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6.9.12

Asia!

Konnichiwa Our Crispy Little Fishsticks,

(disclaimer: Because so much has happened since the last post, it was therefore unavoidable to condense this anymore. I have tried to break it up into sections, but even those get pretty lengthy. If you don't like reading [or don't know how] enjoy the pictures. If you are bored, have sometime to kill, or are truly interested in what has been going on in our lives, then by all means soak it up. But it is a bit lengthy, so make sure you are sitting down, because this is going to be one heck of a roller coaster ride.)

It goes without saying that a lot has happened since the last post. Japan has been quite the opposite of a stationary trip. We've moved around quite a lot, however small Japan may be.



Road Trip Group in Tsuruga
When we left Matt's cousin's house, we boarded a train for Tsuruga to meet Rachel (Matt's friend from study abroad) and Victoria- both fellow
Rutgers alumni. Rachel is doing an English teaching program here and has bought a car. She was awesome enough to share both her car and Japanese know-how with us. As it goes, road tripping is always a great way to travel and provides ample time for spacing out and reflecting. Being northeasters and having started our trip in Hawaii, we're realizing how much we value beach time. We also realize how high our standards are. We got to hang around the small town Rachel teaches in and enjoy some beautiful warm water and views.




Matt and Jeff on the beach. This picture was taken around midnight.
We split up for a couple days so that we could go see Kyoto on our own. The old capital. We arrived at Kyoto and were immediately met with the grand station that looked like something out of the future. High ceilings, long escalators, and people everywhere. Kyoto is famous for its temples so naturally we did our best to see as many of them as we could. The first one we saw was Higashi Temple (East Temple) and it was very large. We spent some time sitting in the prayer hall that was decorated with big golden Buddhas and rows and rows of ornate paintings and statues. From there we went to the Temple's garden which was down the road. The garden was beautiful and was built around a small pond. There were one room tea houses on the water and around it and little bridges that looked like they were out of an old movie. After the garden we wander a bit, and decide to go to Kiyomizu Temple (Pure Water Temple) which is perched atop a hill. This temple was  another marvel, long winding paths from one place to the next, and more gold.


Kyoto Station
Higashi Temple
Higashi Garden
Once night had fallen, we wander the streets a little more to find some food. We go to a famous area called "pontocho" which had lots of little restaurants, but they were a bit pricey for our budget so end up stopping at a ramen shop. Little did we know it would be some of the best ramen we had to date. After dinner, we sit on the little canal and contemplate our next move. Our superior foresight lead us to believe that we wouldn't need to book a hostel or anything. And sure enough we didn't. We walked around looking for a park or someplace secluded where we could sleep for the night and found nothing. We sneak in to a hotel, debate sleeping in a supply closet, ultimately we decide against it. We wander into a karaoke place, find an empty room with lots of food, eat the leftovers, then go to a deserted floor and find an unused room and sit in it for a while. There was a long debate as to whether or not it was a good idea to sleep in the room over night. If we were caught it would have been very difficult to play the foreigner card and say we didn't know. So we decide against it. Then the idea comes to us, maybe we could try a rooftop. We take the stairs up to the 10th floor. The roof door was inexplicably unlocked (divine intervention?). We search the rooftop for a suitable place to lie our weary heads. Finally, we find it. It was a flat roof covering the elevator shaft. We had to climb a ladder to get to the top. At the top, we assess the situation and deem it suitable for us. The only downside, we thought, would be the sun baking us in the morning because there was nothing above our heads. We gather in the middle of the square platform, because there was only about a 1 foot ledge keeping us from falling off the side of the building, 11 stories to our death. We put that out of our minds and try to sleep.

We all fall asleep pretty easily, it was staying asleep that was the problem. After about 1-2 hours, we all realize no one is sleeping, because we were all shivering from the cold. So we decide to relocate. Same roof, different spot. We find another elevator shaft. This time it was in a room. A very spacious room I might add. We lock the door behind us and proceed to make our beds. There was a big tarp on the ground, which we cut to make a little sheet. Matt found some cardboard and slept on that. The room was perfect. Not too hot. Not too cold. The only downside was, every time someone used the elevator, the gears would make a ton of noise. But after the first few times we just ignored it. We all slept really well. In the morning we start to make our way downstairs through the building. We come across a maid. Ariel and Jeff run away. Matt keeps going and talks to the lady. She directs him to the elevator and was very lovely. In the elevator down, the manager approaches and inquires as to what he is doing. After a little bit of persuasion, the manager leads him to the door and lets him out. Jeff was the next one out. He encountered no resistance. Ariel ended up back on the roof. But got down shortly after. That day, we go see a few more sights like the Zen Stone Garden and the Golden Pavilion.


Our rooftop bedroom
Next, to Osaka- Japan's food capital. We immediately liked it here. Bustling, vibrant, and young, there was no shortage of anything to do. This was clearly evident even when we got off of our train into a sprawling underground food market! We spent an hour or so sampling, sharing, and staring at everything on offer. We booked a place and hightailed it to the central and busiest part- Namba. Matt met up with some old friends, and Jeff and I scoured the streets for the best Takoyaki- an Osakan specialty- fried and battered octopus balls. After finishing these off as an appetizer, we asked the people running the stall to take us to the best Okonomiyaki- another regional specialty. It's basically a battered egg omelette with heaps of vegetables.



                                     

When we got out, we met up with Matt and Jen- the birthday girl, and a few other study abroad friends. After taking full advantage of the open container laws, taking in the lights, the river, the young chic crowd, and never being able to keep out eyes on any one spot, the night turned into a straight up hang session turned dance party. Best part, the club we went to had a "No Dancing" sign. Bro, like seriously. Dancing is sick.
 

We met backup with Rachel and Victoria the next day and took off for
Hiroshima. When we got there, the girls checked into their hostel and we checked into our- no we didn't. We found unlocked bikes, cruised around, and stopped for some Izakaya at about 1 AM. This was a pretty locals only spot, but everyone was welcoming and equally amused at seeing us. We started with a tap beer, and then managed to order a branch of edamame, fresh tomato (after speaking to my brother Zach, I realize that the reason i see so many tomatoes grown everywhere, and why they are so prevalent as snacks on menus is that they are a flagship food for the umami flavor profile), and then get some help from the locals. On a recommendation, a really sweet guy ordered us some Hiroshiman sake, on him, as a treat to us, and small, whole tempura fish- also a Hiroshima trademark food. He bid us good eating, said welcome, and went back to his friends.
Shortly thereafter, we headed back to the hostel the girls were staying at, and found Matt asleep in the front seat of the car (we were too lazy to book a hostel for ourselves) and climbed in the back and tried our best to get a good nights sleep. We started with the windows down because it was so hot, but then the mosquitoes became a problem, so we put them up a little. When morning arrived it started to downpour, so we put them up all the way. When that stopped we realized we were baking, so we ignored the mosquitoes and focused on keeping our core body temperatures low, until we had to be up to start our day. It was a bit of a miserable start, as none of us got a good sleep but we rallied and pushed on.

(Matt here, sorry about all the changes in points of view above)

Our day in Hiroshima was spent at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. It was a very strange feeling being there as an American. Walking through the exhibits, reading some of the declassified documents between military officials, seeing the before and after pictures of the city with actual real time footage. There were different sections to the exhibit, and they got a bit more graphic as they went on. People were crying, the mood was very somber, and the horrific "aftermath" displays were the main culprit. Pictures of mangled/melted limbs, remains of childrens' lunch boxes, and more clocks than  you can count. All of which are stopped at 8:15.
Outside of the museum, there is the old city hall building. It is one of the only remaining structures from that time. It survived the blast even though it was about 100 meters from the detonation point. Later that night, we drive to Miyashima, which is a town just outside of Hiroshima for a big firework display. It was the first time Jeff and Ariel had seen Japanese fireworks and they did not leave disappointed.






Hiroshima Dome
Tunas at Dogo Spa
The road trip continues when we catch a ferry to Shikoku. We drive to Matsuyama, which is a cute little town with little old pedestrian streets. Over the next day and a half, we just hang around, enjoy the sights and the food. On our last day, Jeff, Ariel, and I go to the Dogo spa. It is supposedly one of the oldest in Japan. It was a very traditional bathhouse. They gave us robes, tea, and little crackers. After the bath, they give us a tour of the whole bath house. Taking us through to the first bath that was made there and a famous guy who ran the place. Once we were done with that, we bid farewell to Rachel and Victoria, as we were going our separate ways. We catch a bus to take us to the other side of the island so we could take the ferry to Beppu (the place I studied abroad). It was a long ride, and once we got to the ferry station, we had a minor crisis. The ferry guy wouldn't accept card payment. None of us had cash at that point, the closest ATM was a 15 minute walk away (but it wouldn't have worked anyway because only certain ATMs work), and the ferry was leaving in 30 minutes. We step aside to consider our options, then go back to beg and plead with the man to let us on. And just like that he says ok. Takes the card and gives us tickets. It was a very strange encounter.

The ferry took us to Beppu. It was such a strange feeling being back in my old stomping grounds. Everything was basically the same. I always knew I would go back to Beppu, but I don't think that it would be so soon. My friend Jen was an angel and let us stay in her apartment while she was away on holiday. The next few days were filled with R&R. We went to all my favorite places to eat. Hung out with a lot of old friends. Most of all, enjoyed the onsens. Beppu is famous for their onsens and we went to the one in the mountains. It was phenomenal. At one point it was raining, we were in a cloud, but completely warmed by the water of the spring. One of the days, we went to Monkey Mountain. My good friend Daisuke was kind enough to drive us and hang out with us for the day. (For pictures of the onsen and monkey mountain, just click)

Our time in Beppu drew to a close all too quickly. We made our way to Fukuoka. The whole time I was in the city felt like one big deja vu. Last time I was there, it wasn't long enough to get to know the place, but enough to see a lot in a short time. This was no different. Except, things stood out and it felt like there was a glitch in the matrix. Something's wrong! I need an exit! This world isn't real! MOM!! I digress. We basically spent the couple days in Fukuoka bumming around. We saw Batman: Dark Knight Rises (3rd time for Jeff, 2nd time for me, 1st time for Ariel). On our last day we went to see the Tochoji Temple. The whole walk there it looked like we were walking in to a the darkest clouds ever collected. And sure enough, as soon as we got there the skies opened up. This temple is famous for housing one of the largest wooden structures of a Buddha. There was a tunnel that ran underneath and behind the Buddha, and had a display of old paintings. The tunnel was pitch black in some places (a definite liability) coupled with the raging storm outside, I was genuinely scared for a bit. But then remembered I don't have any fears and that I'm immortal so I stopped worrying. Outside, the torrential downpours continued. It was a truly magnificent sight to behold. Watching the storm pass like a parade down the street right in front of us. We watch from the shelter of the temple. The loudest thunder, the brightest lightening, and the heaviest rain any of us had ever seen. There were times when the thunder was so close that it shook the very bench we were sitting on. The screaming toddler, behind us clang to her mother's side each time a bolt of lightening flashed across the sky. The storm carried on for a solid 45 minutes. Then, just as suddenly as it had started. It was over. We left the temple and once again wandered the city. We get home at a decent hour and get a good nights sleep, because the next day we were taking yet another ferry, this time internationally.

Korea

Our ferry arrives to the port city of Busan, Korea. We clear customs, almost too easily (they didn't check our bags for explosives or firearms), then try to figure out our game plan. We want to stay in Busan to see the sights, but we had plans to meet Ariel's study abroad friend Moon, who is teaching English in a city outside of Seoul, Suwon. We realize a bus to Suwon is about 5 hours. So we decide to skip Busan and make for Suwon.

It was just prior and during this part of the journey that we realized just how out of our element we were. To this point, at least one of us could speak or understand the language of the country we were in. But now we had no idea what ANYONE was saying in the least. Furthermore, there is even less English in Korea than there was in Japan. On the plus side, everything was way cheaper than Japan.

Our bus arrived in Suwon, as promised (thankfully), around 8:30pm. This time around, we had a hostel booked. Unfortunately, Google maps didn't translate the area to English and we had no idea which way to go. After a while, we get a rough idea of directions, and start to walk. We walk, with all our bags, about 2-3 miles from the train station. Following the directions that I had downloaded to my phone. Along the way, we find a cool pedestrian path area with lots of lights, people, food, and good times. That somehow faded quickly into a "pink light district." Its apparently a lighter version of a red light district. So just not as vulgar. That's a joke. It was exactly the same as a red light district. These women were standing outside their little glass booths trying to entice/lure us into their area. I must admit, the women were very well put together. My favorite part was the fact all of them were wearing 5-7 inch platform shoes, like something out of Saturday Night Fever. One girl catches our eye, and we all get to talking. Ask her how much for all three. We agree on a price and go from there...that's not true. But we did go through this district. One of the funniest parts was a huge banner hanging over the street that read, "Prostitution is Illegal in Korea." We continue on our quest to find our hostel. After about 15 minutes, according to my directions, we were right there. Unfortunately, where we were had nothing. It was a big ordeal, trying to find the place, but there was no way a hostel would be where we were. It was an old run down alley way with apartments and houses that looked like they hadn't been lived in for years. We find a taxi stand and ask them where we were and where our hostel was. This was the first major challenge of the language barrier. We somehow managed to communicate where we wanted to go and asked how much it would be for them to take us. They give us a really high price and think they are trying to rip us off so we say no and keep walking. Eventually, we resign to the fact we will have to pay for a cab. And hail one down up the street a little bit. Our driver had one hand and didn't like the fact we didn't speak Korean. We thought that the fare would be astronomical, judging from what the other cab drivers said, but it wound up being about $3 total. Which was amazing. We finally find our hostel, and check in. It seemed like we were the only ones staying there. We had a cute little room with bunk beds and Loony Toon blankets and sheets. After we put our things down, we hop in another cab and go back to the area where we saw all the lights and people and good times. We meet Ariel's friend Moon as well as some of her friends at a pub and basically hang out the rest of the night.


The next day we get a train to Seoul. We meet up with Moon again and spend the day in the city. Later in the day, we find a nice little smoothie shop to sit in while we communicate with our friend Hee Soo, who was in Sydney, so that we could coordinate meeting up with her brother, Hyun Ho. Hee Soo's family is from Seoul and it was at this point that we got our first taste of true Korean hospitality. Hyun Ho came to meet us, and was very excited to drive us around and show us places. He took us to this famous street called Ilsudong where he insisted on buying us food from the little street carts. He took us to a traditional Korean tea house where we enjoyed arguably some of the best tasting tea ever. This house was very old and had such low ceilings. The doorway to the bathroom was treacherous and could have easily knocked us out if we weren't careful. All around there were plants, fresh things being grown, and a tiny little kitchen where the tea and knick knacks were made. After a little walking around, he took us to Deoksugung Palace. At this point, I personally was a little temple-d/palace-d out. But the palace was still a sight to behold. A lot of history, and its an old relic right in the center of a bustling city. Later that night our caretakers switched shifts. We hung out with HeeSoo's friends. They took us out to dinner to a vegetarian restaurant. Again, Korean hospitality, they insisted on paying for our meal as well as our cabs home despite our insistence to at least contribute a little. They would have none of it. Hyunho picked us up from a station near his house and drove us to his apartment complex. We were lead inside, and on the ground floor, we walked into the apartment kindergarden/daycare. Their family runs the operation and they let us sleep in the daycare, complete with building blocks, carpets that had animals and the alphabet, and little play houses. Once we put our things down, their mother greets us with a feast. Again, insisting we eat. It was about 10:30pm and she wanted to fire up the stove and cook for us. We obliged, and ate until we literally could not fit anything else. She even bought us beer and we just hung out for the rest of the night until bed time. There was one bed in the office, Ariel claimed it, so me and Jeff slept on the floor in one of the nursery rooms.


Deoksugung Palace


Kindergarten Room


Korean Tea House

The next morning, Jeff and I awoke to the sounds of children laughing and running around. It was about 9:30am and the daycare was starting to fill up. Poor planning on my part, I had left my clothes in the office room with my bags. I poked my head out and saw a father dropping off his kids, and had to wait until he left so I could leave and get my things without looking like a pervert. We are escorted to another small room, and a breakfast feast awaits us. HeeSoo's mother cooked us a breakfast for champions. Cereal, eggs, veggies, fruits, sausages, the works! Once we finished breakfast, Hyunho drove us down the road to his drum studio (he is a drum teacher and gives lessons). It was in the basement floor of a building and had sound proofed rooms and a couch as well as a little cot. We were instructed to go back to sleep. So we did. Around 1pm he came back to collect us and we went to meet up with his family for lunch at a Korean BBQ place. The food was phenomenal. We cooked everything on the grill in front of us, piled it up with garlic and sauces and ate our fill. Once again, at the insistence of our hosts. After lunch we bid farewell to the parents and Hyunho dropped us back off at Seoul station where we had first met. We camped at the smoothie place again while I got in touch with another one of my study abroad friends.




Our Korean Family
My friend Brad (that's his English name), is a Korean guy who works for a Japanese steel company. He was my first friend when I studied abroad in Japan and we picked up right where we left off. It was quite a contrast when he walked up, we were all mangy looking and he was well put together in his nice work clothes. Turns out he lives in Suwon, which is where we were going again that night. He takes us to the bus stop and we head to his house. Again, we meet his family and they are most gracious hosts. Brad takes us out to a karaoke place and we sing our hearts out, eat our fill, and have a blast. At the end, we insist on paying, but he'll hear none of it. We go to meet Moon at her apartment nearby, then we all head out to a bar, where the owner is leaving, and throwing a party. More free food. We hang out there for the night. Brad stayed as long as he could, but had work in the morning so we thanked him and said goodbye. The rest of the night was just meeting a bunch of expats at this bar, hanging out and waiting for our bus to the airport at 4:30am. We make the bus, say our good byes to Moon and try to get some sleep on the bus.

Korean hospitality, to this point is rivaled by none. Korea itself is the first place we truly felt we did not spend enough time in. If we had to go back, we would have added a few more days in country. This life is really tough, but someone has to live it.

China

It was a short flight from Korea to Beijing. As soon as we got off the plane we found ourselves in the middle of a dense Beijing smog. I had been here six years prior, and once again, nothing has changed. Once we get our bags, we find the bus that is going to take us into the city. The whole place was a madhouse. The line to get on the bus was ruthless, just trying to get our bags underneath was a hassle. So much so that I personally shifted things around to make room for our bag, when someone comes in from the side and put their bags in the exact place I had just cleared. I have never seen anything like it. So we just go on the bus with our bags. We had been up all night before, and tried to sleep on the bus, but the driver must have been drunk because he kept slamming on the brakes jolting everyone forward. Once we arrived at the stop, we make our way through huge crowds surrounding the station area we were in. At the hostel, we had to fight off hordes of people trying to check in and shove us out of the way. This hostel/hotel was enormous but cheap ($8 dollars a night).

We get settled into our rooms, and venture out to find lunch. We decide on a small Chinese shop, where as soon as we walk in the door all heads turn. I thought there was little English in Korea, there is even less in Beijing. But the people just talk to you as if you understand everything they are saying. Even when you clearly don't they think that if they just keep saying it, somehow you will understand. Furthermore, the Chinese won't meet you half way. In other places, if you don't understand, maybe try pointing, or making hand gestures. Not here. Everything was an uphill battle. We finally point to enough things to get our food brought out. We spend the day trying not to be overwhelmed at the vast, lawless, filthy city that is Beijing. As we wandered, we encountered a few things that would prove to be the norm. First, children are basically pets. Their parents take them out with crotch-less pants and whenever they need to urinate or defecate, they just pop a squat on the side of the road and let-er-rip. Second, pictures. The Chinese seem to be obsessed with taking random photos with strangers. We were stopped numerous times to pose with strangers, to the point that we would just mess with them (ie: pick them up, pretend to charge, etc.). Lastly, spitting. Not just spitting saliva, but obnoxiously (to foreigners, normal for them) hocking whatever phlegm, luggie, or spit they can conjure from their throat/lungs and violently spitting it to the ground. This is such a common occurrence, that we would sometimes just go over the top with it, to see if anyone would take notice, and not a single person would even look twice. Astounding.

Our first night we were warned to protect ourselves against a variety of different sicknesses and diseases so we were directed to go to the pharmacy. Little did we know that the pharmacy was part of a hospital. When we walked in, it looked like some kind of disaster relief area. People strewn across the floor, on stretchers in the hallways, yells, cries, doctors screaming orders in Chinese, old men walking, seemingly bewildered, with their IV drips. Once we asked around, we were escorted down a hall to an elevator, and taken up to a deserted floor. It was here that we were shown the different medicines to protect ourselves with. The nurses spoke some English which was helpful, and after an hour or so, we were stocked up and on our way back to the hostel.


Tunas and the Chairman outside of the Forbidden City


Inside the[not-so] Forbidden City




One of the many long side streets




The next day, we had to switch hostels, so we checked out and made our way to the new hostel. The new hostel was much smaller and seemed to be more personal. We got settled in our room then headed out to do some sightseeing. We set out for Tiananmen Square/Forbidden City. We arrived around 1pm thinking we could do both sites by the end of the day. We failed to take into account just how big the Forbidden City is. There were huge open areas between each section of the city. There were galleries with ancient art work and relics from dynasties past. There were countless little side streets that wound through different areas and little shrines. Each time we came to a cross section, we were confronted with another huge boulevard going somewhere else. The place closed at 5pm so we had to make our way out, a little disappointed we didn't get to see everything that we wanted, but still happy with what we did see. We go across the street to Tiananmen Square and sit down to rest our weary legs. We entertained a few picture poses then decided it was time to move on and maybe get some dinner. We decide to hail a cab, and it is here that we realize just how difficult that can be. Some drivers would look right at us and just keep going, the ones that did stop would sometimes flat our refuse to take us where we asked, and others were just scammers trying to rip off tourists by asking for an exorbitant amount of money. We had dinner on this street that looked really cool. It was lined with red lanterns and bustling with people and cars and restaurants filled to the brim. We decide to go to one where the line was out the door and the wait was 45 minutes. We walk around a bit and go back after about 15 just to see if it would be worth waiting longer. After a little bit of persistence, they seat us ahead of the mob of people behind us. The place specialized in crayfish, but we avoided that and just pointed to things on the menu. While our order was being taken, remember there is hardly any English, the waitress calls over her friends. At first it seemed like they were there to help, but they spoke no more English than the first girl, then it seemed like our waitress was just calling her friends over just for fun. By the time our order was placed there were 4 waitress around our table, and one looking on from the kitchen. We were a circus show. We spent the rest of the night exploring back roads around the hostel, which could have been a bad idea, given the fact we were lost, walking through dark alley ways with portentous  Chinese men staring us down as we passed as if they thought we were going to take their homes, women, and children.

The following day, we got up at the crack of dawn to catch the hostel tour going to the Great Wall of China, or at least one portion of the wall. We went about 3-4 hours west of Beijing in to the country side to an area called Jinshanling. We didn't get the memo that it was a couples only tour (not really but there were only couples and us), so we were kind of the odd balls. Our tour guide was a funny Chinese fella, who spoke good English, only he wasn't really a guide. He just took us to the foot of the mountain that had the wall on top and sent us on our way. We took the cable car up to the wall and made the most of our time. We had to be back at the bottom for lunch by 1:30 and the bus was leaving at 2. So we made haste and tried to get to as many towers as possible. The wall is basically broken up into sections, each section starting and ending with a tower. The whole wall goes along the ridge of the hill/mountains. This portion of the wall we were on was not very "touristy" in that a lot of is was not rebuilt. So there were some stretches where there was hardly anywhere to walk. Other areas were just short of completely vertical, and when we were briefed we were told not to go passed a certain tower because it was "closed." Naturally, we made it to the "closed" section and pressed on. It was a little treacherous, but thankfully we are all skilled climbers and scaled a small portion of the wall and pressed on. We got so far, that there was no one even in sight. We had to stand on a tower to see the nearest person struggle to make it up some of the vertical inclines. Right before we decided to turn around to go back we took a quick rest. We were all drenched in sweat, so much so that my bag and everything in it was actually wet as a whistle. We made our way back down the mountain and had our complementary buffet. 



The Great Wall of China


Tunas on the Great Wall








Our new friend (he made us buy one of his bottles of water to take this picture)
The bus ride back took about 4.5 hours because of traffic. And by the time we got back to the hostel, we were all exhausted. But not so exhausted that we couldn't make new friends. We made 2 Spanish friends Alberto and Xandra (pronounced Sandra) who were studying in Shanghai for the summer and were flying out of Beijing. We also met Annais and Denny, from France and Austria respectively.  Our new friends were understandably envious of our lifestyle and we all shared stories from our different travels and plans. On their last night in Beijing, we all went out for a few drinks and had a great time. At one place, this Chinese guy thought it would be fun to start a mosh pit on the dance floor. Needless to say there were a lot of people who were unhappy with this and there was almost a brawl. Thankfully, this guy's friends had the wherewithal to remove him from the premises.

Summer Palace
The next day, we headed out for Summer Palace. This Palace is a huge area set right on a lake. It was rebuilt because it burned down in the late 1800's so some things looked relatively new. The main area was set on a big hill that was crawling with people. A magnificent view of the lake and surrounding areas could be seen from the top, and as this was a prime "photo-op" location, the stairs were clogged with people and once again, it was everyman for himself if you wanted to get to the stairs or even worse, try and take a picture. Since we spent basically all day at the palace we decide to head back and relax the rest of the night. We got up early the next morning to see the "Flag Raising Ceremony" at Tiananmen Square. Its basically exactly what it sounds like. At sunrise everyday (this day about 5:37am) a group of soldiers raise the flag outside of all the important government buildings. We were a bit late, and when we arrived there was already a crowd. They had the Chinese national anthem blaring over some very bad speakers, but the crowd of people didn't seem to mind, they only wanted to see the flag go up. As soon as this was done, there was a rush to get to Chairman Mao's mausoleum. The Chairman is a revered figure who defeated the Nationalists and is responsible for the Communist regime set up in China. He died in 1976, and the people saw fit to pump him full of formaldehyde as to preserve his body and put it on display for everyone to come pay their respects. That's totally normal. The place was only open for 3 hours per day, between 8 and 11am. We were in line at around 6am. Security was so intense and there were various, seemingly arbitrary rules, that needed to be abided by (ie: no flip flops?). There were no bags, phones, camera, or anything allowed in. And they search you if there is even a hint of any of it. Once the doors opened up the line moved along very quickly and once we were inside I could see why. There are people whose job it is to shove you along to make you move faster. The only time you were excused was if you were putting flowers in front of a big, Lincoln Memorial sized, statue of the chairman or if you were praying/crying. There were some people doing all of those things. The Chairman's preserved body was set behind glass, heavily guarded, and surrounded by an arrangement of flowers. The body itself looked, to me at least, fake. All you could really see was the face, and it was Halloween Pumpkin Orange. Not to mention the fact it looked plastic. But by the time I had had time to take it all in, we were being pushed along, and out the other side. We waited in line for about 2 hours, just for 30 seconds of viewing. Would I say it was worth it? Maybe.


Summer Palace Lake
It was a good way to spend our last day because later, we were on a train heading south to Suzhou, a city outside of Shanghai. It was a 5 hour train ride, most of which we slept through. Ariel's friend's friend, Alex, had agreed to meet us and put us up for a few days. We had never met before. We take a cab ride from the station to the apartment complex and are astounded. The place is huge. We walk inside, to a complete strangers apartment (it was agreed she would leave the keys for us) and begin to wonder what it was that we did to deserve this. The apartment was spacious, clean, and full of balconies. We revel in this set up and decide that we need to bring something to offer, but just as we head out the door Alex comes home from work and what a gem she has turned out to be. She took us out to a really good Chinese restaurant, shows us around her city, which is very new. Ground is being broken everywhere, skyscrapers being built all around, and new apartment complexes around every corner. We all slept very well that night.


Shanghai at night

Shanghai night and full moon
Last weekend, we went into Shanghai. We spent most of it wandering around, getting lost, exploring little nooks and crannies, and seeing the new Spiderman. We also met a bunch of Alex's friends who are really cool and were very hospitable. We were taken to an expat bar and turns out they were giving away beer. Literally. From 8-11pm just giving away beer. It was weird being in a place that had so many foreigners under one roof, but it was certainly a relief not to have to struggle to explain something. After the weekend we all headed back to Suzhou to Alex's apartment. It has been a really relaxing week. Last night we cooked a Mexican themed dinner, which was otherworldly, as a way of saying thank you to our most gracious host.


Homemade Mexican dinner

We will spend this weekend in Shanghai, then move on to X'ian, which is north west of where we are. Our plans from there go to Chengdu, Yunnan, Guilin, Hong Kong, then Vietnam. We are all very excited about the adventures that lie ahead.

HORRAY!

We have decided to implement a new readership incentive program. For every new "Fellow Fish" we will send a postcard and/or trinket from where ever we are to the new follower and one existing follower. If you love postcards, and little trinkets, this is your chance to finally have those dreams come true. So if you are already following, FANTASTIC, tell all your friends! If not direct yourself to the top right of the screen and become a fellow fish, and join us on our journey's around the world.

Until Next Time,

Tunas

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