China – part 15 (of 20)

Hong Kong has had a colorful past from pirates to Trader Barons, but currently it is torn between the Mainland’s communist influence/interference and the capitalist heritage of British Rule. Here are the historical highlights worth knowing:

  • Prior to the arrival of the British, Hong Kong was a small fishing community and a haven for travelers and pirates in the South China Sea.
  • During the Opium Wars with China in the Nineteenth Century, Britain used the territory as a naval base. Following the end of the first Opium War, the Treaty of Nanking ceded the territory to the British in perpetuity. (Learn about the First Opium war in this 2 minute video)
  • Following additional conflicts with the Chinese in 1860, Britain gained Kowloon and Stonecutters Island.
  • In 1898 Britain acquired the New Territories on a 99-year lease.
  • Hong Kong served as a refuge for exiles from China following the establishment of the Chinese Republic in 1912.
  • After Japan seized Manchuria in 1932 and the Sino-Japanese war broke out in 1938, China turned to Britain for supplies. As a result of this relationship, relations between Britain, Hong Kong and China became warmer.
  • As Japan advanced into China, hundreds of thousands of Chinese took refuge in Hong Kong.
  • World War II disrupted the social and economic life of Hong Kong.
  • 8 December 1941, Japanese aircraft bombed Kowloon and forced the British to surrender Hong Kong on Christmas Day 1941.
  • Following Japan’s surrender on 14 August 1945 Britain reclaimed the territory.
  • Hong Kong was again a major trading center.
  • When the Nationalist/Communist Civil War was won by the Communists, hundreds of thousands of people again fled to Hong Kong.
  • The colony was forced to develop internal industries taking advantage of local and regional resources in order to continue to grow.
  • The constant influx from China of capital and manpower led to the establishment of light manufacturing throughout the territory by the 1950s and 1960s.
  • During the 1980s Hong Kong started to work with China on a series of joint projects that brought the two closer together.
  • In 1984, Britain and China reached an agreement that Hong Kong would revert back to Chinese authority in 1997.
  • The commercial, social and legal life of Hong Kong will remain as it is until 2047 at which time China will be able to exercise its authority.

OK, history lesson done!

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We stayed at Hotel Panorama by Rhombus, on the mainland. As you have learned from the first post in this 20 part series; this is the holiday during which I will be turning 40. Hong Kong was my chosen destination and this is the hotel. Naturally we paid more to secure an Executive Club Harbour-view Suite. The official excuse was to have the iconic Victoria Harbour view, but secretly it was to have access to the Executive Lounge that serves floors 31 to 37 (exclusively). The room was over-the-top, but a real treat.

(PF colluded again and the lady at the end of the video was actually delivering the cute birthday bite below!)

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Continue reading China – part 16 (of 20).

China – part 14 (of 20)

Despite all the spitting (not just from males) and smoking, the cities we have visited had clean streets and pavements. The same cannot be reported for the second biggest nation on earth, as observed during our 2009 holiday in India.

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We saw this type of scene plenty of times, with a variety of backdrops. In modern Chinese culture, the wedding pictures are taken a year before the big day. I suppose it is to give both parties sufficient time to reflect on their hideous over-the-top choice of outfits. It was a relief to learn that the dresses at least are rentals – what do you do with so much fabric in a small apartment afterwards?

Bicycle and scooter drivers employ many techniques to stay dry and warm.

Apparently Helen Keller is still alive and peddles eye wear in China! (post facelift of course).

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It can be very pesky if you forgot to pack your umbrella and there is a sudden down pour – as luck have it, there is a vending machine to the rescue.

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Continue reading China – part 15 (of 20).

China – part 13 (of 20)

Forgive me for going there, but our hotel in Shanghai was really fancy. We were even spoiled for choice on the toilet! I did try out the electronics … I mean, when in Rome. Not effective. For starters, it requires some hip re-positioning in terms of angle. After the cleaning cycle, you are literally dripping wet and the dryer is simply increasing ground zero, not decreasing it. Call me old fashion, but I still believe some transactions require paperwork. The heated seat was a nice touch though.

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Speaking of hygiene. A ‘western toilet’ in a public space is a rarity. The porcelain model with traction patches on either side of a hole, is still a top seller. There was a festive atmosphere in the air, every time one of the three females in our group found a western toilet with paper. Toilet paper and serviettes (in restaurants) are not necessarily a given. At one lunch, we even had to purchase serviettes separately.

Not entirely sure what is one offer here:

With apartment space at a premium, drying is definitely out of the window:

The Bund or Waitan is a waterfront area in central Shanghai:

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Continue reading China – part 14 (of 20).

China – part 12 (of 20)

Listen, you should give it to the Chinese: they take what little they might have and make the most of it. A case in point is Elephant Trunk Hill. It really is only a hill which is partly flanked by a passing river, with a whole on the one side … the jury is out (according to me) whether this whole was made by Mother Nature, or members of the Guilin Tourism Board.

The Guilin region get some 10 million tourists each year, of which 8 million is domestic. To have a proper view of the Elephant’s Trunk, you must pay an entrance fee. To ensure no one sneaks a free view of this attraction, there are some very strategic shrubbery planted along the side of the river close to the Hill. OK, so we paid the entrance and went in – after all, this is sold to us as a highlight … whoop deee whoop. A hill with a whole in it.

The Li River is 437km long, but 83km of it flows between Guilin and Yangzhou. A boat cruise takes approximately 4 hours. At the time it was their dry season and at a few spots it felt more like a shallow canal than a river. Compliments to the captain for navigating all the tight corners and turns we had to take along this otherwise extremely scenic cruise.

All the cruise boats are owned by the government and not surprisingly it shows. Each boat has its own kitchen and about two hours into the cruise lunch is served. This was certainly a highlight for the domestic travelers!

Out of our group of 6, I was the only one brave enough to fight my way to the free lunch. This is all I felt comfortable with and could vaguely identify. I think I had a chicken drumstick from the midget gene pool and those white cubes turned out not to be cooked potato. Oh well, the food stayed down and the Lomotil untouched.

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According to our guide – a local resident – Guilin is known for the quality of their food. Now he tells me! He shared the following anecdote with us: An alien ship crashed in China. Beijing suggested to research the occupants to learn about their foreign culture and technologies. Shanghai wanted to profit from the aliens by putting them in a circus and charge an entrance fee, whilst the people from Guilin curiously asked whether they should not first establish what they taste like.

In Yangzhou, we rented bicycles [4.] and went for a casual cycle in the surrounding countryside. If you have not been on a bicycle for a while, then the first 100 meters certainly jogs the memory. Pensionfund and myself are such traveling techno-nerds, but thanks to Fitbit Tracker on our phones, I can report that this “casual” outing turned out to be 15km!

We went for a cooking class in Yangzhou … the beginning bits felt more like a chopping class.

Chinese food is easy to make and fast, given you have staff on hand for prepping and washing up 😉 We discovered eggplant and it was yummy.

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Continue reading China – part 13 (of 20).

China – part 11 (of 20)

Not everything in China is being manufactured in a factory. Ridiculously high up in the mountains in an area outside Guilin – called Longsheng – you will find the locals farming rice against the slopes. Typically there is a water dam on the highest point of each terrace. China has no shortage of land yet – relocate dammit. They are staying, as the climate allows for two crops a year and in between they get to fleece oxygen deprived tourists, who find the scenery beautiful.

In essence, it is a ethnic minority village and the locals go about their daily lives, unperturbed by the tourists walking past. Not really “walking”, more huffing-and-puffing as level ground is very welcomed, but scarcely spaced apart. An endless maze of steps lures you high and higher up into the mountain.

The process to go up into the mountain is rather interesting. You make your way to the ticket office (or in our case, our tour company drove us there: about 2 hours’ drive outside Guilin) and then you are driven up the narrow and winding mountain pass by a local hell driver …

Continue reading China – part 12 (of 20).

China – part 10 (of 20)

We could have flown Beijing to Xi’an for cheaper, but why give up an opportunity to travel by high speed train, at an average speed of 292 km/h. Glad we did – a smooth ride! We paid a little more to travel first class. In a land with many people, any opportunity for some peace and quietness, is worth the money.

From the sky, we would not have witnesses the incredible construction site that is northern China. A few years ago, they said that 80% of the world’s cranes are in Dubai – this is certainly no longer the case. Every few kilometers there are countless blocks of flats standing empty – guess it is a case of ‘build it and they will come’.

A farmer accidentally discovered the Terracotta Soldiers’ site in 1974, while digging for a well. Today there are 3 pits – partially excavated. Once uncovered, the clay oxidizes in 24 hours and loses all color, hence why they all look the same.

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Emperor Qin commission the construction of the mausoleum complex around 246BC. It took 11 years to complete. The army was to escort and protect him in the afterlife and consist of different ranking soldiers and officials (arranged according to duty and rank –  as found), along even with horses. I supposed he never anticipated that the roof will collapse, crushing his army on the spot. Possibly bad for him, but an exceptional find for archeology. As they excavate, the merely need to find the puzzle pieces to construct the soldiers again … there are no missing pieces. However, in cases of severe pulverization, the historians will construct what they can.

In the tourist trap … eh, giftshop, at the end of the Terracotta tour, sits a man claiming to be the Mr. Yang who made the discovery 4 decades ago. Somehow to authenticate him, there is a big poster on the wall with his face on it. If you buy a photobook, he is willing to sign it for you …

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Please forgive me, but when it comes to tourists and trinkets, these Chinese are entrepreneurial opportunists. We speculated that the man and poster gets replaced daily, but figured it is such a sweet gesture that we might as well fall for the trick, just in case he is the real deal. He looks old enough all right.

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Continue China – part 11 (of 20).

China – part 9 (of 20)

Dim sum literally means “to touch your heart”, and linked to the Chinese tradition of “yum cha” or drinking tea. It consists of a variety of steamed or fried dumplings and an assortment of other tasteful goodies. It is usually served in bamboo baskets, or on small plates.

The unique culinary art of Dim Sum originated in China many hundreds of years ago. According to some sources the first Dim Sum was made 2,500 years ago, as evident in the poetry and music of that time.

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Although Dim Sum is inextricably linked to Cantonese cuisine, it did not originate in Canton. The first Dim Sum is believed to have been made in Northern China and has changed and developed enormously over the centuries. The names of these little delicacies have also gradually changed.

Originally it was an exclusive luxury made for the Emperor and his family, but it was also enjoyed by the wealthy. Eventually it was also served in tea houses, particularly the busy tea houses along the famous Silk Road.

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In the early 20th century there were many developments in the world of Dim Sum. The descendants of the Manchurian empire did not need to work so to pass the time they frequented eating and drinking establishments. Tea houses and restaurants vied with each other for business by offering Dim Sum in ever increasing varieties.

Nowadays Dim Sum is an integral part of Chinese culture, and is widely appreciated in many other Asian countries. The filling, pastry and shape depends on the region and climate from which it originates. The tastiest and best, according to many, comes from Southern China, Canton and Hong Kong. Eating Dim Sum at a restaurant is usually known in Cantonese as going to “drink tea” (yum cha), as tea is typically served with Dim Sum.

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(Regrettably, despite our vast visual library, I have no original photos on dim sum and as such borrowed the visuals for this blog post off the internet. If any of the four photos belong to you, please let me know and I will gladly remove them from here.) 

Continue reading China – part 10 (of 20).

China – part 8 (of 20)

Temple of Heaven (Beijing),  is a tranquil tree filled park with a ceremonial temple in the center.

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The place is abuzz with a variety of things to do, as the government provides free organized group activities for the elderly.

If you are not in the mood for some physical activity, why not join the long corridor for your daily dose of gossip, knitting, or just a friendly round of rummy or dominoes?

For when your fridge magnet breaks?

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Excellent solution for people with body issues.

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All the tourist attractions as positively Asperger syndrome about lighters. It gets confiscated before every domestic flight and at some points of interest. Somewhere in history – allegedly – a protester covered himself with oil and set himself alight. Ever since they are confiscating it, in fear of a repeat incident. For me, this is just to stimulate sales at the exit.

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Loads of foreign tourist end up, or are being directed to Silk Street. What a tourist trap. When you are in Beijing, try to avoid it, if being fleeced is not your thing. Listen, it is a great shopping mall, with loads of trinkets and pretty things, but haggle hard. The shop assistants smell your ignorance a mile off.

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Continue reading China – part 9 (of 20).

China – part 7 (of 20)

The Forbidden City is considered the center of Beijing and faces Tiananmen Square. It was the formal residence of the Emperor and the place where he conducted most of his business and ruled the empire from. The whole place is ridiculously big and ostentatiously spacious, built with only one purpose in mind: to impress and intimidate visitors as to the Emperor’s importance and status.

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It was also home to the Empress and a plethora of concubine and one eunuch – the only other male allowed to sleepover at night. There are conflicting reports on exactly how many of these concubines resided here, as from the one source to the other the value just seems to increase. I am starting to sense a correlation between short-man-syndrome and sexual fantasy. Precisely how talented were these Emperors in bed? But I suppose this to some extent also explains modern China’s infatuation with libido and the demise of the poor Rhino …

No woman could volunteer to become a concubine. Either her family nominated her and offered her as a gift to the Emperor, or the Emperor’s mother visited villages to select concubines for her son. The reason for this human trafficking was to produce offspring for the lineage – male of course. The Empress competed along with all the (willing?) concubines for … uh, facetime with the Emperor. Access however, was controlled by the eunuch, who suggested a shortlist nightly to the Emperor. Competition was fierce and family of concubines frequently tried to bribe the eunuch for inclusion on the ‘catch of the day’ list.

If a concubine produces a son for the Emperor, she and her family would be set for live. If at age 30, the concubine has failed to “see” the Emperor, she would be set free to leave the Forbidden City. However, if the Emperor dies (which happened often, given all the wars) all concubine who failed to bear any children up to that time, are buried alive with the Emperor.

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Was the moat around the Forbidden City to keep the village men out, or the concubine in?

The whole thing is a bit of rinse-repeat experience on a straight line: walk to building, either go through or around building … walk to building. Just the size of the buildings differ. It appears as if the red paint was procured via a bulk order.

Continue reading China – part 8 (of 20).

China – part 6 (of 20)

Construction to the pre-cursor of the Great Wall dates back 221 – 206BC. The Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) constructed most of the perceived 6 259 kms of brick wall. It is difficult to calculate the actual length of the wall, as it is firstly not a continuous piece of west-to-east construction as there are numerous walls branching off it and there are natural defensive barriers like lakes and cliffs scattered in between. Secondly, due to the passing of time and acts of war, some of the wall has been destroyed to the point that some historians now believe that the original wall could have been as long as 8 850 km. Restored sections of the wall was opened in 1955 to the public.

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We visited the Mutianyu section of the Wall. It is not the closest to Beijing, but the most popular among foreign tourists, as domestic travelers – for some reason – do not often visit this specific section. It translates to less people!! See some of the unreal (and empty) pictures below. At this specific section, one can either travel to the wall by cable car (up and down), or ski-lift (up and down), or ski-lift up and toboggan down. Seeing that we always chase new experiences, we went with the latter option.

Continue reading China – part 7 (of 20).