Thursday, April 11, 2013

Summer 2012 - 18th Stop: Beijing

Beijing, hmmm... where do I start? I suppose it was kind of a mixed bag really. To sum it up in one sentence, I would say that it's not a nice city, but had some nice things in it. A very different atmosphere to what we just came from in Japan, and even very different to city life in Hong Kong. Even though it's the capital of the world's economic powerhouse, it just lacks the class of Tokyo or any westernised city for that matter. I guess the best example of this was on our first day, when we saw local kids taking a piss in public on four separate occasions. And I don't mean discretely behind a bush or something - one was on a busy street and the other three were in a temple! We even saw one girl dropping trou and letting flow right next to a toilet sign! You couldn't make it up! I would have loved to get a picture for the blog but it probably would've landed me on the sex offenders register. Hopefully nobody caught me Peking!

Before leaving Osaka, we stuffed ourselves with Subway as we wouldn't be arriving at our Beijing hostel til late that night, but onboard our 4-hour flight with China Eastern Airlines, we were given, not one but two full meals! We weren't even remotely hungry but who turns down free food?! No regrets!

The next morning, as we stepped outside for a new adventure, it was hard to tell whether we were greeted by traditional Chinese mist, a dull gloomy haze or infamous Beijing smog. Either way, it was a grey, grey day. And that wasn't even the worst part about our visit to the Summer Palace - there are 1.3 billion people in China and I think they all decided to pop over to Beijing for the day, as the place was full to the brim with tourists. As for the palace itself... it might have been nice, I don't know! It was hard to enjoy between the crowds and the weather.

One really nice part though was a place called Suzhou Street which was exactly what I imagine old-school China to be! And because of the narrow, windy streets on the water's edge, it was impossible for it to be too crowded!

Not the best start to our time here, but we certainly got a taste of the Beijing experience. And on the way back to our hostel later that evening, we also saw the best and worst that the local populous had to offer. As we were getting the metro back, two women were clawing at each other, both trying to squeeze into the already overcrowded train. As the doors closed and the train moved off, the pushing and shoving between them continued and gradually built up into a full scale screaming match. We were obviously staring at them, watching the whole thing unfold (and wishing we spoke Mandarin!).

And just when we started to lose faith in the Chinese, a young girl standing nearby, no more than 14 or 15, turned to us and in her best English, apologised for their behaviour, shook Aisling's hand, wished us a pleasant stay and hoped we didn't judge her people based on the actions of these two women. How cute is that!? Seriously though! I really wish I had pictures of all of these little moments!

And that little glimmer of light, on an otherwise dull day, really kickstarted the rest of our stay in Beijing! The next morning, the sun was up and so were we, ready to beat the crowds to the Temple of Heaven.

There were some really nice individual sights to see on the grounds, like the Temple of Heaven itself (above), and the Temple of Harvest; but the highlight for us was seeing the locals out in their droves making the most of the open space in every way imaginable. People young and old (well, mostly old) gathering in groups to do singing, dancing, aerobics, tai chi, tai chi with swords (!), the list goes on. A city that was so dull and grey the day before, just seemed to burst to life in the sunshine!

It was fantastic to see, not only from a spectator's point of view, but it's wonderful for the all the people involved too - socially, creatively, health-wise - it's great that there's an outlet like this. No wonder people live so long over here (even with all the pollution!). You'd never see old biddies back home trying out stuff like this!

Also, respect to the woman in the middle who obviously forgot her sword that day so just used a stick!

We took in a few more sights that afternoon - including the very beautiful Lama Temple and the Drum Tower, where we stayed for a performance - before heading back to our hostel to prepare for our trip the next day to The Great Wall. (I'll be doing a special bonus entry for our two days there, so look out for that one!)

On our return to Beijing, we had an early night as we wanted to be up to beat the crowds to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City the next morning. This attempt proved futile however. I guess that's one thing you'll just have to accept about Beijing - if you want to see the main tourist spots, be prepared to share them.

We arrived at 7:30am, with the Forbidden City not due to open for another hour but at that stage, bus loads of tourists had already flooded the scene. While we were waiting for the gates to open, we went for a wander around Tiananmen Square, just across the road. The square is probably most famous for this photograph of a student blocking the path of a line of tanks during the Beijing protests of 1989, one of the most iconic images ever taken.

Alas, no such excitement while we were there, typical! We come all the way to Tiananmen Square and this is the tanks we get!

Seriously though, there really was nothing to see there. It's just a big open square, and unsurprisingly, no mention of the protests. Being honest, the Forbidden City didn't really live up to its billing either. It was grand but nothing we hadn't seen on a smaller scale before. None of the buildings were particularly spectacular. The only real draw was the sheer size of the compound.

Afterwards, we just went for a walk around Beihai Park, before collecting our stuff and boarding the night train to Shanghai - our last stop of the summer. But before all that, we have our bonus Great Wall entry, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Summer 2012 - 17th Stop: Osaka

Once again, we have come full circle, back to where we started our Japanese adventure three short weeks ago (or in real time, 8 long months ago!). And ever since we first stepped off that plane, Japan has surged ahead in the 'favoutite country' stakes, ruthlessly sweeping all competition aside (sorry Myanmar). Many of the cities and countries we have seen in our time in Asia are well worth visiting from Hong Kong, but Japan is one of the few places we've encountered that's worth the journey no matter where in the world you are!

By the time we reached Osaka though, I must admit we had run out of steam a small bit. Japanese summers are hot hot hot, especially in the cities, so the majority of our time here was spent in cool down mode. We still made the most of it, just at a slower pace.

One of the best things about our time in Japan was the ease of travel - the speed, the comfort, the efficiency and of course, our JR passes were worth their weight in gold. Especially following on from our topsy-turvey path through Vietnam and Laos. And this journey was no different. Just one hour down the track from Kyoto and here we were! In a way, it's hard to feel like you're in a new place after such a short trip! It takes me an hour to get to school in the morning, that amount of time means nothing anymore!

Our first bit of tourism came the next afternoon as we travelled to Osaka Castle. It was another hot and heavy day, although equally damp and drizzly; the kind of day that throws up a raincoat dilemma. I always hate rainy days like this while travelling. Not just for the weather itself, but I just think places look so much better with blue skies.

I guess great, big puddles can be nice too though...

Later that evening, we visited the Umeda Sky Building (they went there on The Amazing Race once, so obviously, we had to), for a nice view over the city. One thing that struck us though, and it was the same in Tokyo - Japan doesn't really have that many skyscrapers! I always imagined it would be similar to Hong Kong in terms of skyline, but no! Japanese cityscapes are pretty flat! Well, flat by big city standards anyway. You wouldn't go confusing it with Cork or anything!

Afterwards, we visited an area of the city called Dotonbori; and if the Osaka skyline was not what we expected of Japan, then this bright, flashing, neon district definitely was! 

And speaking of "typical Japan", with only a few days left in the country, we did something that we'd been putting off for a long time. In fact, we'd been putting it off for our whole lives - sushi! Neither of us had ever tried it before, so we thought what better place than Japan to throw some raw fish down our necks for the first time? 

I wish I could say it was a revelation and that our eyes had been opened to the wonders of Oriental cuisine. I wish I could say it will always be in our hearts, but we barely even kept it in our stomachs! It was disgusting! I always suspected this would be the case, but then I thought - it's a popular international dish; nobody would eat it if it tasted so bad; there's got to be some trick to it, right?

Wrong, it's revolting.

And we gave it a fair chance, we really did! It wasn't a case of taking one bite and condemning it forever. We tried salmon, boiled shrimp, tuna rolls and unagi - all terrible.

This is my second time using a picture of Ross this summer!

(Also, I never knew I could use GIFs in the blog! This changes everything!)

The next day, our last full one in Japan (*tear*), we took a little day trip thirty minutes down the road to Kobe, famous for Kobe beef - the most expensive beef in the world (obviously, too expensive for us!). It was a really nice city too, not too big, right on the water's edge and apparently the number one place for expats to live in Japan.

And see how futuristic it looks!

We spent most of the day just strolling around, through the streets, down by the harbour and into Chinatown. We went to the Chinatown in Yokohama too and it's kind of a waste of time really seeing as we live in one big Chinatown anyway! It would be like going abroad and visiting the local "Ireland-town".

Actually, on second thoughts, I'd love that! Just to see what their view of Ireland would be! Probably just a street of pubs. And sadly, that would be pretty accurate...

And that was pretty much our time in Japan done! The next morning, we just visited Shitennoji Temple and went for a walk around Tennoji Park, making a video diary in the process:

before getting a train to the airport and then off to Beijing! I'm sure it won't be our last time in Japan, I hope not at least, but for now it was onwards and upwards, back to our adopted motherland for the last leg of our journey!