Friday, 22 July 2011


After almost two weeks in China, I was due to visit my friend Kevin/Kno/BigWig from my Camp Otterdale days in Taipei, Taiwan. I would have no more than 4 days but I was hoping to catch up on the past few years with him, as we hadn’t seen each other since 2006 (when I last visited Ottawa), visit a country (and a city) which tends to be kept off the radar when one first visits Asia, but which was particularly appealing to me, and to have an overall good time hanging out and sight-seeing. As I shared with you on the last post, it was a particularly long journey from Xi’an all the way to Taipie, where I would arrive a whopping 30 hours after getting on a night train to Beijing, and a Beijing – Hong Kong – Taipei flight.

In spite of what some of you might think, the title of the post is by no means related to Calvin Klein or to some sort of local fast food restaurant. It represents the initials of, quite possibly, the most notable, respected, veneered and meaningful politician in recent Taiwanese history, and effectively the founder of the Republic of China (or modern Taiwan as it is known today to the rest of the world), Chan Kai-Shek. After having lead the National forces and having fought alongside the Chinese communists during WWII against the Japanese, CKS all of a sudden found himself on the wrong end of the political spectrum when Mao rose to power following the 1949 revolution. Instead of admitting defeat and far from surrendering, CKS fled mainland China to the island of Formosa (Ilha Formosa, meaning “beautiful island” in Portuguese), formerly under Japanese control, just 99 miles off the coast. There, with the help, support and political/sovereign recognition from some of the Western bloc’s most relevant powers (mainly the US), at a time when the Cold War and the East vs. West ideological and political divide was shaping up, he established what he claimed to be the Republic of China (or ROC) – vs. the People’s Republic of China, which was established by Mao and his followers on the mainland. From that moment on, each of the “Chinas” would follow their own path, in a political, social and economic way. While one China, Mao’s, would grow up under the influence of the Little Red Book and “suffer” the consequences of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, CKS’s China would have to “endure” The White Terror ( and CKS’ cult of personality and de facto limitless executive powers. These diverging paths would become so acute that, today, the only seemingly apparent common denominator between both China’s is their racial and, to a certain extent, cultural inheritance. Language also, but interestingly enough, while the official language in mainland China is simplified Mandarin, that of Taiwan is traditional Mandarin – not an extremely big divide... but still somewhat different in some respect. As you could certainly tell from my post on China, mainland China, while being a booming (yet less so today than a few years back) economic machine and having become the world’s 2nd biggest GDP, in absolute terms, after overtaking Japan, is still a country full of contrasts. Many richer... yet many poorer. Many more prosperous... yet many more depressed. Meanwhile, Taiwan appears to be a country that has developed and become a leading economic power in the region - one of the four Asian Tigers - (maybe even in the world) based on a solid export-based model for the past 4 decades (cfr. “Made in Taiwan”) and, from my perspective, is more akin to Japan, from a social perspective that to its Chinese neighbour. “Para gustos... colores” (i.e. each one has his/her own opinion) as one would say in Spanish, but I could draw many parallels between Taiwan and Japan – and by no means only from the fact that in both countries Hello Kitty is a more than notable social phenomenon.

I arrived to Taipei international airport quite late on Thursday, June 30th and was expecting to be greeted by what Kevin had described as “his driver”. Just after storming past customs and upon collecting my backpack from the luggage collection area, and as I was on the lookout for Kevin’s “driver”, I spotted a random dude taking a few shots of me from his iPhone. There he was (not the driver), but Kevin himself who had surprised me and come to pick me up. Amazing gesture from an amazing man... Given how late it was (c. 11pm) and due to the fact that we wanted to make the most of our first night, we hopped into a cab and headed off to Taipei city. On the cab ride to Kevin’s place, we chatted about all sorts of things and essentially got up to speed on our current lives. Quite strategically, and given that drinking is pretty much permitted in every space, public or private (except the MRT – i.e. the subway) in Taiwan, Kevin had brought some beers which we started enjoying (and which we wouldn’t stop enjoying during the whole week-end!) right off the bat. Back at his place, I met his cool Canadian flatmates, and a good buddy of his, Kris (aka Sandwich), with whom we went out that night. We hit a local bar/club where we had a more than decent first night out (street food rampage included) during which I managed not to be conquered by the fatigue built up over the past 2 days of non-stop travelling.

The next morning, after a not-so-late wake up, we headed off downtown to enjoy a day packed of sight-seeing. First up, after a much-required pit stop for breakfast/lunch, was Taipei 101, or the world’s 2nd tallest building (after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai) and just a few metres taller than SWFC in Shanghai (atop of which, if you remember from my last post, I had been on the previous week!). Interestingly enough, when one observes the Taipei skyline, Taipei 101 stands out for being the ONLY sky scraper in the whole city. Fundamental reason behind this is the amount of earthquakes Taiwan, in general, and Taipei, in particular, have to endure. Notwithstanding, Taipei 101, at a whopping 509m is probably the safest place one can find himself/herself in during an earthquake, due to its robust foundations and the anti-seismic technology it was equipped with when it was designed and later erected. We went to the observatory on the last floor and managed to enjoy some breathtaking views (some of which you can see in the pics below) from the outdoor “mirador” which, fortunately, was open due to the mild meteorological conditions and good visibility. Continuing our visit, we went down a few floors to the coral gem stone exhibition, where some truly amazing pieces/sculptures were on display. Some of these were even up for sale and had their own “little” price tags. You’d be surprised by some of the prices... some well above c. USD 1m!!! After 101, in which, by the way, my former employer (Merrill Lynch) has its offices, we walked around the area for a while before heading over to the Chan Kai-Shek memorial, which was located in another part of town. After leaving the MRT station, we walked for a mere 5 minutes and there it was... a gigantic open space in the middle of the city covered with green areas, gardens and flowers. Close to the main entrance, an enormous Chinese-style blue and white arch precedes the long (c. 500m) promenade which leads to the steps of the big man’s memorial. As one covers those 500m, it seems unbelievable how such a massive open area can, firstly, be found in the heart of the city and, secondly, be so well maintained. According to Kevin, CKS himself (or the interests on the fortune and legacy he left his heirs) is paying for the memorial’s maintenance. After climbing 100 marble stairs located on the other end of the promenade, it starts to become visible... a c. 10 metre tall statue of a sitting (and obviously smiling) CKS overlooking the city is located about 5 metres into the memorial building (which, by the way, also serves as a museum). If that weren’t enough, there are 5 guards or so in front of the statue. We were lucky enough to see a changing of the guard, which was full of military chants, rifle moves and loud stomps for at least 15 minutes. Then, inside the museum (which is free for everyone, again thanks to the interests on CKS’s fortune – will not doubt for a minute on the legitimacy of those funds, or at least on the sources. lol) one can walk around selected memorabilia from back in the day: a couple of his armoured and tainted Cadillacs, his day-to-day clothes, his military uniforms and so on. What was most astonishing was how his will (which is also on display inside the museum) was written in tiny Chinese characters which all together sketched out a silhouette of a uniformed CKS. Impressive craftsmanship! After the memorial, and before returning to Kevin’s place, we made a quick stop at the Ximen district, which is, for those of you who have been to Tokyo, very similar to Akihabara (maybe a bit smaller), which is known for its young crowds, lively atmosphere and where one can breathe in the manga/ electronic vibe, while, at the same time, being surrounded by stores of all kinds. Back at Kevin’s, we met up with a few of his friends to go check out a night market. Apparently these are all over Taipei and one can essentially find everything and anything. We mostly walked around the one close to his place and got some street food (dumplings and, luckily, no stinky tofu!) as a snack prior to our meal in a traditional Taiwanese place. Let me tell you in advance... we had a feast. We were able to have truly amazing food as we were in the company of some of Kevin’s Taiwanese friends. Duck blood (something vaguely similar to Spanish “morcilla”) and “yard waste” (or green vegetables) were most certainly my favourite! After that succulent meal and a pertinent photo shoot outside the restaurant we enjoyed a big night out in the city in one of the nicest clubs in town. We’ll leave it at that... There, I was extremely pleased to see my friend Sophia (also from Camp Otterdale), whom I hadn’t seen for almost 10 years!! :)

The next morning and after a rather slow and late wake-up and after the customary morning-after breakfast/lunch blend, we headed out of town to the Taipei Country Club for a pool party. A truly unique setting in the hills surrounding Taipei and which an unbeatable view of downtown and the city’s pinnacle, Taipei 101. We stayed there for most of the day, enjoying the poolside chat, drinks, music and company until the evening. After enjoying a nice meal out, we headed out, yet again, for another big night out. This time it was one of Kevin’s friend’s leaving-away party so he was kind enough to organise a get-together with his group of friends, and where I was kindly invited. If you see this: thanks Jerry! ;)

For my last day in Taipei, Kevin and I (as you can see, the man took such good care of me! Just waiting to return the favour when he comes visit me in Chicago!! Right bud?!) met up with Uni-ce, one of his most special friends in Taipei, for lunch. We went to a very nice Japanese restaurant in a riverside area (forgot the name sorry!) which great views. We managed to make it to the restaurant in time before it began to pour and enjoyed a very pleasant meal. The food was great (you know I love Japanese food!) but the company and the banter was unsurpassable. Quality people those two... so much “feeling” ;) . After chilling for a while and taking in some of the views of the cliffs across the bridge (where sometimes one can see cliff-jumpers working their magic), we returned to Kevin’s to relax for a while until the dinner time. For my last meal in Taipei, we joined one his flatmates (Brodie) and his girlfriend (Morgan) for dinner at Din Tai Fung ( which is a Michelin-star rated restaurant mostly serving small to-share dishes such as dumplings. The restaurant is also quite unique due to the fact that the kitchen area is visible from the restaurant. Literally dozens of chefs efficiently and steadily working on their dumpling-making machines. A real show for anyone, not only for those interested in rare culinary techniques or skills. Beers and dumplings turned out to be an unbeatable fine dining experience, which then got topped off by a pleasant conversation on Morgan’s roof-top terrace which, amazingly enough, had unbelievable views of Taipei 101. After parting ways with Brodie and Morgan, and given that my flight was leaving at 7am on Monday, we decided to top off the week-end in style by enjoying one final night out. Turned out to be quite fun and, surely enough, I reached my goal of not going to bed that night. Mind you, I did have a flight to Hong Kong the next morning in which I could catch up on sleep. Short one-day pit stop in Hong Kong, which would then be followed by two weeks in Thailand and Cambodia. Fun times!

Stay tuned for more news! Some of the credit for the cool pics you can see below goes out to Kevin as I have stolen them off his Facebook albums.


Thursday, 14 July 2011

it's a celebration.

Customary apologies for the delay in keeping you posted on my adventures. It’s been a couple of weeks now since I gave the download on my experience in Japan which, as most of you noticed, couldn’t have been more satisfactory and more worthwhile. The next stop on my itinerary was China, mainland to start off with. I thus got on a plane from Tokyo Haneda Airport to Beijing on Tuesday, June 21st. I was only planning on staying in China for c. 10 days, but in that time I was hoping to at least cover Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an.

But first, and before we get into the gist of my travels around mainland, let’s address what this celebration was all about. As you know, China’s contemporary history has been, for better or worse, greatly influenced by a political ideology, communism, and by a man, Mao Zedong, who put the ideology’s principles into practice over the course of the decades following the revolution he lead at the end of the 1940’s. As you may or may not know, or may or may not have deduced from the contents / tone of my posts, I am greatly interested in History (with a capital “H” that is). I have always been, ever since I was a kid. I think, in part, this passion for travelling has also emerged from a particular interest in tying the loose ends between what I know from a country’s or a region’s history versus what it is or how it stands today. Hence my interest in comparing and contrasting historically significant events, such as the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949, with the modern legacy these have left on the country. It turns out that shortly after my stay, on July 1st to be precise (yes, same day as Canada Day for those of you who are interested – or if you are from Canada, to see that I do keep you well at heart and I have that date marked in my calendar!) marked the 90th anniversary (1921-2011) of the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party, that which would lead – with Mao as its undisputed and venerated head – a dramatic revolution 30 or so years later which would change the course of Chinese history forever. I would unfortunately not be present on July 1st to witness the celebrations as, by then, I would be in Taiwan but I certainly got a grip of all the fuss and excitement in the days prior to D-Day and in which preparations were steaming ahead in full force. One has to bear in mind that even if China is today a more open country, from a political and social standpoint, compared to what it used to be, there is still a great control on public opinion exerted by the government. One of the “weapons” used, quite inevitably, is propaganda – let alone bans and prohibitions, which also coexist in parallel (cfr. Ban on certain internet sites such as You Tube, Twitter, Facebook, etc. if accessing from a Chinese IP address). Propaganda serves its purpose because, remember, China still considers itself a Communist country, with a single party and no political alternatives to what was established by Mao and his gang. One of the pre-eminent missions of his political legacy is to perpetrate this vision of an over-ruling, over-arching Communist Party which cares after its people’s (all 1.5 billion of them) welfare and which is the main responsible for China’s economic and social progress to date (anyone with a clear vision of historical, social and economic processes could well agree with me that it is the absolute opposite!). Therefore, turning 90 is quite a big deal... Some cities or municipalities exhibited more fervour than others. Beijing, for instance, as the epicentre of the People’s Republic of China’s ideological movement put on quite a display. The colour red was more predominant than usual, additional flags were put out on the street and outdoor ad banners were used to highlight the accomplishments of the Communist Party and remind people of this epic celebration rather than for commercial purposes. Overall quite an interesting display of propagandistic measures, although I am sure that the increasingly-educated and impartially-informed Chinese society didn’t treat these at face value but with a slight hint of scepticism, or at least so I hope...

The flight from Haneda over to Beijing was relatively short, compared to some of the ones I have been on already during my travels. It took a mere 3.5 hours to get there. Upon arrival, one is immediately impacted by Beijing’s stunning international airport. Modern, clean... impeccable! I guess it’s a natural product of having hosted such an internationally meaningful event as the Olympic Games in 2008. Far from disappearing after leaving the airport, as has been the case in other cities / places I have visited, this impression lasts for a while... Airport shuttle train to the city, Beijing Metro, etc. Just so you can picture it, the Beijing Metro system is as, or even more, modern than the Madrid or London ones! One can tell a significant investment was made back in the day to get the city into shape to host the Olympics. I got into the city relatively early in the afternoon and headed where my Couch Surfing host, Doris – a very cool Chinese girl who had just come back from a period living in Germany and who spoke perfect English –, had instructed me to. After a short wait she came over and we walked back to her place. She was very kind and in the 3 full days I spent in Beijing was always willing to take me around and take me to traditional (and amazing) restaurants. That afternoon, and beating the tiredness from my 5am wake-up that morning, she took me out to explore a really cool part of the city, the Old City – or the part which used to be surrounded by the old city wall (which has long disappeared unfortunately). There, we walked around for a while and she showed me the Bell / Drum Towers which, back in the day, were used both as a sign of warning in case of an enemy invasion/attack and as a means of communicating with the local population (i.e. the bell would ring at dawn, dusk, etc. to let people know when the working day started / ended and so on). From there, we went to have dinner at a local Beijing Duck restaurant where (you’ve guessed it!) we had a succulent Beijing Duck-centred meal. Needless to say it was the best Beijing Duck I have had in my life... couldn’t have been otherwise! After that amazing meal, we continued to walk around Old City and she then took me to a very long street (forgot the name of it unfortunately...) packed with small artisan shops, tiny family restaurants and a popular hangout for tourists and expats alike. We finished off the evening by having a drink at a cool bar nearby.
The next day, and following Doris’ advice I had planned to spend most of my time sight-seeing around the city. She did mention that I needed at least 2 days to get a decent amount in, so for the first day I would tackle the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. First, I went to the Temple of Heaven, located in the South East of the city, which used to be a ceremonial altar visited by Ming and Qing dynasty Emperors for ceremonies of prayer to Heaven for good harvest. Quite an impressive group of temples and was particularly struck by the c. 2km “avenue” connecting the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Circular Mount Altar. One of the first observations I made when starting my sight-seeing tour of the main monuments in Beijing was that, very much like in Japan, Chinese people are the main group of tourists in their own country. Nevertheless, more foreigners than in Japan – must have been the product of the fear projected by Western media related to the Japanese nuclear “crisis”. After the Temple of Heaven, I took the tube (which took me a while to find because even if the metro system connects the city quite well, given how big the city is, sometimes one has to walk for hundreds of metres, even kilometres, before reaching a subway stop) over to Tiananmen square. As humongous and breath-taking as I had imagined.  On the square itself, imposing themselves to the minuscule crowds: Mao Zedong’s mausoleum and the Monument to the People’s Heroes (or a gigantic obelisk-type monument). One could also witness a truly unique display of propaganda on the two gigantic screens (by gigantic I mean over 20 metres in length and 5 in height each!) which seemed to have been installed there permanently. On the Eastern side of the square, one could find the National Chinese Museum, which I unfortunately didn’t have time to visit, and to the North, the entrance to the Forbidden City (you can see a pic of me there below). In the beginning, I wrongly believed that this building, which has a painting of Mao hanging from its facade and which, in fact, is the entrance to the Forbidden City, was his mausoleum. Next stop after wandering for a while around Tiananmen Square was the Forbidden City. A huge Imperial Palace which takes its name precisely for having been off grounds to the civilian population from the Ming to the Qing dynasties during which it served as the official Imperial residence and represented the political centre of the Chinese government. The palace was built in the 15th century and is, quite possibly, one of the biggest, if not the biggest (trying to think of something bigger... but it just doesn’t come to mind), palace-complexes I have ever seen. Just to give you some stats, the Palace counts nearly 1,000 buildings and covers c. 1,000,000 m2 ! ! ! I must have spent at least three hours walking about in the Palace, not only from the South entrance to the North entrance but also across and into various different buildings and rooms. I was also able to get in a very good photo shoot which resulted in some unbelievable pictures. After covering the palace, I continued to head North and entered Jingshan Park where, after a short climb, one is able to enjoy stunning panoramic views of the Forbidden City laying down below and extending for miles and miles. It was slightly unfortunate that the visibility wasn’t too great when I was there (in part due to the ridiculously high pollution levels in the city!), but I still managed to get a decent perspective from the hill top. After what had already been a tiring day, I headed West (all of this by foot) to check out the White Pagoda, which is a tower-like temple designed by a Nepalese architect and containing a considerable amount of Buddha statues (which, in theory, couldn’t be photographed... shhh!). One of the halls is actually called the Hall of the 10,000 Buddhas so one can imagine what I am referring to! The Pagoda is surrounded by a pond and a stunning park which I also visited. After the Pagoda I returned to Tiananmen square, where I stopped for a breather and sat down close to the “propaganda screens”, this time to see if I could actually manage to see the entire screening. When I was about in the middle of it, two friendly Chinese girls approached me and began talking to me in perfect English. They asked me all sorts of questions and after about 5 minutes in which, I must admit, I wasn’t paying too much attention, they asked me if I wanted to join them for a drink. See, here is where I finally concluded they were trying to “tea-scam” me. I had been warned by people I met in Japan that it is fairly common for these “gangs” of girls to approach tourists in particularly transited areas and propose to go have a drink (typically tea). Many people do fall for it and the consequences can be devastating as these teas are generally priced at 500 yuan (c. 50 eur) and up. Does it look like a scam to you?! Fortunately enough I didn’t fall for it... But some Spanish guys I would meet in Xi’an later on that week did. You can imagine just about how angry they were. In the evening, Doris took me to a Szechuan-style (province in the South of China) restaurant in a very vibrant area close to many bars and clubs. Had a great meal (a bit spicy!) and then hit a local bar for a few drinks.

The next day, I was due to visit the Great Wall of China. I had been advised by Josh, a dude I met in Japan who had spent time in China beforehand, that I should try to avoid the Badaling and Mutianyu sections because they were the ones filled with tourists. He mentioned he had gone on a 6-hour trek along the Jiankou area which is is non-renovated and is completely tourist-free. One can thus get a feel for what the wall was really like and how it has “naturally” evolved over time. I had left a post on Couch Surfing to see if anyone wanted to join me and got a couple of guys all pumped for the day-trip. Nevertheless, it turned out to be a very foggy and rainy day so they opted to drop out. I (wisely) decided myself not to go on my own and, not without a slight resignation, took a train to Badaling... There, as I expected, long queues, loads of people and an extremely thick fog which prevented from seeing further than 150m ahead. A bit disappointing, to be honest, but at least got to trek along the wall, which was a very fulfilling and rewarding experience. Some spots were clearer and less tourist-infested than others so, in the end, it wasn’t that bad. Before I took the train, it began to pour but I luckily managed to see it out the train window and didn’t get too wet. It kept raining for most of the afternoon / evening in what turned out to be one of the worst rainfalls in decades (!). Not wanting to go too far as it was still pouring when I got back to Beijing, Doris took me to a local Hot Pot (which, in essence, is a huge bowl with seasoned/flavoured boiling oil where one cooks up the various ingredients – meats, vegetables, etc.) restaurant close to her place. We got a mix of spicy/non-spicy and had various delicacies such as chicken feet, lamb stomach and the like. True Chinese favourites! J

On my final day in Beijing, I was aiming to visit Mao’s Mausoleum, on Tiananmen Square (I was unable to visit it my first day as it operates on very strict and limited opening hours: 8am-12pm) and the Summer Palace, situated North West of downtown, which used to act as the summer imperial resort. At the Mausoleum, I was rather impressed right when I got there because I saw an enormous queue leading to the main gate. I had plenty of time so I didn’t mind all that much but just as I prepared myself to get in line a security guard told me that no bags and no cameras were allowed inside the mausoleum and that I had to check these in at the coat/luggage room located in a building just across the street. So I did and returned to the line. Although long, the line actually moved quite fast. We had to go through 3 different x-ray/security checks before reaching the final steps leading to the entrance of the colossal building. On the way in, there were some flower stands where a lot of people made a purchase, only to later “donate” them to the big man. In itself, the mausoleum comprises two main rooms. The first one, which is right at the entrance, has a gigantic statue of Mao facing Tiananmen square on the side of the Forbidden City (i.e. North), in a very similar fashion to what Chan Kai Shek does in Taipei (we’ll get to that in my post on Taiwan – next in line!). Some deposited the flowers they had recently purchased at the statue’s feet, others just passed by and bowed. Upon entering this first room, two lines were formed, each of which would then enter the main room (i.e. where Mao’s body is kept) from opposite sides. Let me tell you that few things have impressed me so much on this trip than walking into that second room. Formed in a straight line with thousands of Chinese people in front of me and just as many behind me, I entered the room in a sepulchral silence. Interesting thing is that everyone was silent, everyone had taken their hats off, no one was spitting and everyone just seemed to be putting on their best act for the big man. Dozens of guards and security personnel throughout the mausoleum building ensured that these basic principles were respected. And so we marched on. No wonder the line went so quickly, as one is not allowed to halt while passing by Mao’s body (passing by at a security distance of at least 3 metres though). In and out in a mere 120 seconds at the most. Still got chills through my spine when I saw the body, covered in its red communist flag as one can devise his facial expression to perfection. And just to imagine he’s been there for a good 30 or so years. What I most appreciated about this “visit” was that I could get a glimpse of how much Mao is veneered, still, in modern China. Regardless of the political vs social/economic debate to which I was alluding earlier, he is still thought as a big shot, as the spiritual leader for millions (if not billions) of people. It is true that in my discussions with Doris, she mentioned that this “Mao adoration” phenomenon only tended to be observed amongst the older and rural classes in Chinese society and that, for the most part, younger generation didn’t really care much. Maybe it was no coincidence that I didn’t see too many youngsters there that day. After this greatly enriching experience, I headed to the suburbs to visit the Summer Palace, which is a huge extension of parks/lakes and which is crowned by “Longevity Hill”, a hill top from where one can get stunning views of the entire gardens/palace as well as of central Beijing. I spent 2 or 3 hours there before parting to the train station to get my overnight train ticket to Shanghai for that evening. Surprise, surprise though when I got to the train station. No more sleepers or seats available on any trains going to Shanghai that night. I had to get there the next morning as I was meeting up with my friend Nicolas (a good Belgian friend from my Penn days) so I asked the poorly-English-speaking clerk at the station if there could be an alternative solution. She mentioned I could get a “standing” ticket. Seeing it as the only option available... I said yes and paid just under 15 eur for it. I have to admit I really didn’t know what I was in for... I will refrain from describing the journey over to Shanghai but let me just tell you that it took 14 hours, overnight, and that I literally stood the WHOLE time. If only I had been the only person standing it could have been “ok”, I guess, but there were dozens of us filling the car where other people also had their standard seats. Minimum breathing and moving space... one of the most challenging, both from a physical and mental standpoint, experiences I have ever had to face! On top of it all, it could have even been decent if, at times, Chinese people were mindful of other people’s spaces and breathing space. Unfortunately, as I experienced on many occasions throughout my travels in China, most tend to lack basic social etiquette. It may seen exaggerated but once one experiences the pushing and shoving in the Beijing metro (where people are pushed in rather than let out by those on the platform although there are clear and loud messages on the PA advising otherwise) and the never-ending queue jumping and throat clearing / spitting everywhere... maybe what I am describing will not seen like such an overstatement. Again, not all... But most. A true shock compared to what I experienced in Japan.

After that rather epic journey from Beijing to Shanghai and after having slept about 1.5 hours (not sure if I should call it sleeping, maybe a better way to describe it would be “standing with my eyes closed and my head resting on my hand”!), I arrived to Shanghai central station. I got into a taxi and went directly to Nicolas’ house. I was hoping to catch him at home as he was due to spend the entire day at a bachelor party thrown for one of his close friends. Unfortunately, I got there just as he had already left and didn’t manage to spend any time with him. We did, in any case, make plans for dinner and going out that evening with the whole bachelor party crew. After getting to his place (it must have been noon by now) and before even thinking about grabbing a bite, I showered and slipped in bed for a good 2 hours. I was, as you can quite possibly imagine, exhausted and a rejuvenating “siesta” never felt any better. When I woke up I was all pumped and ready to hit up Shanghai for some sight-seeing, in spite of the rain. I got pretty soaked that afternoon, but it didn’t prevent me from exploring a bit of the city, namely the main shopping area, The Bund (the promenade along the river and across from Pudong district, which is packed with Western-style buildings) and the Pudong (the business / financial district) skyline which, even if visibility was limited due to the fog and mist provoked by the rainy atmosphere, was impressive to say the least. In the pouring rain, and before returning to Nicolas’ place to get changed ahead of a big night, I still managed to get approached by two tea-scammer girls... They complemented me on my looks and my beard (obviously!!) and didn’t think twice before asking me to accompany them for a drink. I very politely declined and carried on with my own business. Later that evening, I met up with Nicolas and his friends at a Teppanyaki (Japanese BBQ) place close to his house where we had an all-you-can-eat / all-you-can-drink style meal. Delicious, and by the end of it we were all quite tipsy and ready to hit the local hangout spots. From there we went to a few bars / clubs in the minivan they had rented for the occasion. They had it all thought out and even had a music set and a fridge full of beer and other refreshments in the van so that it could serve its purpose as much more than just a means of transportation. The party continued well into the night...

The next morning, Nicolas and I woke up at c. 11am to go out for Sunday morning brunch. Nico had to leave that afternoon to the countryside for work and we wanted to make sure we spent some quality time together. He took me to an amazing 7th floor restaurant terrace on The Bund where we caught stunning views of the Pudong skyline. The meal was also delicious and not too expensive for the service and view we got. Afterwards, we went down to the promenade and got a few pictures taken of us to commemorate our Wharton reunion. We parted ways shortly after returning to his place and I checked into a hostel downtown. The rest of the afternoon I managed to head over to the train station (this time a day in advance) to buy my ticket to Xi’an. This time, I managed to get a soft sleeper so I was pretty happy with myself for having learnt my lesson! Later, I went over to Pudong to get to the top of the world’s 3rd largest tower and second highest observatory, Shanghai World Financial Centre (SWFC), or the “Bottle Opener” as described by some due to its resemblance to the object. Although it was slightly expensive to go up, by Chinese standards, (c. 20 usd) it was still a great experience and managed to get a great night perspective of the Shanghai skyline. Later that evening I returned to the hostel to work on my Japan post (it does take time and effort to write these up you know!) and called it an early night.

For my last day in Shanghai I had left most of the old city to visit. My train to Xi’an wasn’t departing until 7pm so I had a while between check-out at the hostel (11am) and departure time. I spent most of the day in the old part of town and explored Yuyuan gardens for quite some time. It was amazing to find such a tranquil and peaceful corner in such a busy and hectic city. Overall, one could argue that Shanghai is just as busy as Beijing but it appears to be a more orderly and organised chaos. Everything and everyone seem to have a slightly more efficiency-driven mind frame. In addition, now that we are comparing the two cities, both are a clear representation of the two poles modern China stands by. On the one hand, Beijing represents the country’s political, cultural and historical side, whereas Shanghai represents its economic, liberal and contemporary side. Both cities complement each other in my opinion, and one could not understand China, as it is today, without a mix of these opposing, yet complementary, poles. Back to the story... The train ride to Xi’an was rather uneventful but at least I managed to spend the night lying down on a flat surface. The sleeper car was actually quite comfortable and I managed to get a very decent sleep (in hindsight, any sleep I’ll get from now on will always be better than that night spent on the Beijing-Shanghai route!).

When I got to Xi’an, and given that I was only going to spend a total of 36 hours there, I immediately went to the ticket office to get a Beijing-bound ticket for the next day. This would again be an overnight train (c. 1,200km in c. 14 hours) so I wanted to make sure that I had a proper bed to rest on. When I got to the ticket office, I found hordes of people queuing up in the most chaotic of ways in from of the c. 30 ticket booths selling tickets. I was told that the English-speaking one was #10, so there I went. I went there, but I still had to wait in line for 2.5 hours agonising in the sun for half of the time with both of my backpacks on me. The reason behind such mayhem was that school holidays had begun for most earlier that week and I guess that just leads to millions of people wanting to get on trains. To further add to this “suffering” (remember, nothing will ever be as bad as that 14 hour standing train ride), I was lined up next to a gigantic interactive display which showed the different trains, dates and ticket availabilities. Some trains, the cheaper and shorter distance ones were sold out for the next few days, weeks even, but I took some comfort when I saw that my date/train combination was still available. After c. 2.5 hours of pushing and shoving (as couldn’t be otherwise), I finally obtained my long-awaited reward! Another hour walk and I was finally at the hostel. After a much-anticipated shower, I went to the Southern Gate of Xi’an’s city wall, which is one of the few city walls which still stands in place. Not that it is intact because it has been restored through the years but, at least, it does remain where it once was and traces a perfect square around was used to be the imperial city of Xi’an. The relevance of this protection around the city, as some of you may know, results from the fact that Xi’an was a former Imperial Capital, long before the capital was moved to Beijing. At the city wall, I was looking forward to doing a bike ride around it. Unfortunately, once I got to the bike rental shack, I was asked for a silly amount of money or my passport as a deposit (I obviously didn’t have enough money on me and wasn’t carrying my passport. Nonetheless, even if I had been carrying it I would have never let them keep it!!). The rental itself was 40 yuan for 2 hours (c. 4 eur). I tried to persuade them to take my Spanish driver’s licence, which was the only ID I had on me. They rejected it. Quite frankly I don’t blame them as anyone who has seen the driver’s licence we used to rock in Spain would not be surprised... A rotten, pink piece of paper with a stapled picture does not cause a good impression, anywhere in the world! Luckily, a very gentle woman came to the rescue and offered to pay my deposit if I agreed to bike around with her and her two kids. At this point, the conversation had shifted to English, as there would have been no way for me to understand what she was saying would this have been in Chinese. Turns out she had been living in Canada for the past c. 15 years and had just recently returned to China with her family as her husband had founded a company in China. It was a relief to find her, really, as otherwise I would have not been able to enjoy such a pleasant bike ride. The fact that she had spent the last few years in Canada, in Montreal to be exact, was a very good ice-breaker and we talked about that for a while. I told her I had also spent some time there in the past and we discussed the most interesting of things, from Chinese history, to her view of the current political/economic dichotomy passing by Quebec politics or unique travel experiences throughout Canada. It was an amazing experience and I am very thankful to her and her kids for having shared the Xi’an city wall experience with me and for having given me such amazing insights. After that great afternoon, I returned to the hostel with a pit stop at a nearby street BBQ (mom, don’t worry, the worst than can happen – and did happen – is a bad stomach for a couple of days. The food was yummy though!!) for some treats: sausages, chicken skewers and so on! Back at the hostel, I signed myself up for a guided tour of the Terracotta Warriors the next day and had a few beers and enjoyed an interesting conversation (travel talk mostly) with some folks who were also staying there.

The next morning, early wake-up and en route to the Terracotta Warriors with a group of c. 15 people. Amongst them, a very nice Spanish couple who would later reveal they had gotten tea-scammed and who were fresh out of university. Anecdote here was that they were moving to Bruges, Belgium after spending the entire summer travelling across China and Vietnam. The girl was going to work there and the guy was going to study a Masters program at the College d’Europe. Needless to say that they were astonished to hear that not only had my parents both attended the school in the 80’s, but that it was also where they met! Fun stuff! On the actual tour, we had a very funny Chinese guide, who spoke decent English and went through all the nuts and bolts of the warriors, their history, when and how they were discovered, etc. In the museum, we found three pits, two of which are not that impressive as they are small and there are not too many statues. The third pit, however, is enormous and, if I remember correctly, there are over 3,000 statues (soldiers of different ranks, horses, archers, etc.) spread across the c. 300m esplanade. Some of these statues are still in perfect state and maintain some of their original paint and colours. This might not seem so astonishing if it weren’t for the fact that this wonder of the world (to many the 8th, or at least to many Chinese people) was built, roughly, at the same time as the Pyramids of Giza. After the visit, we spent some time in the museum shop where the man who discovered the terracotta army in the 70’s while digging for water, was signing autographs. I shook his hand but felt a bit sad for him as he certainly didn’t seem to be enjoying himself. We returned to Xi’an later that afternoon after that exciting visit and some epic musical performances on the bus on behalf of the Irish crowd. I was dropped off at the train station c. 2 hours before my train was due to depart. The journey over to Beijing was rather uneventful as, again, it was an overnight train, and I mostly spent my time blogging, reading and sleeping.

The next morning, I arrived to Beijing and went straight to the airport. I had a 1pm flight to catch to Hong Kong. From there, a c. 3-hour layover and my long-awaited and much-anticipated visit to Taiwan, where I was due to spend the week-end with my good buddy Kevin Millican (aka Bigwig), would finally materialise. I would say that what happens in Taiwan stays in Taiwan... but no worries, I will share it all with you in the days/weeks to come in another, I am hoping, memorable post. Until then, and as usual, enjoy the pics!