11 August 2011

Parts of speech for a vacation that left us speechless -- well, almost.

Beijing (Peking)
What can we say about the largest, most sprawling city we've ever seen? I suppose a few adjectives come to mind:

Awesome: This word is barely adequate to explain the feeling of finding ourselves in the capital city that represents both ancient empire and modern superpower.

The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, 73 kilometers northeast of Beijing, was constructed under the Northern Qi Dynasty (C.E. 550-577).

From Tiananmen Gate, Nathan looks over Tiananmen Square, the heart of today's most successful communist regime.

Crowded: According to the 2010 census, the municipality of Beijing is home to about 19.6 million people -- that's more people than the entire State of New York. As a result, traffic is pretty intense at times (surprisingly efficient overall, however), even though a significant percentage of commuters are riding bikes, motor scooters, motorcycles, and public transportation. So when we rode the subway at rush hour, it felt like most of the country's 1.5 billion people were riding with us!

In a city of 20 million, an empty seat on the subway can be hard to find!

Industrious: During our week-long stay, we saw small-scale construction projects near our hotel from start to finish, and plenty of active progress on larger developments throughout the city.

This abandoned skeleton of a Disney-style theme park castle was the only long-unfinished structure we noticed during our trip.

Clean: Especially in residential areas outside the city center, streets and neighborhoods were so well-maintained and landscaped, that at a glance, we could easily imagine we were in any middle-class American suburb.

A large, beautiful playground right behind our hotel in the central business district.

This impeccably maintained pedestrian shopping area serves as a no-cost backdrop for a low-budget photo shoot.

Disappointing: the weather, that is! We were fortunate to enjoy about one and a half days of sunshine. As you can see from our photos, the rest of the time it was nothing but grey skies, grey fog, grey rain. Anand Giridharadas got it right when he wrote in the opening paragraph of Chinese Dreams, "The airplane fell into China through what seemed like a vat of sour milk: a thick, yellow-white haze of cloud and smog that gave a preview of all the frenetic world-changing activity below."

Through the clouds, the sun sets over Bird's Nest stadium, Ai Weiwei's disowned Olympic creation.

Delicious: although at times it was a bit tricky finding vegetarian cuisine (in many restaurants, even vegetable platters contained meaty seasonings such as bits of ground pork or a sprinkle of dried shrimps on top), we enjoyed every meal thoroughly -- from the hotel's braised tofu and greens to the make-your-own hotpot place at the mall across the street.

Dining at Fat Duck, a contemporary restaurant at the luxurious Renaissance Beijing Capital Hotel.

Hong Kong
Hong Kong has had many nicknames over the years: "The Pearl of the Orient," "The Golden Egg," "The Big Lychee," "Fragrant Harbour," "Shopper's Paradise" -- and they are all well-deserved. So how about a few of our own impressions, as captured by nouns?

Airport: One of the most remarkable things about Hong Kong is, believe it or not, the airport. Talk about easy, efficient, and well-organized! There are even airport employees assigned to help visitors select the right type of taxi (depending on their destination), queue up for them as they parade endlessly in single file to the pick-up area, communicate with the driver, and load luggage into the trunk. All the effort pays off. Over the course of our trip, we used HKG four times; all together, it was the most pleasant airport experience of our lives.

Nathan watches planes land from our hotel on Lantau Island near the airport (during the second part of our trip).

Skyscrapers: I knew Hong Kong was a big city, but the density of tall buildings all around Victoria Harbour totally floored all of us. All those skyscrapers certainly made a lasting impression on Nathan, who can't stop talking about them -- even though we've been home for weeks now!

Taking in the incredible vistas from the Peak.

Transportation: Between color-coded taxis, clearly marked street trams and buses, and a terrific multi-line subway system, getting around Hong Kong was much simpler than we expected it to be. Even the major theme parks have their own dedicated bus and metro routes, so it's virtually impossible for tourists to get lost.

Riding up front on the second level of a street tram affords a great view for those whose eye level is usually just above tabletops.

Water: Though Hong Kong for us was defined by its cityscape, this city is what it is because of its harbor. The climate is mild year-round because of its mountainous terrain and its location on the South China Sea. There are beaches and nature reserves we didn't even have the chance to explore! We would happily come back to Hong Kong just to enjoy the natural scenery.

Repulse Bay -- a lovely beach resort area with an unfortunate name -- as seen from the Ocean Park cable cars.

Lights: In sharp contrast to Beijing, Hong Kong comes to life at night. The skyline is ablaze with bright lights, and the harbor seems to reflect a sky full of shooting stars as illuminated ships ferry back and forth. Every night, the city puts on "A Symphony of Lights," a dazzling spectacle of searchlights, LEDs, lasers, and music that can be enjoyed from either side of the harbor.

One evening while in Kowloon, we saw one of the now-rare traditional Chinese junks (with its red sails illuminated) sailing past Central Hong Kong during the light show.

Parks: Although there were many lovely public parks and imperial gardens in Beijing, the grey weather made them hard to appreciate. But in sunny Hong Kong, we couldn't get enough! From the tranquil ponds and greenery of Hong Kong park to the fun and excitement of the theme parks, each park was a mood-transforming getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city streets.

Nathan spots fish in this urban oasis as we make our way to the Peak tram station.

Meeting Nathan's hero, Lightning McQueen, at Hong Kong Disneyland.

Bargain: We definitely spent more time sightseeing than shopping in Hong Kong, but a stroll through the so-called Ladies' Market on Tung Choi Street in Kowloon was impossible to resist. We all found a few inexpensive souvenirs, including my new favorite pair of summer sandals for HKD 90 (about US $11).

You'll find some of the city's best shopping along Nathan Road in Kowloon.

From what we observed, Hong Kong serves as a social, economic, and urban model for other cities in China -- and elsewhere. Its colonial past and global mindset certainly earn Hong Kong its current reputation as "Asia's World City."

Finally, a few verbs to share the joy of our 3-week family holiday in Manila, capital of the Philippines and birthplace of my parents and most of my extended family.

Play: Card games and pillow fights with cousins, sun and sea at Subic Bay, driveway soccer, and Tito Ernie's flight simulator!

Eat: The juiciest, sweetest tropical fruits we've ever tasted....EVERY MORNING.

Shop: The Greenhillls Tiangge, SM Megamall, Robinsons Galleria, Ayala Center, Mall of Asia, and more -- I've never seen such a dense concentration of malls anywhere!

(There was also a JB Music store!)

An indoor ice skating rink and Cosmic Kidz, the largest playground in the Philippines, at the massive Mall of Asia.

Eat: Savory Pinoy specialties like lumpia, pancit, and monggo, and of course sweets like ube ice cream, polvoron, sago't gulaman, and other treats...

Ube ice cream with barquillos!

Reconnect: It was great spending time with aunts, uncles, and cousins I hadn't seen in years, and a bit confusing trying to keep straight the names and relationships of all the relatives we were meeting for the first time, but in the end, it didn't matter...we're family, and that's enough!

Here we are with Tita Lulu and her kids, Tito Ernie, and my Grandma.

Nathan and the twins probably laughed more than ate that night...

More Infantes!

"Meeting" my mom's parents for the first time was a very emotional experience.

Nathan reads a book with his Great-Grandma May.

Tita Nonong toured me around our family's fan factory.

With my Lola Baby at a family lunch.

A visit from the Rovira family.

Eat: In Manila there are restaurants we can only dream about in Yerevan, from Krispy Kreme and Papa John's to Goldilocks and Pho Hoa! In Manila we ate foods I had nearly forgotten about: Oreo cookies, mock meats, Horlicks, Pop Tarts, nata de coco, granola bars, Pocky, cranberry jelly... all available at the local Unimart, a huge supermarket selling all imaginable American, Filipino, Chinese, and Japanese foods and products -- a dream come true for me!

A special breakfast at Pancake House on our last full day in Manila.

Although I could probably write a lot more about our trip, I have a ton of other posting to catch up on, so I'll just let these parts of speech and the accompanying photos speak for themselves. See all the photos from our trip here. Meanwhile, we can imagine when we might be able to return to the Far East for more [adjective] adventures, noteworthy [pl. noun], and to [verb] with vivacity!

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