Monday, August 24, 2009

Aaron's Visit Part 2 - Yellow Mountain (Huangshan)

The second weekend of Aaron's visit, we decided to do a trip to Yellow Mountain. This was my third trip to Yellow Mountain, but before neither trip had fully lived up to the reputation because of rain or a poorly executed tour group visit. I won't go into as much detail about the trip since I've already written about Yellow Mountain quite a lot, but I'll post some pictures since this time the weather was perfect and everything worked out pretty well.
We left Hangzhou on Saturday morning and took the bus to the little city Tangkou, which is right next to Yellow Mountain. The best part of going to the mountains is that we were able to escape the terrible heat and humidity of Hangzhou. Even though it was still a bit hot hiking around, it felt really great to have some fresh air and less heat.
When we arrived in Tangkou, we were confronted with the normal hawkers selling hotel rooms, tours, etc. However, one of the guys spoke English quite well and we ended up talking to him. His name was Mr. Hu and had a restaurant and hotel that caters to foreigners. He runs quite a racket and seemed to have connections with all the other shops in town. He would just direct foreigners to go to the shops of his friends to buy tea, souvenirs, massages, etc. and I'm sure he got a cut of the business. To build trust, he showed us a book with a bunch of comments from previous people who had stayed with him and also mentioned he was in the Lonely Planet guidebook. He definitely knows how to work the business, because mostly when traveling you just assume those hawkers are out to pull some kind of scam. He helped us book our bus back to Hangzhou for the next day and we promised to eat at his restaurant after hiking the mountain.
After talking with Mr. Hu, we headed up to the entrance gate of the mountain and started our hike up. As I had done before, we hiked up the eastern steps, since it is a little bit shorter to go up. If you hike up the eastern steps and then back down the western side, you can see most of the main sites of the area and limit the amount of strenuous hiking you need to do.
A Very Chinese Red Banner at Entrance: "Ceremoniously Commemorate the 30th Anniversary of Comrade Deng Xiaoping's Remarks in Huangshan"
The hike up is pretty tiring since it is straight up the entire time. It's just one long set of stairs after another. If you hike steady you can climb to the top in less than three hours, so it's not that long, but still tiring. Even though it wasn't that hot, both of us were sweating a lot by the time we made it to the top.
View of The Peaks on the Eastern side
These Guys are a Little Sweaty
After making it to the top, we still had about an hour before the sun went down. We had these bowls of instant noodles, but the store at the top tried to charge us for hot water. Some nice Chinese guys saw that the store turned us away and invited us into their hotel, where they boiled some water for us and gave us some other Chinese snacks. I thought it was very nice of them to do that on their own without us even knowing them or asking for their help.
Since the last two times I went to Yellow Mountain it was rainy or we weren't at the peak at the night or morning, I hadn't yet seen the sunset or sunrise, which is the most famous part of Yellow Mountain. Luckily, this time the weather was perfect and the skies were clear enough to give us some great views. I think between Aaron and I we must have taken a hundred pictures because it was so beautiful. After compressing the pictures and then uploading them to the blog, the crispness and colors have kind of faded, so it's hard to show how beautiful it really was to see it in person.
Sun Going Down Behind the Cloud
Sunset with Yellow Mountain Peaks
Sunset with Peaks and Blue Sky
Sunset Closeup
Right Before Sun Goes Below Horizon
Sea of Clouds and Color After Sunset
After seeing the sunset, we went and checked into our hotel. We had booked two beds in one of the dorm rooms with six or eight beds in one room. When they first took us to a room, it seemed very crowded and chaotic, but luckily it seemed they overbooked and they took us to a lot more quiet area of the hotel and gave us a new room by ourselves. There were five beds in the room, but luckily no one else checked in that night. There were still plenty of Chinese dudes standing around in the hall smoking, checking their cell phones with annoying ringtones at full volume, and hacking their throats. So we still got the authentic Chinese experience, but had our bubble of privacy in the room.
The next morning we had to wake up around 4 am so that we could catch the sunrise. It wasn't supposed to happen until 5 am or so, but we had to get up, get ready, check out of the hotel room, and hike for about 30 minutes to the "Bright Summit" where we could have the best view. Unfortunately, even though we arrived early, there were mobs of people around with limited space to see. Aaron was tall enough to get his arms above the crowd and take some pictures as the sun was coming above the horizon, so at least we got to see it through that. Also, most of the people were content to see the sunrise for a minute or two, take a couple pictures, then move away from the viewing area, so after it cleared out a bit we were able to see the view as the sun was still coming up.
Crowd at Bright Summit
Sky Before the Sunrise
Sun Coming Above the Horizon
Sun Above Horizon
Sun Rise Closeup
After finally seeing the sunset and sunrise, I think all the hype around Yellow Mountain is justified. If you can catch it in person, it's worth dealing with the crowds of people and expensive entrance fee and hotel prices. During both the sunset and sunrise, there are certain times where it is hard to tell where the sky ends and the earth begins, with bands of red and orange blending it all together. It's really amazing to see in person and I'm happy that I was finally able to see it. I guess the third time is the charm for me.
Aaron and Sunrise
Wes and Sunrise
Wes and Mountains Near Bright Summit
Building at Bright Summit
After spending some more time at the Bright Summit, we started hiking our way down the mountain. There are a lot of great views on the hike down from the western side. Since I've already described this before, I'll just post some of my favorite pictures from this trip down.
View of Mountains and Valley
Wes and Aaron with Celestial Peak
Wes and Celestial Peak
Mattress Rock
Long Stairway to Celestial Peak
Mandatory Picture of Guys Carrying Packages
Western Steps Entrance
After hiking down, we got some lunch at Mr. Hu's restaurant as promised and also had enough time for a foot massage before taking the bus back to Hangzhou. This trip to Yellow Mountain really turned out great. It was great to have Aaron visit and hopefully the last two posts will convince more people to come visit, with the lure of eating strange foods and seeing nice sunrises.
Here are some more pictures from Yellow Mountain:

Monday, August 10, 2009

Aaron's Visit Part 1 - Hangzhou

Recently, I had a Northwestern friend of mine (who also worked at Deloitte) come and visit me for awhile in China. He had spent two weeks in southeast Asia traveling around with some other Northwestern guys and decided to add a stopover in China at the end of his trip. I picked him up from the airport on a Saturday night and the first thing that struck me was how tall he was. He's probably around 6'2" or 6'3", which is quite a menacing height in China. Before I had never really thought about his height, but at this time, needless to say, I felt quite threatened by this towering white man.
Since it is commonplace to hold a sign for the person you're waiting on at the airport and just in case Aaron wouldn't recognize me, the only non-Chinese person there, when he came out of the terminal, I made an all-American sign to make him feel quite at home upon arrival. Note my superior drawing skills.

Airport Welcome Sign

Even though we didn't get back to my apartment until around midnight, we decided to go hit up one of the areas with a lot of street vendors selling food since Aaron hadn't eaten much that day and we wanted to spend some time catching up.

Aaron Eating the Northwest China Muslim Spicy Fish (My Favorite Street Food)
Street Food Vendors and Shirtless Chinese Men in the Summer Heat
The next day we decided to ride bikes around West Lake and see the city. Since my ankle was still not that healed, it was a lot better and faster to ride bikes around. Before we set out, I took Aaron to my favorite cheap restaurant on the street near my apartment. They sell great soups with hand made noodles and lamb for around $1. You can't beat that deal. However, we miscalculated because it was so scorching hot outside and hot soup is not how to deal with 100+ degrees and heavy humidity. During our first half hour riding around I think we neared the point of total saturation in sweat.
Wes and Aaron at the Restaurant
Noodle Soup
Lamb Meat on a Stick
I took Aaron around all the usual places in Hangzhou. The best thing in Hangzhou is West Lake, with the lily pads, lotus flowers, willow trees, and traditional Chinese gardens.
Bridge at West Lake
Aaron in Contemplation
Pagoda at "Lotus in the Breeze at the Crooked Courtyard" Garden
You can ride bikes around the whole lake in just a couple hours and the views are pretty good the whole way around of pagodas and the city.
Wes with West Lake
West Lake with Leifeng Pagoda
Leifeng Pagoda
The next place we went was Wushan Square and the "Heavenly Wind at Wu Hill" pagoda, another cumbersomely translated name. This is one of my favorite pagodas in the city and I think the view of the city is great from the top.
Aaron at Wushan Square
Wes and Aaron at "Heavenly Wind at Wu Hill" Pagoda
"Heavenly Wind at Wu Hill" Pagoda
When you go to the top of the pagoda, you can see a panoramic view of West Lake and the city of Hangzhou.
View of West Lake
Neighboring Pagodas
Leifeng Pagoda and West Lake from a Distance
Hangzhou Downtown
After Wushan Square, we were feeling a little hungry, so we went to this place that has some interesting types of donuts. It's one of the few places in Hangzhou that I know of to get donuts and it has some unique flavors and the designs are pretty classy. One of the flavors Aaron got was called "Spicy Flossy" which has spicy fish or something on it.
Best Bite Donuts
After eating, we went to the Qinghefang historical street that is right next to Wushan Square. It has a lot of shops with traditional Chinese goods like medicine, tea, crafts, etc. A lot of the stuff is pretty touristy and not really worth buying, but it's a cool street to see just for the style of buildings and to see what kind of things they're selling.
Qinghefang Historical Street
Making Some Snacks
Some Kind of Medicinal Root
At the historical street, there is an alley with some street food vendors that sell crazy types of food. You can buy anything from bugs, duck heads, chicken parts, crabs, and much more there.
Some Shrimp Looking Creature and Bugs
Duck Head
Unknown Meat with Spicy Peppers
Chicken Wings
Qinghefang Street at Night
Aaron with Buddha and Qinghefang
By the time we finished at the historical street, we were both pretty beat from riding around on bikes, walking, and just being in the heat all day. However, before we made the ride back home, we stopped at the fountain and light show they have at the lake every night. They have the fountains synchronized to different songs and it's normally pretty cool to check out. It's something like the fountain show at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, just not nearly as large and glamorous.
Fountain Show
Fountain Show
After that Sunday spent going around Hangzhou, Aaron went alone to Beijing on Monday morning since I had to work during the week. When he came back, we had some Sichuan style hot pot on the Friday night before our trip to Yellow Mountain. The hot pot is filled with some kind of broth and a few vegetables or other spices. You can order some vegetables and meats that you get on the side and put in hot pot to cook whenever you like.
Aaron and I were feeling like having something a little outside the norm, so we decided to get some pig brains. I have never eaten brains before, but it was actually not that bad. They were really soft, almost like a foam, and you didn't really need to chew at all. Compared to other crazy meats or organs I've eaten before, the brains didn't have any bad or mineral aftertaste. I wouldn't eat brains everyday, but they were a lot better than I expected.
Wes and Aaron at Chuan Wei Guan Sichuan Hot Pot
The Hotpot
Pig Brains
Sea Kelp
Beef Strips
Brains Anyone?
These Brains Look Delicious
That was pretty much everything we did in Hangzhou. The second weekend of Aaron's visit we went to Huangshan or Yellow Mountain, so stay tuned for that one.
Here are some more pics of our time in Hangzhou: