Travel Notes: Hong Kong and China

The Great Wall

As stoked as I was to be in the US, it was almost worse stopping back home for ten days. It was hard to leave the friends, culture and comforts and home, knowing that this time I’m really not coming back for nine more months. I tried to rally the excitement but it just wasn’t there. The one comfort I had in watching the California coast fade into the distance was that I was watching from business class, eleven hours from San Francisco to Tokyo. Trust me, that helps. 

After an overnight stopover in Tokyo, and one last glimpse of Japan, it was on to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong from Victoria Peak

What an impressive city. Having been there about 48 hours I don’t have too much to talk about, but worth a few impressions.

The first thing that struck me was not just the immense skyline, but the buildings that the skyline consisted of. On a bus from the airport into the city I would look up at residential buildings, dozens of stories tall, that must house five to eight thousand people; and there are five of these building all connected on one square! These complexes are found on block after block. This explains how over seven million people live in Hong Kong, totaling just over 1,100 square kilometers.

I arrived at the Chongking Mansions to find a slightly different interpretation of “mansions.” Very tight, very cramped, not clean. During the 30-second walk from the bus stop to the elevator in my building, at least five men approached me asking if I needed a guest house. No thanks bro, I’m cool.

My three-bed dorm room at the Ashoka Guest House was only slightly larger than the interior of my Acura back home, and the Indian operators were not concerned with helping me learn the area.

How the hell do I eat here? I wandered through the streets in search of a suitable restaurant. This is actually not easy. I finally found a noodle shop, sitting down next to a Chinese man who helped me through my meal. Thank you.

Arriving back at Ashoka I found that the two other beds in my dorm were occupied by American gals from California. It was nice to have some familiarity, and the next day I spent tagging along with them touring Hong Kong. The highlight was taking the cable car up to Victoria Peak, overlooking the misty skyline.

Thanks to the excellent recommendation from Paul Vincent Wilson, we had dinner that night at Nomad’s Mongolian BBQ, which was absolutely exquisite. You go down the line filling a bowl with your choice of noodles, rice, vegetables, meats, and all kinds of extras with a choice of a dozen sauces and spices, which you hand to the chef who barbecues everything for you and delivers it to your table.

0600 departure to reach the airport by train for my flight to Beijing.

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If you thought Hong Kong was, whatever you thought it was, welcome to Beijing. This is actually China. Right off the aircraft I avoided possibly getting jacked. A well-dressed, very friendly, very helpful Chinese man was just a little too friendly and a little too helpful, and after coincidentally “bumping” into him for the third time, and finally after he tried to get into the cab with me – “taxi driver only speaks Chinese, there are a lot of hotels in that area, I’ll help make sure you get to the right one” – I had to insist thanks but no thanks.

It’s very smoggy in Beijing.

I arrived and checked into the Happy Dragon Hostel, a really delightful little place with a committee of helpful Chinese girls working the front desk at all times. After a few hours on my computer doing some work and researching what I was going to do in Beijing, I finally had to get out of the hostel before the day was over. Since most attractions were closed by then, and I really wasn’t familiar with the place yet, I decided just to walk around for a while.

Let me just say this was an extremely foreign place. Walking through the streets and alleys I felt very out of place and conspicuous. The people, the shops and businesses, the alleyways, or hutoung, the streets…everything just felt entirely unfamiliar. This would get better over the next couple of days, but suffice to say it was not a comfortable place to be for the first 12 hours.

The Great Wall

I had planned a tour of the Great Wall of China for the next day, so I was up early, had breakfast and was out and on the bus by 7:30.

The wall is over 6,000 kilometers long, rebuilt more than 20 times over hundreds of years. It’s said that at least one million men died building the wall, their bodies cast into the foundations and buried forever beneath the stones.

Sparing most of the details, the wall was amazing. Simply blew me away and far exceeded expectations. I would recommend going there. Also met some fun new friends throughout the day, hiking on the wall for almost four hours.

The toboggan ride back down was epic.

That night was quite eventful, as I was introduced to getting around Beijing. Our group from the wall decided to meet for the famous Peking Duck at a small, back-alley restaurant. Despite being not being too far away, the Li Qun Roast Duck Restaurant proved nearly impossible to find. Failures followed by misfortunes, two hours behind schedule, finally, an old man in a rickshaw delivered me to the restaurant. Since one guy simply never made it and the rest had pretty much given up on me by that point, walking in was like scoring in the bottom of the ninth. The duck was fantastic.

Later that night, yet again, the rickshaw saved the day.

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The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City

Waking up the next day in a new dorm room I met my new roommate Andy.

Andy is traveling around the world rock climbing, now seven months into his journey, having been all throughout Asia and en route to the Yosemite Valley in California. Climbing his way around the world, Andy carries several times more weight than I do in two packs, making his movement much more difficult and expensive. Nonetheless, he has it mastered and shared some incredible stories with me about his journey.

That day we spent with Mark from Holland touring the Forbidden City. Less than 100 years ago, unauthorized entry into the city would have meant immediate execution; now it only cost 60 Chinese yuong, or about 10 US clams. Four hours walking through this vast, ancient, mysterious city with an automated GPS tour guide, I still really didn’t really grasp what it must have been like to live here hundreds of year ago.

What I did gather was that for almost 500 years, it served as the home of emperors and their households, as well as the ceremonial and political center of Chinese government.

While I still didn’t fully understand, perhaps I caught a glimpse of what life was like in the Forbidden City in ancient times.

This tour was capped off by a climb up a steep hill just outside the city gates to a temple overlooking the city and the Beijing skyline. From here I could really see the entire city for the first time, impressively stretching in every direction, yet without a single dominating skyline. Looking around it really struck me how foreign a land I was really in.

That night I joined Andy and a few friends from the Great Wall and Roast Duck Night for a night on the town. On snack street, as we affectionately referred to it, you can find an incredible assortment of exotic and unthinkable creatures being sold as food. This long alley is just madness, with hundreds of booths, thousands of people, things you’ve never seen and smells you’ve never smelled. “Chris, I dare you to eat one of those scorpions.” Guess what happened next.

Lined up in front of plenty of these vendors are rows of little wooden skewers, impaled upon them miniature live scorpions, wriggling furiously, three to a skewer. Not to be oversold, of course we haggled the price down to 50 yuan for a skewer. Agreeing to terms, the large, grinning Chinese fellow with a cooking apron took one of the skewers and dipped it into boiling oil for a hot minute, drew it out and handed it over with a smile.

Crunch crunch crunch, head to tail. Forget the fair, they REALLY deep fry everything here. For the record, it wasn’t bad. Someone said like a combination of shrimp and potato chips, which I can’t argue with.

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The Military Museum and the Summer Palace

The Military Museum was a crock. They did have some awesome tanks and jets and missiles and shit outside, but other than that what a waste of time. Within a massive four-story building, the first floor had some impressive artwork, paintings and statutes. However, the second floor was just a cheap tourist shop selling all kinds of worthless crap, and the third and fourth floors were empty and closed off. What a joke.

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Subway to the Summer Palace (the subway in Beijing is excellent. Very easy to understand, good service, really cheap (about 30 cents per ride)).

This was a great experience, not as much because of the palace, which was fantastic, but because of my tour guide. This little Chinese fellow, Frank, did a great sales job to suck me into buying a tour guide for about 20 bucks. He spoke excellent English and even used some of the old Chris Healy recruitment tactics. I was impressed enough to agree. After that though, ‘ole Frank told me that his brother was actually going to give me the tour. Of course.

I was then introduced to Rocky, who handed me his business card, cleverly emblazoned with several full-color action shots of Rambo. Whoops…

Me and Rocky

Rocky’s English was not quite as good as Frank’s, but I could understand well enough and we started out. Within an hour, we were doing less of a tour and focusing more on his English – pronunciation, vocabulary and some hip slang, but we also talked a lot about his hopes of becoming a full-time tour guide.

Of all places and with all people, I found myself coaching Rocky on selling himself, being real with potential customers, differentiating himself from other tour guides, and being cool – at least in the eyes of Western customers (don’t worry, this wasn’t the know-it-all American white guy telling the Chinese kid how to do things. I politely asked several times along the way if he wanted me to coach him and he encouraged me all the way).

“Yo bro, Imma irrest tour guide atta Summ Palace.” Great, let’s keep working on that.

While I enjoyed the history and the spectacular views and architecture of the Summer Palace, it was my time with Rocky that was most meaningful. Given the circumstances to connect with a young man who I could communicate with, it really was just like working with fraternity men back home.

Rocky was so pumped by the time the tour was over, he asked if he could join me as my personal tour guide wherever I was going for the rest of my time in China. Unfortunately I was leaving the next morning, so instead he insisted on buying me dinner. Good noodles, by the way.

Spending the afternoon with Rocky has inspired me on my path for the future; I know that it has to be in coaching and recruitment.

The Summer Palace in Beijing was pretty spectacular. I wish I could remember more about it, but here is the Wiki link if you’re interested:

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Leaving China

Five days just isn’t enough at all to see Beijing, much less a week for China. If anything I got a small enough shred of China to understand that I don’t understand (and at least see some cool stuff).

I did learn some valuable lessons, however, during my short time.

First, not to get down on myself (which I was early on for not planning ahead, researching, and knowing what I wanted to do once I got there). In the words of Chris Guillebeau, “most of the time, everything is going to be alright.” It was.

Second, there is going to be an inevitable decision of quality of travel versus the quantity of travel. I can hit 35 countries if I want to, but I don’t think that is going to result in the best possible experience. I’m going to have to consider dialing it back a bit and taking my time.

Reflecting on my brief moments in China, I leave with fond feelings for the country despite some of the things I disliked.

Goodbye Happy Dragon, 0500 departure for Malaysia..

5 Replies to “Travel Notes: Hong Kong and China”

  1. Great you were able to go to China. I worked a year in Shanghai so would be glad to talk with you about it anytime! Agree with you on quality of travel. Since the EUR to USD is low, what about finding work this summer in Europe? Then, you can travel the rest of Europe on Euros and save your dollars. When I was in Europe in 2010, there was a tour group called New Europe Tours that employed foreigners: With your people skills, you could do very well! It could lead to many more opportunities I’m sure…


  2. I’m struck by the impact Rocky had on you. Seems like a huge moment. Still, I was glad to hear you were out of China. Not real sure why.


  3. Number one grandson : just catching up with you – great stuff! Yeah – I agree with Grandma Kay – the Rocky story was very inspiring. Glad you kicked the other guy out of the cab. God bless you and watch over you. O . . Scorpions can cause gas!


  4. did you make it to the “James Bond” bar in HK? Glad you got to the peak.

    Quality vs. quality is always a tough call on this type of trip. Do you go to more countries to say you have been, or spend some time and actually learn the culture and people.


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