Ending the Journey

How great it would be if I could have each of you reading this, jump into my brain for a bit… just for a bit. To know what I think and how the things I see and do make me feel and think. As I attempt to express myself through words, days, weeks, or even months later they certainly do not serve justice. I know I lack detail and don’t even mention things here and there, yet I hope you can understand to an extent of how grateful and happy I am for each of these experiences, opportunities, and adventures I have been lucky enough to have.

The end of this semester is quite possibly the strangest time. In the midst of final papers and exams, I must also find time for goodbyes, final outings, and last bits of sight-seeing in the gorgeous city that I called home for six months. I’m actually frightened to head back home and let the nostalgia set in. But this nostalgia of Hong Kong and my Asian excursions will taunt me of all the blessed things I was fortunate enough to experience.

You forget the days you spent feeling feverish, fatigued, and exhausted and remember that you have never felt more alive in your entire life than you did in the moments you were eating street food that had no English description, running into the bath warm ocean waters, connecting with people from around the world, being blonde but for the first time in your life feeling “exotic”, investigating how such little space can hold such impact, including dirt-caked feet into your fashion ensemble days on end, grazing your fingers on the stones of some of the world’s oldest structures, looking into the eyes of an elephant, or gazing out onto the most beautiful sights your eyes have ever seen. You never want these moments to end. You want to chase those moments and those feelings for the rest of your life- to always feel so completely alive, beyond emotions of contentment or bliss, simultaneously grounded to the Earth and connected to the cosmos.

I learned that I was capable of packing my life in a single suitcase. Being notorious for overpacking body bags for any length of travel, I never thought this would be possible. Now I can easily turn on my nomad mode and abandon everything I previously but immaturely cherished. I now awkwardly speak in a slightly Asian tone while still upholding my “hella”. However, I started routinely using Southern American slang such as “ya’ll” (I have to thank my friends from SC!). The locals I met from South East Asia always muttered, “Same same. But different”. This statement was their explanation for everything. After much confusion, I discovered the statement outlines the seemingly significant differences that define two united things. I am the same person, but different. My experiences in foreign countries are difficult to illustrate. I can only describe it as, “Same same. But different”.

Here I could insert the lovely and important lesson of living mindfully in the present, in awareness, but I will instead leave you with my blog that I’ve compiled throughout my time here – as an ever-so-subtle inspiration to go and live and breathe and just be.

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Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.

– Mark Jenkins

Japan

Ugh, after a moment of stupidity, Robert and I missed our initial flight to Japan. This resulted in spending the next 24 hours in the Hong Kong airport and downsizing our trip from Tokyo and Kyoto, to only Tokyo. The situation panned out the best it could, with an awesome airport to spend the night at. We spent the 24 hours blogging, wandering around, seeing the new batches of arrivals (hot international rugby players, anyone?), sitting next to a Brit tripping out on God knows what, watching Hong Kong police following him around muttering “He is SO high”, eating at every restaurant in the airport, and investigating an interesting woman with so many belongings that she looked like she had been living in the airport for months. Robert slept on one of the padded benches, and I slept on my massive body bag full of clothes. The ONE time I’m grateful for the overpacking I did for Asia!

Tokyo is the capital of Japan and boasts 12 million people in the metropolitan area (with the Greater Tokyo area having 35 million people), making it the most populated urban area in the world. Because of the vast amount of people Tokyo has to harbor, the city has the most complex metro system. The plethora of lines, colors, and people outweighed any other city I have been to in Asia. But it didn’t take much time for all my confusions to transform into admirations and complexities to change into conveniences. Tokyo’s metro is actually one of the most well-organized, cost efficient, and user-friendly in the world. But DANG!

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For most of our trip, the biggest part of the Tokyo experience was just wandering around at random and absorbing the vibe, poking our heads into shops selling weird and wonderful things, sampling restaurants where we couldn’t recognize a single thing on the menu, and finding unexpected oases of calm in the tranquil grounds of a zen garden or shrine. And of course, Japan is known for its food. YUM. The world’s greatest sushi and sashimi (which I don’t eat), tempura (veggies for me), kobe beef (Which are made from cows who are massaged and fed beer their whole lives. Great lives, right?), donburi, soba, udon, ramen, tonkatsu, mochi, and miso originates in Japan.

The country is also known for its sophisticated toilets that really need directions in English beside them. These high-tech toilets have a seat warmer to maintain a constant temperature, sensors that automatically open and close the cover, temperature control panels, deodorizer control panels, water pressure control panels, air freshener control panels, ambient music playing, and USB ports for your own music. I still don’t know what buttons to press. There was even a button I thought was to flush, but instead was the “sound” of a flush, in case I wanted a “superficial” bathroom experience.

Japan has one of the highest concentrations of vending machines of any country in the world. There is about one machine for every 23 people, which amounts to well over 5 million vending machines! They sell anything from snacks, ramen, batteries, coffee, toys, flowers, rice, umbrellas, condoms, cheeseburgers, cigarettes, alcohol, girl’s numbers, underwear, WiFi passes, and adult DVDs. These vending machines are extremely high tech, like for example, in Tokyo one has a camera with sensors embedded which will recognize your gender and age and the day’s weather, which allows the it to recommend a suitable beverage. Robert and I had our first meal at a ramen shop near our hostel and we must have stood there like idiots until we figured out that we had to order from the vending machine. It took us nearly forever to figure out what to order since the machine was only in Japanese, had a surplus of buttons, and with hardly any descriptive pictures. We gave our meal ticket to the chef with our bodily expressions saying, “Sorry, I’m not usually this stupid.” Finally we were grubbing down and slurping loudly with the locals.

We surveyed the city and backdrop of Mount Fuji 202 meters above ground from the 45th floor of the observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku. The magnificent view of the whole city showcased how extraordinarily Tokyo manages to use every inch of space. We passed by Akihabara, Tokyo’s electronic mecca with endless electronics and gadgets to buy. Our last stop in Shinjuku was the Gyoen National Garden. Cherry blossoms (that were not in season), trees, ponds, tea houses, and traditional Japanese architecture made up the interior of the zen garden. Hardly anyone was there which made it a peaceful escape from the hustle of the world’s most crowded city.

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We later followed the footsteps of countless pilgrims to Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest and largest Buddhist temple. The temple was built in Asakusa in 628 and lies near the Gojunoto pagoda which contains some of the ashes of the Buddha. Surrounding the temple was colorful stalls selling food, rickshaw rides, kimonos, and other trinkets. Asakusa is also known as Tokyo’s oldest geisha district. Our hostel in the Asakusa district neighbored the gorgeous waterfront, Tokyo Sky Tree, and Asahi Beer Headquarters. Asahi’s modern building was given the nickname “Golden Turd” and its picture is self explanatory. The Sky Tree is currently the second tallest structure at 634 meters.

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Tokyo Tower is a duplicate of Paris’ Eiffel Tower, however, the orange and white structure stands at 333 meters (13 meters higher than the Eiffel Tower). The light shows the tower presents the city change every night. The tower also boasts many restaurants, museums, and an aquarium. We went to the observatory to tour the 360 degree view of the bustling metropolis. This moment, along with every single moment in Tokyo, solidified my dream of someday living in Japan.

We took a two hour bus ride to the Fuji Shiba-zakura Festival at the base of Mount Fuji. The area holds over 800,000 shiba-zakura (“lawn of cherry blossoms”) blooms with a rich array of pink, purple, and white blossoms up against the backdrop of Mt. Fuji. Vendors sold local food, much of which was flavored with sakura.

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Every few minutes a wave of humanity swarms across Shibuya Crossing that makes Time Square rural in comparison. The sea of neon lights, traffic, and people violently washed over dumbfounded foreigners such as Robert and I. “Lost in Translation” and “Fast and the Furious, Tokyo Drift” were filmed outside this hectic crossroad. Massive video screens display advertisements and deafening J-Pop. Crossing the intersection is an amazing experience and feat in its self, as people head in all direction across the huge zebra crossings.

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Harajuku is the heart of Tokyo’s street fashion. Harajuku is filled with pedestrian only streets that look like trendy back alleys filled with unique vintage boutiques and young locals on the cutting edge of fashion. Walking through the district, we witnessed extreme and unorthodox styles such as gothic Lolita, school girl, punk, cutesy sweet, cosplay (costumes), all of which include many layers, prints, and accessories. There is no one popular style or brand due to the fashion-conscious population and Japan’s vibrant fashion industry. For that reason, Japan is a mecca for the latest trends and home of the original hipster. The Japanese who did not partake in “Harajuku street fashion” wore chic fitted suits. I ALWAYS felt underdressed everywhere I went, and you all know that I’m usually on the opposite side of that spectrum!

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Otaku, a Japanese term used to refer to people with obsessive interested particularly anime and manga, and kawaii, meaning “cute”, are HUGE in Japan. Maid cafes have been set up where waitresses dress up and act like maids or anime characters. Stores specialize in anime, mange, retro video games, costumes, figurines, card games, and other collectibles. Tokyo even has an enormous Pokemon Center!

Robert and I made reservations to eat at Ninja Akasaka, a ninja themed restaurant. Japan takes theming very seriously. If something is themed, it is OUTRAGEOUSLY AWESOME. The restaurant is set in a dark maze-like cave designed to look like a ninja fortress, complete with treasure chests and disintegrating bridge and secret entrances. Our waiter was decadently dressed as a ninja, sneaking around the corridors and appearing out of nowhere with his samurai sword. He gave us a secret password to yell out to anyone we come across or they would unleash their ninja skills on us. It was AWESOME.

We spent the last night in Japan in Tokyo’s red-light district Roppongi. We situated ourselves into a cozy group of foreigners and locals, including a SDSU alum we randomly met a bar. The nightlife was filled with locals, foreigners, and the off duty US Navy. Around every corner, Nigerian expats are coaxing patrons to come to their club and Turkish expats are selling the tastiest kabobs. We started off Hong Kong style at the 7 Eleven and ventured into a club offering free drinks all night. The group we became friends with later split up for the last leg of the night, including Robert and I. Half of our group went to the Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest fish market in the world. Scours of people meet at 4AM to witness or participate in the tuna auction directly with the vendors whose families have been in the business for 20 generations, and afterwards eat the best rated sushi in the world. I am repulsed by fish and had no interest in going so my half of the group stayed in Roppongi and partied until meeting back at the hostel at 9AM.

With not even a minute of sleep, Robert and I trudged along to Ueno to get a feel for old Tokyo. We explored the many Buddhist temples in the area, Shinto shrines, zoo, and picturesque park. We strolled through the Ameyoko shopping bazaar that was full of stalls selling almost anything you can imagine, from fresh fish to clothing. We spent hours in the ten story building next to Ameyoko that sold all things anime.

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The Japanese are well known for their politeness. The act of bowing to another shows the upmost respect. I have even seen “bow-offs” consisting of constant bowing for at least 15 minutes where two people compete to do the lowest, do the most, or be the last to bow. The Japanese bow to greet, apologize, welcome, thank, say farewell, excuse themselves, congratulate another, acknowledge, and more. I love this custom, and probably will accidentally continue to bow back home. Many were thrilled to see my friend and I and were incredibly helpful. They were often extremely interested in meeting and becoming friends with us, although sometimes the communication barrier made it difficult. I had many people try to have conversations with me. I began with giving blank stares and “I don’t know” shrugs, but later I took up their invitation and continued their one-sided conversation in English. As an example, two men saw me trudging along with my luggage and immediately began talking to me in Japanese and offered to carry my luggage to the metro which was a mile away. Japanese are so kind hearted and never miss an opportunity to help out a stranger. They will go to extraordinary lengths to understand what you need and to help you. And of course this included about 10 bows per 5 minutes of conversing.

It was exceptionally heartbreaking to leave Japan, not only because I fell in love with the country but also because it was the end to my stay in Asia all together. I am so thankful that we decided to make an extended layover of our trip home in Japan, even though we had to drag around all of our luggage from six months abroad (please refer to my first blog post to know the large and heavy torture I endured). It was the perfect cherry on top to our travels, but left us thirsting for more. I have already made a mental note on my life checklist that I need to live in Japan and experience its marvels for a more extensive period of time.

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Comfort can be a dangerous thing. You stick around home all the time where it’s safe and nothing ever changes, and before you know it, you get set in your ways and you quit learning, you quit changing, you don’t grow anymore.

– Frank Peretti

Shanghai, China

Our last stop in our China itinerary was Shanghai, and sadly only for a day because we had to return to Hong Kong to catch our flight to Japan the following afternoon. Shanghai, with a population of more than 23 million, is the largest and most developed city in China. The city has an interesting blend of East meets West. In the past, Shanghai granted eight other nations concessions, areas that they controlled and where Chinese law did not apply. History has shaped Shanghai’s cityscape significantly. British-stye buildings are found on the Bund, while French-style buildings are prominent in the former French concession.

The Puxi side of the river is the older side of the city dating back to the 19 century, while the Pudong side features the mass of new high rise development beginning in the 1980s. The Puxi side, or more famously called the Bund, is the colonial riverside of old Shanghai. It is lined with dozens of historical buildings that once housed foreign banks and trading houses.

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The Sightseeing Tunnel is underground and is the the fastest way of crossing the Huangpu River between the Bund in Puxi and the Pearl TV Tower in Pudong. The tunnel is lined with psychedelic light shows and some bizarre commentary in English and Mandarin.

Using magnetic levitation technology, the Maglev train does not touch the tracks and traverses 19 miles in as quick as 7 minutes, while hitting a maximum speed of 268 miles per hour! It is the world’s fastest train in regular commercial service. It is even faster than the top speed of any Formula One car and Motogp prototype! And I must reiterate: IT LEVITATES.

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Oddly enough, which surprises even myself, I came to the conclusion that I love China! I had the worst reservations about traveling around China, especially for such a long period. This is mainly due to the fact that Hong Kong enlisted a chronic apprehension against mainlanders and the first time I visited China in Shenzhen, the atmosphere scared me. I learned to even appreciate squatters, because let’s be honest, isn’t NOT touching a toilet seat cleaner than touching it? Chinese are famous for pushing and bumping everyone. And I have grown very accustomed to it, and now routinely and absentmindedly do it. But it’s no problem, that’s normal. I mean, with so many people, it’s just too much to say sorry or excuse me to everyone. China is SO much better than I could have imagined, because really isn’t anything better than my images of feces and grime? I’m pretty sure I can blame this one on Hong Kong. I am now petrified of anywhere other than Hong Kong, the most sanitized place on earth. They even question my hand sanitizer that kills ONLY 99% of germs. That is clearly unsterile and defective. And I’m still dumbfounded about how Robert and I survived with no knowledge of any Putonghua and China not knowing any English. I have no idea.

Beijing, China

Beijing is the capital of the most populous country in the world and also its second largest city after Shanghai. Beijing is the political, educational and cultural centre of the country and as such it is rich in historical sites and important government and cultural institutions.

Until recently, the city was almost entirely made up of hutongs with narrow lanes and single story buildings. Hutong is a Mongolian term mean water well. The name is given to a narrow street that originated during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). During that time, Mongolians attached great importance to water, so almost every community in the city was designed around a well. At present, there are about 4550 hutongs, the broadest over 4 meters wide and the smallest a mere 70 centimeters across. I absolutely love the culture that hutongs bring to Beijing. Everything and everyone is much closer (physically and cognitively) and thus more intimate. Cars don’t intrude. People are much more social and are not only there to pass by. 

 

Tiananmen Square is the world’s largest public square and is surrounded by grand buildings including the Great Hall of the People, the Museum of Chinese History, the Museum of the Chinese Revolution, the Qianmen Gate and the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City was built in 1406 and served as the home of China’s emperors for almost 500 years. The palace included 980 buildings, 8707 rooms, and covered a total of almost 8 million square feet. Tiananmen Square is also home to the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall and the Monument to the People’s Martyrs. And yet again, I saw an embalmed lifeless body of a Communist leader who specifically asked to be cremated instead of being physically kept alive but his people have an odd need to have a material person to worship. Tiananmen Square and its crowds of tourists and locals are massive. Hauntingly, it is also the site of the infamous massacre of student activists by the Peoples Liberation Army in 1989.

When the Jin dynasty emperor Wanyan Liang moved his capital to the Beijing area, he had the Summer Place built. The construction started in 1750 as a luxurious royal garden for royal families to rest and entertain. The 743 acre area includes the Longevity Hill, Kunming Lake, pavilions, towers, bridges, and corridors.

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The Temple of Heaven is surrounded by a lively park typically packed with hordes of locals drinking tea, practicing calligraphy, tai chi, and playing cards. Covering an area of 2.7 million square meters, it is even larger than the Forbidden City. As the “Sons of Heaven”, Chinese emperors were preluded from building a dwelling for themselves that was greater than the earthly residence dedicated to Heaven hence the difference in overall size of the two complexes. 

We ate dinner at Quan Ji De, a restaurant famous for its Beijing Roast Duck… so the only thing on the menu is Beijing Roast Duck, of course with the thin pancakes, plum sauce, and scallions that are served alongside. I started off the night thinking I would sit through Robert’s duck dinner and find something to eat after, but I ended up trying the dish and loving it!

Beijing was host to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. There were 43 world records and 132 Olympic records set at the 2008 Summer Olympics. An unprecedented 86 countries won at least one medal during the Games. Chinese athletes won the most gold medals, with 51, and 100 medals altogether, while the United States had the most total medals with 110. American swimmer Michael Phelps broke the records for most gold medals in one Olympics and for most career gold medals by winning eight swimming events. And of course, Beijing organized the best opening ceremony in Olympic history.

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We woke up bright and early to take an hour bus ride outside of Beijing to Badaling, a section of the Great Wall. The 2,000 year old Great Wall, one of the greatest wonders of the world, winds up and down Northern China like a dragon stretching approximately 5,500 miles. Walking the Great Wall was harder than I imagined; it was more of a slippery hike up and down steep slopes as the Wall rose and sunk with the rolling hills. Stairs could easily measure two feet in height… or there would be no step at all. But the raw beauty of lush green scenery surrounding the tightly packaged grey stones that seemingly stretched out to the ends of the earth made the climb exhilarating. 

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Xi’an, China

Our next stop was Xi’an, China’s first capital and oldest city. The 3,100 year old city was the home of 13 dynasties and 73 emperors for its first 1,000 years. It used to be the end of the Silk Road, thus noticeably preserving China’s ancient past with its ever-growing economy.

The Wild Goose Pagoda was built by Emperor Gaozong Li Zhi in 652 AD and is the emblem of the city. It holds many sutras and figurines of the Buddha that were brought to China from India by the Buddhist monk Xuanzang.

The Bell Tower was built in 1384 during the Ming dynasty and contains several large bronze-cast bells from the Tang dynasty. It’s giant bell was struck at dawn every day. The building serves as the exact center point of the walled city and the top of the tower commands a panoramic view of Xi’an.

The Drum Tower was built in 1380 during the Ming dynasty. In contrast to the Bell Tower, the giant drum inside was beat at sunset to indicate the end of the day.

The Muslim Quarter has been home to the city’s Hui (Chinese Muslim) community for centuries. The backstreets are full of butcher shops, hidden mosques, small family run restaurants, candy vendors, and stores. The Grand Mosque was built in the a perfect mixture of Islamic and Chinese architecture styles. It is the first mosque to ever be built in China.

As the world’s largest city wall, the Xi’an city wall is 12 meters high and 13.7 kilometers long. Long after its 618 AD birth, it is one of the few cities walls in China that is still standing. We strolled along the cobblestones regularly stopping to explore the old watch towers. Once the sun set upon us, with a birds eye view, we saw the city slowly light up.

I am routinely astonished by the different ways the same brand could present itself in different locations around the globe; quite gloomy and ghetto pizza joints in one place while a colorful, extremely diverse culinary-wise restaurant in another. In China, Pizza Hut is a prominent sit down restaurant with a pretty expensive yet decadent and extensive menu. Haagen Dazs is also the same way. The brand well known to the US is seen as a classy date location in China. The “ice cream parlor” is a massive dine in establishment with white table cloths, lemon water in glasses, romantic furniture, and waiters in suits. And let’s not forget this is counterbalanced by the excessive ice cream prices.

We returned to the South Gate of the city wall, Bell Tower, and Drum Tower after we ate dinner, played with the hostel kitten, and the moon came up. These decadently structured buildings were brightly and colorfully lit up. Oddly, many people throughout the city brought out their telescopes onto tuktuks to view the moon and Saturn. Does Xi’an do this every night?

We took an hour long bus ride to see the Army of Terracotta Warriors and Horses. 8000 life-like terra-cotta warriors, 100 or so chariots, 670 horses, and 30,000 weapons are in three pits, but the majority are still buried. The first Emperor of China who unified the different provinces of what is now modern day China, Emperor Qin Shi Huang, built the underground Terracotta Army using over 700,000 men to create his shrine over a period of 38 years. The army was to protect him in the afterlife. The figures, dating from around the late 3rd century BC, were discovered in 1974 by local farmers trying to dig a water well, making it one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century. The discovery prompted Chinese archaeologists to investigate and they unearthed the largest pottery figurine group ever found in China. The original paint quickly deteriorated after the warriors were exhumed and exposed to the air. The level of detail in the pottery work and metalwork was extraordinary. The ranks of each soldier are shown by how they are dressed, how their hair is done, their stance, and their waist line. Each soldier is unique and not one has the same facial features.

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Seeing the Terracotta Army put a cherry on top to my China travels. Mulan is my favorite Disney movie and in my top five favorite movies of all time, and encountering the dynasty that Mulan heroically served definitely put a huge idiotic smile on my face. My goal of being Mulan was ALMOST fulfilled! So here’s a clip of Mulan for your (my) enjoyment.

I do not own or take credit for this video.