I instantly fell in love with China when the ship docked in Shanghai. It was just after midnight, and I could see every bit of the electric skyline through the heavy fog. The view itself told me that it was going to be a good city. Despite the biting cold, I couldn’t wait to explore.
The next morning, I went with a group of friends to the black market. When we arrived, an enthusiastic vendor started heckling us the moment we stepped off the train. He led us through a maze of designer stores: Adidas, Nike, Louis Vuitton, Lulu Lemon, Patagonia, and about a hundred other notable brands.
I considered buying a pair of Dr. Marten’s boots at our new friend’s store, but when he brought out a pair for me to try from his sketchy and imaginably minuscule attic storage space, I found that the things were cardboard excuses for shoes with bubble-wrap soles. I passed on his offer, not looking to pay so much as a few cents for that garbage.
Other stores proved luckier, and I bargained away with my friends, stopping at any store that looked like it had moderately believable quality. I ended the spree only spending $65 for a 40 liter North Face backpack, a Lulu jacket, and a Stussy beanie. Not bad if I do say so myself.
The day passed quickly as we navigated the train system, and I soaked in my first looks at China. The country is very different from Japan; it’s grungy, unkempt, and wildly colorful, much more my style than uniform and overly-polite Japan. Every street was filled with charmingly crumbly buildings, only distinguishable by the arrays of small-sized laundry hanging up to 40 stories high on their balconies.
We saw the Bund, the area where you can observe the new, high-tech buildings across the water from the comfort of the historic district, a place of beautiful architecture and classic street designs. I was smitten with the view and so thankful that the rainy day cleared the smog enough for us to see the entirety of the horizon.
That evening, I went to dinner with my friend Zayn’s family at the revolving restaurant just beside the ship. Over 90 floors up, 24 of us enjoyed traditional Chinese cuisine by way of Lazy Susan, including meals of chicken talons, fish heads, and Peking duck. We also took shots of a signature Chinese liquor – to show great respect and appreciation for the family’s generosity, of course – and it tasted like nail polish and gasoline (not that I’ve tried either). Regardless, it was a wonderful time and I am so thankful for Zayn and his family.
After dinner, my friends and I went to Mint, a night club on the top floor of a skyscraper in downtown Shanghai. This place had an entire hallway decked out with a shark tank, and the drinks costed more than I like to recall. Speaking of recalling, the night is a blur for me, but I do know that nearly everyone on the ship was there, and I bet we gave the staff at the club one hell of a surprise.
My second day in Shanghai was a total waste since I stayed in bed for most of it, unable to drag myself far from my dark little room. I’m still kicking myself for this as I am not one who accepts wasting time, so I’ve learned my lesson and will not be over-doing the clubbing any longer. I pulled myself together just enough by the time I had to catch a train to Beijing, and away I went.
Beijing is very different from Shanghai. It struck me as the Washington D.C. of China, filled with official buildings, historical monuments, and marching soldiers. The smog was so heavy we could stare at the sun without hurting our eyes, and the air smelled of cigarettes and car exhaust everywhere we went. I could not get away from that god-awful smell, and I still feel the weight of it in my lungs.
My friends and I stayed in an Airbnb in the city square. The place was cute and conveniently located, but we couldn’t turn off the blasting heat for the first night. I awoke at 2 a.m. sweating buckets and violently tore the covers from my bed, which was hard as a rock and had a bar running horizontally through it, a real treat for my spine. I tried to fall back asleep, but it was 31 degrees Celsius, unbearably hot even for an Arizona native. I brought my pillow downstairs and slept on the hardwood floors of the living room for three hours until the dim morning light gave the final consensus that I was not going to do better than this for the night.
We started a day-long tour of Beijing with our guide, Candy Lin, an adorable spitfire of a woman with a long pink jacket and matching pink beanie. She took us to Tianenman Square where a brief walk through the square was sufficient to get a taste of the governmental history, and then we made our way to the Forbidden City.
The Forbidden City is 600 years old, but despite its age, the city looked only slightly weathered, wonderfully preserved after all these years. As I listened to Candy explain how the place was designed to keep the emperor in and everyone else out, I wondered if those ancient rulers were rolling over in their graves as thousands of tourists wandered through their once-exclusive homes. Even the emperor’s wife was only granted access to the city one time on their wedding day. After that, it was back to the lonely outskirts. Oh, and the emperor had up to 3,000 concubines, meaning he had hundreds of kids with virtually all different mothers. What a society.
The Forbidden City was beautiful, but I was so cold that I could barely focus on what Candy had to say. When we finally finished the tour, I was ecstatic to get back into the bus. We drove to a tea house for a traditional tea ceremony. It was delicious and much more entertaining than I imagined, and we all ended up buying about $40 worth of tea after the ceremony. They really know how to get you to buy what you don’t need in China.
After tea, we finally made our way to the Great Wall. Along the way, nearly everyone fell asleep except for Candy and me, so she and I had a conversation about what it’s like to live in China. The gist of what she told me is this: rich or poor, the Chinese work their asses off because their communist government says they have to, and there doesn’t seem to be much hope for a life outside of the ones they are born into. The government’s attempt at population control is falling apart as well, the elderly population substantially higher than that of the youth due to the one-child rule. I listened to Candy explain these predicaments and thanked my lucky stars for being born in America. Every passing day of this voyage makes me realize just how blessed I am to be able to make my own decisions and chase opportunities and live the life I want to live.
At the Great Wall, we walked with extra zest in our steps. We were about to be on the freaking Great Wall of China! It didn’t feel real to any of us, and yet, moments after getting off the bus, there we were. Candy allotted our tickets, and off we went.
The section of the Wall we visited was called Badaling, and it provided one of the stereotypical views of this Wonder of the World you’ve probably seen in photos. There the air was miraculously less clogged with pollution, and we were able to see the expanse of the incredible structure as it rolled over miles and miles of treacherous mountains. The fact that the Great Wall was built without machinery is absolutely astounding to me. Over 6,000 kilometers of bone-crushingly heavy boulders were lugged up those mountains by people who had no choice but to do so 3,000 years ago. God bless those poor bastards. To think that I complain about having to turn in more than one homework assignment per week!
When we finally got home from the Wall, we had been with Candy on this tour for over ten hours. We were cold and exhausted, but we needed to eat, so we found a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in a basement down the road from our place.
The second we stepped inside, customers and workers alike pulled out their phones to take photos and videos of us. We did stick out like a sore thumb, but the shamelessness of the Chinese in their relentless recordings of Americans is hard to get used to. They make you feel like a celebrity or a godamn president if you have blue eyes or even a streak of blonde hair, and there is no way to avoid it.
Eight of us shared fifteen dishes of mystery meals for $60. Although we felt like we were on a TV show with the amount of cameras on us, we were so happy with the dirt-cheap dinner that we didn’t care one bit, and we smiled and waved for our fans as we left. We returned to our bearably heated apartment (the owner had sent a maintenance person over that evening, thank the heavens) and laid our exhausted bodies down to rest. We had a big day ahead of us.
We flew from Beijing to Hong Kong the next day, and the airport process was surprisingly smooth. I didn’t have anyone in the seat next to me on the plane, which automatically made it one of the better flights of my journey. We had a delicious included meal of spaghetti and chicken and red wine and a stellar variety of movies, so it’s safe to say that I was living it up in the China skies. 10/10 review, Hong Kong Airlines.
We arrived at the airport past midnight, and after going through immigration, we finally made it to our bus close to 2 a.m. This mofo was supposed to stop six times before we reached our stop at Mong Kok station, but I stopped counting after 20. The directions didn’t tell us that there was only one bus after midnight. We finally made it to the hostel at nearly 3 a.m., which isn’t an ideal time to arrive in an area of an unknown city that looks like slums.
The hostel owner was a very nice man who spoke excellent English and stayed up two hours longer than he was supposed to having to wait for us, and he led us through outdoor halls of drippy ceilings and cracked tiles to two very small but clean rooms on the eighth floor of our building in the middle of Hong Kong. Although my legs were too long for the Chinese-sized bed, I was so exhausted that it was the best night of sleep I had had in my time in China.
The next day, we walked nearly two miles to the ship to drop off our things to start exploring. Unsure of where exactly the boat was, we wandered through the most lavish shopping mall I have ever been in alongside the ocean until we found the terminal. When we rounded a corner, the sight of the beautiful World Odyssey after so many nights in shoddy sleeping conditions made us whoop with happiness. We were home.
After a much-needed shower and some relaxation, we made our way to the Peninsula Hotel, a place my mother used to go with her mom and sisters when she was my age travelling to and from her home in the Philippines. We dined on finger-foods, mini desserts, and enjoyed high tea. This was the highlight of the trip, and we all got teary-eyed as we reflected on how lucky we were to be sitting in that beautiful lobby on Chinese New Years Eve.
After tea, we wandered through the busy streets of Hong Kong. Hong Kong is one of those places where no matter where you go, something interesting is happening. I know I say this a lot, but I was enamored with the place. The vibe was so welcoming and so exciting, every corner offering a new adventure. We roamed a night market as darkness fell and witnessed the bustling nature of outdoor shopping in the city.
That night, we decided we couldn’t leave Hong Kong without experiencing the night life. Our first destination was Ozone, the tallest bar in the world on the 118th floor of the Ritz-Carlton down the street from the ocean terminal. Drinking Heinekens in the street on the way there, we all felt less than stable as we took three elevators up to the bar. When we arrived, we were disappointed to find that the outdoor deck was closed and the drinks costed an arm and a leg, so we stayed for maybe 15 minutes before making our way down to the subway to catch a ride to Hong Kong Island.
Across the water was another world. We followed the noise to a loud section of bars, but everyone was drinking in the street rather than indoors. I bought all of my drinks at 7/11 (that place is the ultimate go-to no matter what I need), and my friends and I partied all night with people from all over the world in this obscure little spot.
I met a cute Australian named Max (a name to which the next day my dad told me “belongs to a dog, not a person”), and we talked throughout the night about our lives and our futures and made fun of each other’s accents. I you’re reading this, Max, feel free to invite me to Australia.
I had to leave behind my foreign man to take care of my friend who was drunk off her ass, stumbling into light posts and brick walls with a hoard of Chinese men following her. My friend, Camila, and I roped her in and sat her on the sidewalk while we waited for a taxi. The first one to roll up said he would charge me $100 HKD per person, an outrageous price for a ten minute drive. I told him to piss off as he yelled at me to get out of his car, then flagged down another more welcoming driver.
On the way home, drunko was sick out the window, but our taxi driver thought it was a hoot and gave us plastic bags to help her, bless his soul. We made it back to the port in one piece and miraculously got through security without any problems. This was the final night in China, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I can honestly say that, despite the chaos and the drunken friends, it was one of the best nights of my life.
China was such an amazing country, and I cannot wait to return to Shanghai and Hong Kong someday to spend more time in those wonderful cities. I would also love to see more rural areas of countrysides and twisted canals, but it saddens me a bit to think that I could never see it all even if I spent my entire life in such a massive country. From the food to the people to the street culture, my heart went out to China, and I will undoubtedly go back!