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An American Griswold In China, Days 1-3: The Gateway to the Mainland

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Tue Jul 14, 2009 at 05:00

NOTE: This is the first in an OpenLeft series entitled "An American Griswold In China" - a sequence of firsthand dispatches about my recent trip to China. These were written as my trip unfolded, but had to be posted now (a week after I returned home) in order to avoid any potential Chinese government censorship/sanctions for publishing while in China. You can browse the entire photo and video catalogue from our trip here, and see the full series as it is released here.

As some background on our journey, my wife Emily and I visited both coastal and the less-well-traveled interior regions of China for about three weeks in June and July. We were guided around the country by my longtime friend Mike Levy, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in China and who has a forthcoming book about his experiences entitled "Kosher Dogmeat." These reports describe what we saw through the eyes of a progressive and just an average American Clark W. Griswold.

I don't purport to be any kind of China "expert" - three weeks in the Middle Kingdom does not make a sinologist. Nonetheless, I hope you read these reports to both to get a sense of the travel and tourist sights/sounds/tastes China offers, and to hear about the political and cultural topography we experienced. - D

DAYS 1 & 2: Gateway to the Mainland

Our trip begins in Hong Kong, the gateway to the Chinese mainland. We landed here on Friday, 6/19, at around 1pm and were downtown by around 3:30pm. The subway system, as Mike promised, is extremely efficient. Indeed, everything here is extremely efficient - there simply is no waiting for buses, taxis or subways. It kinda makes you wonder - if they can be this efficient in China, why can't we be so efficient in America's big cities?

On our first day, we first wandered around the Central district on Hong Kong Island, inadvertently stumbling into a series of alleyway markets that sell everything from dried shark fins (which environmental officials have urged the Chinese to stop eating) to textiles to incense to strange fruits we've never seen.
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From Central, we took the subway across the channel to Tsim Sha Tsui, on Kowloon (the peninsula of mainland China that Hong Kong island sits across from). We walked along Nathan Road, which is known as a high-end shopping district and stopped in at the famous Peninsula Hotel (though we did not have traditional tea time there). For dinner, we ate at a cheesy Cantonese restaurant in the Miramar Mall - it was actually like an American chinese restaurant, though we were the only westerners in there.

Walking back towards the tip of the peninsula along Nathan Road, we saw a bit of the laser light show that happens nightly against the skyline of the Hong Kong island cityscape across the water. Then we took the Star Ferry across the channel and cabbed it home.

Our bodies had not (and still have not) adjusted to the time change, so we were up extremely early on Saturday.

Breakfast at the YWCA (which is included in our hotel fee) is a strange mix of western and Chinese food. Fried eggs, potatoes, meats, green salad, vermicilli noodles, cereal, hard boiled eggs and pork dumplings. Because we were up so early, we were among the first on the Peak Tram - the old cable car that takes people up to the top of Victoria Peak.

The city on Hong Kong island is built on the steep north face of Victoria Peak, with streets cutting the mountain into a series of steps (our hotel is in "mid-levels" - ie. the middle of the slope). The tram takes you all the way up to the top of the peak, which is less a peak and more an east-west ridge. From the top, you can look north over the top of the Hong Kong island skyline over to the Kowloon skyline. You can also look south towards the South China sea and the outerlying islands (more on the islands in a second).
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At the top of Victoria Peak (view pictured at right) is a high-end mall, and a high-end neighborhood which, by the judge of those up there, is populated with Western ex-pats. Also, there is a labyrinth of bike/walkways through a wooded area, not unlike Central Park (only at the top of a huge mountain). We walked a 2 mile loop path that took us around the peak.

After the cable car ride back down (which felt like the train would run out of control because it was so steep), we cabbed over to Aberdeen, a built up fishing "village" on the south end of Hong Kong island. I put "village" in quotes, because it was surrounded by huge (and aging) apartment buildings, and a virtual floating city in the harbor.

We were immediately overcharged for a sampan boat tour of the "junks" (ie. house boats) in the overcrowded harbor. We passed on the Jumbo restaurant, which is billed as the largest floating seafood restaurant in the world, but the tour was worth it, as we got to see up close how people live on these fishing boats.

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David Sirota is a full-time political journalist, best-selling author and nationally syndicated newspaper columnist living in Denver, Colorado. He blogs for Working Assets and the Denver Post's PoliticsWest website. He is a Senior Editor at In These Times magazine, which in 2006 received the Utne Independent Press Award for political coverage. His 2006 book, Hostile Takeover, was a New York Times bestseller, and is now out in paperback. He has been a guest on, among others, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and NPR. His writing, which draws on his (more...)

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