Group Discount: Groups of 6 or more who book a 2012 standard tour together will receive a discount of $50 per person! Please note: “Standard tours” are our Mainland China tour packages, tour codes CIT001 through CIT012; China International Travel CA’s discount offers may not be combined and may only be used once per tour participant per tour.
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Early Bird Discount (extended to the end of February): Customers who book a 2012 standard tour and pay by 2/29/12 will receive a $100 discount! (Tour must be booked 90 days or more before departure date.) Image credit: Unit66
2012 Discounts: Seniors (age 60 and up) and Dragons (customers born in 1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, etc.) will receive a $50 discount on standard tours booked in 2012!
Hey, wait, those tourists look kind of funny… click on the photo for a closer look. (photo by “Kzaral“)
At first glance, this looks like a nice photo of the stunning Yungang Grottoes (or Yungang Caves) in Datong, China. At second glance, it still does—at least it did to me when I first saw it. Soon, however, something about the photo started bugging me, and then I realized that it was actually a nice photo of a model of the Yungang Grottoes, specifically the 1:25 scale model on display at Japan’s Tobu World Square. (On the photographer’s page and on the TWS website itself, it’s misleadingly labeled as the Mogao Caves, but that’s actually a different display.) Regardless of the error, those models are pretty impressive. But not nearly as impressive as the actual sites, of course, so if you’d like to see the Yungang Grottoes in person, take a look at our Roots of Chinese Culture 14-Day Tour. The Mogao Caves in Dunhuang are featured on our Silk Road 16-Day Tour. Each of them is a treasure trove of priceless sights and artifacts.
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.
Click on any photo below to open a full-sized version in a separate window.
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
Right: The Bank of China Tower (left) and the Cheung Kong Center are the 12th and 52nd tallest buildings in the world, respectively.
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.
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.
Click on any photo below to open a full-sized version in a separate window.
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.)
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.
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
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.
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, 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.
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.
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 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.
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
Every month I feature a “Random Discovery Photo of the Month” on our website, a photo that is “random” in both the traditional sense of the word (chosen with no very specific criteria in mind and in no conscious order) and the contemporary colloquial sense of “strange and surprising.” Most of the photos on our site highlight China’s many beautiful and culturally profound places, but I wanted to have a prominent place to regularly feature photos to reflect the delightfully humorous, quaint, or just plain weird things that foreign travelers inevitably experience in China. Many of these photos were taken by me during one of my many travel experiences in China, though sometimes I choose an interesting photo that I’ve come across on Flickr or another Internet source.
March 2010: This is not, of course, actual panda milk, but cow’s milk produced by a company with the name Panda Brand, but at first glance it’s pretty disturbing. Given that even within China the Cantonese people are known for daring to eat anything (“广东人没有不敢吃的”), one wonders whether this would be a Cantonese delicacy if pandas were not an endangered species. (photo by Ming Xia)
April 2010: “Adibas” shoes—In China I’ve seen every kind of attempt to narrowly avoid copyright infringement you can imagine (including a t-shirt with a familiar-looking cartoon dog called “Snooby”), but for some reason this one in particular cracks me up. In a similar vein, here are some amusing variations on the McDonald’s logo that I recently came across online. (photo by “Lanchongzi”)
May 2010: This leprechaun was apparently a participant in Beijing’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. He seems to be pulling off the unlikely role with self-applauding conviction, despite the conspicuous clash between his red beard and black hair. (photo by Ivan Walsh)
June 2010: I came across these “U.S. Army” pillows in a resort store in an isolated mountain area of Guangdong Province in 2009. (Interestingly, in recent years I have continued to see people in China dressed in clothing featuring the American flag or a reference to the U.S. military.) In that same mountain area, an area with almost no Western tourist presence, I came across cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon being sold in a roadside convenience store. Globalization is happening in some very surprising ways.
July 2010: In my many trips to China, I still haven’t tried scorpion, but these “scorpion kabobs” (for sale in Beijing’s Wangfujing shopping district) do look surprisingly tasty. You might need a toothpick, though. (photo by Thierry)
August 2010: On the same trip to Guangdong Province, I saw these birds (ducks, I think, but I’m not sure) being herded along the road like goats or sheep. Unfortunately, I could only snap this blurry photo through the windows of our bus as we navigated the traffic jam. Driving conditions were quite fowl that day, you might say.
September 2010: One of my favorite places in China is Lijiang, a remote valley nestled amidst spectacular mountains in Yunnan Province. One of its many charms is the laid-back character of its “old town” areas, where you can see sights like barmaids engaging in a spirited singing contest with competitors across the lane or dogs hanging out on roofs. (photo by Chris Feser)
October 2010: Last fall, on my umpteenth trip to Shanghai’s Bund (it never gets old), I came across one of the strangest sights I’ve ever seen: this cat decadently ensconced in a chariot being pulled down the street by a hapless team of toy dogs. The chariot seems to be some kind of patriotic nod to the Shanghai Expo, which was still going on at the time but certainly didn’t need a gimmick like this to get media attention. Someone in the crowd of pedestrians surrounding the chariot, noticing my baffled reaction, said something I didn’t quite catch about how the chariot had achieved some level of Internet fame in China. I haven’t been able to confirm that claim, but I certainly would not be surprised if it were true. (On a side note, how is it that Star Wars computer wallpaper, among other completely random images, comes up in a Google image search for “Shanghai Expo cat chariot”? Looks like that algorithm needs a little tweaking, Google.)
November 2010: “Pennington Bear”—While visiting a newly developed pedestrian mall area in Xi’an last fall, I noticed a group of human billboards (can’t say what they were promoting, however) in various animal costumes and clown getups. You would think that the bear or cat costume this guy was wearing would be enough to get people’s attention, but no…for no reason that I can puzzle out, he threw in a Chad Pennington jersey for good measure. Chad Pennington, of all people—a player in an American sport that I’m quite sure had nothing to do with whatever they were promoting, a sport that as far as I know isn’t even marginally popular in China. For that matter, how did they even get their hands on a Chad Pennington jersey in Xi’an? Truly random.
January 2011: This is another photo from Dayan, one of the “old town” sections of Lijiang, that exemplifies its relaxed and informal vibe. These boys, probably children of the local residents and shopkeepers, were playing some game of chance (and judging from their demeanor, actually gambling), but I didn’t want to interrupt to ask what exactly it was they were playing.
February 2011: I took this photo in the Shanghai Museum in 2005. The museum displays were fascinating, of course, but I couldn’t help being distracted by this completely inexplicable little cartoon figure featured underneath the museum pieces: it had alien or animal eyes, painfully splayed fingers, and unnaturally curved extremities, and it was naked except for some kind of cap, bikini underwear, and unidentifiable footwear, with two conspicuous little dots for nipples. It was a complete mystery to me how such a thing came to be used in the museum. Who approved this idea? Was it done by some mid-level museum manager as a kind of in-joke? Was the museum’s collection on loan from a friendly (if a little strange) alien race who had preserved our past for us? It was one of those amusing, perplexing details that reminded me as a Westerner how strikingly different the Chinese sense of taste and propriety can be—in the West you might see figures like this in a children’s museum, but not on displays featuring world-class works of art and artifacts thousands of years old! With my Western biases, I can only shake my head and say, “Weird.”
March 2011: Amusing examples of Engrish or Chinglish [post temporarily unavailable] still abound in China. The most interesting ones occur when bad translations mix with cultural differences that defy easy explanation. I believe I came across this mysterious device in a shop in Shanghai. Even taking into account the clumsy translation, I’m not sure what a “fruit vegetable counteracts poison Machine” is, what it does, or why only the word “machine” is capitalized on the package. Can people use it to eat rotten or toxic fruits and vegetables? Do Chinese spies carry it around to detoxify themselves, using only whatever fruits and vegetables are handy, when enemy agents have slipped arsenic into their food? Whatever it is, it must have something to do with Traditional Chinese Medicine. A Google search for its Chinese name, “果蔬解毒机,” does generate over one million results (as of today), if you want to learn more about it. Personally, I’d rather let it remain an interesting mystery.
April 2011: This is a tiny kitten I came across in a Shanghai alley, perched high on a narrow ledge and apparently enjoying its own little patch of grass, while I was taking photos of a traditional “shikumen” district in the downtown area. (See my post entitled “Shanghai’s Disappearing Shikumen” [temporarily unavailable] for more photos and an explanation of what “shikumen” are.) When I noticed it up there, it seemed like such a precarious place for something so fragile and innocent, particularly in the midst of an urban environment fraught with dangers for such small trusting creatures. No doubt my all-too-human tenderness was misguided, however, as I’m sure that millions of callow Shanghai kittens quickly learn to prosper in that perilous city. Anyway, I wrote a haiku (originally a Chinese form of poetry, I believe) to go with the photo:
Kitten on the edge Small patch of urban ledge-grass Precarious life
A strange window display finds immortality on the Internet.
How could anyone be “overstocked” on something so awesome?
May 2011: This month’s photo is one of innumerable jaw-droppingly (or at least double-takingly) random sights I’ve come across while exploring the vast human particle accelerator known as Shanghai. As you can imagine, in a city with that many options for shoppers, to be successful you have to find a way to stand out. This shop certainly got my attention with its mannequins, which are not only cutely cartoonish or disturbingly psychotic, depending on your point of view, but also used in an inventive way: ostensibly, the sole purpose of mannequins is to be an inconspicuous display device for items of clothing, but clearly the primary function of these particular mannequins is akin to that of the wacky waving inflatable arm-flailing tube men used at American car dealerships. Otherwise, why would some of them be naked? Well, here’s some free advertising and attention for you, whoever you are—too bad I can’t remember exactly where I took this, or what exactly you’re selling, or what the name of your store is. (It does appear to be across the street from “Jun,” though.)
Our Random Discovery Photos of the Month will resume next week with a new photo for September. Stay tuned!
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The process began as I desperately clutched the seat in front of me, wondering whether I would even survive the ride into Taipei from the airport. No doubt the driver, my Chinese professor’s brother, found my fear quaint and amusing as he weaved nonchalantly through the crush of contending cars. Driving with a heedless brusqueness that would have evoked a string of one-finger salutes and perhaps a few acts of violence in most American cities, he aroused the ire of no one on that highway in Taiwan. Most of the other drivers were too busy doing exactly the same thing to even notice him. So it was with these stomach-churning observations that my process of disillusionment began, not one hour after I had first set foot in Asia.
Strange mannequins in a Shanghai shop—one of many interesting sights I’ve come across in China
As a white American who was double-majoring in philosophy and Mandarin, my first acquaintance with China and Chinese culture was primarily academic. I had an idealized impression of Chinese culture formed by the many hours I had spent analyzing the Analects of Confucius, stumbling through t’ai chi, meditating to Buddhist chants, struggling with the abstractions of Chinese poetry, listening intently to the feverish plinkety-plink of classical Chinese music while drinking green tea and inhaling incense smoke, and scratching out Chinese calligraphy that must have seemed to my Chinese friends like the scratchings of a second-grader – in other words, I was a massive China geek. Although I had had a number of close Chinese friends for years, they were primarily well-educated, somewhat Westernized Chinese who were not at all representative of the typical citizen of China or Taiwan. So I guess it’s no surprise that some part of me always expected to find in the daily lives of the Chinese people a more elevated, culturally sophisticated lifestyle than I had observed in American society. In that sense, I’ve had some disappointing experiences in China: I’ve seen pollution, ignorance and backwardness, a dog-eat-dog business mentality, shallow popular culture, and, of course, harrowing city traffic (not to say, of course, that these same flaws and many more can’t be found in the United States). Fortunately, looking back on the last thirteen years of my travels there, I can say those experiences have been far outweighed by the many more pleasant surprises that China has given me, in addition to treasured friendships, soul-cleansing mountain hikes, touching encounters with earnest rural villagers, late-night strolls through the urban canyons of Shanghai, euphoric drunken karaoke binges, wide-eyed walks along ancient city walls, and meditative moments in temples and teahouses, all of which have made every day of my time there fresh and stimulating. China is a land rich with paradoxes and brimming with vitality.
Relaxing in a boat on Hangzhou’s West Lake
These are the things that I’ll be sharing with you in this blog, and these are the things that I hope our company will allow some of you to experience for yourselves. When you travel anywhere, life is more vivid, more intense, somehow more REAL than it is during the mundane routine of daily life. Nowhere has that been as true for me as it is in China. No matter what kind of life you’ve lived, traveling to China will be one of the best things you’ve ever done – especially with the extensive knowledge, practical experience, and thoughtful service that my Shanghainese wife and her Cantonese partner, along with our many connections in China, can provide. Our tours are a good place to start your own cultural journey.
Welcome, then, to the home of China International Travel CA, Inc. I hope you enjoy browsing our website and watching it grow. Please feel free to contact us with any questions you have.
(originally posted on our old blog on June 5, 2009)