Archive for June, 2008

June 29th 2008

Posted under China

We boarded the morning train in Shanghai, and, after a wonderfully comfortable ride, reached Hangzhou by lunchtime. We had already booked seats on the 6:30p train back to Shanghai, which left us with just over six hours to explore. We took the city bus to West Lake in the center of the city. Hopping off the bus at the first sign of water, we grabbed a bite of lunch and then rented a pair of bikes to ride around the lake. A nice wide sidewalk bordered the lake but we soon learned that no bikes were allowed on it. After only fifteen minutes, we returned the bikes and began an hours-long stroll on the sidewalk. The surface of the lake was a pale blue that blended with the hazy sky. We spent the day walking leisurely, stopping to rest when we found a particularly pretty place. The lake was sectioned off by land bridges and islands, which made it seem like many lakes, each with its own unique atmosphere with gardens, parks, boats, pagodas and pavilions.

Our favorite area was the Quyuan Garden, a collection of gardens with willows, lush grasses, abundant lotuses, rivulets and pavilions, all combined in a series of picture-perfect landscapes. These are some of my favorite days on the road; the ones where beauty, harmony and romance seem to fill the air as I walk, happy and carefree with the one that I love. Asian gardens are among the most beautiful gardens in the world. Of all of the things that I will miss about Asia, its gardens are at the top.

When the time came to head back to the train station, we had barely traversed a third of the lake’s perimeter. Nevertheless, our legs were thoroughly stretched, out paws achy from pounding the pavement, and we were ready to go “home”.

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June 27th 2008

Posted under China

In Shanghai, we have been trying to give China the benefit of the doubt. Shanghai City Central Youth Hostel turned out to be one of the best that we’ve seen on the road and we stayed indoors the entire first day, recovering from the Yangzi River debacle.

On our second morning, we woke refreshed and ready to explore. Taking the metro to the People’s Square in the city center, we walked leisurely through the park toward the Shanghai Museum, which had been highly recommended in our guide book. A large fountain decorated the courtyard in front of the museum, which was crowded with locals playing in the spray, selling kites and souvenirs, and just enjoying the day. The entrance was around the back and when we made our way there, we found a line of at least two hundred people waiting for the museum. This was at lunchtime on a weekday. We grumbled about the overpopulation in China and decided to move on.

We headed down East Nanjing Road on a wide pedestrian walkway lined with several stories of restaurants, retail shops, billboards and flashy neon signs with Chinese characters. The walkway was crowded with walkers and we were almost incessantly pestered by people peddling cheap watches, jewelry, handbags, leather goods and electronics. None of them spoke more than a few words of English but they were all quite assured that they had what we wanted, whatever it might be. They all had identical laminated picture cards showing an array of tacky accessories. The street itself was a spectacle, both fascinating and dizzying, with bright lights and people everywhere. We walked the length of it to the Bund, a famous street in Shanghai where a grand façade of Old European buildings face the modern architecture of the Pudong skyline across the Huangpu River. An elevated promenade along the west bank of the river was bustling with tourists and locals alike, taking in Shanghai’s best views.

As the gateway to the Yangzi River, Shanghai began as a fishing town. After the first Opium War in the mid-1800s, the British arrived, followed by the French and Japanese, all setting up concessions that were immune from Chinese law. Shanghai’s prime location made it an ideal trading port and it quickly became known for its opium, silk and tea trade. The budding metropolis also lured big finance houses from around the world and soon became a bastion of opium dens, brothels and gambling halls. Shanghai was nicknamed the Whore of the Orient and the Paris of the East. (Lonely Planet: China, May 2007) Most of the grand buildings along the Bund were erected during this colorful period in Shanghai’s past. Today the buildings appear to be occupied by banks, hotels, and government agencies but it is easy to imagine them in their former decadent splendor. We agreed that the Bund would be even more spectacular at night so we walked back to East Nanjing Road to kill a few hours.

The Bund at night was an awe-inspiring sight. The promenade was even more crowded with photo-happy revelers, patiently awaiting the full-scale brilliance of the illuminated Pudong skyline. When the last remnants of sunlight had faded to dark, the skyline was a kaleidoscope of colorful twinkle lights against a midnight blue sky. The ships traversing the river bedazzled onlookers with twinkle and neon. The Old European buildings were bathed in white light, enhancing the grand details and timeless beauty for which European architecture is famous. By the Bund alone, Shanghai has won my vote as China’s most beautiful city.

The next morning began with a single piece of misinformation which led us on a wild goose chase. We wanted to take the two-hour train ride to Hangzhou for a day trip but were sent to the wrong train station. From there, we attempted a mad dash on the subway to the correct station but you can’t rush the subway and we arrived at the other station way too late. We made the best of our situation by buying train tickets for the next morning and taking in another day of Shanghai, although Aaron would continue seething over the misinformation for several days afterward.

We stopped for a quick bite at a popular noodle chain and then decided to try the Shanghai Museum again. The line was just as long as the day before but, with our Hangzhou plans foiled, we had little else to do. Luckily, we had our books with us and the literary escape made the hour-long wait bearable. Once inside, we went directly to the attraction that we were most excited about: a traveling exhibit from the British Museum called Ancient Olympic Games. It was an impressive collection of artifacts relating to the origin of sport in ancient Greece and its relationship to pagan Gods; the cessation of the games as pagan Gods lost favor in Greek society; and the re-emergence of the tradition centuries later in its modern format.

The permanent exhibits in the Shanghai Museum were decidedly underwhelming. We wandered through halls of ancient Chinese calligraphy and painting, sculpture and bronze works. The stone- and wood-carved sculptures were the most impressive despite the fact that the only subjects of the works were Buddha and Bodhisattvas (Enlightened Ones). We’ve seen so many Buddhas in our four months in Asia that we can hardly get excited about them anymore. Still, the Shanghai Museum was immaculate, air-conditioned, free, and had the best bathrooms in all of China, which is probably the reason that we stayed as long as we did.

The afternoon was for Yuyuan Garden in Old Town Shanghai. The gardens were first established in 1559 and took eighteen years to cultivate. They were ravaged once during the Opium War and later by the French in retaliation for Chinese impediment on their concession. (Lonely Planet: China, May 2007) The gardens have since been revived and are now one of the most popular tourist sights in Shanghai. The entrance was a bazaar of antique wooden buildings surrounding a glittering lake. The buildings were occupied by shops and restaurants, including Starbucks and Dairy Queen (the Chinese LOVE ice cream – it’s EVERYWHERE, much to Aaron’s delight). True to its reputation, Yuyuan Garden was thronged with tourists. We fought the crowds through the teeming bazaar to the garden where the ambience was considerably more serene. Inside the confines of the garden walls, wooden pavilions and halls were built upon artistic, porous rock formations. Willow trees wept over sparkling carp ponds. Rock gardens and centuries-old, meticulously-pruned trees decorated the edges of every pond and wall. As we wandered through the picturesque perfection of the gardens, we felt a renewed sense of excitement about China. Amid the plethora of unsavory cultural differences and discomforts is an abundance of unique and diversely framed windows into the history of a vast nation that, for better or worse, influenced almost all of Asia in building and landscape architecture, technology, language and culture.

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June 24th 2008
Thank You For Not Smoking

Posted under China

After our cruise on the Yangzi, we had a long, uncomfortable day of travel to Wuhan. Our cruise ship docked in Maoping where no English-speaking person could tell the group of confused- and frustrated-looking foreigners which public bus went to Yichang. By some miracle, we did make it onto the right bus and were delivered to the bus station in Yichang, where someone was supposed to be waiting with a sign. No such person was there so we dropped our bags on the front steps of the station and waited.

It was at this juncture that I experienced a squat toilet situation which exceeded all others in utter ridiculousness. I entered the ladies room to find a row of four squat toilets on each of two opposing walls – no doors, no walls separating them – and naked, squatting Chinese butts everywhere. To clarify, the space between the butts and the receptacles was clearly visible to anyone in the room. I flinched at the sight of it but quickly regained my composure when I realized that everyone was looking at me. My instinct was to turn around and walk out but I knew that the bus ride to Wuhan was four hours long. In the end, I pulled out my white bum and squatted with the rest of them while inwardly churning spiteful thoughts about China.

Back out on the steps, we spent the next half hour surrounded by Chinese chimneys before a young man finally appeared with a small rectangle of paper with our names phonetically spelled out in pencil. We gathered our bags and followed him several blocks to an empty minibus parked on a quiet sidestreet. We all piled in – two of the Brits and a Polish-Canadian couple from our cruise. The bus moved only a few blocks and then stopped on another street where, after a half-hour of twiddling our thumbs and wondering what in the hell was going on, we were joined by a large group of boisterous, rural Chinese; the dynamic of weary, quiet foreigners quickly changed to noisy chaos. After they filled the bus to capacity, the steward walked down the aisle, passing out “barf bags”. Apparently, Chinese people throw up a lot on public transport. We had heard firsthand accounts from other travelers but had not personally experienced it. The mere thought of a Chinese “barf-o-rama” in confined quarters gave my own gag reflex a tickle.

Thankfully, we didn’t witness any vomiting, although the constant hocking of mucus and saliva and subsequent spitting on the bus floor was equally foul. At one point, a passenger at the rear of the enclosed, air-conditioned bus attempted to sneak a smoke but, miraculously, the steward raced to the back and ordered him to extinguish it. About 50 kilometers short of our Wuhan, the bus ran out of gas just in front of a toll booth, causing a bottleneck and excessive honking from the annoyed drivers behind us. Several men got off the bus to push it through the toll booth and off to the side of the road. During the melee of refueling, the same perpetrator lit a second cigarette in the back of the bus! With the steward attending to the refueling, there was no person of authority to deal with the offender. The cancer fumes wafted through the bus and I quickly fished out my double-layer of hospital masks. Before I could get them on, my chivalrous husband, in a gallant attempt to protect the integrity of my shrine, began yelling and pointing at the smoker until he put the cigarette out. My hero! We have noticed that Chinese people do not hold each other accountable to rules. That’s why everyone cuts in lines, why people spit on bus floors and why motorbikes ride on sidewalks…because no one says a thing!

From the gravel parking lot where the bus made its final stop, we took a taxi to a hostel in Wuhan, at which we had a reservation for one night. We had an early flight to Shanghai the next morning, which was actually cheaper than the train. After a long day of rough travel and squat toilets, I was dreaming of a normal hostel room in which I could finally relax. The check-in process took so long that I was exhausted when we reached our room on the second floor. We dropped our bags on the floor and began to settle in. When I opened the bathroom door to find a squat toilet – the first time EVER in a hostel room – I wanted to scream but all that I could do was stare stoically at Aaron with one hand on the bathroom door. He laughed because he thought I was joking. We have often joked about this very situation, though it had never really happened before. This time, it was no joke. It was the final nightmare of the Yangzi.

The icing on the cake was that the shower head was almost directly above the squatter; you had to stare at it throughout your shower to keep from accidentally stepping into it and if you dropped the soap…well, that soap was history!


June 22nd 2008
Three Days on the Chinese Love Boat

Posted under China

A cruise on the Yangzi River had been touted as a must-do in China and, although we had so recently cruised in Halong Bay in Vietnam, our curiosity got the best of us. If you don’t speak Chinese, there is disappointingly scarce information available regarding the cruises, the highlight of which is the opportunity to view the famed Three Gorges. From our hostel in Xi’an, we were able to book cruises but the staff had little knowledge of the details. The two options: an international cruise ship – very expensive; or a Chinese cruise ship for less than a third of the price. The international cruise had provided a snazzy color brochure; the Chinese ship was a total mystery. Your Honor, if it pleases the court, I would like the record to reflect that I lobbied against the Yangzi River cruise altogether.

Despite the lukewarmth of my expressions, Aaron was quite determined and, since most of our boat experiences have been generally enjoyable, I acquiesced. With the international ship being understatedly cost prohibitive, we agreed on a second class cabin on the Chinese ship, the fare for which excluded all meals, drinks and excursions. We paid a thirty percent deposit at the hostel in Xi’an with the balance due the next day in Chongqing.

The sleeper train from Xi’an to Chongqing was like a ghost train. Not only did we have our entire four-bed cabin to ourselves but there was only one other passenger in the whole car and we didn’t even realize he was there until it was time to get off the train. The eleven-hour journey left us rested and we met our local booking agent, John, at the train station in Chongqing. He drove us, along with two young British girls, to his mini-hostel – John’s Cozy Nest – to spend the day. The eighth floor “nest” overlooking the Yangzi lived up to its name with a comfortable sitting area, cheap refreshments, free Wi-Fi, a shower, and John himself who was a generous wealth of knowledge. He spoke decent English and explained the details of the cruise, the prices and significance of the optional land excursions, and the transportation options at the tail end of the cruise. We would later discover that the English ended with John and he wasn’t coming with us.

We were happy to find that four British travelers – Eloise, Kayleigh, Michael and Katie – would be cruising with us. A wave of relief washed over us upon hearing this news as we half-expected to be the only foreigners on the Chinese cruise. Eloise and Kayleigh would share a second class cabin with us while Michael and Katie planned to endure a third class cabin. We made a trip to the supermarket in Chongqing to stock up on snacks, unsure about the canteen aboard the ship.

When 6:30 rolled around, John instructed the six of us to follow his brother to the ship. With our heavy packs and grocery bags in tow, we headed toward the parking lot but, rather than loading us into the mini-bus, John’s brother led us on a twenty-minute hike through the rain-soaked streets of Chongqing to the loading dock. There we were handed off to another Chinese man who handed us off to a Chinese woman who led us onto our ship amid a traffic jam of Chinese passengers, all with arms full of grocery bags.

The first things I noticed, as we boarded our Chinese cruise ship were the rippled, rusty painted metal deck and the foul stench of rotting fish and dirty water. The corridors were dim and the surfaces dingy. The experience recalled that same sense of innate hesitation that I felt upon boarding Captain Barracuda’s ship on the island of Lamu – my gut told me that something was fishy; that we should take the financial loss and get off the ship immediately. I voiced this to my husband who reacted with a chuckle.

The woman unlocked our cabin door and Aaron and I walked inside along with Eloise and Kaleigh. The cabin was small and cramped for four people with large backpacks, but we were all happy just to drop our bags. By some miracle, our claustrophobic cell of a washroom had a western toilet. The shower nozzle, which was almost directly above the toilet, initially spewed brown water. It was not a promising start but we were determined to make the best of it. The cabin was stuffy because the air conditioner was just sputtering to life so we congregated outside our door, looking out over the murky brown water into a dense fog.

Soon, a woman approached our group and beckoned us to follow her. She led us to the bow of the ship, into a small glassed-in lounge with a far door leading to an outer deck with blue plastic patio furniture. There were two middle-aged Chinese men chain-smoking in the lounge, working it into a hot box of cancer. This was the VIP area of the ship and the price of admission was 70 Yuan ($10), which included chairs, lung disease and all-you-can-drink Chinese tea. We all declined and returned to our rail, laughing all the way at the idea of paying for a VIP lounge when surely there was a furnished upper deck.

We decided to take a lap around the ship to explore its amenities. We spotted an indoor bar at the stern that would soon be packed with middle-aged Chinese chimneys, attended by a lone barman with black teeth. As we circled the ship, looking for the stairs to the upper deck, we soon came to the conclusion that there was no upper deck. We quickly deduced that, short of paying the VIP admission, there was literally no place for us to sit outside of our cramped, humid cabin. Since the others in our little group seemed adamant against the VIP idea, we all spent the remainder of the evening sitting on the rusted floor of the three-foot-wide walkway that spanned the perimeter of our deck. I nodded off to sleep that night knowing that I would not last the next three days without a chair.

Aaron and I woke early the next morning, sweating buckets because our air conditioner mysteriously stopped working around 2am. Also, the cleaning staff pounded on our cabin door at 6:45am to empty our trash. Both of these petty annoyances would occur on each morning of our cruise. We bought admission into the VIP lounge, encouraging the rest of our group to do the same. It was not the price of admission that we all struggled with but rather the principle of the matter. It is bad enough to pay a lot of money for a cruise that includes nothing but dingy, substandard accommodation but to have to pay more just for a place to sit is ludicrous. Eventually, everyone gave in and joined us. The first full day of our cruise was rainy and foggy and we passed the bulk of it by playing cards and attempting to visit over the single VIP television which blasted Chinese soap operas all day.

Having sustained ourselves on instant noodle cups, fruit and packaged snacks all day, we decided to try the canteen for dinner. The menu was entirely in Chinese, with no pictures, but we managed to order several dishes to share. We had kept our expectations very low and were shocked to find the food to be excellent. We all agreed that dinner was the highlight (the only light) of our Chinese cruise so far and were already looking forward to dinner the next night. By the way, many Brits refer to dinner as tea, which was initially confusing until we worked out the distinction. Breakfast is breakfast. Lunch is dinner. And dinner is tea. Also, we have found all of the Brits that we’ve met along the way to be exceedingly proper and possessing exquisite manners, which is decidedly endearing. We’ve not yet met a Brit that we didn’t like.

On the second morning, we cruised through Qutang Gorge, the first of the Three Gorges. The day was foggy and it was raining again – the visibility left much to be desired – but the Chinese passengers flooded the outer VIP deck nonetheless to pose for endless photos. All of our group donned their rain gear and wandered outside to join the melee…all except for me. I simply didn’t find the view interesting enough to stand in the rain before my first cup of coffee. The gorge was a range of green contoured rock formations, very similar to Milford Sound in New Zealand. The formations were impressive but shrouded in such thick mist that they were almost completely obscured. I remained inside the glassed-in area of the VIP lounge, enjoying the views from my insulated vantage point. Then suddenly I saw it…the saddest, most forlorn little Bear face peering at me through the glass; he was holding his camera and umbrella and getting soaked from the blowing rain. My heart broke for that little frown and I raced to the cabin to get my rain poncho. God help me if my children have faces like that.

The ship docked around noon at the site of the one additional excursion for which we had ponied up in advance – a separate five-hour cruise through the Lesser Three Gorges. We transferred to a smaller boat and found seats on the upper deck, along with all of the chain-smokers. Amazingly, after about twenty minutes, the rain subsided and the fog magically lifted for the remainder of our excursion. The Lesser Three Gorges were picturesque and stunning. The almost constant rain keeps the hillsides perpetually green and fertile – they were covered with plots of corn and other crops and small farming villages. Still, the most fascinating part of the Lesser Three Gorges cruise had nothing whatsoever to do with the gorges themselves.

The Chinese have very different ideas about snacks. We have often seen displays of dried fish and grotesque-looking cooked animal parts that sit out on tables all day. One of our most interesting finds at the supermarket was a pile of dried pig faces preserved in the same petrified manner as the pig ears sold for dogs in the States. Refreshments were available for purchase on the ship and a woman walked around the deck, peddling whole juvenile roasted chickens from a bucket. The whole skewered birds couldn’t have had more meat on them than an average drumstick but I was dying to see someone eat one. There were no takers in our group despite my repeated double dares.

Finally, to all of the Westerners’ shock and delight, a group of four Chinese chain-smokers emerged from the lower deck with a bottle of spirits and a huge plate of the “chicks-on-a-stick”. We all stared, completely captivated, as the men tore into the little birds, biting their heads off, devouring them hungrily, working their way through the bodies and spitting the bones anywhere and everywhere. The Westerners on board rather insensitively surrounded their table with cameras but, despite the potential for offense, we couldn’t help ourselves. How often do you see someone bite the head off a baby chicken?

Back on the big boat, we endured the rest of our Yangzi River cruise amid more rain and dense fog. While we would NEVER endeavor to repeat the experience and would strongly discourage anyone else from doing so, we must confess the fascinating insight that we have gained into Chinese culture. After “vacationing” among a ship full of Chinese passengers, we have amassed a collection of observations. They love to play cards and the men smoke like chimneys. Yelling is a part of normal conversation. They hock up mucus and spit incessantly (probably from the pollution and smoking) and often on the floor. They laugh a lot and seem generally cheerful. They largely ignored our presence on the ship and when they did watch us, it was with curiosity rather than disdain. They generally woke early and slept away the afternoons. They smoke incessantly, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they are plaguing those around them with contaminated air. I tried to get the message across by strapping on a double-layer of hospital masks whenever they lit up in my presence but it had no effect. Hopefully, the masks limited the cancer-causing filth that infiltrated my shrine.

Thankfully, we had a group of good-humored comrades with whom we could share and laugh our way through this bizarre cruise experience.

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June 21st 2008
Giant Panders and a Bicycle Built for Two

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Giant, cuddly, loveable pandas, or panders as the Chinese call them, were on the itinerary for our third day in Xi’an. We hired a driver from our hostel to make the two hour drive to a WWF (World Wildlife Federation)-sponsored wildlife sanctuary.

The sprawling grounds of the sanctuary were empty except for a handful of animal keepers busily attending to their daily responsibilities. No one seemed to pay us any mind. With inadequate signage, no map, and no English-speaking staff on the premises, we wandered aimlessly through the grounds for the first half hour, searching for pandas. Miraculously, we stumbled upon a boisterous Australian woman who explained that she was spending her two-week holiday as a volunteer at the sanctuary. She led us to a spacious green walled-in yard where two giant panda pups, a three-year-old male and a four-year-old female, were enjoying a reprieve from their cells. The male panda was happily gnawing on a piece of bamboo (the main staple of a panda’s diet) while the female napped near the entrance to their man-made cave. The three of us watched as the male panda, now taking notice of his audience, began to playfully engage the female. As the female sat peacefully nibbling bamboo, the young male accosted her time and again, flirtatiously trying to engage her in impromptu wrestling matches. With a running start, he would deliberately fall into her, toppling both of them in a heap of black and white fur. She was clearly annoyed and kept running away from him but he was relentless in his antagonistic pursuits. We watched the two bears chase and wrestle and roll around for nearly an hour. At one point, both of the bears came so close that we could have reached out and touched them. As they met our eyes with the submissive sweetness of teddy bears, we were reminded of our own furry angel waiting back in Arizona.

Reluctantly leaving the giant pandas, we continued on to visit some of the other endangered and orphaned residents of the sanctuary. Large aviaries housed golden eagles, owls, pluming peacocks, egrets and swans. Small concrete cells contained numerous mammalian species including black bears, golden takin (endangered mountain buffalo), red pandas, monkeys, and a leopard. We were heartbroken by the living conditions of some of the animals. With the exception of the showcase attraction, the coveted giant pandas, who seemed to have adequate room to exercise and play, the other animals were reclusive and depressed in cages that were clearly too small. One monkey in particular was imprisoned in a tiny cage barely twice his size. It would be like one of us living in an elevator! WWF is a respected, international relief agency so we were both surprised by the inadequate housing that we found. Many of these animals were rescued from imminent death in the wild, but we question whether this claustrophobic captivity is really a better alternative. The sad conditions of the other animals stifled our panda euphoria somewhat but it was still a great experience overall.

We returned to Xi’an with a sunny afternoon at our disposal. Xi’an is the only major city in China whose old city walls remain intact. The top of the wide, cobbled wall has been restored and is open to the public for a nominal admission fee. On top of the wall, there are several places to rent bicycles and we were elated to find a tandem, or “bicycle built for two”, as Tina affectionately calls it. The mere sight of a “bicycle built for two” invariably causes her to belt out the old song lyrics from Daisy Bell:

Daisy, Daisy
Give me your answer do
I’m half crazy
All for the love of you
It won’t be a stylish marriage
I can’t afford a carriage
But you’ll look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two

We paid for the rental, picked out our trusty steed, gave her a quick once-over and we were off! Shortly thereafter, the singing began. Switching seats, clowning for photo ops, racing other duos around the wall, and dodging man-eating potholes, we rode like giddy school children as we circumnavigated the city, covering the 13.7km perimeter in just over an hour. At the end, we were happy to relinquish our bike, both of us sore from the bumpy ride.

In the mood for some cheap street food, we walked to the nearby Muslim Quarter markets to window shop and sample the Islamic fare on offer. The Muslim Quarter has been home to the Hui community (Chinese Muslims) since the 7th century. After bargaining hard for some knockoff Olympic t-shirts, we made our way to the food market. The tourist section of the quarter was a tree-lined avenue and a narrow street, both lined with family-owned restaurants, shops and food stalls. We walked both streets, perusing displays of dried fruits, candied nuts, skewered meats, and local sweets. Plastic patio furniture was set up on the sidewalks with patrons chatting over bowls of noodle soup and dumplings. We spied a tiny dumpling shop where a woman was steaming dumplings in stacks of round flat baskets just outside the entrance. We sat down for a basket of spiced lamb dumplings, which were the cheapest and easily the most delicious food that we’ve had in China. We immediately ordered another basket and savored every bite.

With visions of playful pandas in our minds, the happy exhilaration of a bike ride, and bellies bulging with dumplings, we walked leisurely back to our hostel with a mutual air of satisfaction and delight from our wonderful day.


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