I chose to visit China for my birthday and invited my good friend and fraternity brother Kenyatta to join me. I’ve known him for a little over a decade and he’s just as much a nomad as me. However, neither of us were mentally prepared for the chaotic nature of executing our three in one trip to China. Our tickets were purchased in January 2016 after I received an online notification from Hopper that the prices of tickets were at an all-time low for China within my travel window. After tickets were purchased, I contacted my good friend Marlynne who has lived in Hong Kong for approximately four years. The original plan was to stay with her for a week during Fall Break. After Kenyatta and I thought about it some more, we decided to extend our trip and use the extra time to visit Beijing and Shanghai.
HONG KONG DAYS ONE AND TWO
We arrived in Hong Kong on Saturday and went through an efficient and well-organized immigration process. Marlynne met us at the airport and we took the shuttle into Hong Kong and then took a cab to her apartment. During the drive, we could see that Hong Kong was similar to other metropolitan cities in the western world i.e. (New York, Toronto, or London). Marlynne’s apartment is situated in central Hong Kong which made it very easy to navigate the city.
Once we got settled and rested we went to “The Peak” and took in the Hong Kong skyline at night. By day the skyline is even more impressive and is by far one of the best I’ve seen.
Afterwards, we went to a going-away party for a friend of Marlynne’s who was going back to Angola after doing a stint as an Angolan diplomat in Hong Kong. This party was one of the highlights of our visit because it provided an opportunity for us to interact with many black people who were living and working in Hong Kong as expatriates. The black people in Hong Kong hailed from various parts of the globe. Despite their geographical differences, it was inspiring to see they had all carved out a life for themselves in an environment of positivity and support. Nightlife in Hong Kong is one of the most intense versions of fast paced partying I’ve experienced. You move from club, bar, and venue with ease and the proprietors have an interest in pleasing foreigners regardless of race. We were partying in a part of Hong Kong called SoHo and it mirrored the SoHo of NYC. Its trendy spots and street art make you feel like you’re still in the NYC.
After a night of partying and drinking Marlynne made breakfast and we debriefed and had some quality friendship time. As a self-proclaimed travel nerd and academic, Marlynne planned visits to a couple of historic temples in Hong Kong, local street markets, and we looked for cool spots to see everyday Hong Kong life.
The thing that caught our attention on Sunday was the number of seemingly displaced Indonesian and Filipino women on the streets. Marlynne explained that these women were actually domestic workers and Sundays were their only day off. These women use Sundays as bonding and recreational time with one another. They lay cardboard boxes on sidewalks for picnics, playing cards, and creating line dances and practice work out routines. This caught Kenyatta and my attention because as black men from America, both who work in education, it felt like a system of oppression. The domestic workers were brought into Hong Kong to work, but rarely could progress upward and obtain a higher status.
We had an in-depth conversation about these women with most of the expats we encountered, many of whom, were conflicted about hiring these women. The fact that employing these women was a source of cheap labor and a big help to many families was crucial, especially if they had children. In essence, the amount of money the average US household pays for childcare goes a long way in Hong Kong. A domestic helper can be hired on a live in basis for what most people pay for daycare alone in America.
BEIJING DAYS THREE AND FOUR
The flight from Hong Kong to Beijing is considered an international trip and thus required us to clear immigration. Upon landing, it was quite apparent that Beijing’s immigration process was not as efficient as that of Hong Kong. Our first adventure began with getting a cab to our hotel. Later on, we would learn that we actually overpaid for our cab ride. The swindle game is real in Mainland China! Once checked into our hotel, we booked a very inexpensive one-day excursion for roughly ¥150.00 ($20.00 USD), which included visits to the Ming Tombs, Great Wall of China, a “Jade Museum,” and a “Foot Massage”. The foot massage included a reading from doctors of Eastern Medicine. At the end of our tour we were offered a closing “Tea Ceremony” and the offer came with the potential buy some tea (side eye and a smile).
The “Jade Museum” was actually a store where jade was carved for re-sale. It was actually enlightening to learn about the properties of jade and watch the artisans at work carving this semi-precious stone. The skill of carving jade is passed down from one generation to the next and sometimes involves husband and wife working side-by-side. However, after the educational portion of the tour of museum, the sales people aggressively pursued us to make a purchase. In all honesty, this became very annoying. My strong advice is to bring your game face and be prepared to give a firm “no” as these products were grossly over-priced.
The second part of our excursion was a hike up the Great Wall of China. Words cannot express the epic nature of this experience. It was amazing to scratch this off our personal bucket list. Please bear in mind, there are several sections of the Great Wall that offer different types of experiences. We subsequently learned there is a section that includes a cable car rides up the Great Wall with a slide back down to the bottom. My word of advice is to be clear about the type of Great Wall experience you desire and book it accordingly.
Our Great Wall experience was quite strenuous and would not be advisable for anyone with serious health issues or limitations. After conquering the Great Wall, our tour included a delicious Chinese lunch. And trust me, we had worked up a hearty appetite after our intense hike up the Wall. Because most traditional restaurants in China serve family-style meals we were required to have lunch with the members of our tour group. But after conquering the Wall we were very comfortable laughing and eating together.
The next part of our excursion was a Chinese foot massage. On the surface, one would think a foot massage would be just what the doctor ordered especially after our intense hike. The massage included a health reading from a doctor of Eastern medicine replete with Kung Fu like sounds and antics (insert side eye and blank stare). I am by no means discounting the merits of Eastern medicine, but the aggressive attempt to sell us herbs and medicines to treat our respective diagnoses was very off-putting. Side-note: the “Chinese doctors” were unwilling to disclose what was in the “prescriptions” they were recommending to treat our ailments. The cost of these medicines ranged from $300 USD and higher for a two-month supply. There were actually a few people on our tour who purchased their prescribed medicines, we opted NOT to make the purchase.
The final stop on our excursion was a closing tea ceremony. By this point, all the members of our tour were just plain tired and the tea hostess questioned our interest in finishing the ceremony. We chose to finish out the ceremony and it was actually nice to sample some delicious Chinese teas. It was no surprise that these teas were offered to us for sale. All in all, I would say the excursion was worth the money but I did grow tired of the constant attempts to be sold items throughout the day. In retrospect, we concluded that our tour guide “Nancy” (obviously not her real name) was a part of the hustle and must have received some form of kickback from each sale made. In fact, at the end of the tour she directly asked us for a ¥100 ($15 USD) tip (insert a double side-eye and blank stare). The swindle game is real in Mainland China!
SHANGHAI DAYS FIVE AND SIX
We flew from Beijing to Shanghai and enjoyed a satisfactory service and we were served a hot meal on our flight. It is important to note that our experience with China Southern was a decent experience. This was contrary to many of our expats friends’ experiences with Chinese carriers. They prepared for a flight experience that would include significant delays and unruly passengers. I am not sure whether this is the norm or we got lucky.
The taxi driver at the airport had a difficult time understanding the English name of our hotel. Luckily, the hotel reservation in my emails included the Mandarin name of our hotel and we were on our way. We would later discover that our hotel was actually in close proximity to the airport, but the taxi driver took an extended route. Once again, a taxi driver duped us and we paid a higher than normal fare. The swindle game is real in Mainland China! At the end of our trip we became savvier about using taxis in Mainland China. My suggestion is to have an approximation of the reasonable cost of your fare prior to using a taxi and even agree upon a fare with the driver prior to entering the vehicle. Your hotel’s concierge can provide you a reasonable estimation of the fare to/from certain attractions. If you are feeling slightly more adventurous, our expats friends said the train system in Shanghai is very easy to navigate. A final suggestion would be to book a driver or use a shuttle service.
We stayed at the Royal International Hotel in Shanghai and at the Sunworld Dynasty Hotel in Beijing. Of the two, our hotel in Shanghai was much nicer. The Sunworld Dynasty Hotel was centrally located and was surrounded by great shopping and close to many attractions.
The biggest negative of the hotel was that it was stuffy and seemed to lack proper ventilation. This is a small but important issue to note. We split our day visiting Shanghai’s Disneyland and sightseeing the city. This was a compromise for us as I am more inclined to art and culture, but Kenyatta grew up visiting Disney in Florida and wanted to compare the two. Similar to our experience Beijing, we had a lot of people asking to take pictures with us and of us. By this time we were more comfortable with our self proclaimed celebrity status (lol).
This was also eye opening moment for us. We could sense their true desire to understand our differences and we willingly took pictures after realizing it was a new experience for them. After Disneyland we took a cab to central Shanghai and visited the city temple of Shanghai and the silk market.
There are many Buddhist temples across China and they all seem to have an element of devotion and prayer tied to an urge to sell goods, hence our catch phrase the swindle game is real in Mainland China. The financial district of Shanghai is very modern and was built up in the last two decades to reflect the opulence of major cities such as New York City and London.
We ended the evening in Shanghai drinking beers from a German restaurant of all places and catching up on life all while taking in the scenes around the bay.
HONG KONG FOR ONE LAST NIGHT
The next morning we took a return flight to Hong Kong and after resting headed to dinner with more expat friends. The dinner was at a cool spot that had the best spicy crabs and like most of our dining experiences was served family style.
The next day we spent a few hours hiking on Dragon’s Back trail and then went for a swim at Shek-0 Beach. We left Hong Kong that evening and were exhausted, but grateful for an amazing experience. Despite the cultural differences and getting swindled in Mainland China, the trip was an enlightening experience, but Hong Kong was just so much more of a place I’d see myself calling home than Beijing or Shanghai.
The biggest take away from my time in China was their belief system of harmonizing energy to create mental and physical longevity and their devotion to Buddha. Also their belief system of Feng Shui and in the construction of buildings while making room for energy to pass to and fro. If you learn nothing else while visiting China, pay close attention to their customs and how they interact with one another.
This blog was co-authored by Kenyatta Andrews: IG: @crooklyn06 and firstname.lastname@example.org