bigger scene unfurls before you—a picturesque combination of city, mountain, sea, and sky.

Right: This is a view of Hong Kong Island from the west; the area on the left is the downtown area (the Central and Western Districts), and the area on the right is Aberdeen, in the southwest part of the island.

A view of boats in Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Harbor from the ferry Sunlight reflects off the surface of the water in Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Harbor

As you enter Cheung Chau Harbor, you can see that the local fishing fleet is still quite robust.

Right: Here, you can see the breakwater protecting the harbor from large waves. The late-afternoon sun glints off the furrowed surface of the water.


The chance to enjoy the scenery while we recovered from hours of walking was itself more than worth the cost of the ticket, let alone the opportunity to relax and eat seafood on Cheung Chau. (video by CIT)

Boats near the ferry pier in Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Harbour Pedestrians, bicycles, and stores on the waterfront at Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Harbor

Left: This is the view alongside the ferry pier. Both small ferryboats, such as the one pictured here, and much larger ferry ships, serve the people of Cheung Chau. Some of the ferries we saw appeared to be something like “water taxis,” run for the locals by private operators.

The waterfront near the pier shows the influence of the West and the influence of the tourist trade (a Circle K, a 7-Eleven, and a McDonald’s all in a row; small shops selling knick-knacks, bric-a-brac, tchotchkes, curios, trinkets, and souvenirs), but most of the island is charmingly and convincingly local. In fact, I was delighted to find that it seemed as though nothing had changed since my visit 12 years earlier. In the modern world, that kind of reassuring consistency is hard to come by.

Food and beer at a seafood restaurant on the waterfront of Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Harbor Seafood tanks at a restaurant on Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Island

There are a number of restaurants along Cheung Chau’s waterfront, specializing in seafood, of course. We chose one, more or less at random, and in our eager hunger inhaled a bountiful meal (I was so hungry that I forgot to take a photo until these dishes were all that remained). To my wife’s discriminating Shanghainese palate, it was not the best seafood she had ever had but quite enjoyable nonetheless. Surprisingly, I recall the vegetables as being my favorite dish—simply prepared yet intensely flavorful. And there’s nothing like a cold beer in a shady spot with a view of the ocean, except perhaps a cold beer on a Hong Kong ferry.

Right: I’ve always found seafood tanks like these rather cruel, but I suppose their redeeming quality is that they force you to be more aware of where the pleasantly dead food on your plate came from than do most Western-style restaurants that hide the uglier bits of the preparation process—and they have the added virtue of allowing you to confirm that your food is indeed fresh.

Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Beach A distant view of Hong Kong Island from Cheung Chau Beach

All in all, I would describe Cheung Chau as an oasis of relaxation, a refuge from the bustle of the city. The part of the island that best epitomizes that quality is Cheung Chau Beach, a crescent-shaped stretch of sand just a few minutes’ walk across the narrow part of the island from the waterfront.

Right: From the beach, which faces Hong Kong Island to the east, you can admire the distant view of downtown HK while you relax, far away in both mind and body. The visible distance somehow makes it easier to let go of the urban insanity of modern life—which, paradoxically, is only a convenient ferry ride away when you need a little craziness. If I ever suddenly retire from human society to live as a nomad, this is one of the places I’ll go. Call me “the convenient recluse.” Tibetan monasteries are just too darn extreme.

Although my little pocket camcorder doesn’t really do justice to the vividness of Hong Kong, I think this clip does capture the serenity of Cheung Chau Beach on the evening we relaxed there for an all-too-brief time. (video by CIT)

Boats in Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Harbor at dusk Large store billboards and crowds of shoppers near a night market in Hong Kong's Kowloon district

Left: As night began to fall, I took this photo of Cheung Chau Harbor.

Right: After two days chock full of endless walking and flagrant gawking, we didn’t have the energy for much partying by the time we got back to the city, but we did stroll around to do some shopping and take in the impressive bustle.

With stores, clubs, bars, night market stalls, street performers, and restaurants galore, there is never a shortage of nighttime activities in Hong Kong—even a simple stroll along the streets can be entertaining. (video by CIT)

Two of my favorite memories of Hong Kong are things that I unfortunately didn’t capture on film.

One of these memories is passing by the basketball courts on Cheung Chau where I had seen locals playing an intense style of pickup basketball—with one of them even dunking in the short time I watched them—on my first trip there in 1997. As a basketball fan since early childhood, I was deeply impressed. Way back then, when Chinese basketball was not yet on anyone’s radar, I began to realize that it was only a matter of time before Chinese players would begin to emerge on the international scene. This time no one happened to be playing when we passed by, but just the sight of the same courts put a smile on my face.

Later, while strolling along the streets of Kowloon, I watched a small crowd gather outside a media store that was showing a Michael Jackson concert DVD at the entrance. Although I haven’t been a big Michael Jackson fan since I was about ten, I’ve always appreciated his magnetism as a performer, and to see it attract Chinese locals to a little TV on a street in Hong Kong several months after his death was somehow touching—the kind of thing that reminds us of our essential unity. As travelers, we seek the exotic and the new, but ultimately what we want to find, in spite of all our differences, is a deep connection with the people and places we visit, something that transcends the superficial, the local, and the temporal. I felt that in Hong Kong, as I’ve felt it everywhere I’ve gone in China, and it has made those travel experiences both exciting and comforting.

—originally published on our old blog on August 6, 2010

If you’d like to experience Hong Kong yourself with an itinerary that will allow you to do your own independent exploring, sign up for our Hong Kong 3-Day Tour or our China Highlights 11-Day Tour. Please visit our Hong Kong Photo Gallery and Information Page for more photos and information.

On our second full day in HK, we struck out on our own and enjoyed some sights and experiences no less beautiful and stimulating than the more touristy experiences we had had the day before. And of course, we only scratched the nanosurface of all that there is to do and see in Hong Kong.

If you’d like to experience Hong Kong yourself with an itinerary that will allow you to do your own independent exploring, sign up for our Hong Kong 3-Day Tour or our China Highlights 11-Day Tour. Please visit our Hong Kong Photo Gallery and Information Page for more photos and information.

Click on any photo below to open a full-sized version in a separate window.

A narrow street walled in by buildings in the Kowloon area of Hong Kong The storefront of the Chinese Noodle Restaurant in Hong Kong's Kowloon District

We started off in Kowloon, whose claustrophobic urban canyons, crammed with billboards, have a bit more character than the more modern, sterile, finance-oriented buildings of the downtown area. Just the sight of it is highly suggestive, rich with the possibilities of so many lives in such a small space.

In the morning we each had a tasty bowl of spicy noodles at a little eatery with the almost hilariously unimaginative name “Chinese Noodle Restaurant.” (Its Chinese name, 四川麻辣米綫, which I would translate as “Spicy Sichuan Rice Noodles,” is a bit more descriptive.) When eating at places like this, be careful not to let them make you pay the “foreigner tax.” Sometimes people who are obviously foreign (especially Westerners) are charged extra; this did in fact happen to us at one restaurant, but it wasn’t here.

Sichuan-style rice noodles at a restaurant in Hong Kong's Kowloon District Crowds of transit passengers in the Hong Kong subway

The food in Hong Kong is world renowned, and although as a semi-vegetarian I’m not as crazy about HK’s Cantonese and seafood-oriented cuisine as I am about some of China’s other regional cuisines, even my persnickety palate was pleased by the food we had there. These noodles were an even better morning stimulant than coffee.

Afterward, we took a subway ride from Kowloon to downtown HK, the Central District of Hong Kong Island. Although the subway ride was convenient and comfortable, I don’t want to imagine what it must be like during a sweltering August afternoon rush hour. I just hope it has a massively powerful ventilation system.

The central atrium of the Landmark, an upscale shopping mall in downtown Hong Kong Another view of the central atrium of the Landmark, an upscale shopping mall in downtown Hong Kong

The Landmark in downtown HK is probably one of the finest shopping malls in the world, with many of the most exclusive brands represented. As someone with rather plebian tastes and an utter lack of sartorial style, I felt about as comfortable as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. It was beautiful and impressive, but I don’t think anyone with a philosophical bent can help feeling a bit alienated by the hordes of worshippers at downtown Hong Kong’s altar of Mammon.

After we emerged from the Landmark with our bank account fortunately still more or less intact, we witnessed an impressive phenomenon: the lunch rush amidst the office buildings in the Central District. Every day, tens or perhaps even hundreds of thousands of worker drones descend from their mile-high celestial cubicles simultaneously to swarm the streets and mingle with the crowds of shoppers and tourists. This video clip doesn’t fully capture the intensity of it, but it was quite a sight (and sound).

A human billboard puts a costume on to advertise on the streets of downtown Hong Kong The storefront of the Kosmo Wellness Cafe in downtown Hong Kong's Central District

We also witnessed the amusing sight of this “human billboard” (on the aptly named Theatre Lane) preparing some kind of costume—a sun, a sunflower, a strange mythical creature? I can’t tell. Actually, “costume” doesn’t do it justice. “Promotional siege engine” is a more accurate description.

Soon we took shelter from the crowd in the Kosmo Wellness Cafe, an oasis of calm with tasty (and at least nominallly healthful) beverages and friendly service.

A refreshing fruit smoothie and iced milk tea in downtown Hong Kong's Kosmo Wellness Cafe Skyscrapers (including the Center) rise into a blue sky over a street in downtown Hong Kong

Our beverages: a smoothie and some milk tea. I suppose drinking milk tea in Hong Kong is disappointingly predictable, but it was indeed good.

With all the time I’ve spent in places like San Francisco and Shanghai and New York, you might think I would be fairly gawk-proof at the sight of gleaming skyscrapers, but downtown HK is stimulating even to jaded eyes. As the scads of photos (many more than I’ll inflict on you here) I took there prove, I spent a lot of time gazing upward at the impressive buildings, playing the role of slack-jawed American yokel, to the amusement of the locals around us, no doubt. At one point my wife even offered to buy me a bib. Well, she didn’t say that, but I’m pretty sure she was thinking it.

Hong Kong's 2 International Finance Centre, one of the tallest buildings in the world Glass-sided skyscrapers (the Bank of China Tower and the Cheung Kong Centre) reflect a cloudy sky in downtown Hong Kong

I don’t think you can blame me for gawking, though—by some measures Hong Kong has the best skyline in the world, and it currently boasts five of the the twenty tallest buildings in the world, including Two International Finance Centre (left photo), which comes in at #4.

Right: The Bank of China Tower (left) and the Cheung Kong Center are the 12th and 52nd tallest buildings in the world, respectively.

A busy intersection in the Central District of downtown Hong Kong Trolleys in the Central District of downtown Hong Kong

Despite all of the industrial towers of steel and glass, downtown Hong Kong somehow manages to be rather charming, too, with its many shops, its cultural distinctiveness, and its pedestrian-friendly environment.

The trolleys, in particular, are rather quaint to an American’s eye.

A demonstration against Citibank in downtown Hong Kong An anti-Citibank protester in Hong Kong wearing a t-shirt that reads 'pyscho' and 'God destroys'

One somewhat unexpected sight we came across was this anti-Citibank demonstration. This and some other things we observed on our trip, along with the recent [at the time this post was originally written] news about factory workers in China going on strike and successfully demanding better wages, gives me hope for the “little people” of China who have thus far largely been left behind by China’s remarkable economic success.

Right: This protester is wearing a shirt that reads “psycho” (or “insane”) at the top, and it looks like the bottom part says “God destroys.” At least I’m pretty sure he was a protester, not an actual self-declared psycho. In any case, I didn’t even consider messing with him, and as you can see I waited until his back was turned to take this photo. My experience suggests that it’s best just to take people labeled “psycho” at face value.

Next up: our ferry ride to Cheung Chau and a taste of Kowloon nightlife. I’ll chronicle the rest of our trip next week.

—originally published on our old blog on July 20, 2010

If I had to sum up my perception of Hong Kong in one phrase, it would be “a place of extremes constantly juxtaposed”: the ultramodern and the traditional, the fabulously (or perhaps absurdly) wealthy and the poor, the East and the West, the artificial and the natural. And as fast-paced and intense as it can be, there are even places in HK where you can truly slow down and relax. It is an incredibly dense microcosm of the world, and increasingly of China itself. Obviously, for a tourist or traveler, few places in the world are more fascinating and fun than Hong Kong.

In November 2009 my wife and I had a chance to visit HK; it was her first time and my first time in twelve years. First, we took the half-day tour (it actually ended up being a bit longer, which was fine with us), and then we did some exploring on our own. Here are a few photos and video clips that show the many different sides of Hong Kong that we experienced.

You can see all of these places on our Hong Kong 3-Day Tour or our China Highlights 11-Day Tour. Please visit our Hong Kong Photo Gallery and Information Page for more photos and information.

Click on any photo below to open a full-sized version in a separate window.

The front of Man Mo Temple, a Taoist temple in downtown Hong Kong High-rise apartments looming over Man Mo Temple in downtown Hong Kong with a tiny moon visible in the sky

The first stop on our tour was Man Mo Temple, a charming old Taoist temple in downtown Hong Kong. It lies sheltered amidst tall apartment buildings, almost as if it were worshiping at the feet of modernity. Let’s hope not—modernity could use a little more Taoism, not the other way around. (And by the way, yes, that is the moon up above in the photo on the right, tiny as it looks.)

A row of Taoist idols with offerings of burning incense in Hong Kong's Man Mo Temple Tourists absorbing the Taoist atmosphere of Man Mo Temple in downtown Hong Kong

Literally, there is a thick Taoist atmosphere in the temple, including a tranquil, sunlight-streaked central area with incense coils suspended in midair that my little digital camera couldn’t do justice to. (You can see a somewhat better attempt here.) This little nook is labeled “Hall of Ten Kings.”

From what I saw, there tend to be more tourists at the temple than regular worshipers, but they are usually quiet and respectful and do not spoil the tranquil, meditative atmosphere.

A gold incense vessel in Hong Kong's Man Mo Temple A closeup of the front gate and roof of Man Mo Temple in Hong Kong

Many visitors to the temple do pray and burn incense, however, regardless of where they may be from.

Right: A closeup of the entrance to the temple, which was built in 1847.

The interior of Man Mo Temple

The ride up to Victoria Peak on the Peak Tram

A view of downtown Hong Kong Island, Victoria Harbour, and Kowloon from the Peak Tram A view of Victoria Harbour and skyscrapers in downtown Hong Kong from a cafe in the Peak Tower

Afterward, we took the Peak Tram up to Victoria Peak, which looms over downtown Hong Kong.

Left: The ride up the peak feels even steeper than it looks in this photo, and it’s a fun trip, especially when the weather is as good as it was on that day. A spectacular view of Hong Kong’s vast cityscape and harbor spreads out beneath you as you climb the mountain.

Right: After you exit the tram, you can sit down at this comfortable cafe and enjoy a drink as you take in the view from the Peak Tower, one of the best city views to be found anywhere in the world.

A view of downtown Hong Kong, Victoria Harbour, and Kowloon from outside the Peak Tower A closeup view of the side of Victoria Peak with Victoria Harbour and Kowloon in the background

Left: I’ve seen a million variations of this photo, but it’s nice to have been able to take a pretty decent one myself, even if it’s not very original.

Right: For those who have time to hang out on the mountain, there’s a pleasant path that circles the mountaintop here, starting near the Peak Tower.

The Peak Tower, at the end of the Peak Tram line on Victoria Peak The main entrance of the Peak Galleria on Victoria Peak

The Peak Tower, where the Peak Tram line ends, is (at least to me) an interesting work of modern architecture that augments the natural beauty of the mountain. Not quite Frank Lloyd Wright, perhaps, but I like it.

Right: I guess it was inevitable given all the tourists with time and money who visit Victoria Peak, but yes, there is a shopping mall next to the Peak Tower called the Peak Galleria.

The view to the west-southwest from Victoria Peak, including Cheung Chau and part of Lantau Island The twin summits at the top of Victoria Peak

Left: If you walk around the area near the Peak Tower, you can enjoy some beautiful views of the rest of Hong Kong Island and the surrounding area. Facing approximately southwest, you can see Cheung Chau (長洲) and part of Lantau Island (大嶼山) in the distance.

Right: These peaks lie to the west of the Peak Tower.

This is the breathtaking view that greets you right outside the Peak Tower at the end of your tram ride up the mountainside: an army of skyscrapers, millions of people, and a long view out across one of the busiest harbors in the world to Kowloon.

Boats in Hong Kong's Aberdeen Harbour Hong Kong - Aberdeen - boats - CIT - small - 267 x 200

At Aberdeen, you can take a relaxing boat ride around the harbor and check out the sampans and boathouses of the local fishermen, whose traditional way of life continues today.

Although fewer fishermen and families actually live full-time on the boats at Aberdeen these days, it is aptly described as a “floating community.” I imagine life here must be profoundly intimate, both with other people and with the elements. Even a glimpse of it caught during a brief boat tour is fascinating.

The Jumbo Floating Restaurant in Hong Kong's Aberdeen Harbour

The harbor at Aberdeen also features the internationally famous Jumbo Floating Restaurant, which is exactly what it sounds like: a restaurant on what appears to be a very large boat.

This video clip shows the essence of Hong Kong: that it is a place of extremes. Large yachts and speedboats owned by the fabulously wealthy float beside small junks and sampans owned by poor fishermen.

Hong Kong's Repulse Bay Hong Kong's Repulse Bay

The south side of Hong Kong Island is much less developed than downtown Hong Kong on the north side, and when the weather is good, it is a truly beautiful and relaxing place. These photos show tranquil Repulse Bay.

Some of our favorite moments in Hong Kong came after the tour was over and we had time to explore the area on our own—and on our Hong Kong itineraries we give you time to do the same. I’ll share photos of and thoughts about those experiences in my next blog post!

—originally published on our old blog on June 28, 2010

Original post (September 2009): One of the nice things about being in Shanghai late in the year—besides avoiding any possibility of hot weather—is the opportunity to experience a Christmas atmosphere in China. It’s one of the consequences of American cultural influence that Christmas is now celebrated by a lot of people there, primarily in the form of decorations and shopping. (What it comes down to, naturally, is that Christmas is another way for the purveyors of materialism to get people to engage in some good old American-style self-indulgence.) I find it all good fun, personally, because there’s no danger of 5,000 years of Chinese culture being done in by a fat, bearded white man in a red suit, but depending on your opinions about globalization I suppose it could be quite disturbing. In any case, it’s certainly a bit surreal to hear “Jingle Bells” in a random Shanghai store and to see statues of Santa Claus, local people dressed up like Santa (not always very convincingly, mind you), enormous Christmas trees, and Christmas lights side-by-side with symbols of Chinese culture. And it’s fascinating to see the Chinese interpretation of Christmas—in some cases you would think you’re in the US, and in other cases they get it horribly or hilariously wrong:

Click on each photo below to open a full-sized version in a separate window.

December 6, 2009 Update: As usual, the “Christmas spirit” of commercialism is in full evidence in Shanghai this year, filling Chinese shoppers with Western cheer. I didn’t see any evidence of killer Santas, lame Santa costumes, or hip-hop Christmas choirs this time, though, so it appears that (as in everything else) China is making progress in its celebration of Christmas. And as you can see from the last photo below, taken in the lobby of Kunming’s Weilong Hotel on November 17th, the imperial presence of Christmas in China isn’t limited to coastal cosmopolitan centers anymore—it has extended its dominion far into the country’s interior:

Click on each photo below to open a full-sized version in a separate window.

September 23, 2011 Addendum: Although this photo wasn’t taken in Shanghai, it seems appropriate to include it here since it’s Christmas-related. On the same November 2009 trip that yielded the photos above, we posed as snowmen for this photo taken deep in a cavern in a remote mountain area of Guangdong Province. That’s right: in a cave in the middle of nowhere in November, there were Western-style snowmen and fake “snow” that you could cause to fall down from the ceiling to take Christmas photos. Another amazing fact about that cavern was that we could get crystal-clear cell phone reception on an international call. Considering I can’t even get cell phone reception in suburban parking garages here in the Bay Area, that was pretty mind-blowing.

Have any anecdotes about your Christmas experiences in China? Feel free to share them with us!

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