Nanjing & Shanghai: a walk in the park (or several), cicadas for lunch, and unusual art museums

July 15, 2018
by Dan

Our flight from Guilin arrived in Nanjing Airport  where we boarded the incredibly efficient, modern, and cheap Nanjing Metro. I really love the metro systems in China. We were going to visit a friend of mine who was a visiting researcher where I worked in Maryland, and he is now a professor at Nanjing University. His name is Hao and we got to stay with him and his family for a whole week during our stay in Nanjing. It was a excellent experience and we were shown amazing hospitality by the whole family.

On our first day we took a walk around Xuanwu Lake, the old palace gardens. It was a beautiful day and gorgeous park. So far the parks in China have been outstanding. This particular park featured a lot of blooming lotus plants. The fields of lotus with bright pink flowers are really something to behold.

We really wore ourselves out walking this day. Hao took us out for some Nanjing specialties that I had read about; tangbao and duck blood soup. The tangbao is a soup filled dumpling that has a really rich broth. The duck blood soup was a bit tough for my western taste, but I’m really glad I tried it. It had an excellent delicate broth with noodles and then cubes of congealed duck blood and a few other organ meats. The duck blood part was actually quite nice and less iron-tasting than I expected. Nanjing is renowned for its love of duck and I’m solidifying my opinion that it’s my favorite meat. So even if I’m not a huge fan of the organ meats, duck organs are much more palatable in my opinion.

For dinner Hao’s in-laws made us an absolute feast of dumplings accompanied by several other dishes. The most unusual was chicken wings cooked in Coke, a special for the American guests. They were fantastic. It was a sweet caramel-like glaze, not too different from a sweet barbecue sauce. I love the idea.

On our second day we didn’t stop the walking. We headed off to Xiaoling Ming mausoleum. The only of the emperors from the Ming dynasty that is buried outside of Beijing. The walkways leading up to the burial site are lined with animal statues and terrific peaceful gardens. We were about whipped after the heat and walking so we called it a day and had a small picnic near to a section of the Ming City wall which used to encircle the city and palace. It’s insanely impressive and large. I think it’s one of the coolest aspects of the city. An ancient defense wall still in place winding it’s way through a modern city.

For dinner Hao took us out for a fancy dinner at a famous local restaurant where we got to try all sorts of amazing dishes. It was hard to pick a top favorite but I think the salted duck (Nanjing knows ducks), and the roasted fish. The sauces here are just amazing.

The next day we needed to finish off our tour of the mausoleum gardens since our ticket was good for only 2 days or 24 hours. So we headed back, but this time early to beat the heat and that really worked in our favor. We walked around 15 km and ended up exhausted like the day before, but we covered much more ground.

Our first stop was the many-story pagoda called Linggu Tower, with a lovely view of the rest of the park and the Nanjing skyline.

Next we saw the museum and mausoleum dedicated to Sun Yat-Sen, the father of modern China. The mausoleum was very impressive. A huge set of stairs leading up to the burial place really brought a sense of awe.

That night we cooked dinner for the family. Everyone took great delight in watching us cook our weird food, there were lots of curious peeks into the kitchen and videos taken. We made spaetzle, sausage and onions, cucumber vinegar salad, a breadless apple pie. I also put together some samples of marmite on toast just to keep it weird. Everything but the marmite went over well, of course.

The big surprise was how much everyone loved the sauteed apples in butter, sugar and cinnamon. It was hands down the favorite dish. We also got complimented on representing a good range of flavors. We weren’t’ really thinking of that, just trying to provide a wide array of food. But my impression is that Chinese meals have a lot more diversity than how we usually put together meals in the west. And everything is served family style. I really love it. It’s a great meal experience.

The next day we went out with Hao to the Nanjing Museum. He had never been so it was a new experience for everyone. It’s a really great museum that covers the various developments in the history of China, from the neolithic to the dynasties. There were excellent translations in English with good background for foreigners. We did go on a weekend though so it was slammed with visitors.

My favorite aspects were the artwork and wall hangings from the Qing and Ming dynasties. Really amazing craftsmanship on all the stuff.

After the traditional exhibitions of the dynasties, the museum displays an array of digital exhibitions. It wasn’t really my thing, but they did show off some really interesting and experimental concepts for how to display traditional museum exhibits. I expect that we’ll be seeing more of this in the future. Everything was much more interactive and there were some clever overlays of 3D scans of objects overlayed on the original objects using transparent displays.

DSC_1200

The museum terminated in an exhibit of the Republican area of the early 20th century. I was very excited about this part, but thought it was a let down. It was a scene of a town indoors, where you could enter various buildings. It looks really cool, but all of the buildings were just filled with gift shops, many of which were hawking things totally unrelated to the museum. I was bummed because I really wanted to see information about this hugely influential transitional period in Chinese history.

On our next day we took it easy on our feet since we were pretty exhausted. We only ventured out during the day to exercise in a nearby park. Not really a rest day, but relaxing nonetheless. We did try to use an ATM that just ate my bank card. Luckily it was before I entered my pin. But maybe don’t use China Construction Bank. It would have been nearly impossible to retrieve the card without a native speaker to help me out. Luckily Hao was able to call and get it sorted with the bank and I was able to pick it up the next day from their main branch.

In the evening we headed out to the Confucius Temple Fuzimiao. It’s a tourist pedestrian area with some historic importance. Now it has been converted into an outdoor shopping mall, but with traditional style buildings. It was full of locals and Chinese tourists out enjoying the beautiful night.

It was a relaxed meandering crowded and so it was fun to see everyone out in a great mood sampling various treats that were for sale along the walkway. Hao treated us to some delicious ice cream from Harbin where he and his wife went to university, some mochi-like sweet gelatinous rice, and finally a local favorite, stinky tofu. The stinky tofu is pretty earthy and on it’s own can be a bit much but with the spicy sauce it was really tasty and had an excellent texture.

We didn’t go in the temple itself, but the whole thing is brightly lit up, blasting lasers off the roof, and pumping loud music. Evidently philosophy rocks in China. It was quite a spectacle.

We also wandered a few more famous alleys and ended up at Donglaomen pedestrian street which was much less crowded and bright, but had traditional style buildings and the road terminated at the city wall near to the China Gate. Overall the alleys seem like they could be kind of cheesy for a Chinese architecture buff but to ignorant foreign eyes it was a lovely mix of old and new.

On our final day we chose to go back to enjoy the Xuanwumen park by going for a run. I had this grand idea that we would go visit the Jiefangmen Gate of the city wall during this endeavor to get one last wall landmark in. We ended up going up on top of the wall and running along it. It wasn’t really the greatest running surface and didn’t have great views because of the battlements. Overall a run through the park with a nice view of the wall would have been better, which we did for about half of our run.

I’m glad I got on top of the wall even if it was kind of anti-climactic. After the run we were treated to a delicacy from Shandong province, where the in-laws are from: fried cicada. It was an interesting experience and my first one was a bit earthy but the rest were really excellent. They were seasoned with salt and cumin.

The next day we bid the family a fond farewell and we headed off to Shanghai. We stayed with a friend of Christina’s from college and her husband. Emily and Paul were awesome hosts and gave us a load of information about what to see in Shanghai and Beijing as well as a really fantastic take on Chinese culture and politics from an inside and out perspective. Christina and Emily also had a nice stroll down memory lane, remembering campus, their rugby playing days, and catching up for the first time since graduation.

While in Shanghai we went out to see the Bund which is THE skyline experience in Shanghai. The Bund is the traditional section which still feels like there should be model Ts puttering around and couples strolling. Instead there are massive hoards of visitors watching the world around them through their phones. The other side of the river is called Pudong. It is the totally nuts modern skyline full of whacky looking spaceships and LEDs that turn entire skyscrapers into moving advertisements. It’s a surreal experience to be trapped by a touristic chaos with these two incredible views on either side of you.

We also visited two museums during our stay. The first was the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre. It was a fantastic collection of posters throughout the history of the PRC. It’s a rare collection since most of the posters were ordered destroyed some time in the 70 or 80s maybe. The collection shows a interesting progression of style and message and also shows a few different versions of posters with various leaders missing or added in. It also contains a few magazine covers and posters prior to the communism which showcase the edgier and fashionable international side of Shanghai during that time.

I loved it and thought it would be some sort of underground hush hush thing. It is literally underground in a sketchy basement, but it’s well advertised and acknowledged by the Chinese government and TripAdvisor. I find the top sites lists by TripAdvisor terrible and don’t advise trusting them, but the point is everyone knows about this. The only bummer was no photos. Also the gift shop was totally worth a visit because there were prints of a lot of other posters that weren’t on display at the moment so it’s a good way to see more. Christina got a shirt with a print of art showing Russian and Chinese unity and friendship.

The other museum we attended is the Power Station of Art, housed in.. you guessed it, an old power station. The space is really cool and the balcony has a great view of more crazy spaceship buildings and the super active shipping boats on the river. The shows rotate, but we saw a collection of artists from all over the world. It was a nice diverse set of works. A decent portion of the show featured collaborations between scientists and artists in varying ways. I think the artist that stuck out the most, at least in terms of novelty, was a Chinese artist named Cai Guo-Qiang, who paints canvas by exploding gun powder. They showcased one of his large pieces along with a video showing the production.

On our final day in the city we headed out to the People’s Square which houses the futuristic looking Shanghai museum. We didn’t have time to enter the museum, and the lines were massive anyway. We just wandered through the square and the adjacent park. I found it comically hypocritical that the People’s Square and the People’s Square Park are separated by The People’s Road… but pedestrians aren’t allowed to cross it, they have to use the subway entrance as an underpass.

The high point of the excursion was coming across a public area with wooden kung fu practice dummies. I’ve never seen one in person, so I went nuts make-believing a sweet kung fu training scene. Christina was totally impressed. She didn’t realize that actually all of times during this trip when I hefted my backpack on to my back or complained about the price of hostels, I was actually learning sweet kung fu moves in the process and all of my training was realized in this moment.

Then it was off to Beijing! We bid Emily and Paul farewell and left Shanghai that evening on an overnight slow train to Beijing. We were unable to get sleeper tickets and they were over budget anyway, so we settled for the ‘hard seat’ class of ticket. I figured it wouldn’t actually be a hard seat, but more like just a regular long distance transit seat.

We received multiple warnings that we had made a terrible choice so I was pretty worried going into this. Turns out it was just fine, if a bit uncomfortable. It is awkward to sit across from strangers and manage the whole footsie situation while your trying to sleep and it doesn’t allow for reclining seats. So yes it was super uncomfortable, but it was only 15 hours so it wasn’t so bad in comparison to some of our bus trips.

[Christina’s note: No, that is not a joke nor is it sarcasm, he is being totally serious when he says “only 15 hours”. That’s just how many 24 hour plus bus rides we’ve taken, but even I had to laugh when I read that.]

Advertisements

Yangshuo: Nature in China

July 15, 2018
by Dan

After we successfully waded through the visa application process in Hong Kong we headed straight across the border. This involved taking the metro to the last station and then walking across the river separating Shenzhen and Hong Kong. The process was pretty painless, and shortly found ourselves in Mainland China!

We had then went to find a train to Guangzhou. We knew we needed to leave from Futian, but it turns out that the Futian Checkpoint (where we exited customs and immigration) and Futian Station was where we needed to catch the train, and they are in different part of the city. With the help of a Chinese officer we managed to navigate the metro to Futian Station and picked up the high speed rail tickets that I had bought in advance online using Ctrip, which became our go to for bookings in China. Booking.com worked okay but, this is the first country where there was a clearly superior platform. China is interesting like that.

We had some time to kill before our train so I made a quick trip to the famous electronics markets of Shenzhen at Huaqiangbei, and I’m so glad I did. It was the most amazing array of electronic whatevers that I had ever seen. There were surface mounted devices, 3-D printers, phones, crazy security cameras, folding electric bikes, folding drums/pianos, smart home devices, and phone cases as far as the eye could see. It was dizzying and I wanted so many things. But I exercised an amazing amount of restraint and I walked out with just a new portable battery and a cable for Christina’s new phone. But I want to go back there with a full wallet and empty suitcase someday.

Our ride to Guangzhou was uneventful, and we went to find our hostel for the night. We were staying in a small village built around the south station of Guangzhou on our route to Yangshuo. In trying to locate our hostel Google Maps was worthless (though was more useful that I would have expected in China), and the local Baidu maps was not much better and all in Chinese.

When we arrived where Google Maps pointed us, we did not find our hostel and asking for directions got us blank stares, emphatic head shakes or lead us back and forth in conflicting directions. We wandered around aimlessly long enough that finally a stranger took pity on us and called the hostel number. Dan had tried, but poor connection and lack of Chinese had made it futile. Our guardian angel got directions and lead us to the hostel which had no sign at all so we never would have found this place. Thank you to that guy! He disappeared without us getting his name. For what it’s worth it was the Molinge Youth Hostel, located here.

We got a good rest and were able to make our way to Guangzhou South Station in the morning to await our next high speed train to Yangshuo.

I wanted to visit Yangshuo because it seemed both beautiful and out of the way. I was worried that China would be a lot like India with the crowding. In India I basically spent most of my trip searching out something away from a big city. So that’s the first kind of place I searched for in China. I first read about and saw pictures of Guilin and the beautiful karst mountains surrounding it. Karst mountains are notably featured on the 20 yuan banknote. Upon some further reading I found that Yangshou is an even more scenic area and a smaller town, and so that was our destination for the first few days in China.

The high speed rail from Guangzhou was nice and fast, really quite reasonably priced. It wasn’t as slick as the Japanese high speed rail we’ve experience, but still way better than most of the transit options we’ve used so far.

We arrived in Yangshou and the scenery was gorgeous and everything I was hoping for. First we took a shuttle bus from the station to town. But nope it went to some area out side of town that was labeled as a different city on Google maps, Baidu, and the local map at the tourism office. So we got some strange responses when we showed concern that we weren’t yet in Yangshuo. All we got was, this is Yangshuo. It was, but kind of the outskirts and several kilometers away from our hostel. Luckily it’s a small town and we were able to catch a local bus for very cheap. We saw another pair of tourists just decide to hoof it.

We didn’t have any trouble finding 131 Youth Hostel, and it turned out to be one of the odder hostels we’ve seen. It appeared that once upon a time it was a lively hip hostel, but that went into decay for years and was falling apart. Then I imagine someone buying it and just renting without making upgrades or fixed. So there were areas that were largely abandoned or full of broken items and old posters, piles of miscellaneous items in many places. But our dorm was nice and the roof deck an amazing view of the surrounding mountains that was especially nice at night.

Anyway our first day in Yangshuo we spent wandering around and basically buying any and every food item we came across. We were pretty indiscriminate because everything was new, but we got lucky finding some local specialties like Mugwort cakes and Guilin rice noodles.

dsc_0867.jpg

We also walked up and down West Street (Xijie). It’s a bit of an overdeveloped tourist trap. At first impression, it seemed like it would be pretty annoying but, it was all so new that I actually loved it. And they had free samples for many of the local specialties. Like some excellent hot sauces and sweets that we did end up buying.

We also took a stroll around Yangshuo Park and saw some ladies dancing and some really cool card and board games. The park was beautiful with excellent views all around of the mountains, including two mountains within the park. One had pagodas on top which you can climb easily and the other was taller with a flag on the top of it. It’s a very epic looking and I made several loops around it asking folks if it’s possible to climb it, but I was mostly laughed at and told no. Well I’m pretty certain there is no official path, but on my last attempt I found a small set of stairs behind a fancy hotel that led up to a water drainage system down the mountain. I’m sure with some dedication and a willingness to do some rock climbing you could get to the top, but I just didn’t have the time unfortunately.

We also took a recommendation for a noodle place that wasn’t local, it served cuisine from another region, but was totally delicious. We ordered the biang biang and a spicy sour soup that was the greatest concentration of sichuan pepper that I ever experienced (at the time, but more on this in later posts). It’s roughly located here, the LED sign out front has the words “biang biang” in roman characters.

IMG_20180708_100515074

On our second day we rent bikes and did some touring. We got some excellent quality bikes from the RiverView Inn near the end of West Street. They were comparatively well priced to other vendors, but mostly they were in excellent condition. They weren’t flashy, but there were no issues shifting or braking or with anything mechanical.

We took off on the Yong Village loop that I read about here. The first bit is a really pleasant ride in an area mostly closed off to cars. It’s smooth riding with nice views and lots of places to pull off for organized fun. Of these various attractions we only partook in the Moon Hill hike which was surprisingly empty except for some rather persistent ladies at the top selling water.

From there we took off following a bit less traveled route. It was still a nice smooth road, but it took us through some small local villages. We stopped at one for some hydration in the form of beer and water and a few snacks. While we were there one of our dorm-mates from the hostel, Boris, rode past and we waved him down to sit with us for a bit.

I was in search of a local specialty called oil tea and got it in my head that the shop owner might know something about it. I showed him the Chinese characters and he nodded and took me off to a garden to show me a plant. I tried clarifying that I wanted the oil tea and was looking where to get some. He nodded in understanding and bid me sit down. We spent the next few minutes in general confusion as the man came back with a bunch of the plants and starts cooking something up in the kitchen, and ultimately presented us with a plate of the  plants fried up with spicy garlic. Definitely not what I was looking for and pure confusion was the order of the day.

We finished off the ride through a few villages/suburbs that were topsy turvy with beautiful old decaying hotels next to brand new construction sites. I don’t really know what was going on there. It was an tiring day and we stopped at a supermarket and went nuts on all sorts of delicious mystery snacks, including a sea salt and lemon water that became our go to hydration beverage. We then went back to collapse at hostel just in time for a huge rain storm to blow through. We got really lucky there. Boris got trapped on Moon Hill and didn’t make it back until late, but he was okay!

That night, once the rain had tapered off we ventured out to find the local dish: Yangshuo Beer Fish. It’s a river fish cooked in beer and tomatoes with a really rich spicy sauce. It was super expensive and sold by weight (per kg), which we didn’t realize so that was a surprise when we got the bill. In general it was quite good. I loved the sauce. But we got the carp and it’s super bony fish and it took us ages to eat. I just really am not a fan of the experience of eating bony fish, no matter how tasty it is. The restaurant was approximately here, but we didn’t get the name.

We also got our first dose of a weird cultural phenomenon of plastic wrapped table settings. I had heard about this and still don’t full understand it. Basically the restaurant sends out all? some? of it’s plateware to get washed and then shrink wrapped into single-setting packages. I guess to show that it’s super clean. But you get charged for it and we really couldn’t care less.

The next day we set of to, once and for all, find my oil tea. No accidentally fried veggies this time. I found a website that said there is a place that across from the fire station. That was good enough for us and after enough inquiring we found our spot, roughly here.

When we sat down we were baffled by the menu which extensive and had zero pictures. The waitress kept pointing at sections and having us order. We used the AR function of Google translate and in the first section we understood that we were choosing the meat to go in the oil tea. After the night before and the accidentally ordering 2 kilos of fish (are you seeing a theme here?), we stuck with the one that said one piece chicken instead of buying something by weight. We made another selection of noodles, presumably a filler for the soup, but it was getting super expensive at this point and so we called it off by the third section of the menu.

Shortly thereafter a big pan of soup was brought out and put on an induction burner with some topping like puffed rice and peanuts and greens. We started to dig in and put together our soups. Then some noodles came out, but it was just a side dish of noodles. Okay, that seemed like a lot of food and we hadn’t really wanted a random noodle dish, but whatever.

Then just as we are starting to eat, a whole tray of a chicken gets brought out. Christina claims that it wasn’t a whole chicken, which is true, it was just all of the bony bits that we don’t usually eat in the States, including the head. Whoa, no wonder it was so expensive but it was way too much food for two people. The meat got quickly overcooked by the heat of the burner that the staff kept turning up on us and I just didn’t have it in me to eat so much bone-y meat. I did successfully eat a chicken foot though, not even coated and fried, just a straight boiled chicken foot. I’m still away off from eating a chicken head though.

Apparently we could have just ordered the soup without the meat to cook in it, but we had no clue. We also didn’t finish the noodles, but had a food container that we were able to take them with us for dinner. This was truly an adventure in (mis)communication, but I’m really glad we did it. I liked the soup, which was basically like a bitter savory-tea ginger-soup combo, and the crunchy toppings, greens, spicy paste made a great addition. It’s totally a worthwhile dish to seek out. I have seen something similar discussed as chǎo mǐ which might yield better results in your own search.

After this we were totally stuffed, but it was soup-full and it quickly subsided and we were able to complete our plan for the day which was to climb one of these karst mountains. Based on a recommendation we wandered through some back alleys behind the wet market to find a trail up TV mountain (because there’s a TV antenna on top of it). It was a beautiful climb with stone steps. We quickly climbed to a height much higher than any of the mountains in town.

The hike ended unceremoniously at a locked gate of the TV tower. We sat down and sampled some local plum wine we had picked up while enjoying with a view of the surrounding peaks and the sounds of the city below.

Since we were already sweaty messes, Christina insisted we go get in a work out at the park. Christina brought her gymnastic rings and Boris joined us. We found a pull up bar in the park next to some folks blasting their personal karaoke system to a crowd of no one. We did draw some curious onlookers and one family that joined in the fun. And one of the karaoke singers challenged both Boris and I to arm wrestling, matches which we both quickly lost.

The next morning was our last morning in Yangshuo and I completed the surprisingly difficult task of buying bus tickets to the international airport in Guilin, the nearest big city, for our flight to Nanjing. Surprisingly no one at the tourist center knew where the north bus station was. Turns out, it’s just a few blocks north of the bus station where we arrived, which is still considerably south of the actual town of Yangshuo on the map. Great. It was a sweaty hunt and really solidified how big the communication and cultural gap is here.

We waited for a while for a city bus to take us to the station, but when it didn’t appear in time we did some hoofing out to the station and caught our bus just in time. So we finally made it to the airport to await our flight to Nanjing, where we will meet up with a friend of mine from the job I quit before starting our trip. The idea was actually a great relief to me after all the confusion communicating because we will be able to get our bearings with the help of a local who can speak both Mandarin and English.

Also on a final note. KFC is ridiculously popular in China. So much so that China has unofficially honored it the best way it knows how, with a knock off.

IMG_20180710_123026838

Adventures with Chinese Bureaucracy in Hong Kong

July 11, 2018
by Dan

Our main purpose in visiting Hong Kong was to get our Chinese visas. The ‘proper’ way to get a visa to China is to mail your passport to the consulate in your home country. In the US there are specific consulates assigned to each geographical area. We didn’t know this in advance of our trip and since that obviously wasn’t going to work from New Zealand. Our only alternative was to go to Hong Kong, where US citizens can stay visa free for 3 months and apply for a visa at the Chinese consulate there. Not sure why this exception exists but we took advantage of it.

Our overnight flight from Auckland arrived early in the morning and to get around we purchased a HK MTR railpass called the Octopus Card. The Octopus Card is an interesting story by itself. It is a proximity card that is quite common nowadays in metro systems. When it was introduced many vendors in Hong Kong began accepting the card as a form of payment. So if you top up your Octopus Card you can buy rides on the metro rail as well as tap to pay in most businesses in the city. Pretty cool. Nowadays phones are the cool kid way to pay for things, but still the Octopus Card is pretty essential for visiting Hong Kong.

Wit the Octopus Card we purchased the 1 way AETP (airport express transit pass). This pass gave us one trip on the Airport express line to the city center and then unlimited metro rides for three days.

Things to consider: you can get a discounted ticket on the airport express line as a group of two or more. However the Octopus card doesn’t cover trips on most of the other buses or light rail in the city, so it’s really only a good deal if you are spending quite a bit of money per day on the actual MTR system. It also doesn’t cover trips that start or end in Lok Ma Chau or Lo wu, the border stations to mainland china.

The good news is that it’s actually more than a three day pass. It covers 72 hours from the time you first use it and then until the end of the day that the 72nd hour falls on. So if you get it in the morning it’s basically always a 4 day pass. The card requires a 50 HKD deposit that can be refunded along with any remaining balance at an MTR station when you are finished (but they deduct a 9 HKD service fee if you return it before 30 days is up).

Armed with our Octopus Cards we made our way directly to the visa center on Hong Kong Island. We arrived at 10 am and there was a huge line of maybe 100 people. It was a Tuesday, and I had read that there is typically a bigger crowd at the beginning of the week, but we showed up the day after a three day weekend so the place was slammed.

We spent about an hour in line waiting to get a ticket, then 5 hours waiting for the ticket to be called, then an hour going back and forth with the counter agent, then we had to get back in line to pay. It was a long 8 hour ordeal. When we returned on the fourth day to pick up our passports (and we were granted our visas! success!) that we saw the normal Friday crowd. There were no lines and only less than half the seats in the place were filled. I’m sure we could have been in and out in around 2 hours if we had showed up on a Friday.

The preparation for the visa process wasn’t much fun either. I fretted for hours preparing all of our documents and making bookings over the course of a month. They require that you submit a detailed travel agenda including cities, dates, and hotel bookings for your entire stay. I used used this website as my primary guide. It was pretty much perfect. It’s up to date and thorough in the way that I like my travel guides. There were only a few things that I would add based on my own experience.

First off, you’ll need to get your passport photos taken on site. There is just no way that you’ll do it right otherwise. They are super picky about it. I was lucky that some guy told me that I had to take my earrings out, and no jewelry is allowed. I’ve never seen that requirement for a visa photo.

Now you could try to do it with your own photos since they do allow you to run off and print new copies of things that you screwed up when you get to the ticket counter. We found that out when we showed up at the window and the agent almost immediately denied our invitation letters from friends that we were going to stay with. They said that we had to have pictures of the Chinese id cards or passport for a US citizen of anyone that we claim to be staying with (and proof residence for a non-Chinese resident).

The solution was to book hotels on booking.com for those parts of our stay. It was the recommendation of the agent actually. We made the bookings on our phones and then ran off to print the confirmations. Everyone knew full well that the reservations were going to be cancelled and their is no requirement to stick to your plan. It’s really awful for the hotels that have to put up with this booking and cancellation and it’s the fault of this silly policy. (I realize that the US is probably even worse in terms of letting in tourists of course).

But anyway, it was very frustrating that I went to the trouble of making an actual legit plan only to have it discarded, forcing me to make up some BS that then needed to be canceled. I also felt bad wasting my friends time to write a letters of invitation. Finally I was running around trying to make color copies of our passports in New Zealand, which was weirdly impossible and quite expensive. But it turns out they don’t have a color printer on site and only need a black and white copy of things for the application. So no need to fret over color copies.

For US citizens every Chinese visa, no matter what the duration, costs the same so I applied for a 10 year multiple entry visa and we got it! So I’m definitely not going through this again, but if you are preparing to get your Chinese visa in Hong Kong, these are my recommendations. Determine your entry and exit points, and have valid bookings there, as well as your departing ticket. But since you are not required to adhere to your submitted agenda, but if you will be making multiple stops, just make a cancel-able booking at one of them that covers your remaining time in China. Less work for you, less paperwork for the office.

In the four day interim while we waited for our visas to be processed (which I spent fretting that it wouldn’t be approved), we explored Hong Kong. We were staying with a great Couchsurfing host Francis out in Sheung Shui, which is a quite remote area of Hong Kong near the border with the mainland. We commuted into the city each day and spent most of our time in the central business district. I think there are a lot of other interesting areas in Hong Kong to explore, but we had limited time. The downtown area felt much more like the US than China (meaning no street vendors unfortunately).

We had some trouble finding places to eat since google maps isn’t super fleshed out there, but we still found some delicious spots to eat. The number one priority for Christina was having Hong Kong’s famous Dim Sum. We chose a highly talked about place called Ding Dim. It’s recommended by Nomadic Matt and Tripadvisor, so it’s quite a popular foreigner destination. It had an English menu and quality food. More or less it was the type of place that you might expect to find in the US. I was hoping for something a bit more like China Pearl in Boston. Which Christina especially misses.

IMG_20180704_141350_161

We also hit up some noodle shops during our stay. We had no clue if we were eating typical Cantonese food but they were excellent. These places definitely didn’t have English menus so we made due with picture menus or going back to the kitchen to point.

Finally, I did walk away with a few egg tarts. They were marginally cheaper than the ones that I first had in the Boston Chinatown. I can’t say that they were necessarily any better, but they were definitely plentiful and I can say with confidence that you can’t go wrong with egg tarts.

In terms of activities, the main things we did in town were to wander and ogle the cool skyscrapers and brave the crowds in the metro. We also took the ferry across the river (part of the public transit) to get some nice views of the skyline.

Christina loves Ferris wheels so we paid for a ride on the Hong Kong Observation Wheel ($20 HKD/person). At the wheel we arrived in time to witness a cheesy ceremony honoring the millionth rider of the the observation wheel, something that I only thought would happen in a Simpsons episode.

Back in Sheng Shui with our host Francis took us on some awesome alternative adventures. The sort of stuff that you only find while couchsurfing and the highlight of my visit to Hong Kong for sure. One day we rented some dockless OFO bikes and biked along a beautiful bike path for a quick view of the mainland border and a random encounter with cows. Then we hiked up a mountain to an abandoned border control lookout station and sat on the helipad with an amazing view of the sunset over Shenzhen China. Wow. Thanks Francis!

All in all Hong Kong definitely exceeded my expectations, and it’s a place I would love to go back to. For the most part our journey was through the main touristic areas, which was cool, but didn’t really feel that different from New York. But at the same time I had this feeling that there is lots of interesting things to see in the city and it holds a very unusual and special place in relation to Mainland China. I think it’s a really cool city to explore and would love to have some more time here to wander into the outskirts.