Sunday, June 22, 2014

Weekend in Xiamen part 5

Zhongshan Park is at the end of Zhongshan Road, so we already knew how to get there. Zhongshan Road is pretty easy to get to since it’s in the main tourist area of the island and it’s probably the most popular shopping street in the whole city.

Neither of us wanted to go back to Zhongshan Road, but I wanted to see the park. Ryan reluctantly agreed.

The park isn’t the most exciting place in the world, but it’s a nice clean place to take a walk and pretty much the opposite of Zhongshan Road. The shopping street is dirty, loud and very crowded. The park is clean, relatively quiet and almost empty – at least when we were there. It wasn’t really empty. There were probably hundreds of people there – but anything in China with less than a million people is empty.

The highlight of the trip for both of us was the grocery store. That might seem strange, but it’s really amazing how many American items this store has. People visiting from the United States wouldn’t care. It’s a very small store compared to American supermarkets. Since we live very far away from the United States and real American food is hard to find, this store was a blessing to us.

I liked one of the two Italian restaurants, but Ryan’s favorite food in Xiamen was pizza. Our hotel, aside from being in a good location, had a Papa John’s in the courtyard. They even delivered to our room.

It’s easy to find better pizza in Hong Kong. Pizza Express isn’t bad and Paisano’s is excellent. Ryan doesn’t have either in Fuzhou. His pizza choices are Pizza Hut and Chinese pizza. Frozen pizzas are better than Pizza Hut and Chinese pizza isn’t anything any Italian would recognize as pizza. The first time I saw a Chinese pizza, I asked someone what it was. They said it was pizza and I laughed. I thought they were joking.

The housekeeping staff at our hotel had to pick up a lot of pizza boxes.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Weekend in Xiamen part 4

The big sites in Xiamen are Gulangyu, Nanputuo Temple, Xiamen University, Zhongshan Park and Zhongshan Road.

We went to Gulangyu on our first trip to Xiamen and we absolutely hated it. There’s nothing wrong with the island itself. It’s probably very nice. The problem is that you can’t really see it when it’s full of millions of people – literally. It’s like Disneyland on opening day – only the people are much angrier.

It’s a very short ferry ride from Xiamen Island to Gulangyu, but they cram the ferry as full as they possibly can – even fuller than that, really. If you don’t want to smell cigarettes and what everyone else just ate, don’t take the ferry. Gulangyu is an island, so there’s no other way to get there. It’s technically illegal to smoke on the ferry, but smoking laws are merely suggestions in China. Since pretty much everyone smokes, those suggestions are always ignored.

Once you’re off the ferry, it’s still unbelievably crowded. Chinese people naturally push their way everywhere and this island is wall to wall people pushing to get to whatever they want to see. There’s an observation deck on the highest hill, but getting there was an absolute nightmare. I’ve seen lions on the Discovery Channel that were more polite to the zebras they killed than the way most of the people on Gulangyu acted in their mad lust to be the first at everything.

We also went to Nanputuo Temple on our first trip. That’s another place that’s probably nice without millions of people all pushing each other. We didn’t even try to go to the top of that hill.

Our first trip to Xiamen was in the middle of June and this one was at the end of May, so maybe we didn’t pick the best times to go. It might be less crowded in January. Maybe some of these places are better when there are only hundreds of thousands of people.

We didn’t go to Xiamen University on either trip. We didn’t see the point. There’s supposed to be a nice lake at the university, but out hotel was next to a lake, so we never bothered.

Zhongshan Road is a major tourist shopping street. We went there on our first trip with mixed results. This was where we saw the world’s filthiest Walmart and a woman peeing at the front door. There’s really nothing on Zhongshan Road besides tourist shopping. Since we already knew that, we didn’t go back.

What we never went to on our first trip was Zhongshan Park, so we went there this time.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Weekend in Xiamen part 3

Xiamen Island is pretty small, so getting to everywhere we wanted to go was pretty easy. There is more to the city than the island, but we weren’t there long enough to explore the outer reaches – and we really didn’t care anyway. We mostly went for the grocery store. That was on the other end of the lake. We could have walked to it from the hotel, but then going back with all those groceries would have been too much.

We actually went to the grocery store twice. The first time, they were out of a lot of the things we wanted. They said another shipment would come in on our last day in Xiamen, so we went back just before we left the city.

Across the street from the American grocery store are two Italian restaurants. We didn’t try either of them the first time we went to Xiamen because we were on a cruise ship full of free food – or at least food that was already paid for. This time we had to find our own meals, so we went to one of the Italian restaurants on our first night and the other one right next door on our second night.

From the outside, both restaurants looked basically the same. You could tell they were two different restaurants, but there was nothing that distinguished one from the other. From the inside, one definitely looked more like a traditional Italian restaurant that the other. We assumed that one would have the better food. We were completely wrong.

The restaurant with the more generic cafĂ© interior had much better food. I don’t know who runs either restaurant, but I’d be surprised if the chef in the better one wasn’t Italian – or at least trained in Italy. The pasta was as fresh as could be and the sauces were excellent. The best part – to me at least – was the garlic bread. I love garlic bread. It’s one of the hardest things to find in Hong Kong. Lots of places have Chinese bread. Some places have what they call garlic bread. No one has real fresh bread with real garlic and real olive oil.

Even if you find a place that says it has garlic bread, it’s usually Chinese bread – which is nothing like Italian or French bread. Sometimes they’ll put Chinese butter on it or Chinese vegetable oil. Chinese butter doesn’t taste anything like what I think of as butter. I don’t know how they make it, but something’s just off. Chinese oil is usually corn or peanut oil – which isn’t always a bad thing – but it’s not olive oil. Olive oil is more expensive and not a traditional Chinese ingredient, so few places will use it.

Cheaper places use something called gutter oil. The less said about that the better. Foreigners can usually tell which places use that since you’ll have a dramatic reaction to the food right away. My rule is if any food comes out of me right after I put it in, I don’t go back to that place.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Vacation to Somewhere part 6

Finland is out. The house where we were going to stay in Helsinki is no longer available. That’s what sold me on going to Helsinki. Without that house, I’m not as interested. It was a really nice house.

Kevin was the only one who wanted to go to Finland anyway. No one else was excited about it, so it’s probably best that we’re not going there.

Now we’re pretty much back where we started. We don’t know where we’re going to go. August is coming up, so we better make up our minds fast.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Tiananmen Square

It was pretty crowded in Victoria Park yesterday. It’s often crowded in Victoria Park. It’s a popular place to hang out on the weekends and it’s an even more popular place for large gatherings and protests. There aren’t a lot of open spaces in the city, so the park works pretty well – and it’s very easy to get to.

Yesterday, about 100,000 people crammed into Victoria Park to commemorate the Tiananmen Square protest. People gather every June 4th, but this was the 25th anniversary, so turnout was higher than usual.

The amazing thing is that Hong Kong is part of China. There is never any mention of the protest in Mainland China, but in Hong Kong, everyone can say whatever they want about it. Every anniversary is all over Hong Kong news while it’s completely ignored on Mainland news.

People talk about “one country, two systems”, but Hong Kong is very much Chinese. There is definitely more freedom in Hong Kong, but the government, people and culture are very Chinese. Most of the people in Hong Kong or their parents are originally from Mainland China and see China in a positive light. Some people say that Hong Kong police are becoming more and more Chinese every day. Internet service is far less restricted in Hong Kong, but civil rights and labor rights lean more toward Chinese.

What’s really amazing is that people from the Mainland can come to Hong Kong relatively easily. The city is mostly seen as a giant shopping mall, but the people in charge of China’s government have to know that Hong Kong newspapers and TV have enough freedom of the press to criticize China and its leaders. When people visit from China to go shopping, they can easily hear news stories that they would never hear in China.

Chinese visitors in Hong Kong this week might be surprised to learn about what happened in Tiananmen Square. Some of them might go home and tell others about it. That’s definitely not so good for all that control and repression the Chinese government has worked so hard on.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Weekend in Xiamen part 2

We stayed at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, which was a very good choice. Even though we’d been to Xiamen before, we didn’t know anything about the hotels.

In Fuzhou, you have few options. There are a few western hotels, but they are easily the most expensive. Most of the hotels are Chinese, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Chinese customers seem to have different ideas about what is clean and comfortable. Chinese hotels also look like they were decorated 50 years ago. I don’t care about the latest furniture and whatever this week’s trends are, but I think you have to redecorate your hotel once in a while. If nothing else, newer carpets and beds tend to be cleaner.

Xiamen has more choices. They have plenty of Chinese hotels, of course, but they also have a greater variety of western options. It’s not just the most expensive western chains. They have cheap western hotels, too.

The Crowne Plaza isn’t the most expensive hotel, but it isn’t the cheapest either. It’s supposedly a 5 star hotel, but Chinese 5 star isn’t the same as actual 5 star. I’ve seen some Chinese 5 star hotels that Motel 6 wouldn’t want anything to do with. The Crowne Plaza would probably be 3 or 4 stars in Paris. It was clean and comfortable – which are the most important things to us – and it was in a great location.

The hotel had all the basics you expect of an international hotel that are sometimes hard to find in China. Everything in the room worked properly and did what it was supposed to do. The hotel even had a pool, which is not as common in China as it should be, but the pool was being renovated while we were there, so we never used it.

The hotel was very close to the lake. We couldn’t see it from our room because we were facing the opposite direction, but it was a very easy walk. We went to the lake during the cruise, but we spent more time there this time. It’s not the most exciting lake in the world, but it’s a nice place to walk around and a lot cleaner – and a million times safer – than walking on the street.

Since we stayed at a major hotel, it was pretty easy to get a taxi. Even if we couldn’t, we were on one of the major streets, so taxis and buses were easy. Buses in China can be very difficult if you don’t understand the Chinese system. Most foreigners just use taxis. They can also be difficult if you don’t speak any Chinese. The drivers are almost guaranteed to try to rip you off – until you say something to them in Chinese. Once they hear Chinese, they immediately shape up.

If you can’t speak any Chinese, any decent hotel should be able to write down where you want to go. The Crowne Plaza, like most better hotels, has cards with a Chinese map on the back. If you’re going back to the hotel you can just hand the driver the card.