Welp, it's now time to head out of China, and on to Nepal. I can't believe it's already been nearly two weeks here. It's definitely been a change in my normal way of how things have been - fancy hotels, fancy meals, and constant travel companions - and in some ways that's been more foreign that some of the foreign places I've been to. I'll have some brief reflections on that, but first, let's get to the goings-on!
First of all, I've completely lost any sense of the days here. I feel the reason for that is twofold - first of all, I'm not in control of my own itinerary at this point. It was the same at Askari - when someone else takes the reins of what I'll be doing every day, I have no reason to know what day it is. Second, the time difference between China and the US is so much more pronounced than, say, South Africa and the US, despite only being six ours more than South Africa. As such, every reference to what's going on in the US (which is mostly stuff I see on Facebook [when I can see Facebook]) all seems to be for a different day, as for most of the day, it is. Not that - malaria medication aside - it's very important; it's just interesting. I wonder how screwed up I'll be when I get closer to the International Date Line.
Anyhoo, on Friday, we got up to go to the Qinshihuang Mausoleum, where the famous army of terracotta warriors and horses stands. It was a bit of a drive out from the city proper, but the surrounding areas were actually quite nice, with some good statuary here and there. Also, a lot of green hills; I was somewhat reminded of Tanzania. Now, the terracotta warriors are one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of China, and my God, could you tell. The moment we arrived, all I could see were people. Lots and lots of people. At least 90% of them were Chinese, and somebody I spoke with said they were surprised there weren't more foreign tourists, but it actually seems rational to me - after all, most of the people who go to Washington D.C. or Disneyland are Americans. That said, I didn't care what country they were from, there were just too many of them. Not that I'm sociophobic; rather, it's the same feeling I had on the Great Wall - I love the feeling of it being me and the history. When there are just people all around you, and there's people shouting, and there's people selling cheap merchandise...I feel the connection is lost. I think that's why I like the Roman ruins in Volubilis, Morocco, so much. Not only was it cheap to get in, not only was it well intact, but more than anything, it was empty. Not entirely empty - there were a few groups of people and maybe two token guards - but empty enough that you could easily walk away, and have it be just you and the site. I was able to feel the stones, to sit (sometimes on a fallen pillar) and really look at (and think about) the things there. I felt connected.
You didn't have that kind of feeling here. You had the feeling of holding up your camera behind a railing next to hundreds upon hundreds of people holding up their cameras behind a railing. You could move up to a slightly closer railing so somebody with a camera could take a picture of you - for a price. On the whole, it just seemed very...well, I think you get what I'm talking about. Don't let that fool you, though - the terracotta warriors were still pretty awesome. You only ever saw them from a distance (with the exception of, like, three you saw close up). I think it'd be cool if they had a replica to let people touch them to get a real tactile sense of these things - I still remember how interesting that one museum in Florence was that did that. But whatever, they were still incredibly impressive in their scope and number. Would I call them the "Eighth Wonder of the World" as all their marketing material did? Sure, why not? It's a different kind of wonder than the official seven have/had, but there's no need to keep the list Eurocentric. Still, I think I should use the line on all my future marketing material. What wasn't a wonder, though, was the audio guide we had. It's almost become a running joke how terrible the audio guides we've had are, but this one was less glitchy and more...unutilized, I think would be right. It was a punch-in-numbers guide, which I actually prefer to the GPS guides, but only when there are numbers to punch in. There were 74 potential snippets you could listen to (from fifteen seconds to seven minutes long), but there were less than 25 placards throughout the whole of the historical site telling you what numbers to push. The rest were simply not there. Additionally, I don't think they'd organize them very well, because you'd type in the number for a pillar, and you'd get a speech on weapons. And you can't stop it to wait until you're actually near the weapons, because everything only plays once before being locked. I eventually gave up trying to listen to it properly, and just went through every number sequentially. I treated it like an audio book of sorts.
I had split up with the rest of the group early on (by accident, really, but it was just as well, since we were going at different paces, and the audio guide prevented any real conversation), but we met up at the on-site museum, which had an exhibit on a fancy bronze chariot, and exhibit on the process of unearthing the terracotta warriors (which was quite cool, despite having no English translations), a seemingly out-of-place exhibit on Roman art and architecture (during which I got to test my ability to name Roman emperors by their busts - I got about 80% right), and one about the history of the museum itself. I don't know why all the museums here have such big exhibits on their own personal history. They all go the same way, regardless - "We used to be a smaller museum, now we're a bigger museum."
We left the historical site and walked back to the parking lot, which we had passed on the way in via use of a shuttle. And man, am I glad we avoided it the first time. There were just shops everywhere selling tchotchkes like nobody's business. Most of it was your basic souvenirs, but there were a few items that stuck out to me. First were the swords, which I looked at to see how cheap they were. As I expected, they were very cheap. Somewhat unexpectedly, they were also really dirty. One of the shopkeeps said to me, "Very cheap swords! You want a sword, very cheap?" "I don't want a cheap sword," I replied, "I want a good sword." (Protip: Those two are almost mutually exclusive when it comes to swords.) The other thing that caught my attention was furs. Hand warmers, tail scarfs, and full-on pelts. I was hoping they were fake, but upon feeling them - nope. My dad and I were talking about how the pelts just looked like dogs. "Wolf!" the shopkeep snapped at us indignantly. First of all, that doesn't make it better in my eyes. Second, one of them was a fairly tawny yellow, like no blonde wolf I've ever seen. I'd bet dollars to donuts it was actually a dog. Now, I'll be clear - I'm not opposed to fur 100%, just like I'm not opposed to leather. I'd wear an Ugg boot or two, no problem. But I am a stickler for humane treatment of animals being killed, and I'd wager these wolves/dogs didn't have a painless end, because there's no such regulation here. In this regard, I felt like grabbing some red paint, but instead painted the stand with my glower. Michelle, meanwhile, just kept buying thing after thing after thing. I'm glad I have no room for souvenirs - it makes it so much easier to say no. What was difficult to say no to was this store where they had these enormous, incredible statues made out of single pieces of wood, including an elephant, a Buddha, an eagle, a throne that looked like it came out of Lothlorien, and possibly the most amazing desk I've ever seen. I wanted it all so badly. Price kinda kept me off, though, as they were upwards of $500,000.
After a quick lunch (where my dad and I stopped in a KFC - because that's ironically the only place you can find some lean breast meat - and pointed at the pictures of the food we wanted whilst everyone else went to a place and got noodles that ended up costing as much per bowl as our entire two-man meal), we continued along, stopping at this "House of Ghosts". I wondered if it was just a simple haunted house, and I guess it piqued everyone's interest enough that we went in. Short story short, it was just a haunted house. Dark hallways, black lights, and pneumatic corpses with light up noises popping out at you. Standard fare. Funnily enough, Michelle was so frightened - legitimately - that she had to leave after the second monster, because she believes in ghosts. Now, I believe in ghosts, and I will defend their potential existence to any skeptic. But hell, there's a difference between ghosts and cheap Party City pop-up monsters. Just goes to show how fear can work. In any case, after the seventh pop-up, the house went straight into dull territory. I gave them the tip that they should have an actual person in at the end, after you've grown accustomed to the fake pop-ups, and just grab you. That would be straight-up terrifying. We also went into this Star Tours-like ride/attraction. It was touted as a 5D horror experience, meaning all those 4D movies at Universal Studios are for chumps. We had a selection of different videos to choose from, and we ended up going with an Egyptian tomb thrill ride with mummies and scarabs and...these, like, alien eye stalks? Those seemed a bit out of place. In any case, while the car we were in was jostling around, I do think we were missing a couple of D's. For one, there was no sound. At all. That kind of made all the screaming mummies a bit less horrifying. What you could hear, though, were the motors of the fans that turned on every time we were supposed to be rushing down a hall (or hole). Except...there was no wind blowing on us. All in all, needed a little work.
Everyone took a nap on the drive back, and then I just milled around the room for a while (I think I even took another nap - who knows, maybe I was tired). We ended up having dinner in the hotel, which was a buffet. Normally, it costs RMB150 (about $25), but if everyone in our group were to eat, we'd only have to pay RMB98 ($16) a person. Considering the prices of some of the places we ate, and the fact that everyone except my dad and I spent nearly that much on a bowl of soup earlier in the day, it seemed like a pretty good deal. And indeed, they had a nice enough variety of foods, from Western to Chinese, as well as a small sushi bar. After eating, we decided to go out for a walk, to help digest the food. I went out separately from my dad and Michelle, and just walked along one of the nearby streets. Funnily enough, I almost ended up spending quite a bit of money. First, on the street corner, Zippo was having a little promotion (called "On the Road") in which there was a stage with live music, a pool table, a basketball-shooting game, and some stands with lighters. Now, I don't smoke, and in fact hate smoking with a passion. That said, I think Zippos are awesome. One of my favorite pieces of gaming swag was a lighter I got for demoing the game The Saboteur at an E3, before I even worked in the industry. So I was looking at them, but realized, If I get this, I can't bring it in my luggage, and so would just have to ship it home, so I'd never see it until next April. Also, if I'm going to get a Zippo, I'd want one customized with my emblem [which I still need to get designed properly at some point], not one of these mass-produced ones. So, I passed on that. I then went into this fashionable clothing store, which had some odd sale in which everything in the store was 60-90% off. Some of it was pure hipster clothing, but some of it was actually pretty cool, and the prices were pretty reasonable. I was considering a leather jacket, which would have end up costing me, like, $70 (normally $400), but again, I couldn't take it with me (no room), and so it'd have to go home with my dad. That, along with the fact that the color was just too light a brown for me to really get behind spending that much money, I went on. Then I saw a self-serve frozen yogurt stand, which is almost always a cause for celebration for me. I was about to get some, but then actually did my due diligence and converted the price-per-weight, and it came out to 60 cents an ounce, which is too rich for my blood. So, I just went to a local pharmacy, got some deodorant (interesting note - in both South Africa and here, they only have roll-ons and sprays - no sticks) and toothpaste (which I stupidly got one over 100ml, risking getting taken at the airport), and went back to my hotel room. I spent the rest of the night washing my dirty clothes in the bathtub, and then uploading my photos from Cape Town to Facebook (twice - my computer imploded for some reason the first time). And lemme tell ya, adding captions to 370 photos takes a while, so it's a good thing I don't mind going to bed late.
We were able to book a new flight for Monday, but it wasn't going to be until 4pm. The hotel was nice enough to extend their check-out times, so we weren't rushed for anything. I used the opportunity to sleep in late - as late as I could while still getting breakfast - and after eating, basically made sure all my things were packed, and spent the remainder of my time in the hotel/Xi'an writing a portion of this blog entry (I always feel dirty when I write about how I wrote in the current entry - it just feels...wrong). After getting confirmation that we weren't going to get shut out by the weather again, we said our goodbye's to the very friendly hotel staff, and then made our way to the airport. I was quite wary this time, considering how my bags had been systematically disassembled the last time. So, I was prepared for them to be as strict as possible. I had my book in a separate place, the locks were off my zippers, and...wait, they let me through? Just a quick wave with the wand and I can go? Well...okay. No complaints from me I quickly gathered all my stuff before they changed their mind - or realized that I had a toothpaste tube larger than 100ml - and made my way out with the rest of the group to the gate where we were taking off.
The flight was fine; we were sitting in Row 31, which is, oddly enough, the third row in the plane. I honestly don't remember much about what happened, because for most of the trip, I was either partially dozing off, listening to the peaceful Braid soundtrack, or full-on asleep. When we arrived, we had some difficulties finding a taxi big enough to fit seven people and enough luggage to fit all of my stuff ten times over. After my offer to lie in the back of the taxi-van was made moot by the luggage filling the trunk to burst, we just ended up taking two cars an making our way to the Panglin Hotel, which may well be the fanciest hotel I've been to yet. Everything I could see was gilded, the door was flanked by bronze statues of dragons being ridden by monkey king-like fellows (though the electric light eyes kinda cheapened it), there were statues and fountains and fish tanks within the lobby, and the art shop made the jade store in the Beijing Hotel look like a Dollar Tree. It's a good thing Michelle knew the owner (who is apparently a nice man, but definitely not lacking in the ego department, as the place is named after him and has a portrait of him near the elevators), or else I have a feeling we'd be going into the poorhouse to stay here.
I spent the rest of my evening again looking at future plans, this time focusing on New Zealand. (I think I'm going to be there 45 days and use the bus to go everywhere, but the question is which bus? I also looked into cycling the whole island, but the more I examined it, the less appealing the prospect seemed.) I also took a moment to appreciate the small box of matches that were in the room. As I've mentioned before, I abhor smoking, but still, the matches provide me with a sense of...mystique, I'd say. I dunno, maybe it's because every murder mystery ever had had a matchbook/box with a hotel name on it as a clue for the sleuth to follow. Not that I had any murders to commit, but if I did, I had some evidence to plant. I considered packing them away, but China is very big on not having lighters or matches anywhere, especially in airports. It's clearly because smoking is so widespread; in fact, it's so bad that the Shenzhen airport had a free lighter pickup at the exit into the arrivals terminal. Still, with the exception of Zippos, matches are cooler than lighters any day.
...What? Other things? No, there were no other things on Monday. I just wanted to talk about matches.
We headed back to the hotel (which took a long time in the after-work traffic), and upon hearing that my dad and Michelle were going to have dinner at yet another Chinese place, I decided to fend for myself that night. There was this place just across from the hotel, which I guess was a mall-like place, with the marquee item being the "M-1 Club" (as the LED sign outside said, "So Cool!"). I knew there was a McDonald's there I could fall back on, but I wanted to see what was available. And man, was it a good decision to go in there, because one of the first things I saw was a legit, old-school arcade! In addition to a few Chinese games I didn't recognize, there were some old beat-em-ups (most notably and out-of-nowhere Cadillacs and Dinosaurs), racing games, DDR and other music games, and a bunch of fighting games. And at 1 Yuan a play ($0.17), it seemed like a great deal. I immediately cashed a RMB5 note for some tokens, and began playing. I started, as I need to, with Super Street Fighter IV (Arcade Edition). Unfortunately, while there were six buttons on the console, only four of them worked. And they weren't even in the right order. This made certain moves difficult, and others impossible. I was hoping to play against someone else regardless, but apparently the competing cabinet was not in operation and had a screw in the coin slot. So, I went to this back corner (where some guys were sleeping), and tried out some of the older King of Fighters games. Except, when I put my token in, it didn't give me a credit. I pushed the coin return button, and heard it fall, but when I tried retrieving it, felt nothing. I started digging the coin return hole until my fingers felt a little rubber pocket of sorts. A little bit of doing and...bam! Five free tokens! So, I played some KOF (using Lucky Glauber, an awesome Karim Abdul Jabar-influenced basketball player/martial artist who hasn't been in a game in over a decade because it's kinda racist). I also played Blazblue, which I'll admit I'm not that proficient in, but I was starting to figure out the system. A little kid (no more than ten) then challenged me, but used the game's "Easy" mode, which meant he could literally hit one button and get full combos. I put up a valiant effort, nearly beating him, but in the end, my inexperience could match his scrubbiness. I held onto a single token as a memento, and then went to the McDonald's, where I got one of their chicken-and-rice-patty-in-a-spinach-wrap things. While it was probably the least offensive of any of the meals I had gotten at a McDonald's on this trip, it was also instantly forgettable. Maybe, considering the alternative (like the stomach-punching McFondue), that's a good thing?
Wednesday was a full day, with us having breakfast and leaving at 10am to get to the coast to visit the "Overseas Chinese Town (OCT) East" park, which seemed less like a traditional theme park and more like a city that just happened to have rides in it. I mean, the place was huge. In order to get from one part to another, we had to take two funiculars (one up a mountain, another down the other side) and a train. What made it especially impressive were the houses on the tops of the mountains. Shenzhen has, easily, the highest GDP-per-capita in all of China, and seeing veritable palaces on tops of hills, it's easy to grasp this fact. What was interesting is that none of them looked Chinese. The architecture in this place was very reminiscent of a Gothic French or German town. Quite different from almost everything else we've seen. And assuredly not cheap. I'd say $10M (USD) would be fair, if not conservative.
When we eventually arrived on the park, we ended up getting on a shuttle, which I was opposed to, but I couldn't keep up with this thing like I could a scooter. It turned out to be for the best in the end, timing-wise, so I guess I'll eat my hat on this one. Still, what I didn't like is how the driver would honk at people standing right in front of him. I realize honking is the norm here, but it really made me feel like such a villain, being the American - too lazy to walk - plowing through all the locals (most of whom were wearing the same hat, because apparently there was an enormous group of textile workers [none of which looked over 21] visiting the park that day) with his loud horn. When we noisily went through groups, I'd hide my face under my hat so I didn't have to look anyone in the eye.
In terms of attractions, we saw a few. We started with these motorized toboggans, which we waited in line for maybe 20, 25 minutes for. I got on and pushed my toboggan to full speed, which was not particularly fast. It was especially bad because I was automatically stopped about halfway through, and had to speed up again from scratch. I guess, though, that this was apparently from a problem with the ride, because after I got out from the ride, I found out that after myself, my dad, and Michelle, the ride broke down, meaning that Michelle's brother and cousin couldn't go on. (Not that I think they minded too much; both seemed to be a bit milquetoast when it came to coasters.) We then went into a "3D Experience" ride, which was a mix between a Star Tours and a Haunted Mansion. The plot revolved around being in giant mechs drilling underground, and then going back in time, and then it kind of ended abruptly. I gave it two stars, as there was no character development or satisfying resolution. We then drove by a zoo-ish area, where the most exciting thing to see was a red panda (which was indeed exciting, but the poor thing looked like it had a nasty growth on one of its legs that really should be checked).
Going along with the D's, we went to see a movie, which depending on the particular marketing item, was either a 4D movie or a 5D movie. Now, marketers, when you have D's above 3, there's supposed to be something extra, like wind or water splashing in my face. What we saw was a 3D movie, and not a very good one at that (I wasn't expecting good, but still). It was a CG cartoon about sea turtles, clearly ripping off Finding Nemo (complete with a not-Nemo cameo, as well as cameos by not-Flotsam and not-Jetsam from The Little Mermaid and not-Happy Feet from Happy Feet). The thing was, I always wonder how artists feel about doing rip-offs. I mean, whoever animated this clearly had chops, so how do they feel about appealing to the lowest common denominator. Speaking of which...the theater was filled to burst with little kids, and I can only judge that it was their first-ever experience with 3D, as they were screaming as if Santa Claus himself had shown up on stage. Every time something remotely popped out, they went nuts. People were also taking pictures of the 3D moments, which I found quaint. In any case, the movie was all over the place, and even if it was in English, it spent two minutes on seagulls crapping on people, so it doesn't rate highly in my book.
As the kids were clearing out, I looked at getting some self-serve frozen yogurt at a nearby shop, but stopped myself when I did the calculations (always do the calculations!) and found that they were charging a hefty $0.94 an ounce. No thank you, sir. We then tried going to a coaster, but the driver of the shuttle (who had actually been legit saving us time by helping us get into the front of lines, which I appreciated) told me I couldn't go on with sandals, and I couldn't just take them off like you can at every theme park everywhere. Michelle told me to switch shoes with my dad, but I just said I didn't care enough to bother, not to mention my feet are about five sizes larger than my dad's. So instead, we stopped for lunch (Chinese, natch), and then rushed out to catch that aforementioned funicular-to-funicular-to-train ride. You really could get a good sense of the size, scale, and greenness of this place on these rides. Really, there were trees everywhere. I don't know if they were planted or natural (as Shenzhen has really only existed a couple decades), but it was quite impressive. We got to the other side of the park, where we saw wedding couple after wedding couple taking pictures. We even saw a place specifically for brides to get made up. I guess these people know their audience. In any case, we were going to a performance show that Michelle told us she liked. She described it as "live action, lots of explosions". I imagined it was like the old Batman and Robin stunt show at Universal Studios. As such, I wasn't looking forward to much. I was pleasantly surprised, though, when it turned out to be more akin to a Cirque du Soleil performance, complete with Russian contortionists, a Wheel of Death, and some nice dancing. The subject matter was a little odd - it was a show about tea, which went into extreme absurdist territory as soon as the teapots started dancing while a video of teapots flying through space played in the background. Still, far and away the best show we've seen here.
We went back to the hotel, and after a little downtime, had dinner at the top of the hotel, 55 or so floors up, in a rotating restaurant. The mechanics of the rotation confused me, since we seemed to move in the opposite direction we were actually moving, and different parts of the restaurant were moving and not moving and it was really weird. The food was quite good, though, and being a buffet, I tried to create a balance between trying out as many things as possible and not overeating, which made me end up with basically one bit of each piece of food, which was actually quite fine. I had some Thai papaya salad which was really good, which made me remember how much I prefer Thai food to Chinese food, and made me excited to go to Thailand all over again. We all had to make sure we finished our food early enough, though, because we had appointments for massages as 8pm (as Michelle knew the massage manager, much like she knows most of the people in this hotel). As with the rest of the hotel, the spa was incredibly fancy, with dozens of rooms to house all the clients they must have in the daytime. I ended up getting what I can only imagine is the executive suite, which I guess was fine because we were the only ones there. I took a quick shower, and then the masseuse came in. Now, I freely admit I enjoy getting a good deep tissue massage that you can feel the next day, and this gal didn't disappoint (as I definitely can feel it in a few spots on my back and neck). It was probably one of the better massages I've gotten in a long time, and the only part I didn't like was when the timer went off, saying that it was over.
Not much more was done that night; I did some writing, but couldn't finish it before I realized that I couldn't finish it without staying up all night. So I went to bed, woke up for breakfast with my dad and Michelle, and have been writing since. As of this sentence, I have about two hours until I get in a taxi, head for Guangzhou, and then take a plane out to Nepal.
So that basically makes this my last entry in China. Overall, am I glad I came here? Despite all the kvetching I've done - or maybe because of it - yes, yes I am. First of all, China is one of the most important countries in the world, both historically and economically. It behooves someone to understand it better. That doesn't mean you'll like it better; that certainly hasn't been the case for me. If anything, it has given me a greater appreciation for our differences, and the fact that in our cultures, we don't have to worry about things like face. At least, not to nearly the same extent. I'm not saying that one culture is better than another; I'm just saying one of them matches better to my own personality. And without this experience, I would have never really understood that, and appreciated what I have.
Second, it was good spending time with my dad. I genuinely like both of my parents, and so being able to see them during this trip is such a nice thing for me. I do have some wishes that we could have just spent some more time, just the two of us talking, but it was all part of a bigger plan for him, so that's how life is sometimes. Still, I appreciate the fact that he invited me to meet up, and am very happy that we could make it happen. I'm also appreciative to Michelle for being the catalyst for making everything happen, from booking flights and hotels to being our translator with basically everybody. I may not agree with her on everything, but I definitely feel thankful for what she's done.
And now, it's time to be off. I'll probably have one more brief entry before it's time for me to go up to Everest Base Camp. And so, the adventure continues!