In a recent travel article for the Times, international journalist extraordinaire (and fellow American Chinese speaker) Nicholas Kristof recommends traveling to two countries above all others to gain a better understanding of the world in 2012: China and India. Among his recommendations for places to visit in China are Beijing, Shanghai, Guilin/Yangshuo, and Xi’an, popular destinations featured in a number of our Mainland China tour packages.

Some of his comments echo the perspective I tried to express in a recent blog post (and some earlier posts like this one) about the touching and exciting experiences that travelers can have in China’s rural and less-touristy areas:

But don’t just visit the giant metropolises. Go also to the countryside that is China’s soul[…]Wherever you go, drop in on a village. Residents will be surprised but hospitable, and if you have a Chinese speaker to translate, then you can have great conversations. Or drop by the local school, and you may find an English teacher delighted to practice conversational skills.

Kristof also mentions some amazing places that are less well known among Western tourists:

Visit a town like Datong, west of Beijing, home to stunning carved Buddhas several stories high. They are 1,500 years old and one of the most amazing sights in China, yet few foreign tourists know of Datong.

Not far away is the stunning Hanging Monastery, perched precariously on the side of a cliff. And Datong can be used as a base to see parts of the Great Wall that haven’t been restored. Nobody charges admission: they just sit there, waiting to be explored.

The Yungang Grottoes at Datong and the Hanging Temple (Hanging Monastery) at Hengshan are both featured in our Roots of Chinese Culture 14-Day Tour (CIT006).  Side trips to see unrestored sections of the Great Wall can also be arranged.

Another Times travel article published on the same day, “The 45 Places to Go in 2012,” also mentions a number of places we can take you to: Lhasa, Tibet; Ha Long Bay, Vietnam; and Moganshan, near Shanghai. Lhasa is the highlight of our Mysterious Tibet 16-Day Tour, and Ha Long Bay is one of the attractions on our Vietnam/Cambodia Highlights 7-Day Tour, which also features the ancient city of Angkor Wat. We’re also happy to arrange custom getaways to the tranquil mountain retreat of Moganshan, where you can relax in a new luxury hotel, admire its historic villas, and explore its tea fields.

If you want to create your own unique China travel experience, we are always happy to modify our existing tour packages to include the places and activities you want or to help you design your own, completely original itinerary.  Just contact us and let one of our agents know what you have in mind!

A billboard near Xi'an displaying a lucky phone number - photo by Justin Burner
Unfair: This degree of luck monopolization
should be grounds for an antitrust suit.

(photo by Justin Burner)

This billboard, which is (or was) apparently visible from the parking lot at the terracotta army museum (the tomb of Qin Shihuang, the First Emperor of China) near Xi’an, was photographed by Justin Burner. This is just about the luckiest phone number imaginable in China: eight 8’s. For those of you who don’t know, 8 is considered a profoundly lucky number in Chinese culture and is coveted as a good luck charm in numerical designations of all kinds—even in the United States, if you see a vanity license plate with a bunch of 8’s in it, the driver is likely to be Chinese. Wikipedia has a good explanation of Chinese beliefs about numbers here, and this page includes a lot of interesting additional information.

In fact, the influence of cultural beliefs about the power of numbers can be so strong that a study published in the British Medical Journal found that hospital patients of Chinese and Japanese descent were more likely to die on the 4th day of a given month, as the number 4 is associated with death in both Chinese and Japanese culture. (Patients without this ethnocultural background did NOT die in greater numbers on such days, suggesting that phenomena like this are caused by the psychosomatic power of the belief itself.) The study’s findings are disputed, but it’s still interesting evidence of the potential health effects of one’s thoughts, beliefs, and emotions.

Anyway, by the logic of superstition, this should be just about the most successful business in the world, but I suppose even the best luck can be undone by bad management—or by the laziness of an owner who thinks such a lucky number itself is enough to guarantee success.

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.

Panda condensed milk - Ming Xia - small - 240 x 281 Adibas - Lanchongzi - small - 320 x 213

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”)

Beijing - leprechaun - Ivan Walsh - small - 320 x 240 Shaoguan - US army pillows - small - 240 x 320

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.

Beijing - Wangfujing - scorpion kabobs - Thierry - small - 320 x 240 Guangdong - fowl traffic - a flock of birds walking along a road - small - 320 x 240

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.

Lijiang - Dayan - dog on roof - Chris Feser Shanghai - cat chariot - CIT - small - 320 x 240

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.)

Xi'an - Chad Pennington bear - CIT - small - 320 x 240 Ice Tiger - Ivan Walsh - small - 320 x 268

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.

December 2010: This ice sculpture of a tiger head appears to be eating a minivan. This photo was taken in Northeastern China near Harbin, whose outdoor winter display of giant ice sculptures is internationally famous. (photo by Ivan Walsh)

A group of boys playing a game on the street in Dayan Town Shanghai Museum - cartoon figure - CIT - small - 320 x 240

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.”

fruit vegetable counteracts poison machine - CIT - small - 320 x 240 Shanghai - shikumen kitten - closeup - CIT - small - 320 x 240

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

Shanghai - deranged mannequins - CIT - small - 320 x 233
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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