So much to update!
I was going to start with my Chinese New Year vacation, but then I realized I hadn't written about what I like to call my "foreigner faux pas":
So a couple weekends ago, in my apartment complex, one of the buildings had some blankets set up outside like a tent. I was coming home from work that Sunday, and music was playing from the tent-like area. I wandered over, thinking it might be some sort of New Years celebration, and there was a big crowd of people. I eventually went upstairs to find out what was going on. At first I was discouraged from going in ("bu hao"), but a minute later, I explained that I just wanted to look and was led to someone's apartment. The door was open; visitors were welcome. It had a little shrine in the front and beautiful silk tapestries hanging in the room. I had walked into the Chinese equivalent of a wake. I said thank you, I'm sorry, and I got out as fast as I could.
The next day was my last day of work, and on Tuesday, I packed, cleaned my apartment and took the train to Hangzhou to stay with Jessi's friend Ashley to start our vacation.
Day 1: Ashley and I flew from Hangzhou to Xiamen (halfway down the east coast of China), where we met up with Jessi. Xiamen is a port city and "special economic zone" in China - it's a special area of economic development there. It's sunny and warm. We dropped our things off at our hostel (Locanda International Youth Hostel - very cute place, good location. Bring a towel for your shower if you go there), and wandered a bit before taking a ferry over to GulangYu Island. We ate lunch, saw some sights, and climbed over 200 steps (Jessi counted) to get to the top of Sunlight Rock, the highest point on the island, and take in the view of Xiamen. Then we relaxed on the beach before heading back for dinner and sleep.
Day 2: It was colder out this day, and cloudy. We had breakfast and began sight seeing. We tried taking the hop on hop off tour bus (we had gotten free tickets from a concierge at the Wyndam Hotel the day before when we stopped in to ask for directions), but got on the wrong bus, so then we took a taxi to a tourist spot - a Taiwanese folk village - but that looked abandoned, so we left and found a little place that rented out bikes for touring the island. We had read about going on a bike ride on the Island Ring Road to see the sights, so we decided to try it. We rented a 3 person bike. We spent a hilarious 10 minutes trying to ride it before bringing it back and trying to get our money back (which we eventually did). The we did find the hop-on hop-off bus and took our tour to the Hulishan Fort, which housed famous cannons used to defend Xiamen (and China) in the 19th century. We saw a really neat performance where "soldiers" shot and loaded a cannon. Very cool.
Day 3: The goal was to get to Taiwan. It was supposedly only a 2 hour or so boat ride away. No boats. We ended up taking a boat to Kinmen Island, which is a part of Taiwan, so we did get neat stamps on our passports. We weren't really sure what to see, so we went on a hunt for Taiwanese pancakes to eat for lunch and found a neat street with the former headquarters of a Qing dynasty army, a tiny temple, and lots of cute shops. We took a bus around most of the island, and headed back to Xiamen.
Day 4: Jessi and I went to the NanPutuo Temple in the morning while Ashley went to explore Xiamen University. It's the most famous temple in Xiamen (I think), and it's a really neat and beautiful temple placed on the side of a mountain. We wandered it for a bit, saw people cleaning it for the new year, and I liked that there were little plaques explaining some Buddhist customs - like lighting incense and meal times. Very cool. We met with Ashley for a late lunch, some shopping and then I went to the airport to fly to Shanghai to meet Nat for the second part of my trip.
Day 5: Nat and I flew from Shanghai to Hong Kong. First stop: Disneyland! It was the only day our free passes were not going to be blacked out during our trip. (It was also the beginning of the only days we were supposed to have off for Chinese New Year, so we didn't check, we just planned.) HongKong Disneyland, while beautiful and fun, is quite small. The tour books actually recommend going to Hong Kong's Ocean Park instead, but we had our passes and I haven't been to Disney in a long time, so off we went. We finished the entire thing in half a day with time to spare before the fireworks. I suppose if you rode all the rides and sat through all the shows and waited in long lines (it was kind of cold, so it wasn't horribly crowded), it would take longer, but it was nice and fun. They had a really short dragon parade and a special "Lucky Trail" for Chinese New Year, and we took pictures with all the characters on dragon stands. I had a Mickey Waffle for dinner and we watched fireworks before heading to our hostel for the night.
Day 6: It was cool and foggy again, so instead of heading up to Victoria Peak, Nat and I explored Central in Hong Kong. Rather, she took me around to the sights, as she was there about a month ago with her parents. Either way, we rode the Escalator (a string of escalators running from the pier up Hong Kong. It took us about 20 minutes to walk back down.). We saw the Bank of China Tower (the viewing deck was closed for the holiday), went to Man Mo Temple and made a wish for the new year, shopped at a little market, went to see some food markets, and ate lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe - I vaguely remembered that being cool when I was younger so when I remembered Hong Kong was supposed to have one, I had to go there. Then we wandered some more - we went to Hong Kong Park and Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens. Very pretty. Then we headed back to Nathan Road to get our spots for the New Year's Parade. It was LONG. We got a spot around 6. I figured it would be like New Year's in Times Square - get there early and stay put. The parade was supposed to be from 8-9:30. There were some opening acts - a dance troupe, "sliders", a band, jump ropers, Star Wars characters. It was cool. The first time around. They went past us twice before the parade finally came by, and another time during the parade. I think it finally ended around 10:30. It was neat, but not what we were expecting. There were quite a few dragons and some neat performances but also quite a bit of time between floats and performances. But we did meet a nice girl from St. Kitts who sent us her pictures after. We also walked along the Avenue of Stars (a kind of Hollywood Blvd. for Chinese movie stars) - I recognized 4 names.
Day 7: Macao. I wish we had planned a weekend for this. It was beautiful. Macao is known for being China's Las Vegas, so we started at a casino. I won $27 (approximately USD$3-5, but a win's a win). Then we walked through the alley streets to the ruins of St. Paul's Church. I wasn't too excited about going, but it was amazing. It's the front wall of a really old church and the views from the scaffolding were amazing. Then we went to the Museum of Macao, which was built inside an old fort. Very neat, and again, the views from the fortress were incredible. Old little buildings, colorful European buildings, and gigantic shiny modern buildings altogether on a little island. Hong Kong's cool. But I highly recommend Macao. When we got back to Hong Kong, we watched the fireworks display over the Hong Kong harbor and skyline. It was huge and loud and fantastic. We walked around Kowloon and the area near our hostel and I found Ben and Jerrys. Yum.
Day 8: I woke up early to ride the Peak Tram to Victoria Peak. Nat slept in since she had been there with her parents. The Tram is pretty cool - it takes you straight up the side of the mountain to Victoria's Peak, one of the highest points with the best view of Hong Kong. The Peak Tower and Galleria are a big tourist fiasco with lots of shops. They were all closed when I got there because it was so early. I took a walk on the Peak Circuit Trail. It's about 2 miles long around the mountain, and it was like walking through a highly elevated rain forest. The air was crisp and cool and fresh and the views were more amazing than I would have thought. It was very peaceful. I decided to take more daily walks. After taking the tram back to Central, I went to all the touristy buildings I thought Nat and I had missed on our previous walk through. We met up to go to Happy Valley Racetrack (someone said it was a "must do"), but when we got there, we found out the horses actually race at another track. Happy Valley is just for betting, which Nat didn't want to do, so we left and walked to Victoria Park and the Noonday gun in Causeway Bay. Then we went to Happy Hour at a diner in Lan Kwai Feng. Eventually we realized how tired we were and called it an early night.
Day 9: A quick walk around Kowloon Park and through a bookstore and then Nat and I were off to the airport. Hong Kong was much more crowded by the end of the trip than at the beginning, but many things were still closed or open late for the holiday. But the airplane was just as full as we had been told it would be. We flew back to Shanghai and took the metro to the train to the metro home. Nanjing was exploding with extra loud firecracker sounds when I got back.
It was a great trip. A very necessary break. Now on to the next adventure...