Monday, October 31, 2011

#15: Great Wall of China!

The Great Wall of China was officially the eighth of the 103 Things crossed off my list.  And I must say that it lives up to its name.  It was pretty great!

I was surprised at how high up the wall was.  It took a bit of a hike to get up one of the hills on which the wall sits.  I was all smiles at first:

But after a few more sets of these:

… I was exhausted.  Thirty minutes later, I got my first up-close glimpse of the wall.  Totally worth the hike.

You enter the wall through one of various archway entrances:

And then you’re on top and can really see the expanse of the wall.

The wall, in various sections and various states of repair, stretches 3,900 miles.  When taking into account trenches and natural features incorporated into the defensive barrier, the entire thing stretches 5,500 miles.  Try to get around that, Mongols!  To put that into perspective, that’s the same distance as driving from Miami to Los Angeles… and back.  Or swimming from Seattle to Honolulu… and back.  Or, for those of you who think in Australian terms, that’s like driving from Cairns to Brisbane… on to Sydney… across to Perth… and then up to Broome.

Fuck that’s long.

Despite its long length, the wall cannot be seen from space as it’s not nearly thick enough.  That myth was debunked by a Chinese astronaut a while back and the nation’s textbooks had to be changed.  Note that the wall twists and winds around a lot as you can see from the photos, so the actual distance from end to end if drawing a straight line isn’t as long.  But you know, they built it at 5,500 miles… much of it done before the year 0.  How crazy is that?

As the wall is on hills, walking along the Great Wall involves a great deal of steps up and steps down in between the various towers.

So we decided to take a few breaks here and there for some photo shoots!

Sometimes you just need to sit a spell…

Now, on to a very interesting fact.  Some of the wall is in its original form, while some has been repaired and restored.  Look closely and you’ll notice on some of the pictures that the grout between the bricks is often in two colours (this is best evidenced on the photo of me looking out from the wall – click to expand).  The gray grout – usually on the upper bricks – is the new grout used when repairing sections of the wall.  The white grout is the original glue and it has lasted 2,000 to 3,000 years.  Let’s play a game!  The game is called “Guess Which 4 Ingredients Combine to Make the Glue That Sticks the Great Wall Together!”  Need some help?  Here is a close up view of the thousands-year-old glue that the ancient Chinese used to build this structure:

I’ll let you ponder for a moment.  In the meantime, here’s another fun fact!  When the Mongols were coming, the first tower to see them would have to alert the next towers, and then like a phone tree, each tower would alert the next.  So, how did the first tower alert the next tower?  They alerted the next tower with…

A flaming sack of shit.

Oh that’s right!  The ancient Chinese would light wolf poop on fire and the smoke from the burning canine excrement would be quickly visible – even in the rain – and made for an excellent means of communication.  So that’s what we did before mobile phones!

Ok, back to the question at hand.  Can you guess which four ingredients make up the glue that holds the Great Wall of China together?  In no particular order, here we go:

1.  Sticky rice!
2.  Egg whites!
3.  Kiwi juice!
4.  Limestone powder!

Margaret Cho’s mother was right:  never underestimate the stickiness capabilities of sticky rice.

We had a few hours at the Great Wall, but alas, the adventure had to come to an end.  I spent the day with three lovely Wisconsin ladies that were on my tour:

… and we decided to take the toboggan down together.  You read that right:  there’s a toboggan down from the Great Wall of China!  There’s also a cable car, and of course those pesky staircases, but the toboggan was obviously the best choice.  Penny was super serious:

But Karla was stoked:

And then we were sent down the chute!

And of course, why buy a camera with video capabilities if you’re not going to use them.  The video itself isn’t anything special – but keep in mind we were tobogganing off the Great Wall of China!

Sunday, October 30, 2011


My first stop in China was appropriately the capital of China:  Beijing!  My first impressions of Beijing were a good reflection of my impressions of the whole of China – super easy to get around (I took the subway from the airport to my hotel without incident) but enough pollution to give you instantaneous lung cancer.  This visibility from right in front of our hotel was pretty bad:

Looking at the sun, I quickly realized how dire their pollution issue is:

I tried to ignore the pollution while sightseeing.  And sightseeing is what we did.  Of course, we stopped at the most famous tourist attractions in Beijing, starting with Tiananmen Square!

It’s amazing how very few people in China actually know what happened here in 1989.  They’ve never seen the iconic picture of the lone protester with the tanks.  Oh well.  I suppose ignorance is bliss, right?  Or not… Anyway, it was a national holiday the week before so some of the decorations were still up, such as this one right in the middle of the square:

And of course, you can’t come to Tiananmen Square without seeing Chairman Mao’s mausoleum:

Luckily, Mao is closed for viewing on Monday, so the square wasn’t as crowded as we were warned.  The entrance to the Forbidden City, however, was packed:

Look!  It’s me and Mao!

The Forbidden City itself is pretty much void of all of the interior furnishings as they were moved to Taiwan right before the communists took power in 1949.  So it’s the outside of the buildings and the architecture that are really on display.  And displayed they are:  the Forbidden City is like one of those Russian dolls where you open it up and there’s another doll inside, and then another, and then another!  You go through one entrance and then inside there’s another entrance… and then another… and another!  You just keep going through gates into the next big area where you see yet another gate.  So many photo ops…

On a side note, those Russian dolls I mentioned are sold everywhere in China.  We asked why.  I’m not sure why I was surprised but the answer was that they are made in China… just like everything else.

We also popped by the Temple of Heaven:

Both the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City were mostly restored, but you could find sections that either were left to show their actual current state with wear and tear, or just hadn’t been cleaned up yet.  See the difference on the intricate outsides of the buildings.



It wasn’t all sightseeing.  We also hit up the Hong Qiao Pearl Market for some shopping.

Inside there were knock-offs of every treasure you could ever ask for:  sunglasses, watches, electronics, handbags, jeans, clothes, etc.  The only problem:  those bitches is crazy.  The ladies that run all of the stalls – and there are many – are absolutely frightening.  As you walk by, they block your path and try to sell you things.  If you don’t stop, they try to put their products in your hands.  And if that doesn’t work, they just grab your arms – sometimes two of them grabbing you at once – and they try to pull you over to their stall.  Ok bitch, get your hands off of me!  You have to forcefully push them off of you.  It’s a bit of a gauntlet inside.  And then there’s the haggling.  The products are made cheaply, but they tell you the price is several times higher in hopes of ripping off western tourists.  You have to haggle.  And if you haggle them down to a point where they look visibly upset and flustered, you know you’ve done a good job.  It seems a bit heartless to bring people down to that level, but you have to do it.  Lucky for me, I don’t have a major problem with pissing people off.

Finally, our cultural event for Beijing:  a Kung Fu show!  The show was on the second night and proved very entertaining despite my intense jetlag and sleepiness.  I think part of it was that there were a lot of topless men on stage jumping around.  I’m ok with that.  Afterward, like in all of China, they spit you out of the theatre into a gift shop and try to sell you awfully tacky souvenirs – like this t-shirt that my roommate for the trip, Joel, is holding up:

Get it?  It’s a Kung Fu show… so those are Kung Fu Pandas!  Loving the tackiness!  And Joel totally mastered the peace sign thing that all of the Asians do with their fingers in photos.  And yes, we saw the locals doing it everywhere!  All  the stereotypes are scarily proving true…

There was one other very important thing we saw in Beijing, but it’s so special that it deserves a whole separate blog post next…

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Name This Continent

China was my first foray into Asia.  And I must admit:  I was a bit terrified.  Never before had I been anywhere so different than what I’m used to.  Up until this trip, Morocco and Jordan had been the most exotic places I’d ventured to, and despite being in the Middle East and Arab countries, they weren’t all too terrifying – mainly because they really appreciate the tourism, enough people speak a bit of English there, and I’m at least comfortable with the food selection (no pork, extra falafel!)  But China – well, China is a whole different bag.

Despite a population of 1.4 billion, it’s a bit difficult to blend in in China if you’re white.  I stood out more than the Grand Wizard at an NAACP conference… or more than a male at a lesbian bar (unless the man looks like a lesbian)… or more than me in a church.  Frightening.  Then, as if you don’t already feel awkward enough, add a few hazards and annoyances to the mix to make you totally paranoid.  Our amazing tour guide, Deona, took a good hour+ to warn us all of the dangers of China on our first night in town.  She really set the bar low.

Pollution.  You hear about it, but you haven’t experienced anything remotely polluted until you’ve visited China.  You know how there’s a stereotype that Asian people always wear masks?  Well, many of them do – and I’m pretty sure it has nothing to do with spreading germs and everything to do with trying to avoid pollution.  The sky was gray/brown – sepia maybe – every day of the trip.  There was no blue sky.  There weren’t really any clouds up there.  Everything was obscured by a thick layer of smog.  Go on, look at the sun!  Even use binoculars!  It won’t do a damn thing to your eyes because there’s so much pollution between you and the sky.  Pictures to follow.  That leads me to… spitting…

Chinese people love to spit.  They spit a lot.  And everywhere.  And loudly.  It’s pretty gross to be honest.  I mean, I’m totally guilty of spitting at home in the bathroom every morning – and occasionally you may have to spit on the street in dire circumstances – but you do your best to muffle the noise, right? … Wrong.  Not in China.  Loud and proud, baby!  Hock that loogie as far as you can!  One of the big campaigns to clean up Beijing before the Olympics involved a big “no spitting” campaign – of which signs still exist today – even in Shanghai too.  Now, after one night of being in Beijing – the most polluted of the four mainland Chinese cities that I went to – I must say that my phlegm came up… red… and black.  Pretty fucking disgusting.  And when I blew my nose, my boogers were black too.  Now, this may seem like way too much personal information, but I’m only telling you this to demonstrate how fucking polluted the country is.  My throat was burning.  I think I now know why they spit so much…

Now, spitting is one thing, but don’t rule out pissing and shitting on the streets too.  Especially children.  Parents love to let their kids piss and shit on the street – right on the corner – even in a busy, touristy area of Shanghai!  And then they stand there, blocking the goddamn sidewalk, wiping up their child’s poopy ass.  Haha…. I wish I was joking.  Maybe it has something to do with the toilets.

The toilets are… not western toilets.  They are eastern toilets, or squat toilets (i.e. holes in the ground).  Now, there is something to be said about not having to touch anything in the bathroom, but there is also something to be said about aim.  I was unfortunate enough to peer into a few squatter stalls in various locations while I was looking for that one elusive western toilet that most locations keep hidden away for the handicapped or westerners.  And after seeing some of the mess, and smelling some of the smell, I must say that I don’t trust my ability to squat without falling, thus I refused to use a squat toilet.  There takes quite a bit of planning around not using squat toilets – especially when a 14 hour train ride is involved – but I must say that it can be done (mainly because I’m a trooper).  All it takes are a few precisely timed, small-sized meals leading up to and during the train ride.  And speaking of meals…

Food!  This was one of the scariest things for me as my tour book advised me that I was going to end up eating pork in China whether I realized it or not.  Fun.  I’m not quite sure of what I was eating some of the time, but luckily our tour guide was helpful with ordering and knew exactly what I would and wouldn’t eat.  But it was tricky when we were on our own.  I ordered a chicken dish the first night which I’m pretty sure ended up having pork in it.  Luckily it came with steamed rice so I just ate that instead.  Then we went to a noodle restaurant which had English translations, but those don’t always tell the whole story.  The only thing on the menu for me was the vegetarian noodle soup.  From looking at the picture, something didn’t look right.  Our waitress spoke a little English and it quickly came to light that the vegetarian soup came in prawn broth.  English translations and pictures really weren’t that helpful.

If the pollution, foul toilets, and food won’t kill you, then the traffic surely will.  Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death of people age 45 and younger in China.  Allow me to repeat that:  TRAFFIC IS THE LEADING CAUSE OF DEATH OF PEOPLE AGE 45 AND YOUNGER IN CHINA.  Fucking crazy, eh?  It is estimated that more than 600 people die in traffic accidents every day.  It makes sense to me.  There are really no rules on the road.  Turn signal?  Who needs that?  Stopping at a stop sign?  Pish!  Obeying the lights at the intersection?  Well, I deserve to go now despite it being a red light, so I’ll just drive into the middle of the intersection.  And if you’re on a motorcycle, don’t dare wear a helmet.  And if you’re on a bicycle, feel free to hop onto a major highway with all of the cars.  And once again, leave that helmet at home.

For pedestrians, you need to look all ways before crossing the street – and then look again.  If you wait for the crosswalk light to turn green and the cars to stop coming then you’re going to be waiting for a hell of a long time.  It won’t happen.  Just run… run as quickly yet as safely as you can as soon as you see a time when you think you can cross without getting killed.  Put your hand up to alert cars to stop.  That might help.  Don’t forget to check the sidewalks, because cars might be coming from there too… like the one that we saw on our first night in Beijing.  He just drove up onto the sidewalk because he didn’t feel like taking the road.  Driving along… people running out of the way… typical evening in Beijing.  And don’t even get me started on the drivers in Xi’an.  Luckily, there is one thing with transport that the Chinese do remarkably well:  subway systems.  Despite being crowded, they are fast, cheap, and easy (insert “yo mama” joke here!)  I figured out how to use the subways in Beijing and Shanghai faster that I did the first time I used the subways in New York, Washington DC, Chicago… or anywhere really.  The signs were in English and it was all very self-explanatory.  Ok, China – you get 1 point.

But I’ll take that point away because of the pickpockets (all surely to be Muslims as we were warned) and shifty store owners who invite you in to haggle and then lock the doors until you pay them big.  Luckily, none of this happened to me or anyone else on my trip.  Overall, the China trip was actually pretty incredible.  The week long organized tour of Beijing, Xi’an, Hangzhou, and Shanghai was full on and I saw so many things that I would have never gotten to see had I tried to plan it on my own.  Spending some additional time in Shanghai with my mates, Ross and Jonathon, allowed me to see a different side to China.  And Macau and Hong Kong on my own were the perfect blends of western comforts and eastern culture.  The most important thing:  I held up fabulously.  I ate – some meals more than others, but I ate – and I didn’t have any notable shituations with a toilet or an upset stomach (Shituations, get it?  Thanks, Jenny, for that amazing word!)  I had nothing stolen and I didn’t get hit by any cars.  Our hotels were clean and nice (though I must say that Chinese mattresses are like big blocks of concrete) and our tour group was quite fun.  So, Phill’s first trip to Asia:  complete success!

I’ll be blogging more about each of the cities I visited in the days to come.  In addition, I’ll devote some posts to other China-related topics like Chinglish, the world’s funniest language!  Keep an eye out.

p.s.  Bonus points to anyone who can tell me what the title to this post is referencing.  You can use your bonus points to purchase exciting things like… my eternal love and affection… (until you inevitably piss me off).

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Work-Life-Travel Balance

The United States is notoriously bad for work-life balance.  Seriously bad.  Standard paid vacation is 10 days and 5 days is the standard for sick leave.  10 days doesn’t go a very long way… especially when you need to visit family and friends in various parts of the country.  That leaves about nothing for actual travel to new places.

Work-life balance is just one of the many reasons why I moved to Australia.  20 days is the minimum paid vacation in Australia – twice that of the US – but note that my company allowed me to opt for 30 days with a slight reduction in my fortnightly paycheck.  Sweet!  My sick days are also twice the US – at 10 paid per year, though I only ended up taking 1 last year.  That was foolish of me.

Did I mention that working hours are shorter?  Most people work 9 to 5 here, and I managed to keep that up for a year until my team at work rapidly shrunk.  We’re building it up again and I’m determined to get my 9 to 5 back before year’s end.  But even with that, my hours back in Seattle were generally long on a normal basis – more like 8 to 6.  That just rarely happens here.  5pm rolls around and people start heading out the door.  When the clock hits 5:30 the office verges on becoming a ghost town.


Of course, this all varies by industry and individual and such, but you get the general idea.  The best part of all of this – for me at least – is the travel.  I worked in Seattle for four years, and by the time I went to Florida to see my mom, Houston to see my college friends, Dallas to see my grandma, and New York and DC to see my high school friends who had moved up there, my 10 days were pretty much gone.  As for proper vacations – not counting random weekends away to Los Angeles or Vancouver – I had one real one during the course of four years.  I went to Israel and Jordan for 3 weeks and most of that ended up being unpaid vacation.  Thankfully my employer liked me and allowed me to do it.

By comparison, let’s take a look at 2011 working in Sydney.  I took a week and a half in January to head to Perth, another week in April to head to Adelaide and Melbourne, and yet another week in July to head to Melbourne and the Northern Territory.  And I’m nowhere near done yet.  Tomorrow, I have the luxury of taking two weeks off and heading to Asia for the first time.  I’ll be hitting up China:  Beijing, Xian, Shanghai, and a few places in between, along with stops in Macau and Hong Kong at the end.  This would never happen in America.  This could never happen in America.  But it’s fairly commonplace in Australia.

And the icing on the cake:  I still have another week to use.  Maybe I’ll carry it over to next year.  Woohoo!

Of course, I’ll be busy seeing as much as possible in China – and avoiding squat toilets at all costs – so I won’t be blogging until I return at the end of the month.  Don’t forget about me.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

All About Lenora

First Nick came.  Then John.  And then… drumroll please…


Lenora was my third formal visitor from the United States.  As if I don’t feel old enough, Lenora has been my friend since freshman year of high school.  That means we were 14.  Now we’re 28.  So Lenora has been my friend for half of my life.  I’m getting too old too fast.  Frightening.

Lenora is a rugby enthusiast (the only one in America?) so she hopped down to New Zealand for a few days for the Rugby World Cup.  And since New Zealand is relatively close to Australia, it was only appropriate she pop in for a few days before heading back to North America.  And by “only appropriate”, I mean I would have taken her for a guilt trip like none other had she not.

But she did.  Because she’s Lenora.

Anyway, her brief time in Oz was spent playing condo rummy a few times a day (oh yes, going back to the high school years of card games), scrolling through Facebook mocking nearly everyone else that we went to high school with, correcting her name (Aussies had a hard time with Lenora… no, it’s not Lenore… and no it’s not Loretta… ???), planning our next trip out, planning our retirements, partaking in a trivia night, watching some rugby on TV, and fitting in a few touristy things in between.  As with all my guests, I took Lenora on the Bondi – Coogee Coastal Walk and on the ferry up to Manly, and I gave her an itinerary of the major tourist things to do while I was at work (like the Taronga Zoo, the Botanical Gardens, and the Sydney Opera House).  I even got to squeeze in a new thing that even I hadn’t done before – heading up to level 47 of Australia Square to check out to the 360-degree, rotating view of the city:

Oh yes, and I fed Lenora too (because I would have been a horrible host had I not allowed her to eat for five days…)  As she was in Australia, she needed to have kangaroo.  So we got her a kangaroo pizza at the Australian Hotel in The Rocks:

And there was ice cream.  We went to WowCow for frozen yogurt, Messina for gelato, and Movenpick for ice cream… twice.  And then we bought a container for home one night too, which we finished off the next day.  So we had ice cream or ice cream-related desserts six times in five days.

We’re awesome.

Despite the short timeframe, I think Lenora’s visit was a successful one.  And since she only saw Sydney, well, she’ll just have to come back at some point to see a bit more.  Woohoo!

Waiting in line for the Manly ferry:

At Manly:


Monday, October 3, 2011

Cho Time at the Sydney Opera House

It took me over a year and a half, but I finally saw a show at the iconic Sydney Opera House.  Two shows actually!  And what a way to break my Sydney Opera House cherry:

The Just For Laughs Comedy Festival was on!  And look at that second name from the bottom:


Oh yes, Margaret Cho was in Sydney and I got to see her perform at the Sydney Opera House!  She headlined the Friday night in the Concert Hall – the largest venue in the Opera House.  The joint was packed and every gay in the village was there to see Queen Cho.  I brought a few gays with me – and some of our fag hags as well:

And of course, we had to have some bubbly to commemorate the occasion:

This was my fourth time seeing Cho perform live and her performance was hilarious as usual.  She Australianized her show quite a bit – referencing Australian politics, headline-making Aussies, and various other cultural issues.  She basically took her normal show and tweaked it around some so it would make sense down under.  And she tweaked it just right.  My hat is off to Margaret Cho, and my abs are still sore from the laughter.

Now, why go to one show when you can go to two for twice the cost?  If you noticed, Demetri Martin’s name was also on that poster and I couldn’t pass up the chance to see him live as well.  Plus, he’s super adorable… super, super adorable… sadly straight, but you know… tequila… Anyway, his show was in the second largest venue, the Opera Theatre, and came complete with his keyboard, guitar, harmonica, and the Large Pad (just YouTube him if you don’t know why any of that is important).

His show wasn’t very Australianized at all, but he was a riot nonetheless.

Now that I’ve seen two shows at the Sydney Opera House, I can cross that off my list of things to do… and I didn’t have to sit through a boring four hour opera to do it!  Woohoo!  I wouldn’t mind seeing another show there if it was something good… and rumour has it Kathy Griffin is coming to town in November… fingers crossed the rumour is true!