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The taxis are quick and reliable in Beijing, if you’re fluent in Mandarin. Which I’m not. So for those about to travel to Beijing, be sure to have a map or the place you’re going to written in Chinese because taxi drivers will not speak a lick English (despite reports that drivers were given English lessons).

Also, be on the lookout for drivers who start the fare at 11 RMB or more. The baseline should be 10. I had a driver try to pull that move on me yesterday.

For the most part the taxi drivers have been friendly. I had a conversation with one about the merits of Kobe (he’s awesome) and the demerits of Tracy McGrady (he’s always injured and doesn’t care about winning). Most importantly, the drivers have been quick, shuttling me from my guest house to the Olympic area.

I’ve also been able to practice my butchered Mandarin on them; some of them placate me and say that my Pu Tong Hua isn’t bad. I know better.

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The Temple of Heaven was one of my favorite places to visit, not because of the Taoist buildings, but because the park grounds serve as a sprawling performance center. Groups (or individuals) perform, dance or work out wherever they find space. It’s similar to Yuexiu Park in Guangzhou.

This large group is singing revolutionary songs. After each one, two women would shout “Next song!”

Guangzhou sunset

That’s the sunset along the Pearl River, one of the most polluted waterways in China. Guangzhou can still be beautiful despite all of its faults. Just gotta know where to look. Before I hop on a plane bound for Beijing, I want to share a few more nuggets about Guangzhou.

— My favorite neighborhood in Guangzhou is Shamien Island, the former concession area for France and England. Perhaps it’s because of my American upbringing as an imperialist. The island is an oasis from the hustle and bustle of the city, the trees providing much-needed shade and respite from the heat. You also have less chance to get run over by a car, since traffic on the island is restricted. And it’s an ideal place to people watch, especially near the White Swan hotel. The hotel is a base for Western parents adopting Chinese babies. On the first day I was there, a Western family was pushing its newest member in a stroller. One of the older kids of the family had a T-shirt that read “哥哥 — ge ge” for older brother. The families piqued my interest but locals don’t bat an eye any more.

— Although the Olympics are only a few weeks away, I think I’ve seen just as many banners and ads for the Asian Games, which Guangzhou will host in 2010. The city is feverishly constructing new buildings and subway lines and renovating roads. It adds a little more chaos to an already chaotic city. Interestingly, people who live in Guangzhou think it’s a slower pace of life than other cities in China, like Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

— The Pearl River is allegedly cleaner than it was a couple years ago. It still looks filthy, but they are trying. A couple boats cruising the river picking up trash:

— To be young and rich is glorious in China. Everything is at your fingertips and there are very few rules and restrictions — as long as you stay out of the political arena. Some bars don’t close until the last patron leaves, nightclubs blast beats until dawn and booze flows freely from karaoke bar to karaoke bar. And this is Guangzhou, I’m not even in Beijing or Shanghai yet. If you want to party — and have the cash to do so — China is the place to be.

— Interesting anecdote about Tibet. One of my cousins who lives in Guangzhou is going there for a few days of R&R. It’s a popular place for Chinese to go for some respite from their jobs, family and responsibilities. My cousins suggested I take a side trip there, saying it’s easy to get there. I told them it’s not so straightfoward for foreigners, especially Americans with a journalist visa, to get to Tibet. The news shocked them.

— Although the costs of living are rising, China is still relatively cheap, especially meals. You can get a healthy bowl of noodles and veggies for a couple bucks. My relatives treated me to a meal at a restaurant; there were about 10 of us and we all ate for about $5 per person. One irony: McDonald’s is one of the more expensive meals you can have in Guangzhou.

— Lastly, I know I said in an earlier post that I would be using my Canon SLR more. I lied. I’ve decided to shed as much weight as possible when I walk around the city. The heat and humidity make it nearly unbearable to lug around a big backpack. I think my point-and-shoot (which I had to buy in Hong Kong after dropping mine on the ground) is working OK, for now. I’m just making excuses for why my pictures are sub-par … it can’t be the photographer’s fault, of course.

That’s all for now. I’ve got to catch the airport express to Guangzhou Baiyun Airpot. I’ll check in once I reach Beijing. 再见.

Beijing Road

That’s Beijing Lu, a shopping promenade in Guangzhou. It’s just like the Promenade in Santa Monica but with more flavor — and knockoffs. You can slip into a building that’s filled with tiny stalls selling shirts for a couple dollars or watches for 10 bucks; it’s easy to get lost in the labyrinth. If only I was in the market for a fake Louis Vuitton handbag.

After three days of touring and crisscrossing the city with my cousins, resulting in a blister on my foot, I decided to spend a leisurely day by myself. I was able to find space at one of the many local Starbucks to read (Peter Hessler’s River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze), study my Mandarin flash cards and reflect on my time in Hong Kong and Guangzhou.

It’s been illuminating to be in Guangzhou following a week in Hong Kong. My aunt’s family has been wonderful, opening up their hearts and homes to me. My cousins spent three days as my tour guides, shepherding me to nearly every sight in Guangzhou and insisting on paying for everything. And one of my aunt’s daughters invited me into her home for a home-cooked meal. I’ve been touched by their kindness and warmth.

If there’s one thing I take away from my trip, it’s that family is as important as ever. And that bonds last despite distance, sorrow, misery, even death. My only wish is that I had met my aunt and her family sooner.

Walking around Guangzhou, it’s easy to notice the differences with Hong Kong. I felt it the moment I stepped out of the train station. The heat, the smells, the grime, the dust, the noise — it was all turned up a few notches. It’s rougher around the edges, more unkempt, with a wild streak. I can only imagine what Shenzen, or one of the metropolises in central China, is like.

The energy of the city and its residents is palpable, it pulsates from the swoosh of the newly built subway, the sparkling neon lights advertising beer or whitening creams, the nightclubs that are open all night and morning, the cheesy but well-intentioned “light show” along the Pearl River, the cacophony of noise amid the plume of smoke in a dim sum restaurant, the crush of people jostling for position on the street and in life. I’m enjoying ever minute of it.

I took this video of a crosswalk in Guangzhou, south of the Pearl River, which is considered to be less civil than the neighborhoods north of the river. The light is red and the crossing signal is green — but no matter.

I think the video conveys the pace and energy of the city, which I’m growing to love. Guangzhou is preparing for its own coming out party, as it hurriedly prepares for the Asian Games in 2010. Don’t you change on me, Guangzhou.

But my time in Guangdong province is coming to an end. I’ll be heading to Beijing on Tuesday, eager to stay up for two weeks straight and pump out thousands of words a day. I’ll have a couple weeks to explore the city before the Olympics start, so I hope to keep updating my Flickr feed and blog.

It’s a little ironic, but being in Guangzhou is the calm before the storm.

I’ve made it to Guangzhou after a comfortable hour-and-a-half train ride from Hong Kong. I’ll be spending a week at the capital of Guangdong province, reconnecting with long-lost relatives and visiting the building my father grew up in (if it’s still there). My cousin once removed, who was kind enough to pick me up from the train station, will be showing me around.

But as I sit here in my hotel room, which looks across to the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, I’m still digesting my week in Hong Kong. Here are some quick thoughts from the past week:

— Hong Kongers viewed me with a sense of amusement, curiosity, exasperation or pity, depending on the person and situation. People instantly recognized by my accent that I wasn’t a native speaker. At the bar, when I ordered wrong (I would say one thing of beer, instead of one bottle), it was cute and funny. It was most likely the booze, but people were complimenting me on my Cantonese. At the local 7-11, when I would struggle with my vocabulary, I was wasting the sales-woman’s time and testing her patience.

— I will never understand fashion, just ask any of my friends or look at my wardrobe. But fashion in Hong Kong is bewildering, especially the clothes worn by young hipsters. They’ve taken it to another level. They’re still wearing trucker hats, which became passé in the U.S. years ago (am I right?). And they wear T-shirts that mimic American slogans and culture but are nonsensical or are a little off. Like the “Nevada vs. Oregon” or “We Are The Champion” shirts I saw in one store. And don’t get be started on the ubiquity of Louis Vuitton bags, on women and men.

— I think there are more Starbucks per city block in Hong Kong than Seattle. There’s even one at the shopping village of the Tian Tan Buddha statue, which is out in Lantau. But I don’t think Sonics scourge Howard Shultz has to worry about closing any down, they’re packed every time I walk past one.

— Hong Kong is one clean city, cleaner than New York. It looks like they’ve taken extra steps to make the city nearly spotless after the SARS scare and the bird flu.

— There’s a trap that I think some expats and people who are traveling can fall into. It’s easy to feel a sense of arrogance and elitism when you’re in a foreign city, even if its a minute degree or not overt (though some times it is). I only say this because I’m not immune to these feelings. I’ve had to check myself several times: when I was enjoying the nightlife in Hong Kong, when I was walking around Macau, when I decided to catch the earlier ferry back to HK even though it was $100 HK more (all the coach seats were booked). If any elitism or conceit comes through this blog, please call me out on it and hit me in the head.

— I’ve been using my Canon point-and-shoot camera over my Canon 20D SLR. The main reason was the humidity, which fogged up my lens every time I pulled it out of my bag. It’s also been much easier to carry the smaller camera. But I think the quality of pictures have suffered. So I’ll be lugging around my SLR the next few days. Let me know what you think

That’s all for now. It’s midnight here in Guangzhou, but here was the view from my room this afternoon, looking out toward the city and the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall.

Speaking my rudimentary Cantonese has paid off. After two days in my cubbyhole of a room, I’ve upgraded to a cubicle. The original room I was staying in was decent, enough for my needs. A bed, a toilet, a shower. What more could a man ask for? The Unabomber lived on less.

But after two days of spotty internet — the only time I could get a signal was when I positioned my computer on a 45-degree angle against the pillow — I asked if they had another room, one that had a stronger WiFi connection. And after the wife’s owner teased me on my Cantonese accent — “you’re cute” — they transferred me into a different, slightly larger room, one that even had a window looking out into the alley.

Apparently, I reminded her of her son, who’s also 28. But I’d like to believe it was my effervescence and irresistible charm that persuaded her. You can see pictures of my old room on my Flickr feed. Here’s the new room, I actually have space to do my daily calisthenics, which involve me flexing in the mirror next to the TV:

New digs

The bathroom is still a toilet-shower combo, which I’m finding very, very convenient. The debate whether you can pee (or more) while you shower is settled. You can. Without any guilt.

New digs 

I’m in Hong Kong, safe and sound in my super cozy room at the Alisan Guest House (recommended by Lonely Planet for the price, not the decor or amenities). It is probably the smallest room I’ve ever stayed in. There’s no window either. I’ll post a photo of the cubbyhole soon.

But a cheap room is a cheap room in Hong Kong. And I’m in Causeway Bay, a hubbub of commerce and shopping. It’s a little ironic because for anybody who knows me well, I hate shopping. With a passion. I actually start sweating and suffer vertigo if I’m in a store or mall for too long. We’ll see how long I’ll last in this neighborhood, or China, for that matter.

The picture above is one I snapped on the way to the supermarket to get some supplies. I was just amused by it. And to put my mom at ease: I wasn’t approached by one shady character or woman of the night during my walk around the neighborhood. Phew.

Anyway, I’m pretty exhausted, didn’t get much sleep on the plane. Hopefully I can get some decent shuteye — despite the vacuum-like sounds that are coming through the walls and ceiling. I’ll be checking in tomorrow after some sightseeing and errands. Good night, y’all.

It’s been a mad scramble over the past few days to get prepared for the next three months in the Middle Kingdom. Trips to REI, Nordstrom Rack, Walgreens. Two days of laundry and shrunken T-shirts. Frustrating phone calls with Sprint to turn off my phone. A maddening Fourth of July when I discovered I was shipped the wrong traveling backpack. A sweet save by backcountry.com when they had the bag I was looking for and had a retail store in SLC and were open over the weekend.

I won’t even mention the copious amount of copy I’ve read on China in the past six months– it was one Long March for my fragile, little mind. 

And now I’m 12 hours away from boarding a flight to Hong Kong, where I’ll begin my journey through China. I’ve planned as much as I could (six months of free time to plan should be enough, right?) yet I have no idea what to expect. The last time I was in Hong Kong was in 1992, when I was 12. Hong Kong was still under British control.

From all the advice I’ve gotten from friends and family, it’s as if I’m taking a journey into heart of darkness, a netherworld of criminals, gangs, swindlers, prostitutes, conniving migrants, rude urbanites — basically the worst scum of the earth. I should also look forward to days of debilitating diarrhea, painful stomach cramps, unforgiving vomiting and total loss of body control. So if you see me in China, I’ll be one of the living undead, suffering from diarrhea and cramps, dry vomit on my shirt, while every Chinese I pass will take advantage of me. Good times.

If my dear and lovely mom had her way, I wouldn’t even be going. Or she’d be traveling with me, using her broomstick to beat away all the con men and loose “pretty women” who are so eager to prey on me, the paragon of innocence and virtue.

I find it all amusing, if not exhausting. Interestingly, the view I’ve gotten about China has been mostly negative. Not just from the recent media reports about Tibet and human rights, but from people close to me. People who were born and had lived in China. Many of their concerns aren’t about China’s record on human rights or its treatment of Tibetans. They’re about the regular Chinese people: how uncouth, how uncultured, how nefarious they all are.

(One aside which deserves its own post some time: It’s interesting how people of the same ethnicities create conflicts and bias against each other. How paler Asians are more desired than darker ones. How urbanites look down on and denigrate farmers and peasants. This isn’t just exclusive to Chinese people. Look at Indian people and their caste system. Or the rest of the U.S. vs. West Virginia.)

Well, as gullible and trusting as I am, I’m still going. I’m going with an open mind and open heart, ready to experience a trip of a lifetime. I hope China’s emergence on the world stage this summer is genuine, that its people will finally shed its inferiority complex and that every Chinese person — those in China and in the States — can be proud of the Olympics.

Sure, I’m being idealistic. I’m not so naive to believe that the Olympics will go off without a hitch, without some protest breaking through the security blanket, without some athlete making a political statement, without some controversy that will be part of the legacy of the XXIX Olympiad. But I’m giving it a chance and trying to be as objective as possible.

I’ll be trying to update regularly and posting images on my Flickr feed. I’ll also try to make a video or two (I promise it’ll be better than the “highlight” mix I produced). So hopefully — if you haven’t already been bored by my long-winded and self-indulgent posts — you’ll have a reason to stop by often.

Just pray I don’t get abducted by a gaggle of miscreants and streetwalkers and put under for some diabolical Chinese government experiment.

See y’all in Hong Kong.

That’s me carefully navigating a narrow, slot canyon in Escalante National Monument. The canyon, sandstone carved by water, was at the end of a a treacherous 2-hour drive on a terribly washboarded backcountry road. Despite my foul mood over the bumpy ride (which rattled my mountain bike more than any trail I’ve taken it on) and 105 degree heat, it was worth it.

It’s like walking on another planet — I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve heard there are similar canyons in Page, Arizona where they’ve installed stepladders, but the ones in Escalante are more rustic and primitive. No stepladders. No tour groups. No gift shop. At times the walls are only a foot or two wide. And there are a few sections where you have to climb or get on your hands and knees as you make your way up the canyon. Truly amazing.

I’m still in Escalante (at the charming Canyons B&B) this morning but will be returning to Salt Lake later this afternoon after a week of exploring the Colorado Plateau. I’ll be rushing to organize and pack for my flight to Hong Kong on Monday. But I hope to post some pictures and impressions from the past week and a few thoughts about my trip to China.

That’s all for now. I have a breakfast — stuffed French toast — to catch.

Along the Colorado River on Wednesday morning.