Monday, November 22, 2010

Japan: Four Cities, Four Days!

I only have an hour until boarding the ship for ten days at sea before reaching Hawaii on December 3rd so I will make this entry short.  The first day I took the Bullet train to Hiroshima.  Teh Bullet train has so much leg room and only took an hour (at 180mph) instead of 5 hours driving or 3 hours by regular train.  Hiroshima was depressing to take in that much information and see so many artifacts about a tramatic event that the US caused.  The museum is surrounded by a gorgeous park filled with Peace Cranes and gardens and the city of Hiroshima is completely rebuilt.  There is one building that still stands from the bomb and the museum has artifacts from children that parents found and melted roof tiles and doors.  There are pictures of people's skin which literally melted off and the atomic bomb obliterated everything in a 4km radius and killed 200,000 people plus thousands more from radiation poisoning.

Kobe is a beautiful city with mountains in the background and filled with countless unique museums: the fashion museum, earthquake technology museum, and Sake breweries & museum.  The leaves are changing colors and the weather feels and smells like fall which is a great change from the humid & hot weather of previous countries.  I am happy to experience fall, even if just for a few days before returning home to the cold harsh winter.  Japan is my last international port and I am sad to see the voyage coming to an end, however 10 days of class is going to be dreadful, followed by finals.  Everyone in Japan lives underground I am convinced because there are countless shopping malls underground and cute boutiques and the streets are desolate and quiet.  As I sit in Starbucks I have seen four small dogs clothed in jackets, they are adorable.

I went to Tokyo and visited the Harajuku district where there are countless unique boutiques with outlandish intricate ensembles however they are extremely expensive but everything is gorgeous.  In the Shinjuku district is Times Square, a 14 story shopping center with American stores.  Japan copies the US in so many ways, advertisements have western models advertising similar clothes and four-story H&M's & Forever 21's line the streets, much larger than any of their stores in the US.  Starbucks are on every corner as well, however their winter flavors are different: I am drinking a Caramel Eclair Latte.  Also Japan is overly decorated for Christmas and English Christmas music fills the streets.  Bubble Tea in the US tastes the same as the authentic in Asia.  There are Crepe vendors everywhere with delicious crepes, savory or sweet, and wrapped tightly so you can eat them on the go: I had strawberry with vanilla icecream.

Yokohama is home to the Ramen Museum but sadly it is closed on Tuesdays.  The Olympic Stadium is in front of me as I sit at Starbucks and Cosmo World is across town: an amusement park on the harbor with a giant ferris wheel.  The streets are quiet but the city resembles Philadelphia: the old section with brick sidewalks and colonial & renaissance architecture.  I do not feel like I am in a city of 4 million people.

Building that survived the Atomic Bomb: the copper on the rough melted before the bomb detinated.

One of the many Christmas displays: Moby Dick

Hello Kitty Vending Machine: Arcades line the streets in Tokyo.
Entrance to the Harajuku District
One of the many delicious Crepe Vendors

Sample of a boutique in Harajuku

Friday, November 19, 2010

Hiking the Great Wall: Beijing & Shanghai

Today I flew four hours from Hong Kong to Beijing. Fortunately the Hong Kong airport had English Magazines so I bought GT & GQ and finished them just in time for arrive in Beijing. Unfortunately, it was an international flight and I stood in line for customs for over an hour waiting to embark China. I reached the hotel around 7pm where we had a wonderful dinner arranged at the hotel's separate banquet facilities. Course after course of meat was delivered to the table, again, most countries have large round tables with lazy susans so that everyone at the table can share. The hotel for the first two nights had karaoke rooms and a bowling alley. The town however was empty with the mountains in the distance as we were north of Beijing and close to the Great Wall. The room was comfortable and I slept well until 6:30am when I was awoken but the front desk and got ready for my first day of hiking.

Fireworks sounded all morning as it is Chinese Tradition to blast fireworks the morning of your wedding, we saw two brides by the hotel before leaving on the shuttle for the Great Wall. The first day we hiked 9 hours across the unreconstructed portion of the wall. This part is literally one foot wide and a dirt path which is held together by stones but there are no walls beside you just underneath you. The Great Wall traverses the top of the Steppe Mountain chain so it is quite a hike as we went single file up and down the outline of the mountain chain. The view was breathtaking and the weather was perfect. Finally cold, between 30-50 degrees which is a drastic change from the 80-90 and humid weather I have experienced in every other country. The leaves had fallen and the mountains were bare except for the occasional evergreen. Zadia found a large rock in shape of a heart so we called it the love rock and carried it for a while taking pictures at different angles until leaving it behind for future travelers to find.
For lunch I was shocked when hikers brought two large red coolers full of McDonalds to the top of the mountain. I have never had McDonalds delivered but after hours of hiking, a Big Mac tasted delicious as I sat with my legs dangling and enjoyed coffee as well. I do not know how far the hikers walked as there are no exits on this portion of the Great Wall minus the 9 hour section we walked which has an entrance and one exit. I continued walked, but around the Great Wall for an Hour as I passed a working military base and the guards stared at our group as we walked through fields around the base until rejoining the great wall later. I passed goats that had no one herding them just randomly chilling in the fields and an abandoned shack to my left. I enjoyed watching the sunset over the Great Wall before driving back to the hotel for dinner and some rest.
The 2nd day of hiking consisted of 4 hours on the preserved portion which was still crumbling and even steeper than yesterday. This section included the Staircase to Heaven which is more like a giant steep ramp as the stairs had crumbled. Today I had a boxed lunch which was disappointing but we donated the uneaten food to the locals. Vendors hike the Great Wall with us for the entire day trying to sell trinkets, however, they are over priced so I purchased my souvenirs at the bottom of the wall where they were 1/3 of the price. Everyone bought Panda hats which were hilarious as the 70 people in our group wore them walking across the Great Wall: I suppose a better idea than matching t-shirts for herding the troops.
The evening we drove 2 hours to downtown Beijing where we stayed at a really nice Holiday Inn, however, the location was terrible as it was not right downtown so I stayed at the lobby bar for the evening with friends and enjoyed each other's company and skyped. The dinner this evening was phenomenal with 10 course of duck, from duck meatballs to the chef cutting the duck in our banquet room into 108 pieces (the precise number for professional cutting). I love duck and to finally have duck in every form was the best dinner I could ask for.
The final day of my trip I toured Beijing and saw the Olympic Venues as well at the Forbidden City & Tian'amen Square which has the largest televisions in the world, two of them in the square playing commercials. The Forbidden City is surrounded by a moat and massive which courtyard after courtyard and considered the center of Beijing. I than went to the airport and boarded my 2 hour flight to Shanghai. I returned to the ship around 8pm, at dinner, and got ready to go out.
I went out that evening with my friends to celebrate my 21st Birthday. Beijing by day, Shanghai by night, not bad. The nightlife was hoping for a Monday evening. The first club played Happy Birthday for 5 minutes at midnight and we went club hopping until returning home around 7am: Yes I saw the sunrise in China.
Hannah, Nate, Zadia, Lindsay, & I on the Great Wall

Hannah & I enjoying the Great Wall

Zadia & I after our Duck Dinner

Lucia, our tour guide, & I

The Forbidden City

24 hours in Hong Kong

I arrived in Hong Kong early on November 11th.  The port is in a gorgeous location between the two sides of Hong Kong.  I walked off the gangway and literally stepped foot into a mall.  Finally, an Westernized shopping center after months of markets filled with trinkets that I will find obscure when I return home in one month.  I walked into the baby section of the mall, filled with D&G Junior, Burberry Children, and countless others.  The mall had wireless but no benches so i sat on the steps until a security guard came over and scolded us for sitting down, so now I had nowhere to go.  Ali, Lindsay, Allison, & I walked to find Starbucks which did not open for another hour so I literally stood with my laptop to get internet until I could sit down in Starbucks.  The view overlooked the harbour and was worth the wait until I realized you had to pay for their internet.  It is near impossible to find internet in other countries.

We ate at a Vietnamese Restaurant and I had Pho, despite just leaving Vietnam.  Afterwards, we took the famed Star Ferry across the Harbour.  It is over 100 years old and a Hong Kong tradition.  Upon arrival, I took a bus to the tram which leads to the Peak.  The tram is an old tradition as well and goes up the mountain at a 60 degree incline so you are holding on for your life as there are not enough seats.  The Peak is a mountaintop overlooking Hong Kong and the view is incredible, countless skyscrapers compose the skyline and ships go back and forth through the harbour creating a 24 hour lively city.  Upon my return from the Peak, I got ready for Dinner with Terry Catton, a hotelie who I got to know the past two summers at Statler because he son did two summer programs at Cornell and is applying there this year.

Lindsay, Ali, & I walked to the gorgeous Intercontinental Hotel located on the harbour.  We met Terry's Wife, Julie, at the hotel bar and had a drink and chatted with her.  She is a lawyer and works with city legislature and the judicial aspect of Law.  Soon after, Terry joined and we watched the incredible lightshow.  All of the Hong Kong Skyscrapers sync their lights to music for 20 minutes which is incredible for that many companies to work together.  Dinner was delicious: Terry ordered everything as I cannot read Cantonese.  We shared the courses which the waiters placed on the Lazy Susan.  Terry managed the Mandarin Oriental so everyone in Hong Kong hotel society knows him and he is well respected but now ventures in Real Estate.  I began with pork in a honey mustard sauce followed my corn & crab soup, beef, lamb, pigeon (which was surprisingly delicious and had a roasted skin), and of course an entire fish, bones and all, which is hard to pick at but you get used to it after so many countries.  My wine glasses were constantly refilled: both white and red, I preferred the Merlot but drank both because they kept being refilled.  The service was impeccable  and I feel that we had 3 waiters plus the manager checking up on us.  Finally dessert arrived, I was stuffed but ate mango pudding and mini-snowballs filled with a variety of fruit.  We enjoyed each other's company until 11pm when Terry & Julie headed home and Lindsay, Ali, & I walked back to the ship.  On our way we toured the Peninsula which was regal and elegant with marble floors, however, being late mostly everything was closed as they have a large shopping arcade. 

When I arrived back at the ship, I packed for my Great Wall trip and then walked into the mall to get internet.  Ironically, you cannot sit in chairs at night but can on the floor.  Foreign rules are so hard to I literally sat outside Nike on the internet until I went to bed.
The Tram to the Peak

Lindsay, Ali, Allison, & I on top of the Peak

Me at the Peak

View of Hong Kong

Already decorated for Christmas and wonderful Christmas music filled the streets and malls.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Surviving 'Nam

I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam on November 3rd.  Upon arrival, I was nervous to spend another week in a third world country.  However, Vietnam is quite developed and everyone is extremely friendly.  There is a shuttle to drive us from the ship to the Rex Hotel located downtown and everything is walking distance from there.  Downtown there is a Burberry store which opened yesterday and Zadia & I went in on opening day and I discovered it was part of a larger mall with Chloe & Marc Jacobs.  The boulevard is lined with trees and I felt that I was not in an impoverished nation until I began walk three blocks to the Ben Than Market.

The Ben Than Market is massive and is where the locals shop.  There is a giant fish & food market along with clothes and bags: the North Face factory is in Vietnam and bookbags are $10 while the large duffels are $20.  They come in all colors and sizes.  I even haggled for shampoo & water: something I had not experienced before but it was enjoyable because the retail price was already reasonable.  The exchange rate is quite an difficult because $1USD = 20,000 Dong.  I found the most amazing coffee chain: Highlands Coffee, basically the same font and interior as Seattle's Best and English bands play as I watch motorcycles fill the streets.  I had a delicious mint chocolate milkshake and since I have been here daily, I am a regular and the waitress Tram & I just exchanged emails.  Vietnamese are so friendly and hospitable.

Pho (pronounced faa) is a typical Vietnamese noodle dish and very popular because there are varieties of humorous t-shirts, my favourite being iPho and pictures of cattle, noodles, and the bowl underneath.  Another cheap item at the market are the complete series of every TV show: Will & Grace, 24, Sex & the City, Friends, etc. for only $15.  Movies are only 50 cents and they work: I watched Time Traveler's Wife last night and had no issues.

Afterward, I went to the War Remnants Museum.  It was eye-opening to see the opposing side of the Vietnam War and their opposition to the American invasion and being anti-nationalism.  Agent Orange was a gas mass-sprayed over the entire country and third-generation children are being born deformed.  The ramifications are evident after 35 years, yet the country is pretty well developed and the people are extremely welcoming to Americans.

The first night I, along with 8 friends, went to Blue Cafe and found the strongest, most reasonably priced beverages.  Long Island's were $2 and I ordered Tequila Pop which ended up being 3 shots of Tequila.  Aveni ordered one too so we just laughed at the lack of 'pop' and took the shots at once.  Afterwards, we went to Club (literally the name of club) where the welcomed our group and gave us a nice table but messed up our drink order (even there the drinks were only $5 and Vietnamese alcohol is surprisingly stronger than in the US and they sell hard liquor at the market as well, unlike Singapore where I only found it at 7-11s).  We danced for a while before heading to the SAS hangout spot for the night: Apocolyse Now.  Overall the nightlife is vivid, especially on a Wednesday.

Ben Than Market

War Remnants Museum

Coconut Milk Vendor

Aveni & I & our Tequila <3

The Beautiful MV Explorer

Halloween in Singapore

I spent Halloween in Singapore and found it surprisingly festive.  The streets were lit up and storefronts were simultaneously decorated for Halloween & Christmas.  Giant Christmas Trees fill the atriums of malls while store mascots are dressed like witches and covered in cloaks.  Singapore is a shoppers haven: NYC shopping with Florida weather.  Every block is a different mall with the same designer stores: Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Gucci, Versace, Marc Jacobs, & D&G repeat after each intersection and inside each mall is a 5 story atrium filled with American labels of all price ranges.  After being in awe at the globalization of labels I went to Raffel's Hotel which is where the Singapore Sling was invented.  I indulged in the gin-based fruit drink which cost $25 but when in Rome I suppose.  That night I felt ill so I caught up on some much needed rest after crazy India.

The next morning, Ali & I took a taxi to the Cornell Hotel School in Singapore.  It is part of NTU and it only has graduate students pursuing their MMH because the business school at NTU has an undergrad program in Hospitality.  The campus is massive and I felt slightly homesick, but in a good way, when I walked into the air-conditioned, glass plated building and saw a mural of the Cornell Clock Tower.  At the reception hung two clocks: one with Singapore time & one with Ithaca time and on the coffee table sat the Cornell Hospitality Book I received upon being admitted to Cornell.  Su Ann, their marketing manager, gave us a tour and explained about the cirriculum which is practically identical with courses.  Afterwards, I explored the campus and saw their dining hall and lectures halls and then took the complimentary shuttle to the metro which is more modern than the US and extremely sanitary.  Singapore is known as a 'fine' city because of their strict law enforcement but I found it extremely pleasant because you do not have to worry about petty theft or crime like the third world countries I have been visiting.  After only 36 hours in Singapore I was sad to leave but anxious to arrive in Vietnam 36 hours later.

Contestants holding onto cars: the last one standing wins

Aveni & I decked in purple in front of the purple Christmas Tree.

Just another Halloween decorated statue

Cornell Hotel School: I miss the clock tower.

Marche-Restaurants: on the roof of the mall.