First Impressions Of China

Park in the Chaoyang District of Beijing, China. (I took the photo with my iPod Touch, no filters)

Park in the Chaoyang District of Beijing, China. (I took the photo with my iPod Touch, no filters)

It’s been more than six whole months since I’ve been in China, and as long since I’ve said anything here about all that has happened – all that is happening – in my new life in this ancient land of so many wonders.

Confession: I haven’t exactly completely been absent. I have been posting about my time in China on other social media platforms where I maintain a strong loyal following, such as Facebook, Twitter, and the latest hottest app around, Periscope, where I live stream. You can see my live broadcasts from China and the rest of Asia if you follow me on Periscope @mtendstotravel (same user name as on Twitter).

Neglecting this blog, and neglecting you all, here, not cool. I know. But here I am with tons more insight about China, a very complex, very contradictory, at once peaceful and chaotic, amazing and vexing, puzzling and endearing, open and closed.

Night falls on Hong Kong Harbor

Night falls on Hong Kong Harbor

To be sure, the Middle Kingdom is centuries of history and culture now undergoing another revolution – an economic revolution that once it fully awakes will turn the world upside down. China, the world’s most populous nation with more than 1.5 billion people, breaks records on an almost weekly basis for its sheer size. In Beijing alone, the capital, there are 21 million people, with a massive newly emerged middle class with a spending power unheard of anywhere else in the world. Where as recently as the 1990s millions of bicycles dominated the streets, now luxury cars rule, to the detriment of the air we breathe. Factories operating pretty much around the clock belch thick smoke. People in Beijing and other cities in China are forced to wear masks to protect their lungs and keep from getting cancer.

Chinese food at its very best

Chinese food at its very best

But already the negative effects have hit China, in the air pollution and growing number of people stricken with pulmonary ailments. Yet, thanks to the proximity of the Gobi Desert which kicks up strong winds, and government intervention, there are days when the sky is blue and the air is clean and China is pure beauty.

I came to China to work as a “foreign expert” at an English-language newspaper. I edit stories largely written by a Chinese staff. English is of course not their first language and it is my job to “polish” those stories and make them sound like they were written by a native speaker. I enjoy the work. And in the course of doing it, I enjoy learning about China and Chinese culture. I don’t get mixed up in Chinese politics, though I observe and learn and marvel at it all. This, after all, is still a country hanging on to its communist roots but make no mistake capitalism is present in all its forms. The Chinese live to buy and sell.

There is much to love about China. I’ve stood on remote stretches of the Great Wall, with no tourists, just locals around, looking at the undulating structure wend across mountains, looking like a giant brown serpent. What an amazing fete. I’ve walked – twice – from one end of the Forbidden City to the next, through gardens and palaces from which emperors ruled this land for centuries. I’ve stood in Tiananmen Square, which gained worldwide notoriety for the democracy protests and violent crackdown. And I live day in and day out what the Chinese experience day in and day out: crowded subways with thousands of humans pressed against each other like sardines; the constant spitting;

Reunion with friends in Hong Kong

Reunion with friends in Hong Kong

the rudeness and generally uncivil behavior and the “me first” selfishness that happens wherever there’s a crowd. But I’ve also experienced friendly faces and wide smiles and people so welcoming and helpful beyond anything. I’m often asked if the people are friendly in China and to that I say yes, but of course there are bad apples all over the world. More often than not, I enjoy China. There are days I just wish I would have stayed in bed. And there are days when I’m grinning from ear to ear because I am so happy to be living in China, experiencing what relatively few in the world will ever experience, such as my recent trip from Beijing to Hong Kong by high-speed train. China has built itself an amazing network of high-speed rails, which has cut travel from one city to the next. A trip that may have taken several days now takes relatively few hours. And the scenery, wow, the scenery.

I will be in China at least until October. I will bring you here more about my experiences and more often. For now, I say, if you can swing it and travel to China, do it. Your biggest expense will likely be the flight. You can score reasonably priced hotels and food is cheap if you know where to look. China is open to the world as it hasn’t been before. Now is the time to see it, live it, be a part of it.

 

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China – A New Continent, A New Adventure

The East River and the Brooklyn Bridge from the rather unusually serene Brooklyn Promenade. Beijing awaits with equal serenity?

The East River and the Brooklyn Bridge from the unusually serene Brooklyn Promenade. Beijing awaits with equal serenity?

So now…

I am going to China – for at least one year.

I am returning to my journalism roots. I have accepted an editing job with the English-language China Daily in Beijing. The gig is under a one-year renewable contract, which means that at the end of the year I could sign on for another year, if it pleases my Chinese employers  and it’s what I want. That’s far in the future. For now, I will focus on the year ahead.

I expect China to amuse and trouble. It’s that sort of country. But of course it’s hard to predict how any given country will turn out for any given expat. There are always unexpected twists and turns, and surprises.

I’ve been to China once before. it was back in the mid 1990’s. So I have some sense of the country.

But visiting for a few weeks versus moving into an apartment and becoming a full-time resident are two different things. During my first visit, I stayed in a nice hotel that catered exclusively to foreigners, largely journalists. This time around I will be living in a neighborhood with Chinese people, not just foreigners.

My presence in the neighborhood and interaction with neighbors should be interesting, to say the least.

For now…

I am in New York City, just taking it easy after a long trek across Europe. Europe was quite a run.  I learned so much. And I’m still not done.

Sometime after Asia and Australia I hope to return to Europe to fully experience Eastern Europe, most of which I am yet to see. So many places and so little time.

So stay tuned my friends, and hang on for this ride into cultural differences highly likely elevated to absurd levels by language barriers (I do not speak Chinese, but I am teaching myself survival phrases).

It all promises to be an adventure to remember. 

旅程繼續

Just me

Just me

 

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Laid Back Lisbon To Soothing Sintra

Laid back Lisbon

 On my way to someplace else in Portugal, I sped through Lisbon like a race car driver.

 

 

 

A classic trolley in Lisbon

A classic way to go

Of course I knew I should spend more time in Lisbon. After all, Portugal’s capital city is supercharged with history and cool places to hang loose. To willfully skip Lisbon would be a huge dumb travel move. It would be like traveling across Italy and closing your eyes through Rome. All along I never intended to bypass Lisbon, no way. It was simply my intention to get back and give the city, in due time  its due time. But for that moment, for a variety of reasons, the beacons of other cities sparkled a tad brighter. So off I went to places such as Guarda, Porto, Lagos, Albufeira, Faro, Portimao, Cascais, Parede, Guincho Beach, Seville – towns big and small, stretching across the Iberian peninsula.

One of those cities was Sintra. Sintra is a town blessed with a myriad of medieval castles that date back to the 8th or 9th Century, including the imposing Castle of the Moors built on a looming hilltop with a downward panoramic view of the city. I had made it from Guarda, a semi-rural region near the border with Spain, west to Paredes on the coast, where I stayed with a Portuguese family with whom I’ve now forged a friendship. Early on, they recommended I visit Sintra and offered me a bicycle for what should have been an hour-long journey along city streets. But I failed miserably in my first attempt to reach Sintra on two wheels. I ended up way off course, facing a major highway. Bicycles are not allowed on highways in many European countries, Portugal included. So I spent most of my journey, which turned in to several hours, trying to get around the highway, with every person I asked giving different directions and instructions to breach the motorway and reach Sintra.

When you come to Lisbon, buy one of these. It's a 3-day tourist pass for unlimited travel on the train. Cost: 14 €.

When you come to Lisbon, buy one of these. It’s a 3-day tourist pass for unlimited travel on the train. Cost: 14 €.

While some said it was impossible to reach the medieval city by bicycle from my location, others suggested that it was too dangerous, too far or too steep a climb up and over the mountains. But experience has taught me that locals often will say that a place is too far or too risky or too whatever because they think a foreigner is not cut of the stuff to handle a trek even if the traveler says he or she does

Portugal is the world's top producer of cork, so stuff made of cork is easy to find. Everything you see here is from cork, including her clothes and the umbrella. Clever, no?

Portugal is the world’s top producer of cork, so stuff made of cork is easy to find. Everything you see here is from cork, including her clothes and the umbrella. Clever, no?

not mind the long or uphill or even arduous walk. If  I were given a penny every time I heard some place was too far to walk, I’d be a wealthy man.  Still, as darkness loomed, I gave up and returned to Paredes without having seen Sintra. My gracious hosts seemed more disappointed than me. They knew the magic I had missed in Sintra, and several months later I would come to realize that. Sintra, with its rich history of conquerors, invaders and rulers, chief among them the Moors, also draws thousands of tourists each year interested in its Masonic history. Like the Moors, who ruled the Iberian peninsula for more than 500 hundreds, they left their mark on the landscape, with beautiful gardens and castles.

Recently, I  paid another visit to my friends in Paredes. Paredes is a coastal town very close to Cascais, Sintra and Lisbon. I made it my mission to see Lisbon and Sintra on this particular trip. But first, Lisbon.

I arrived in Lisbon from Lagos, Portugal, located in the southern region of Portugal known as the Algarve, by ride share arranged through Blablacar. Lagos is a Portuguese fishing town that explodes with tourists in summer. It is served by all major transports, including an international airport in the town of Faro.

If you are ever in Europe, I highly recommend Blablacar, a car ride share that is often faster, cheaper and more convenient than public transportation. Soon as I arrived in Lisbon, I purchased a 3-day tourist rail pass that allowed me unlimited travel on the train that links outer communities to Lisbon.

At the Moorish Castle in must-see Sintra, Portugal. In the background, the grand Pena National Palace.

At the Moorish Castle in must-see Sintra, Portugal. In the background, the grand Pena National Palace.

Unfortunately, the pass does not extend to the metro trains, buses or streetcars. For those you have to buy a separate pass or ticket. But for me, the commuter train pass worked just fine. It allowed me to reach distance cities, such as Cascais, and I would easily get around Lisbon by walking or buying a metro ticket if necessary. I was getting around by commuter train more than anything else. You have to choose what transport option works best for you. The express bus from Lagos to Lisbon is 20 euros during peak season and runs every hour several hours a day. Portugal is well-served by public transportation but it is not always convenient as far as time schedule and cost. Do your homework.

And so on my first real visit to Lisbon I went, recalling during my 3 hour journey on the bus how I had spent my first time in Lisbon at the foot of a bridge trying to hitchhike south to Lagos. On my second visit, I never even stopped, marveling at the longest bridge in Europe, the Vasco de Gama Bridge, which spans the Tagus River. This bridge, which was inaugurated in 1998, is 17.2 kilometers, or 10.2 miles long, and it will blow your mind when you begin to realize how long you’ve been on it trying to get to the other side. It’s just one of the cool things Lisbon serves up. The city, once ruled by the Romans, also has an aqueduct that survived an earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the city in 1755.

I thoroughly enjoyed Lisbon, but the thing that struck me the most was how laid back, patient and helpful residents are with tourists. They stop and take their time to give directions, to help, unlike some other European capitals. It was refreshing.

From Lisbon, there’s a direct train to Sintra. The Viva pass works on this line. There are buses as well, from other coastal cities. One option is to go to Cascais, spend some time there on the beach or having a nice lunch or walkabout, then hop on a bus to Sintra. Some buses make a slight detour to the most western part of continental Europe, Cabo da Roca.

The Moorish Castle in Sintra

The Moorish Castle in Sintra

The southwesternmost point of mainland Europe – Cabo San Vicente near the city of Sagres – is also in Portugal. I can now claim I’ve been to as far west and as far southwest point of mainland Europe. Now, keen on the southernmost. That would be Punta de Tarifa, Spain.

From the moment I arrived in Sintra I felt an inexplicable sense of joy. The city has a zen vibe that soothes the soul. Yes, there are thousands of tourists walking about, but it doesn’t feel overrun.

It is nestled in the Sintra Mountains and Cascais-Sintra Nature Park, with beautiful architecture that goes back centuries, and several castles built on hilltops.

Queen Beach in Cascais

Queen Beach in Cascais

Some of the most impressive castles in the world are here, including Pena National Palace, which was the summer residence of Portugal’s  monarchs of Portugal during the 18th to 19th centuries. There are a total of seven palaces in Sintra, all worth a visit. Ask for a special discounted fare if you decide to see at least three of them.

In the city center you will find local foods, including traditional regional  pastries. Tourists and locals line up to buy them at local shops. Don’t get sucked in by tourists traps, however. You will pay more if you don’t go to the spot, Cafe a Piriquita, for the tasty pastries, including queijadas de Sintra. You might have to take a number and wait, but it’s well worth it. The queijadas look like small custard tarts, but are cheesecakes with a healthy dash of cinnamon in a crusty outer shell. I bought a dozen. But by far my favorite Sintra pastry was the one known as travesseiros, the Portuguese word for pillow. These desserts with a dusting of sugar and a creamy filling inside are heavenly, especially served warm. I couldn’t stop eating them. In Portugal you will find that most towns have a dessert all their own, including Lisbon, but in my opinion, none come as close to perfection as the ones from Sintra. Get to Sintra, have a coffee and a pastry, it will complete your day.

Below, Sintra seen from the Moorish Castle. Quite a climb to get here, but buses deliver those who choose not to walk.

Below, Sintra seen from the Moorish Castle. Quite a climb to get here, but buses deliver those who choose not to walk.

 

 

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