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In awe of Hong Kong

Hong Kong is the final stop in our tour of China. And it isn’t exactly part of China – the city has a long and tumultuous history, now operating as a semi-autonomous territory within the People’s Republic. It rose to prominence as a major deep-water shipping port during the 99 year period it was under British rule (1898 to 1997). Britain first took control of Hong Kong province during the Opium Wars, which remain a dark spot in Western history. In short, Britain and other colonial powers needed a product with which to trade the Chinese for their spices and other exotic exports. Lacking a viable alternative, they introduced opium (heroin) into China, leading to widespread addiction and ever-higher demand for the product. When the Chinese emperor tried to crack down on opium use, colonial military forces stepped in to ensure the continued trade of this lucrative good.

Despite this dark beginning, Hong Kong blossomed into a huge financial and shipping hub for Asia. China took control of Hong Kong in 1997 when the British lease expired, but it’s still run as a separate province under the motto “Two Systems, One Country.” Hong Kong has its own set of laws, currency, and government, making it drastically freer than mainland China. However, there is continual fear among many residents that China may try to tighten its grip on the province.

Compared with the cities we’ve seen previously, Hong Kong feels very first-world. I can actually use the sink to brush my teeth (instead of using bottled water). And yet, with all the amenities and luxuries of the Western world, it remains unique from anything I’ve seen before and by far the most exotic of any metropolis I can imagine. (more…)

The thing about Beijing

Beijing is the second stop in our tour of China, and it’s remarkably different from our first.  Compared with the bustling markets of Shanghai, China’s commerce center, Beijing feels like the wolf’s lair – like the central nervous system of a country with an overbearing government.  The city’s layout is one of concentric rings, with Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City at its center.  The city blocks are purposefully large, leaving room for massive, imposing buildings.  Because gray is supposed to be the “color of the people,” most buildings in Beijing are colored with varying shades of gray.

Two of Andy’s closest friends from LA now live in Beijing.  One works for Ticketmaster, the other at a private equity firm.  Foreign talent is relatively scarce in China, and it’s amazing how much responsibility one can get here at a very young age.  Adam, who is 25 and speaks fluent Mandarin thanks to his studies at Yale and in China, is essentially the Chief Operating Officer of Ticketmaster China.  In booking bands, he always has to be careful to research their earlier gigs.  If the band sang at a “Pro-Tibet” rally at any point in the past, then the Chinese government won’t allow the concert to happen.

We saw all the major sites during our 4 days in Beijing.  We spent one day climbing the Great Wall of China, which was about an hour outside the city.  Mao Zedong, the founding father of Communist China, famously said, “He who does not climb the Great Wall is not a true man.”  That was enough motivation for us. (more…)

Welcome to Shanghai

Our trip to China has begun, and to no surprise, it’s been interesting since the moment our plane landed.  Before we pulled up to the gate, the flight attendants told everyone to stay in their seats with cell phones turned off.  Then an army of people in white infectious disease suits and masks swarmed our plane to take everyone’s temperature.  It felt like a scene out of E.T. as these government workers beamed a red laser on each passenger’s forehead to test his or her body temperature.  One person in the back of the plane must have failed because they kept him and the entire section of people around him on the plane as the rest of us left.  If you’re flying to China and a person near you is coughing and sneezing, move!  For good reason, the government is aggressively clamping down on the Swine Flu to stop its spread.  Unfortunately, this means that they’re not only quarantining the sick, but also those sitting nearby who may have been exposed.  I’ve read stories about the extensive reach of the Chinese government in its citizen’s lives (for example, Facebook and YouTube are blocked in China), and already we’ve seen an example first-hand.  We have several friends who live in China, and when we told one about the incident, he said simply: “No problem, that kind of stuff happens all the time.  It’s China.”

Bangladesh + Thailand

We have spent the last two weeks traveling around Bangladesh and Thailand. Both have been incredible and memorable places to visit, but for very different reasons. Andy and I have a close college friend from Bangladesh whose family we stayed with while there. We could not have asked for kinder and more hospitable hosts. We spent several days in Bangladesh; most of the time we were in Dhaka, the country’s capital, but we also ventured into the countryside for a day. It hard to describe just how many people there are in Bangladesh. To give you an idea of how densely populated the country is, if you put the entire population of the world into the United States, it would still not be as densely populated as Bangladesh. Everywhere you go in Bangladesh you see swarms of people. Tragically, because the country is so poor with so many mouths to feed, the indigent there live under the harshest circumstances. Bangladeshis are incredibly warm and friendly people. We had a wonderful time meeting new friends, enjoying delicious Bengali food, and appreciating their beautiful culture.

In Thailand, we went to Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Koh Samui/Phangan. Bangkok is Thailand’s capital and a major Asian metropoli, while Chiang Mai is a charming mountain city in the north. Koh Samui and Koh Phangan are two beautiful islands in the country’s south that represent the closest I have ever been to visiting true paradise. While in Thailand, we feasted on delicious Thai meals that cost just a few dollars, saw exquisite Buddhist temples and Royal Palaces, played with baby tigers (yes, we still have all our fingers), relaxed on white sand beaches, and even attended the legendary Full Moon Party. However, the Bangladesh and Thailand portions of our journey have come to an end, and we are now heading to China where we’ll spend the next two weeks before hitting Cambodia.

introductions from East Asia

Hi, my name is Rich, and I am a recently graduated college student traveling between jobs. In the past, I’ve backpacked around Europe and South America, but I’ve never been to East Asia (only India). I have always been fascinated by this part of the world, so when my friend Andy and I had some time off between finishing our previous job and starting our new one, we decided to embark on a month-long journey around East Asia. During the past two weeks, we have seen some of the poorest and most densely populated places on earth in Bangladesh (150 million people in a country the size of Wisconsin), and some of the most beautiful spots on the planet in Thailand (mountainous islands covered with tropical rainforests and surrounded by white sand beaches and turquoise water). Now we’re just beginning the second half of our trip to China and Cambodia. In China, we’ll visit the three most prominent cities: Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong. In Cambodia, we’ll see the ancient ruins at Angkor Wat before finally heading back to the States at the end of July.  Stay tuned…