perjantai 30. toukokuuta 2014

Day 152 - 152. päivä: Fast food and Finns

We got to USA some three weeks ago. At the customs we were warmly welcomed by a nerve wrecking scary lady questioning our every answer, in the good old Gestapo style: “Why were you in China?  Why are you not staying in a hotel? What are you doing in Topeka? Visiting a relative? What is SHE doing in Topeka?!” The hundred or so questions were accompanied by an ice cold stare and “you guys are SO lying and even if you haven’t lied yet, you WILL lie, and I WILL catch you” oozing from her. 

This little hippie went to San Francisco

Our first stop was California, where we rented a car at the San Francisco airport. We stayed the first few days at a holiday rental with a very nice family in Pacifica. Although we have been favoring public transportation the whole time, we must admit, without a car it’d have been if not impossible, at least damn near to get around. My Nokia Lumia’s GPS turned out to be irreplaceable, as well. The country is absolutely not designed for pedestrians. San Francisco bay area favors bicycle riders, but other than that, getting anywhere by foot would be suicide. Or at least as scary as US customs.  

Our rental car took us to some pretty exiting places, like the Redwoods Big Basin park, Target and BART station.  Rental bicycles took us to the Golden Gate Bridge, and gave us a good day’s exercise for 30 km by the coast of San Francisco.

A vegan dog.
If there ever was an opposite of the hipster-hippie-vegan-nature lover-super slim and sport friendly California, that’s Topeka, KS. Nothing but fast food joints, cars and big, mean dogs everywhere. At least that’s the impression one gets before getting to know the people. The truth is, once again, that the majority of the people are smart, intelligent, fun and well-meaning. Especially the ones who invite you to their graduation party, and give you a ride home and help you out and have a magician in their party and give you food and let you use their broom and take you shooting and have made a certain little sister’s life super fun while in Topeka, are in our list of awesome new people we've met ;)

We in Europe are being drowned with American clichés in movies, TV shows and news. Sadly, lot of them are true. You cannot see overweight people driving their "little" electric vehicles around supermarket while shopping for soda, ice cream and pizza in Asia, or such irresponsible drug advertising in Europe. When a pacemaker ad is masked as news broadcast, or a prescription only antidepressant marketed by a funny cartoon character, something has gone wrong. The news here cover important topics such as what the baby sitter of a baby of a suspected victim of a horrible yet very private crime has to say about the case. Also, calling the European parliament elections as “European elections” is not only misleading, but sadly shows how ignorant even the media here is. Europe is not a country, like the US. European Union consists of several, independent countries. FYI...  

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

 And why, oh why is an entire nation force fed with humongous portions of absolutely nutrition-free, cheap, sodium and sugar loaded fa(s)t food? To sell more diabetes, blood pressure and weight loss drugs? 

Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos.

After binge eating (yes, the American diet got us) and soaking in beer for a week in Topeka, we headed to New York and our next stop, a Caribbean cruise; 8 nights of sailing and trying to avoid any activity that would actually cost something on Carnival Splendor. With a last minute discount deal Ari found online, that was still a cheaper option than the original idea of going to Mexico. Food and a lot of entertainment were luckily included and the free flow of pizza and ice cream was accompanied by a running track, big gym, and hours of ashore walking in San Juan, St. Thomas and Grand Turk. The other activities were took part in were watching stand up, sleeping at random hours and smuggling cheap vodka from ashore.

Times Square, NYC

Seeing how amazingly rudely the ship staff was treated by the passengers, we found it more than justified to leave our cleaner a tip every. Other than that, the American tipping system is quite ridiculous, inconsistent, makes no sense and is just as stupid as not including taxes in the price. How about paying people enough and being honest about the final price of a product or service and tipping only for remarkably good service? Another suggestion concerns the health care system. The country has all the resources to effectively take care of its citizens, yet still the system just does not work. The walk-in clinics, access to the most state of the art drugs and top health care professionals are not something every country could boast of having. How about making them available to everyone?

After the cruise we headed back to New York, where we had two tasks: see as many tourist attractions as possible in two days, and meet the Finnish guy we had ran into by accident in the subway day before the cruise. He helped us to get on the right train and we promised to get in touch after getting back. In the end, we found ourselves drinking coffee and talking about Finland and USA and everything between in a cafe in the Trump Tower. We also got to visit his office in Manhattan, as well as an introduction to life in New York from a Finnish point of view. Turns out it is a small world, there's a whole bunch of people with connections to Finland even in the place he works. 

"Dum-Dum" at the American Museum of Natural History

Sadly, all the good adventures must come to an end. It’s time to continue our journey back home, just three more weeks left. Next: Reykjavik, Iceland, and time to wear warm clothes again.

P.S: Spotting random Finns has now proceeded to getting bicycle fixing help in San Francisco and finding a personal guide to the subway system in New York. Nordic walkers spotted in India, China and US. 

keskiviikko 7. toukokuuta 2014

Day 130 - 130. päivä: Just photos: China edition

                                                    One month in China in pictures.

长城 The Great Wall of China.

A compilation of some of the best vegetarian foods in Beijing.

Ari and Edward at Madame Tussauds Hong Kong

Taking a break in Beijing.

包子 Baozi. 

Occasionally, you can find colors in China.

天安门广场 Tian'anmen Square, Beijing.

Bruce Lee, the Avenue of Stars, Hong Kong.

长城 The Great Wall of China.

长安城 The City Wall in Xi'an.

颐和园 The Summer Palace, Beijing.

Enjoying some luxury in the executive lounge of Double Tree by Hilton, Beijing.

What every hotel room needs: a gas mask.

Slowly but surely digging up and cleaning the Terracotta Army in Xi'an.

maanantai 5. toukokuuta 2014

Day 127 - 127. päivä: A letter to China

Dear China,

we've had our ups and downs. I have been gone for a long time, however every time I come back, there seems to be more of the former and less of the latter.

兵马俑 The Terracotta army

You did not make it easy to come back. We were stuck in Hong Kong for a week trying to get our visas, but in the end it gave us an awesome chance to explore the islands of Hong Kong and Kowloon. Unfortunately that forced us to spend a huge chunk of our budget we had been saving for USA and Europe, but we will worry about that when we actually run out cash. We also thought we could save some money in the mainland, but travelling and trying to catch as many tourist attractions as possible in one month is not cheap, even though you, China, are. I guess it was somehow lucky I got sick as soon we were about to leave Hong Kong, so in Shanghai we did not get to do any of the pricey touristy stuff we had planned. My hairdresser was a bit expensive, but worth it. I can warmly recommend Ashley at Franck Provost at 35 Shaanxi road in Shanghai. She did miracles with my falling, dry, brittle mess of a blonde hair.

Our communication has not always worked too well. For some strange reason it seems that the extent of my Chinese vocabulary does not correlate with how well I can get myself understood or things done. It seems that it is more a question of location (come on, Xi'an, why is my Chinese almost useless there when in Beijing I'm more often well understood than not?), and necessity: speak Chinese or stay hungry. Speak Chinese with the driver or walk. Speak Chinese or get a smoking room in a hotel. And oh dear how fast the language is getting back, in the past month I've regained most of my spoken Chinese skills. I think you like me better now, too, since we can communicate. At least that one taxi driver seemed to be having fun whilst we were discussing the differences between iPhone and Nokia Lumia GPS. The other one was happy forcing me to learn to pronounce the name of our hotel properly; he wouldn't let me out of the car before I got it right. Never underestimate the taxi drivers here when it comes to cruel but effective teaching methods.

长城 The Great Wall at Mutianyu

I would also like to discuss about your hygiene problem. There is a reason they call Beijing one of the most polluted cities in the world. Take a shower or something, it would be nice if the citizens and travelers could actually breath. But how, oh how, can it be even worse somewhere else? After Xi'an, the air quality in Beijing seems quite okay, actually. According to what I've heard, the internationally less famous cities are even worse. I like this country, but I am not sure if wearing a mouth mask most of the year would go too well with my hair style. My hair and skin are not very happy, either. I must add, though, that the past few days you have really tried your best, and we have seen the blue sky and sunshine and amazing sun sets. That's when you are at your most beautiful.

You have been very nice and understanding every time I have
introduced new people to you. I wasn't sure how you'd treat them, but at least a couple of Germans and one Finn seem to understand why I miss you so much. Of course, spending some good old Beijing nightlife for a few nights with karaoke, early morning food and beers and annoying the hell out of several taxi drivers and many, many people on subway can make anyone falling in love with you.

Victoria Peak in Hong Kong

You have a history which you are proud of, and partially for a very good reason. I have been to the Great Wall several times before, but it never seems less amazing. Thousands of kilometers of history in the middle of the most beautiful land you can offer located in Mutianyu, combined with a cable car ride up and a toboggan ride down are something I will always want to go back to. Tian'anmen Square, Forbidden City and Beihai in Beijing were a compulsory part of the tour I gave Ari, and they show the controversy of your past and the official history you talk about. The Teracotta army in Xi'an was new to me, and literally took my breath away for a moment. It is difficult to describe the feeling you get when you see thousands of armed clay warriors with horses and real armory, whose sole purpose of existence was to accompany an emperor in the afterlife. Talking about megalomania...

北海 Beihai

The public transportation in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing are wonderful, and even in Xi'an it works, as long as you can read the signs in Chinese. A whole morning's adventure can be based on a decision to get to the Terracotta Warriors by public buses. It is also cheap, and many cities have their own public transportation card you can use even in taxis and some stores. The food is awesome, although I'm sure in Shanghai they spend like half of the whole country's white sugar stash everyday. Anything with Sichuan pepper can make your face fall off, and tastes like heaven. It is a bit so and so to call myself a vegetarian when most times there is no way to be sure what I am eating, no matter how many times I ask since here chicken powder does not count as "having meet" in one's dish. Thus often the only "safe" way to eat vegetarian is to go one of the many vegetarian restaurants.

You always seem to have friends waiting for me here, and you have kept them the same. Your beer is cheap, good and available everywhere. Your weather is nice sometimes even for two months a year, when it's not too cold or windy or rainy or hot or sandy. You offer cheap services, and sometimes one gets lucky and finds some good quality, too. We got Ari a tailor made suit for a certain special day, and the three piece suit for 1800 yuan turned out really well at this small tailor shop hidden in a diplomatic compound in Beijing. I have used some big tailor shops before, but good quality fabrics are rare in them.

天安门广场 Tian'anmen Square

Dear China, we are going now, for our visas are expiring. But we will be back, okay? I am sure it won't be another two years this time.


P.S: Coming up: Just photos, China edition (get ready for more black, white and gray...)

P.P.S: Next stop: San Francisco, CA, USA

P.P.P.S: Coming up soon ish: Tips for the travelers based on real life experiments by Ari