The One Indispensible Thing I Carried in Hong Kong

I brought it with me on the Star Ferry, in Kowloon, to Tai O Village and Victoria Peak…

I brought it with me when the weather was mutable and when it wasn’t. Half the time, I had it tucked away in my backpack and didn’t reach for it at all. The other half of the time, I had it above my head, fighting against the rain.

When it wasn’t pleasant outside, some had it brandished and waving, shielding their eyes and skin from the misty spray.

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Meeting Joburg: The Maboneng Precinct

Before I came to Johannesburg, many people warned against the danger of Johannesburg CBD.

I had driven through it a few times with one of my coworkers to Park Station which is in the heart of Joburg CBD. The crime rate in this area is so high that even the locals are nervous to go there. But tucked away in the city is an up-and-coming place where hipsters can hide in Sunday markets and underground art museums.

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Seven Treasures of Qibao, Shanghai

Where do I even start with this one?

The aptly named 七宝镇//Qi1bao3 Zhen4 (lit. Seven Treasures Town) is an absolute must-see. Shanghai’s closest water town isn’t just that. It’s a snack food paradise and a barbecue lover’s fantasy, a photographer’s dream, an architectural wonder, a relic of ancient China.

Qibao is by far Shanghai’s coolest water town. Wandering through the Old Street will take you the day if you plan it right, but I strongly suggest throwing out those plans. Most likely, you’ll be enticed by every other storefront selling Chinese-style sweets. Don’t stress about it too much. The sooner you accept the fact that you’ll have to make multiple trips to Qibao to truly be “done,” the sooner you get try that curious-looking meat on a stick.

Speaking of which…

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Xi’an, Shaanxi Province

Xi’an: ancient capital, bustling city of industry and education, and voted Central China’s most liveable city by the Erik Fruth Opinion Council.

I fully admit that I was swayed in Xi’an’s favor by the incredible food. The most incredible bing on the planet, saozi mian//臊子面 [cool video link!], endless street food stalls selling cakes and warm plum juice, ubiquitous and unfailingly delicious roujiamo//肉夹馍, enormous mantou//馒头, heavy use of cumin, chive, and garlic… the list goes on.

It goes without saying that I was well-fed in this city. I would like to point out, however, that I was well-fed out of the necessity to try every street vendor’s culinary offerings (describing their edible creations as anything less than cuisine is plainly insulting to their craft).

All this is not to say that Xi’an is dull in other aspects.

The largely Hui Muslim community in Xi’an is distinct in their dress and diet, and the beautifully eclectic mosques in which they worship. The three tiles below were all taken inside two mosques in Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter. The latter two were taken inside the spectacular Great Mosque, the largest and best preserved of China’s early mosques,¹ built in Chinese architectural style and thus lacking traditional domes or minarets. The mosque hearkens all the way back to 742 CE, though the building that stands now was constructed in the early Ming Dynasty.² More information about the mosque’s history and some incredible photos of its grounds can be found at the links above.

The Bell and Drum Towers [below, respectively] were constructed during the Ming Dynasty and are now symbols of the city of Xi’an.

In June, 2014, the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda became a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the Silk Road Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor.

Lastly, the city is home to the world-famous Terracotta Warriors. Three pits dug as part of Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum contain thousands of clay soldiers — complete in rank and file — as well as hundreds of chariots, horses, and court officials. For the man who united the warring states of China in 221 BCE to become ruler of the dynasty that would later bear his name,³ this mind-bogglingly grand burial was a matter of course.

History is Long, Chinese History is Longer: Beijing

I visited this city of history in the middle of winter.

Blisteringly windy and outfitted for Californian cold, Beijing was rough. Luckily, I was rewarded for my efforts with some incredible sights.

The photos below were taken in front of, inside, and behind Beijing’s most famous landmark: the Forbidden City. This cultural and historical monolith is “remarkable” many times over. The 980-building and 160-acre palace complex was the seat of the Ming and Qing Dynasties for nearly 500 years (1420-1912 CE).¹ It took 14 years to construct, more than a million workers, whole logs of precious wood from southwest China, marble from quarries outside Beijing, and specially baked tiles imported from Suzhou.¹ Perhaps the most famous part of this already world-famous structure is the Tiananmen Gate adorned with Mao Zedong’s universally recognized portrait [Tile 1], which separates the Forbidden City’s Imperial Palace from Tiananmen Square, the scene for some of China’s most pivotal moments in history.

Beijing’s night markets are known for their unorthodox selection of meats — notably, silk worms, starfish, and scorpions. Hawkers are well-versed in both Mandarin and English and will prepare an assortment of expensive culinary curiosities for you at the drop of a hat.

UNESCO World Heritage site and a modern wonder of the world, the Great Wall of China is truly incomparable. The Wall is actually a multitude of interconnected, behemoth fortification structures built as early as the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE), some of which can still be seen near Dunhuang, Gansu Province.² The part of wall closest to Beijing receives the vast majority of tourists and is also the most recent, built during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 CE). The majority of what exists of the 10,000+ mile-long defensive barrier is the 5,500 mi (8,850 km) Ming Dynasty structure.²

Yet another of Beijing’s copious UNESCO sites is the Temple of Heaven. Also constructed from 1406 to 1420 along with the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven played an important religious role during the Ming and Qing Dynasties — visited by Emperors during prayer ceremonies to Heaven for good harvest.³ Depicted below is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests; the currently standing structure having been built after the original burned down in a fire caused by lightning in 1889.³

The five photos below were taken inside the massive Summer Palace complex. Most recently in its history, the palatial park and grounds served as the summer resort of Empress Dowager Cixi, who famously (or infamously) spent 3 million taels of silver originally designated for the Chinese navy on the enlargement of the palace, purportedly causing China to lose the First Sino-Japanese War six years after the renovations. You can read more about the Summer Palace’s history, and see pictures of its countless sights (my photos do not do it justice) here.

The Jingshan Park lies directly north of the Forbidden City complex depicted in the final tile. Hoary trees and their shadowy crone counterparts abound in the park, as do large groups of senescent women dancing in choreograph and equally gray-haired men practicing tai chi.

Fly South to Nanxiang

Shanghai’s even got a TIME MACHINE.

It’s located specifically in one of Shanghai’s copious satellite towns: Nanxiang (南翔). Here, in this otherwise sleepy suburb, you’ll travel through time and space to the birthplace of xiaolongbao (also known as God’s gift to man). Here, where they celebrate the myriad genius of our ancestors by cooking dumplings in a bamboo steamer, you’ll be transported to the China of story.

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10 Key Lessons Learned in Shanghai

Within the span of two months, I’ve transformed into a local.

The only differences are the shock of blonde hair, physical stature and skin tone, and the curious habit of speaking in English interspersed with mispronounced Mandarin.

Alright, so maybe I’m not a local. But I like to think that I’ve adapted relatively well! At any rate, I’ve experienced quite a bit since my wide-eyed arrival.

Here are 10 lessons learned in the mega-city of Shanghai:

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The Post-Drink Meal that China Does So Right

Beer and fried food are a match made in heaven.

No one in their right mind questions that statement. However, deciding which fried food to grub on after a long night of Tsingtao interspersed with shots of dubious Chinese rice wine can be difficult.

Luckily, drunken hedonists all across Shanghai agree that bing is the kingpin of trashy, late-night snacks.

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