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Part 10: Beijing/Great Wall — Little Big Trip 2014

Part 9: Rome

Why Beijing/Great Wall?

Because it’s the Great Wall. So many people have been, and I wanted to see it for myself, up close, and see how it’s structured.

I wanted to go to Beijing to visit Tiananmen Square because of the history, and I wanted to visit the Olympic Park and Stadium because I love the Olympics.

Itinerary

  • Wednesday, 5 November: Arrived in Beijing. Visited Tiananmen.
  • Thursday, 6 November: Visited Olympic Park.
  • Friday, 7 November: Great Wall tour, including jade factory and teahouse visit. Checked out Street food Street and Sun Dong An Plaza shopping center.
  • Saturday, 8 November: Visited Forbidden Palace. Checked out “dessert street”.
  • Sunday, 9 November: Depart Beijing.

My Impression

Beijing was nicer than I thought and have heard. My previous experiences of mainland China was only the southern region when I entered through Macau and Hong Kong. Compared to the westernization of the two cities, mainland China was very basic, less developed, and less maintained.

Beijing was slightly more organized and maintained, although I wondered if that was because APEC was visiting at the same time. However, there was little to bring me back to Beijing. I felt that I had seen enough.

The Great Wall was great. But it’s hard to comprehend the scale at which these walls were built, especially when I stood at a higher spot on the wall and looked out at a mid-point along the curving walls, trying to get a sense of scale and distance, and then imagine multiples of that as I looked out farther into the landscape.

Getting There

I flew direct from Rome to Beijing. The flight was ten and a half hours, but it didn’t feel that long, partly because it was an overnight flight and I slept for a good amount of the time.

From the airport, I took a subway train into the city. There was a special booth to buy the ticket, and it costed twenty-five yuan. The ride took about 30 minutes. It dropped me off at one of the subway stations, but I had to exit the station for the airport train first before I could enter the subway system.

Accommodations

Beijing - Hostel - LBT 2014

For Beijing, I booked my stay at the Peking Yard Hostel, partly because it was close to a subway station and that it was part of Hostelling International, which I became a member for this trip (although the only other time I used the membership was in London).

Since the hostel was located in the middle of a hutong alley, I studied the location on the map ahead of time to make sure I was going to the right place. Fortunately, there was the Hostelling International sign (albeit small) in front of the entrance.

Hutong to the hostel.

The Staff

Checking in was relatively simple. Knowing that I couldn’t speak Mandarin well enough, I eliminated all doubt that I was going to speak it by greeting the front desk with a gentle “Hello.”

The staff working there seemed to be young adults, late teens or early twenties, maybe in college and this was their part-time job. But they were all very professional and friendly to customers but were casual amongst themselves. The more senior staff could speak English well enough.

At check-in, one of the staff came out from behind the desk with a full-size airport security handheld metal detector to scan my luggage. I thought it was really unusual, but I wondered if it was because the APEC summit was happening. But she didn’t really scan the bag fully anyway. I saw her do that again with other new guests, and it was almost comical to watch.

One time, I was hanging out in the common area, and I was asked to watch the front desk because one of the staff had to step out to help another guest, and she assumed I spoke English. Fortunately, another staff member came back and I didn’t have to do anything. When the original staff member returned, she mentioned how she asked me to watch the desk, and the other staff member revealed to here that I didn’t speak Mandarin. They all had a laugh and they gave me a free tea. It looked pretty but tasted like regular tea.

Free tea for involuntarily helping hostel staff.

The Room

I booked a dorm for my stay. Each guest was issued a key card for the room and a locker key.

Hostel key card and locker key

My room held four bunk beds along one wall on the main floor, and there was a ladder between the bunk beds leading up to the attic for at least two more beds. They really crammed as many beds as they could. I was going to check out the attic but wasn’t sure what I would do if someone was up there and they caught me peeking.

The room had very limited lighting, so it was dingy-looking for most of the time. I had the top bunk so it was slightly better.

Quick tour of my dorm in Beijing.

The room had an off-and-on faint sewage smell. I tried to track the smell to the bathroom, but it wasn’t it. When I first got to the room, I thought it was going to be a miserable four nights. But the smell went away randomly, and I was not too bothered by it throughout the stay, knowing that I was going to leave in a few days.

I was the top bunk, and it included a little shelf, a lamp, and an outlet next to the bed. The sheets were provided and made, and a light duvet was included as well, and it was all sufficient.

Lockers

Each guest had an assigned locker, and they were wooden cabinet with a key lock, and we’re assigned issued key at check-in. My locker cabinets had a slightly broken door hinge, most possibly from overuse. It’s been used a lot. It could fit a large backpack (though backpackers’ backpack wouldn’t fit because of the depth.

Laundry and Bathroom

I heard there was laundry service at the hostel but I did not bother to ask. So I washed my clothes in the bathroom and hung it in the empty space behind the ladder to the attic. Technically, it was probably communal area, but I doubted anyone was using it, so I took advantage of it. I hung my underwear and things, but I didn’t care; I needed washed clothes.

Hanging my clothes behind ladder in hostel dorm.

However, because the sink looked dirty, I instead washed my clothes in a large clean plastic bag that I had with me. For some reason, after I was done washing my clothes, the previously clean plastic bag had the same random sewage smell as the room. I was pretty certain the smell did not come from my clothes, so it may have been the water or the shower floor, where I rested the bag when I stirred the clothes and water inside.

The bathroom situation in my hostel room.

The bathroom was really basic with a shower stall, a toilet, a trash can, and a few hooks on the wall, though it didn’t feel enough for me. Also, the trash can was for discarding used toilet paper, just like what I had to do in Peru. While I was familiar with the process and got used to it pretty quickly, the idea still felt quite strange and gross to me.

Sign in bathroom in the dorm in Beijing.

Common Area

The common area was pretty nice. There were a few grouped sofa seatings along one wall, and a few small tables next to them. On the other side was a dining table and pool table. There were a lot of plants (perhaps they were fake), which made the space much more friendly and comfortable.

There were just enough power outlets to charge my phone or tablet, but that was only when there were a few people around. If the whole place was packed, then there would not be enough people to charge their devices.

Hanging out in the hostel common area.

The casual vibe was also achieved by the mellow English songs playing throughout the day. One time, I heard a few of Jack Johnson’s songs playing back to back, and that made my day, for bringing a piece of my life to the trip in an unexpected place.

Wi-Fi/Internet

Wi-Fi only worked in the common area. The speed was slow compared to the States and Europe. It was good for light browsing.

Also, they blocked many sites. For a few moments at the beginning, I felt a little lost for not being able to check Facebook. I was a little shocked to be able to experience first hand how some seemingly common and popular sites and apps were blocked.

There was also a Windows desktop computer with Internet access. I actually used the computer to transfer and back up the photos and videos from my phone to the flash drive I bought in South Africa, and that worked pretty well. I felt good to backup my photos so quickly, unlike the weeks of transferring them to the cloud.

Food

See Food section, but basically, the hostel had a decent menu of Chinese and Western dishes. The quality was solid, and the price was reasonable.

Next Time

While the staff was nice, the food was good, and the location was close to a subway station, after experiencing the setup on my room, I felt that I was grown up enough to be able to afford a regular hotel room instead. It would’ve made a lot of things easier and more comfortable, although I would have lost the opportunity to meet people like I did at the hostel.

Getting Around

Subway and walking. Beijing was surprisingly big. For farther distances, I took the subway, and for the rest, I walked.

I was surprised that Beijing had a subway system, and one that was pretty clean and reliable. That’s why I didn’t get a special multi-day or multi-use pass. But each ride was 2 yuan, about 30 U.S. cents, much more affordable than European and American subway fares, so I didn’t mind buying individual tickets, as I needed.

Most stations had a security checkpoint, where my backpack had to go through a scanner. Depending on the station, smaller bags were okay. I was rarely in a rush, so that was okay. I couldn’t imagine how rush hour would look and feel like for commuters. The stations at the Tiananmen Square even had security checkpoints for leaving the station.

Some station had machines that sell tickets. Some have staffed booths. Buying tickets at the booth was pretty quick. The staff are pros with trays of tickets, bills and coins in front of them a touchscreen next to them, ready to collect money, tap the screen to mark a sale, count the change, and issue the ticket. The tickets were in stacks at the ready, so I think they were reused.

At the platform were plenty of signs with route numbers, station names in Chinese and phonetic English, route map posters, and digital signs for arrival estimate. The space was also pretty clean and well maintained. There were glass walls and doors next to the boarding zone, and they would open in sync with the train doors. Some stations had signs pasted on the floor instructing where they should queue up, and people actually followed them. It’s consistent with my experience in Chinese culture where the people respect queues for public transport, but in every other instances, it’s a mob of people crowding and pushing to get their share.

On the trains were also route maps above the doors with lights along the route, marking the path with different colored lights. There was also a lot of advertising, on the walls, on the overhand handles, on TV screens on the walls. There was even advertising outside of the train in the form of frame-by-frame posters along the tunnel walls synced to the speed of the train so they practically looked like a video ad.

An example (from a video I found online):

Most subways stations were spaced a good distance apart. When I arrived in Beijing and took the subway for the first time to get to my hostel, I got off at a station that was the second closest to my hostel because it didn’t actually connect to the closest station. I thought I should just walk it. But it turned out to be a twenty-to-thirty-minute walk with my carry-on luggage on my back. I was fine at the end of the walk; it was like a good walking workout. But I learned my lesson and made sure I got off at the closest station wherever I was going, even if it meant that I would have to take different trains.

Climate/Clothing

  • Time of year: Early November.
  • My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.

The weather was mostly cool. I wore layers and long sleeves all the time. In the middle of the day, when it was sunny and warmed up a bit, I would take off my jacket, but I’d still have my long-sleeve layers.

At night, it got very chilly, and I had my buff to cover my neck like a scarf. I wore my leather gloves as well.

On the Great Wall, it was still cool, but because of all the walking and hiking, it didn’t feel as cold as it would have if I had just stood still.

People

I was in a different situation from other American/Western travelers in China because I am Chinese. The locals treated me more like one of their own, until they could tell that I wasn’t a local.

In many instances, that came to my disadvantage because I was expected to behave and interact at a standard different from other travelers, but I inevitably fell short. That made me look incompetent to them.

One time at a bakery, the cashier did not have enough change to give back, and asked if I had smaller change. I understood the situation but couldn’t understand her exact request and question. All I could do was just shake my head and say, “Don’t have.” and I wanted to say “Don’t understand” in Chinese. Stuck in a tough situation, she started complaining at me, for making her get her coworker to help her get change and slow things down. In the end she had to give me change in the next highest denomination she had, which was a lot more than what she owed me and probably why she was so upset. If I looked more like a foreigner, she would probably still ask her coworker for help, but she would be more understanding and take it upon herself to resolve the issue instead of relying partly on me to help her as a fellow Chinese..

In general, though, because I stayed within touristy areas, the locals seemed to be used to travelers and would be fine helping them as best as they can. There may be prolonged stares if the visitors looked foreign, which may feel intimidating. But I can speak for Chinese people that most of them have a tendency to stare (albeit harmlessly) without realizing the how threatening they looked. Regardless, this was one of the advantage of looking more like the locals, the ability to blend in.

Language

I grew up speaking Cantonese, but Mandarin was the main dialect in mainland China, including Beijing. I could understand basic words in Mandarin and speak it if it’s spoken slowly enough. But for travel, I would still need to know more phrases to successfully communicate with locals.

I learned Mandarin through audio tapes like the other languages for the trip. It was both easy and hard to learn because I was already familiar with some of the words and phrases but not others, so my mind was switching back and forth, figuring out if I already knew the word, and if I did, whether it was used the same way that I thought, and if it wasn’t, I had to relearn it and remember the new definition and usage.

Nonetheless, it was still helpful to know how to read some Chinese characters so I could have some confirmation from posted signs that I was heading in the right direction or that I picked the right thing.

The subway was usually pretty good with including English in signs, although most of the station names were converted to Chinese phonetically instead of translated, so those who didn’t understand Chinese would have to read the names carefully to make sure they go to the place they wanted. Outside of the subway system, it’s a bit more tricky; it’s a matter of luck for signs to include English.

Tours/Sightseeing

Tiananmen Square and Gate

Just like with the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and the Colosseum in Rome, after settling into my hostel in the early evening, I left the hostel and visited a major landmark in the city; I went to Tiananmen Square, specifically the Tiananmen gate.

I took the subway to one of the two stops for Tiananmen. That’s when I noticed the security checkpoints to leave the station. I was also just figuring how to pick an exit, because oftentimes, it was harder to cross the street above ground, especially at an iconic site like Tiananmen Square.

Originally, I was going to check out the Square itself, but I arrived too late and visitor hours were over. There were guards at the crosswalks stopping anyone trying to get through. I saw one guy obviously running across the street to get in, but he was promptly turned away.

Between Tiananmen and the Square.

The sidewalk where the gate was, however, was still open to visitors. So I had to cross the street underground through the station.

While in front of the gate, I realized that less than twenty-four hours before, I was in from of the Colosseum in Rome. A flight and some traveling later, I arrived at another landmark almost half way around the world. It seemed like a common enough event, but it still felt special to me.

Less than twenty-four hours before:

A few days later, I made another visit to Tiananmen Square, after checking out the Forbidden Palace, which was behind the Tiananmen gate. Tiananmen Square was incredibly huge. It’s hard to imagine any sort of public gathering that could fill the entire square with people.

To get to the Square, there were a few entrances. I took the eastern entrance, which was accessible after a crosswalk. There was a security checkpoint station with bag scanners. Lines were formed amorphously so like everyone else, I slowly pushed my way to the front.

Once inside, there were a lot of tourists, but like I said, because the Square was enormous, it actually felt sparse.

Tiananmen Square was really big.

I noticed very few guards in the middle of the Square; they were mainly at the perimeter, especially the side closest to the iconic gate.

Olympic Park

I took the subway all the way north to the Olympic Park. There were two stations that stopped at the Olympic Park, but only the northern one was open. And since the Olympic Stadium was near the south side, I walked down the entire park, with very little to see along the way.

At Beijing Olympic Park looking south.

I found out somehow that the Olympic Stadium was closed to visitors, most likely because of the APEC summit. Even the area around it was closed off. So the closest I go to the stadium was the southern perimeter of the park. It was often obstructed by trees and fences, so I had partial view of the stadium and the Olympic Cauldron.

Olympic Cauldron next to Bird's Nest.

As close as I got to Bird's Nest.

I walked around the southern perimeter, which was a ramped, trenched alley, and emerged on the west side, which was where the Water Cube aquatic center was. It looked closed off, too, so I only took pictures from a distance.

As I made my way back north, I noticed an art sculpture with a bunch of boxy-people figures stacked to create a giant tower. I thought it was really interesting and optimistic, so I took pictures of it, including a selfie.

This tower delighted me to take a selfie.

To my surprise, the day after I returned home from the trip, I was running errands in downtown San Francisco and noticed a similar sculpture. Having just ended the trip, memories were still fresh in my head and seeing the sculpture was a nice reminder and full-circle throwback of my experience.

Stacking people structure in downtown San Francisco the day I returned from the trip.

While I had only planned to check out a small section of the park (the stadium side), I managed to start from the north side, make a clockwise loop around the park, and arrive back at the northern station for my exit. It was a very long walk, but it was all I could do to milk my experience at the Olympic Park.

Overall, the visit to the Olympic Park was nice, but I was very disappointed that I could not see the stadium and the Olympic Cauldron up close or get inside. And since the Olympic Stadium in London was also having work done, my dream to visit Olympic Parks in the inspiring way that they had been for me was still unfulfilled with this trip.

I had little plans to visit Beijing again, but being able to check out the stadium, cauldron, and aquatic center up close, and hopefully inside, would be the only reason I would return.

Great Wall Tour Package

Beijing - Great Wall - LBT 2014

I booked a Great Wall Tour through Viator. There were tours that went to either Badaling or Mutianyu, and after looking up reviews on TripAdvisor, I decided to go to Mutianyu because it was supposed to be less crowded. Before booking the tour, I also briefly looked into getting to the Great Wall myself, which involved taking buses at certain times and whatnot, which, from previous experience of transportation in mainland China, I would feel more confident purchasing a tour that took care of all of that for me, similar to my Machu Picchu tour in Peru.

My tour guide Jacky called my hostel the previous day to confirm the tour and the pick-up time. The morning of, Jacky picked me up and I followed him down the hutong to the main street and hopped on the van. As we made our way, he asked where I was from and if I spoke Mandarin, in Mandarin. I responded in English that I was from the States and I spoke Cantonese and very little Mandarin. Once I got on the van, I sat in the back since I noticed that the van was full and I was the last pickup.

The tour included a stop first at a jade factory in the city. We saw workers behind glass walls filing down jade into shapes, and went into rooms checking out the different types of jade and learned how to spot fakes. Then we were given a good amount of time to browse through the sales floor and shop for jade products. I didn’t get anything because 1) I had no plans to buy jade on the trip; my plan was to see the Great Wall, and 2) any purchases would take up an additional space in my luggage.

After the jade factory, we made our way to the Great Wall. The ride didn’t feel too long, especially when Jacky was practically constantly giving us little factoids and history about the Great Wall. It was almost getting annoying. He even started to sense it and mocked himself, asking us to remember the factoids to recite to our friends, in addition to mentioning that the tour guide never stopped talking. For what it’s worth, I commended him for putting in the effort and energy to inform and to keep us awake and entertained.

As we approached the site, Jacky explained how the tickets worked. He mentioned how we could hike our way up the mountain to the Wall, or take a ski-lift ride up, which costed money. In my head, I thought it would be fine to get to the wall on foot, but everyone else seemed to want to pay to ride up, and also honestly, I was confused by Jacky’s explanation, so I just did what everyone else did.

I continued to follow everyone else and took a ski-lift ride up the mountain. It seemed like an exciting thing to do, but considering all the stuff I had done already on the trip, it was pretty anticlimactic. The one thing I noticed was a track for toboggan slide down. Considering how this was China, I felt a bit uneasy to doing something like this, putting faith in the construction quality of the track.

Lift to the Great Wall.

Once I got off the lift at the top of the mountain, walked up the stairs to the wall, and stepped foot on the inside of the wall, a rush of excitement went through me very briefly. I had the “I am really here!” feeling quite quickly; usually, I had to stop what I was doing, become aware of the present, and remind myself where I was and be grateful about it. But for some reason, seeing the top of the wall, and that it continued down both sides for as far as I could see, made me feel very open, free and compelled to explore the the entire length. I was very giddy in my head, though I did let out a smile. But I soon calmed myself down and began my walk.

Some of the towers between the walls looked very well-designed with built-in walls dividing the interior into different sections. I couldn’t really imagine what could possibly be in these sections, other than weapons. But the window views were neat to look through.

View from the window in one of the towers on the Great Wall.

A sense of space in a tower.

Some parts of the walls had very steep steps, some as tall as two feet, I felt. It made me wonder how soldiers back then would be able to go from one tower to another tower without becoming winded just from climbing the steps.

Tall steps to get up to the tower.

At the end of our allotted time, I returned close to where I got off the ski lifts, but instead decided to ride the toboggan back down, partly because two other guys from my tour group did it, and partly because this was a rare opportunity, and I had to take it.

The toboggan ride was kind of fun. It had a smooth metal track but the speed was medium so there was not a point on the ride where I felt like it was so fast that I could potentially fly off the track. There was one control: a stick between my legs. It allowed me to slow down the toboggan and to stop it. Even though there were plenty of signs along the way that said “NO STOPPING”, I had to slow down a few times because there were a few riders in front of me that required me to slow down or stop so I didn’t crash into them.

Someone’s video of riding the toboggan:

Throughout the ride down were also small spaces where someone would sit at a chair with the radio, monitoring traffic. There were also signs along the way to discourage riders to stop the toboggan to take photos. The only photo I took was me at the start of the track getting ready to ride down.

Getting ready to ride the toboggan down the mountain from the Wall.

Lunch and Cloisonné Enameling Factory

After getting back to the base of Mutianyu, we made our way back to the van and headed for lunch. We went to a small restaurant in the middle of nowhere and had a standard Chinese lunch. I got a chance to learn about the other people from my tour group and it was interesting hearing people’s backgrounds.

There was this one lady and her teenage son, who were from LA. She seemed to have, let’s say, a lot of care taken to her facial appearance, which was an LA stereotype, and her son looked like a skater boy type of teenager and appeared to be bored most of the time. But when she talked about her travels around the world, she gave a spiel about how people in other countries making less money than we did or living in homes that we considered undeveloped were actually not poor, that it was just the way they lived and their standard of living was just lower, and to judge them based on that was unfair. And when the son took off his beanie, he looked more like a mature teenager, happy to take a trip with his mom. That and the spiel made me feel bad and guilty about the assumptions I made about them, and it reminded me to continue to be open-minded about other people, especially strangers.

After lunch, I thought we were going to get back on the van and head back to Beijing. Instead, Jacky led us to the Cloisonné enameling factory right in the same property as the restaurant. I had no idea; and it started to make sense why we had lunch at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere.

Cloisonné was apparently an ancient art form where special color powder were decorated onto copper pieces and then baked in a kiln to set the color. We took a brief tour of the factory, which pretty much consisted on room after room, divided by the different stages of the process. The store sales floor obviously had a lot of cloisonné merchandise for sale. The pieces there were quite impressive, especially large floor vases. Despite the beautiful work, I still diddn’t buy anything from the store.

Teahouse

Our last stop the Great Wall tour was to learn how to make and drink tea at a teahouse in the city. We were led to a room with chairs around a table full of jars and set up, and we were introduced our tea expert. She taught us the etiquettes and process of drinking tea in Chinese culture, along with the different tea types that they made.

Staff explaining pu-erh tea.

Staff's tea tasting table set up.

I had interest in teas, though not to the extent of setting it up like a teahouse. In my fascination and raised interest in discussions about teas, after the tea tasting, I picked out one of the teas I liked and bought it. This was different from how I normally behaved, especially from earlier that day at the jade factory and the Cloisonné enameling factory. Also, the tea was kind of bulky so it would definitely take up some space in my luggage. But I thought that since my trip was going to end soon, I could afford to carry that weight for just a little bit of time.

Lychee red tea from teahouse.

One of the stories Jacky kept mentioning before the teahouse was how it’s important to hold the tea cup a certain way (with all fingers inside) and not with pinky pointing out, otherwise the person would be considered a “lady boy” like a gay, who would have served the emperor in the old days. Perhaps it was my Californian sensibilities, somehow that sounded insensitive and a little ignorant to me. Knowing the culture, though, I’m almost certain it was only meant as a joke. An outdated one by my standard, and I was not amused.

Shopping Area

After the Great Wall tour, I asked the two German guys from my tour group if I could join them in checking out the apparently well-known street food scene. So instead of being dropped off at my hostel, I got off the van and said goodbye to Jacky and the rest of the tour group.

We ended up around the intersection of Donghuamen Street and Wangfujing Street, which seemed to be a large tourist/retail area.

Retail area in the evening. Intersection of Donganmen St and Wangfujing St.

We started exploring the area, looking for the street food. On the way, we noticed an interesting looking vehicle where the wheel was the frame, and the whole thing rocked back and forth. It looked kind of cool and I wanted to try it.

Hamster wheel cart in action near Sun Dong An Plaza.

We found the street with the long row of street food vendors. Apparently, it was one of those street foods that served insects on sticks. One of my new German friends was so excited about this and had a mission to eat different types of large insects and bugs. The vendors also seemed to favor and call out foreign-looking travelers in their best English to try their food. It’s a thing that I was not aware of but also not surprised by.

Various insects on sticks.

Tour group mate eating scorpion.

For me, I stuck to more regular food, like potstickers.

I stuck with potstickers, thank you.

After that, we checked out the Sun Dong An Plaza shopping center nearby. It was really nice and large. We looked for more food (I had a McDonald’s sundae, even though we ordered McFlurrys), checked out movies that we could maybe watch in the theater, and checked out the giant screen showing us on the ground floor.

Inside Sun Dong An Plaza.

Seeing ourselves on the big screen at Sun Dong An Plaza.

After that, I led the two guys, who didn’t know any Chinese, to the subway station so they could have a better chance of getting back to their super cheap hotel somewhere south of where we were. I took the subway and returned to my hostel.

Forbidden Palace

Beijing - Forbidden Palace - LBT 2014

On my final full day, I decided to check out the Forbidden Palace. I took the subway to Tiananmen and lined up where the signs directed. The place, which was considered a museum, opened at 8:30am, but there were already a lot of people in line. Fortunately, once the doors opened, the lined moved pretty quickly.

I actually got to walk through the main Tiananmen gate, the same one commonly seen in photos of Beijing. I felt the weight of the giant portrait of Mao as I walked towards it, conflicted by the differences in political ideals, despite this supposedly being the land of my people.

After walking through another gate (Duanmen), I queued up to buy my admission ticket. Then I looked around for the place to get an audio guide, which was near the entrance of the actual museum. The staff who loaned me the audio guide was surprised I wanted the English version.

The audio was kind of cool because it had a map of the museum, with different lights at different locations. Depending on where I was, the audio guide would detect it and play the corresponding recording about that spot.

Back of audio guide for Forbidden Palace, with map and lights to indicate where I was.

The first few sections of the tour were the main gates and buildings of the palace, like the Meridian Gate and the Hall of Supreme Harmony, where the emperor meet officials and guests and whatnot.

Then I moved on to the side quarters where the emperor’s wives and other relatives lived. It was a bit disorienting because it was essentially room after room and red-walled alleys one after another.

One of the alleys in the Forbidden Palace.

For some reason, I was fascinated by the red walls. Even though the museum probably has people repaint he walls red every once in a while, I felt that they could still tell so much history about the place. Also, the fact that they were just painted red without any other decorative paintings or writings. Compared to modern times, blank walls would be subliminally asked to be filled or vandalized.

Red wall and roof.

More red wall.

Near the end, there was a room that displayed the last emperor’s things. One of them was a plate that showed the Coronation of Napoleon I.

Coronation of Napoleon III on a Plate at the Forbidden Palace.

I recognized that painting very clearly, for I had seen the real thing a few weeks before in the Louvre. This was somewhat trippy, because I immediately imagined France in the early 1800s, picturing how that painting would someday be copied onto a plate and delivered almost halfway around the world. I also wondered how the French would explain the significance of the painting. Seeing how history transports and intersects was very fascinating to me.

Saw this in history class. Coronation of Napoleon I at the Louvre.

The last section of the museum was a garden, where a lot of people were hanging out, perhaps because they didn’t want to exit just yet. I hung out there too for a bit, but ultimately, I returned the audio guide, which was buzzing anyway either because it ran out of power or that it automatically signaled the end of the tour.

Food

A note about my relationship with food: I am more of a “eat to live” type of guy. In my regular daily life, I try to eat very healthy, and I splurge a little bit once in a while. When I’m traveling, I loosen my restrictions a bit and eat what I can get, while still trying to select the healthiest choice. However, if there is a dish or a food that is well known where I’m traveling, and it’s within my taste preference and budget, I would put in extra effort to try it. And my weakness is desserts.

Beijing - Food - LBT 2014

Hostel

Surprisingly, the hostel had a decent selection of food. The menu consisted of half Chinese dishes and half Western dishes. For breakfast one day, I ordered a western breakfast, which apparently consisted of toast, a fried egg, sausage links, potato patties, and bacon. But food seemed to be smaller in China, and I wasn’t sure what kind of meat was considered bacon in China.

Breakfast at hostel.

I also ordered a spaghetti with carbonara sauce, because after my experience in Rome, I still thought carbonara was a red sauce.

Pasta with carbonara sauce. Not bad.

Nonetheless, the cooked meals at the hostel was solid, probably because guests had to pay, so the quality had to be at a certain level.

Convenience Store Food

I had trouble finding a standard grocery store near my hostel in Beijing. All I could find were convenience stores that sold snacks.

One of the things I got was “biscuit rolls”, which were very flaky egg-based victor in the form of hollow rolls. They’re usually sold in large tin boxes, but at the convenience stores, they’re available in smaller, manageable boxes.

Biscuit roll.

Chinese Pastries

Aside from the meals at the hostel, I relied on bakeries to fill the gaps. When I was growing up in Macau, I must have had pastries a few times a well for breakfast and as afternoon snacks. There was a wide variety, and I had my favorites.

Chinese pastries.

I couldn’t tell what these were exactly, but they may very well be hot dog bun and raisin bun. My other favorites included the cocktail bun, which was actually a coconut and custard filled bun, and the pineapple bun, which was a regular bun with crusty egg-sugar layer.

One of the bakeries also sold prepackaged pastries, including gChinese rice krispies, which were more crunchy than the Western version, and a version of the “wife cake” which was a flat flaky cake with filling inside.

Chinese rice kripsies.

"Rose flower" cake for the airport.

Dessert

I asked the hostel staff where I could find Chinese desserts, especially the warm, soupy ones. One of them told me there was this street a few blocks from the hostel that was called “Dessert Street”, officially South Luogo Alley. She gave me directions and I decided to make a trip a little later in the night, even though it was very cold outside.

Sure enough, the street was lively with people, despite the cold. I did a quick walk down the street and back to see what types of shops were available. There were warm desserts shops, for sure, but there were also candy shops, bars, and cold dessert shops as well. I usually had no problems eating ice cream in the winter, but I felt that there was no satisfaction in eating cold dessert when my face started to get numb.

I found a simple, humble tofu dessert shop, and I ordered a warm tofu dessert with red bean. The tofu was fresh and light, but it was almost lukewarm, and it pretty much didn’t do much to help with the cold. Still it was a nice treat to have.

Tofu dessert with red bean on dessert street.

Tofu dessert with red bean.

Getting out

I took the Airport Express train from the city back to the airport. When I was at the station to take the train, there was a long security line to scan bags before entering the platform.

Once at the airport, I took an airport shuttle to transfer to the correct terminal based on my airline and flight. The airport seemed to be split up into isolated terminals where people could only go from one to another via the airport-controlled shuttles. I was glad I had lots of time before my flight; I would’ve been much more antsy on the shuttles and out of breath from running across the hall.

From My Travel Log

23 November 2014, 11:17pm, SF Home, bed

  • ​People have been asking me how the trip was, and while I want to go in detail, all I could say was “great” and that it was a lot of things happening in a short time. I’ve also been saying that my favorite spots where Machu Picchu, Eiffel Tower, and Great Wall. My favorite locations were Nice and Maui, coincidentally places with beaches.

Thanks

  • Italian guy next to me on plane
  • Guy in airport elevator who told me without words but just sounds that I was already on the right floor
  • A mom and her daughter and the mom’s friend chatting on the airport train
  • Hostel reception
  • The two workers at the nearby bakery who ask me for small change but I didn’t have any and I couldn’t express sufficiently or answer their following questions so I stayed quiet and they ended up rounding to next yuan and gave me more change
  • Everyone who worked at the subway stations
  • Guards who work around the Olympic Park
  • Jacky the tour guide
  • John, Patrick and Patrick, Canadians, Swedes, Californian mom and son
  • Toboggan operators
  • Copper pot explainer
  • Tea house staff
  • Couple who helped me takes slanted wall picture
  • Guy from group in CA who took pics of me at Great Wall with Mao sign on hill
  • Lady at Forbidden City tourist center who awkwardly directed me in good English where audio guides were
  • Lady at audio guide booth who seemed surprised I wanted English guide and explained how the thing worked
  • French guys who I briefly talked to in French and English and who helped me take a photo that didn’t turn out as cool as I expected
  • Obnoxious guys at Tiananmen Square who tactlessly asked me to move away from their shots
  • People who kindly sold me till for dessert on cold desert street
  • Bakery people who sold me stuff

Tips

  • If you’re taking the subway to get around the city, make sure you get off at the closest station for your destination. The stations are relatively far from one another, unlike the stations in major American and European cities.
  • Most subway stations in Beijing had security checkpoints. It would be wise to travel light whenever possible so you may not need to scan your belongings. Mainly because of this, give yourself enough of a cushion so you’re not late.
  • The quickest entries into Tiananmen Square would probably be the southern corners of the square, because it’s the farthest from the Tiananmen Gate, so there’s less people already in that area. I noticed this after I entered the Square and saw the line to enter through the south side had a lot less people.
  • If you’re going to Mutianyu to see the Great Wall, take the toboggan ride down if you can. For most people, it’s not scary. It’s almost like a children’s ride.
  • If you’re taking the toboggan ride down, wear a GoPro so you can capture the ride without finessing with your camera while riding down the track.

Links

For More

If you have questions about specific experiences of Beijing or the Great Wall, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.

Part 5: London — Little Big Trip 2014

Part 4: Tromsø, Norway

Why London?

It’s one of the first cities I had heard of in my life. So much of the world’s history seemed to revolve around it and its country, especially when I grew up next to the city that was under its rule for most of my childhood (Hong Kong). Whenever the topic of international travel was brought up, London was often one of major cities mentioned. And also, since the Olympics were held there recently, I had to visit their Olympic Park.

Itinerary

  • 22 October: Arrived in London, dinner at Nando’s Greenwich with my cousin and his wife, quick tour of Tower Bridge, Big Ben, and London Eye
  • 23 October: SoHo/Chinatown, Olympic Park, London Eye, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, lunch at Dishoom, personal walking tour with former creative director from work: Trafalgar Square, South Bank, Tate Museum, Globe Theater, Clink Street, Golden Hinde II and London Bridge. Abbey Road, dessert take-out from Princi for dinner.
  • 24 October: Left London via St. Pancras International train station.

My Impression

In the less-than-48-hours that I was in London, I thought it was a solid city. I drew similarities to my experience in New York, with its constant stream of activity during the day, and the similar neighborhood vibe I got from Chelsea in New York and SoHo in London. The familiarity made me feel less impressed with the city, but I must withhold ultimate judgment until I spent more time to explore more areas in the future.

Getting There

I flew in from Tromsø, Norway, with a connection in Oslo, and landed at Heathrow airport. I had heard so much dissatisfaction with Heathrow but my experience was typical of most airports. I then took the Piccadilly and Bakerloo trains into the city, and checked into the hostel.

Accommodations

Since I only had less than two days in London, I wanted to be central and close to the action, or at least to a popular Underground station. Unfortunately, the hostels I considered staying had one night of availability each. It sort of cut into my time to explore London by having to change hostels midway, but I made the best of it.

YHA London Central

I got off the Regent’s Park station at around rush hour and was already experiencing the liveliness of London, with people walking quickly and cars in traffic on Marylebone Road.

I found my way to the hostel using a cached map on my phone. The front desk area looked pretty much like the photos on the website, which was reassuring and exciting whenever I physically arrived at a place I had only seen in pictures, like when I finally walked by Jardin Sagrado in Cuzco that I had only seen multiple times in Google Street View (and once in my dreams).

The staff was friendly; Americans should have no problems interacting with them. One of them did have limited and stereotypical knowledge of San Francisco, which was interesting to see my home from a foreigner’s point of view, and it also took me out of the bubble and realize that the Bay Area was not the center of the universe.

My room

My first night in London, I stayed in a six-person dorm. When I got to my room, it looked pretty empty, and I was told I could take whatever bed that wasn’t taken and clip my receipt next to the bed. But I found out pretty quickly that there were people napping in their beds, and there were only two beds available, so I chose the one by the window and unpacked quietly.

I didn’t interact with my dorm mates too much throughout my stay, but I did discover one by one that most of them were middle-aged men. I chatted with one of them briefly, and he had a long journey coming to London from elsewhere in the England, which was why he was napping in the early evening.

6-person room. YHA London Central.

The beds were fine. There were three bunk beds and I was the bottom bunk of one of them. The beds were made and sheets were included. I loved that there was a shelf next to it with a lamp and outlet. I quickly took out my adapter and starting charging my phone.

6-person room. YHA London Central.

There were large cupboard lockers, enough to store a large luggage. But it was kind of noisy to open and close, and lock and unlock (with my own lock), so I tried to limit my use and take out or put back multiple things at a time.

Every guest was given a key card to get to only their floor and only their room. They also need it to enter the hostel after hours.

Fancy key card. YHA London Central.

Bathrooms

The bathrooms were separated into individual water closets with toilet and sink, and individual shower rooms. The rooms were tight with medium ventilation. The sink in the water closet was incredibly small and had a shelf over it, so it was hard to bend over to wash my face without risking banging my head on the shelf. It was also difficult to dip and move my hands in the sink to wash without the faucet splashing water. It just seemed like poor design.

The shelf made it hard to lean down to the sink. YHA London Central.

Common Areas

The hallways on sleeping floors were a series of door after door. I got lost a few times.

The main common area was next to the front desk, and it had a bunch of long benches and a few couches in the corner. Computers were along one wall with extra outlets, and those were the only outlets I could find, other than the couch areas (which were occupied anyway), so I had to sit next to the computers to use my phone while charging it. There were signs throughout the common area listing activities the hostel was organizing, including movie nights and local tours.

Breakfast

Buffet breakfast was available for a small fee that I paid right at the front desk/breakfast bar. But the process was a bit confusing since it was an open area and there were no signs saying where to pay or how the flow went.

The selection of food was decent and typical (toast, cereal, juice). There was an espresso bar for the staff to take drink orders. The breakfast selection had too little meat for my taste. I felt that I could probably get a better breakfast in the area for only slightly more money. Still, this was a decent alternative if you were in a hurry or crunched for time, like I was.

Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi only worked in the common area, and a little bit at the hostel entrance. When I checked in, I was given a code. I found out the following night that the same code worked in my second YHA hostel as well. The speed was good by American standard.

Next Time

If I were to visit London and stay there again, I would come with friends. And I would spend at least more than one day so I could do some of the activities the hostel was offering.

YHA London Oxford Street

My second night, I stayed at the Oxford Street location a few blocks away. That morning, I checked out of London Central, checked in to Oxford Street early, and dropped off my luggage. The entrance to the hostel was almost unnoticeable. I buzzed the door bell and got a muffled response. I tried to explain I had a reservation, and I heard a muffle response again, but the door was opened.

Once inside, it was a tight space with narrow staircase and an elevator. I couldn’t figure out how to work the elevator so I took the stairs up. I discovered the hostel was about five to six floors above ground.

Luggage Storage in the Basement

After checking in, I was directed to the basement to lock my luggage. At the end of a hallway from the elevator with limited signage pointing towards it wa the room with the lockers. There were two sizes of lockers: the smaller costed two pounds, I believe, and the larger costed three pounds. And it only accepted one-pound coins. Once the locker was locked, the key could be taken out, and opening it would reset the locker, requiring more money to be added to lock again.

My Room

This time,e I stayed in a four-person dorm room. Again, my dorm mates were middle-aged men. I was surprised how popular these youth hostels were for middle-aged folks. Regardless, these men were friendly but could actually be a bit talkative.

This time, I was given the top bunk, which I was excited about at first because up until that point in the trip, I had only slept in the dark, bottom bunk. But the novelty of the top bunk quickly wore off as I had been assigned top bunk in all the hostels for the rest of my trip.

4-person room. YHA London Oxford Street.

Like the YHA London Central location, these beds also had a shelf, a lamp, and an outlet next to the bed. There were also similar lockers at the foot of my bed, but it sort of created a congested area when everyone needed to use it as we got ready for bed.

The bathrooms

And like the other hostel, the bathrooms were split into individual toilets and showers. One difference was that the sinks were even smaller. I think it was the smallest working sink I had seen anywhere in my life.

Smallest sink I've ever seen. YHA London Oxford Street.

The Staff

The staff was friendly and pretty relaxed. In fact, at one point, they were prank-calling another YHA pretending to be a potential guest asking about the rules on pets, until the staff on the other end finally caught on and everyone had a big laugh.

I asked them for recommendations in the area, and they were able to give me a few suggestions.

The Staff and the Chinese Guest Who Couldn’t Speak English

The staff who was working the night shift was otherwise friendly, but he had a lot of problems communicating with an old Chinese man who didn’t speak any English. He lost his patience many times and started yelling things like, “I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU WANT!” at a slow pace, as if the Chinese man could suddenly understand. To my surprise, the Chinese man did not yell back in anger, probably because he felt very lost and desperate for help. So I tried to intervene with my poor Mandarin and managed to resolve the situation by helping the man pay for the computer usage time and print out an email that his relatives wrote for him to get to where he needed to go.

Common Area

Oxford Street YHA hostel was much smaller than the London Central location, at least in horizontal space. The common area was a multi-purpose room that had a few tables and chairs, a custom cushioned seating area along one corner of the room (which had outlets hidden by the cushions), a few beanbag chairs that were seemingly for children, and a few computers on a long table along another wall. There’s also a TV hanging from the ceiling in one corner of the room.

Computer use was charged by the minute, and one needed to buy credit from reception. Printing also costed a fee.

While there, I saw a family or two with kids. I could imagine this being a more affordable alternative to hotels for family visiting London. Therefore, the “youth hostel” vibe was barely there.

Next to the Common Area was the kitchen that guests could use apparently, but it looked so much like a commercial kitchen that I didn’t think to prepare food there in the evening.

Wi-Fi

The Wi-Fi only worked in the Common Area, and a little bit in the lobby/front desk. As I mentioned, the Wi-Fi code I got from London Central location worked at this hostel as well. It apparently could be used for seven days.

Breakfast

There was an option to pay for a regular buffet breakfast, or to order an item in addition to the buffet, which they would make/heat up to order. I ordered an extra sandwich because I felt the standard breakfast would not be enough for me. The buffet also seemed to have a relatively smaller selection of food than the London Central location.

And like the London Central location, I wish they would do a better job explaining how the breakfast flow worked. I felt that if food was laid out in a public space (the kitchen), it’s up for grabs. That just might be my American way of thinking.

Getting Around

Handy subway map. Better than on the phone at times.

Because I was tight on time, I had planned my route ahead of time and grouped the places I wanted to see. I took the Underground to get from one main area to another, and walked my way through the spots I wanted to see before getting on the Tube again.

A friend gave me her Oyster card before the trip so I loaded it with some money at the airport. The fare system for the Underground was too complicated for me to decipher, and the fact that I was going to be in London for less than two days made getting any special multi-day passes pointless, so I just paid regular fare for each ride.

Climate/Clothing

  • Time of year: Mid-October.
  • My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.

The temperatures were pretty mild, a little cool. Long sleeves and light jacket should suffice. In the afternoon I got a little warm from the sun peeking out of the clouds from time to time as well as from walking for hours.

People

The people I encountered were fine; typical big city interactions. The staff at the Indian restaurant Dishoom were particularly friendly and attentive. I wasn’t sure if it’s because I was a party of one in a crowded restaurant during peak times.

Language

People spoke English, but in a funny accent. Just kidding. I barely noticed the accent; I just accepted it as how people talked, and I think people did the same with me, probably because they’re used to tourists. I did noticed one of the guys who worked at the hostel having a strong regional accent or slang that I couldn’t follow half the things he said, so I just nodded and smiled.

Sightseeing

This is my account of my one and only full day in London.

Chinatown

I read that Gerard street was the main street in Chinatown, so I headed that way, only to find the street being two blocks or so long, and with me visiting on Thursday morning, very few shops were open, and half of them seem to be restaurants. The street barely had people walking by; it was mainly workers unloading shipments from a truck. Very different from the Chinatown of San Francisco or New York.

Olympic Park

I got off at Stratford station to find myself at one end of the shopping center. I made my way to the park side, using the stadium in the distance as my north. Most of the park was empty. I saw a few joggers and one or two small groups of people hanging out.

Union Jack bus art piece at the Olympic Park.

I walked by little sculptures and displays throughout the route, trying to picture two years prior, when a lot visitors checking out the park.

I got to the stadium but there was construction, and the perimeter was blocked off. I walked around it to the ArcelorMittal Orbit, of which I was still confused by the concept. I noticed a few class field trip groups in that area as I sat down on a bench to take a break and have some snacks.

Aquatic Center. Couldn't find visitor entrance.

I walked some more towards the Aquatic Center and found the entrance where there were young kids coming in and out of swim practice, but I couldn’t see any information about checking out the pool. I walked around and peeked through the tinted windows and noticed a standard looking Olympic-sized pool, so I probably saved some time and money by not going inside anyway.

I walked back towards the shopping center to give it a browse, but there were very few interesting shops to peak my interests.

London Eye and Jubilee Gardens

The London Eye had a long line, so I avoided it, as much as I wanted to have an elevated view of London. I did take a quick look of the timeline exhibit of the Jubilee Gardens nearby and learned about the history of that street block in the past century.

Big Ben

Took pictures of it, including selfies from Westminster Bridge, like all the other tourists.

Big Ben and London Eye during the day.

St James’ Park

I continued down Westminster Bridge and made my way past a couple of people in suits and suddenly, the scene turned very manicured and recognizable from scenes I had seen on the news. I didn’t know where I was exactly at first, though I had a hunch. I saw park maps pointing towards the Buckinham Palace so I strolled through the park, enjoying the walk and the sights of little bridges and lakes.

Buckingham Palace

Out of St. James’ Park I noticed really tall, fancy looking gates and finally seeing the palace in the distance with a giant traffic circle in between. It took me a while to figure out the quickest way to get to the front of the palace, and that was a series of crosswalks and detours. At many points, I was tempted to just run toward the middle circle when there weren’t cars, but I didn’t do it because 1) it was rare and unpredictable to spot cars going by; I was confused which traffic lights were for which lanes, and 2) with it being the Buckingham Palace, I was afraid there would be security catching me and ordering me to leave the premises. So I took the long and proper way to get in front of the palace, took a “few” photos, and moved on. It was after noon so the Changing of the Guards already happened that day anyway, so there was very little reason to stay there.

Trafalgar Square

After lunch at Dishoom, I met up with my former creative director, a British woman, who contacted me earlier that day when she found out I was in town (after I sent a selfie with Big Ben to her and another former manager who used to live in London). We walked to Trafalgar Square, and she told me the history and significance of it because I knew absolutely nothing about it, not even how to pronounce it, until that afternoon. (I still have very little understanding of it.) To me, Trafalgar Square was a really big square with a lion sculpture in front of the National Gallery, and a giant column in the middle. We took a few pics and moved on.

South Bank, Tate, Globe Theatre

We made our way toward the Thames, crossed the Golden Jubilee Bridge, and walked along the South Bank while she became my personal tour guide and gave me a very brief history of the area.

We stopped by the Tate Modern and checked out the exhibition they had in the lobby before resuming our walk by the Thames. She pointed out Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, which I wasn’t expecting and also felt sort of hidden if she hadn’t pointed it out to me. I took an obligatory photo and continued our walk.

Clink Street, Golden Hinde II, and London Bridge

She then took me down Clink Street to show the really old English buildings and the way streets used to be. We arrived at the Golden Hinde II, which was a replica or something of a ship with great history, which I forgot.

Then we ended our tour at the foot of the London Bridge as she had to meet up with other friends. She pointed out the Tower Bridge in the distance, which I could almost see, but that was as close as I got to it in the day time. I had seen it the night before when my cousin drove accross it, with lights beaming on the over-the-top ornate details. I was tired from the long walk by the river so I decided that was good enough and I should head to my next destination instead.

As close to Tower Bridge as I got in the daytime.

Abbey Road

It took me two tries to get to the right place. Somehow I thought the station to get off was Kingsbury, but a double-check via some random wifi outside of Kingsbury station revealed that I was supposed to get off at St. John’s Wood.

It was getting dark and looked like about to rain, so I walked as quickly as I could toward the pin on my semi-cached map. The intersection was a fork, and it took me a while to figure out the best place to take a picture of the famous crosswalk. I debated whether I should get a picture of me doing the pose. I thought it was cheesy and awkward to be just one person in the picture. But I did see a group of ladies being directed by some guy who seemed to be hanging around with an iPad for this purpose, so I took photos of their process.

Some guy rehearsing visitors on the pose.

The pose.

After seeing them take the photo, there was little else to do; it really was just a crosswalk. So I made my way back to the station, but not before getting the start of a downpour.

Food

A note about my relationship with food: I am more of a “eat to live” type of guy. In my regular daily life, I try to eat very healthy, and I splurge a little bit once in a while. When I’m traveling, I loosen my restrictions a bit and eat what I can get, while still trying to select the healthiest choice. However, if there is a dish or a food that is well known where I’m traveling, and it’s within my taste preference and budget, I would put in extra effort to try it. And my weakness is desserts.

Nando’s Greenwich

The first night, I went out to dinner with my cousin and his wife at Nando’s Greenwich. The food was good; it was what I expected from a higher-than-fast-food restaurant.

Breakfasts

For breakfasts on both days, I paid for it at the hostel. I think it would’ve been better to get breakfast outside of the hostel if there was more time for it. Otherwise, paid breakfast in the hostel was still fine.

Dishoom

Chicken dish and naan at Dishoom in Covent Garden

A coworker highly recommended Dishoom. I thought the food was solid but not exceptional. I had a chicken dish with curry, naan, and rice as well as a lassi. Everything was delicious, but nothing really stood out.

Rose and Cardamom Lassi at Dishoom in Convent Garden

Service was really great, even when I was by myself and it was very busy. They wanted to squeeze another party so they asked me very nicely if I could move down a seat, which I totally understood and moved without hesitation. And they were very grateful afterwards as well.

Princi

I was craving dessert so I went to this restaurant and got a mango cheesecake and a tiramisu. Only afterwards did I find out that Princi was one of the pastry shops my former manager recommended. I had the desserts for dinner at the hostel, and both cakes were both good. Again, they’re of expected quality but neither were remarkable.

Prince pastries: Tiramisu and a lemon/mango-type cake

I guess I didn’t have any traditional English food. I knew I didn’t want to get fish and chips because of a prior experience. However, I heard from somewhere that Indian cuisine was the most popular in the country, so I did have that.

Getting out

I took the Underground to King’s Cross station/St. Pancras International station to take the Eurostar train to Paris. St. Pancras station felt very serious and modern. There’s a security station to scan luggage, but it was slightly less organized and I stumbled my way through queues. Same with the immigration lines.

Once through immigration, there’s a giant lobby where people wait for many different trains. Once one train was ready to board, half the lobby emptied and more people trickled in to wait for their trains. The actual train platform were one floor above the lobby, and people ascended multiple escalators to get to the platform.

Waiting for Paris train at St. Pancras International station.

There was a restaurant or two in the lobby with free Wi-Fi, along with a small newsstand store, which was where I bought stickers for my travel log. Near the newsstand store was a currency exchange booth where I converted all my remaining pounds to Euros.

On Eurostar train to Paris.

From My Travel Log

23 October 2014, 8:56pm, London YHA Oxford

  • London is like Hong Kong, New York, Macau. It’s real. It’s city life.
  • Walking on Westminster Bridge, I thought, I am f***ing here!
  • Big Ben, London Eye, larger than I thought.
  • London also smells a bit, maybe that’s how Europe’s gonna be.
  • Seeing Hank and Rhi made me not feel alone. But being in an English-speaking place helps as well.

Thanks

  • Hostel staff
  • Hank, Jin (my cousin and his wife)
  • Dave, Paul, Conor (Hostel roommates)
  • Chinese guy who didn’t speak English at all
  • Underground
  • Rhi (my former creative director)

Tips

  • If there are ladies walking around, especially in tourist areas, shoving a little flower wrapped in foil to you until you take it, then ask you for donation and say it’s for “Children’s Day”, and it’s not May, it’s a scam! The first time, I was on Westminster Bridge among a lot of tourists, and one scammer lady grabbed my arm to give me the flower, even when I leaned back to get away from her. She signaled me to come to her, almost angrily, but I kept walking. The second time, I was in Green Park, where there was less people, and a lady approached me more politely. I was in a nicer mood, and more naive. When she gave me the flower, I hesitated for a second. Once I took it, she asked for a donation, and I finally could tell something was fishy. While I was digging in my wallet, she feigned interest and asked me where I was from. For some reason, I felt that saying “Not here.” was appropriate both to express my acknowledgement of being gullible enough to fall for the scam and to withheld any more personal information about myself in case she wanted to further the scam, even though I was sure she could tell where I was from based on my accent. After giving the lady some money, I walked away feeling cheated. I looked at the flower, trying to make the best of it and debating whether I should keep it as a souvenir of a “funny story”. But looking at the flower again just reminded me of the scam I consciously witnessed happening to me, so I chucked the flower into the next trash can I passed by.

Links

For More

If you have questions about specific experiences of London, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.

20

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Early Start

I had been interested in graphic design at a very young age. I remember taking a stab at typography in the first grade when I used the gridded lines from a spare school workbook to draw out the letters of some phrase like “HAPPY NEW YEAR” to put up on the classroom wall. I spent a good amount of time on it (as much time as a six-year-old can) and was really proud of the quality. But when I showed it to my teacher in front of the class, she appreciated my work but said it could be better. After looking at it with fresh eyes, I agreed. It was clear I struggled with a few letters. I had trouble deciding how far out the tail of the R would go: having it flush with the curve would make it look top-heavy, having it go out just one grid block farther would make it look huge. Another dilemma was determining how wide the diagonal strokes of the Y and W should reach: having them closer together would force narrower strokes and look inconsistent; having them out more would make the letters too wide. These were the challenges I faced as a six-year-old, and I loved it. I knew then already that I want to keep doing stuff like this as much as I can.

Life with Design

Since then, I had always done something related to design. When my family moved and I got my own room for the first time, I would rearrange the furniture many times a year. When I learned what the Olympics was, I started to become fascinated by the logos, marketing campaigns, pictograms, and the designs of the medal, the torch and the cauldron from each Games. When I learned web design in the sixth grade, I created many personal websites, redesigning them every so often and incorporating new visual techniques and coding patterns I had learned through the years. When I was a senior in high school, I was the Design Editor for the school yearbook and touched practically every page, stressing over every square inch.

So at the height of my design major in my junior year of college, I was in my element and really enjoying it. I got to work with different physical and digital mediums, and learned a lot about design philosophy (ex. the grid and the golden ratio), history (ex. the Bauhaus and de Stijl movements) and figures (ex. Josef Muller-Brockmann and Stefan Sagmeister, who are my two favorite designers, for very different reasons). With so much knowledge and coursework thrown at me, it was a challenge to do everything and do it well. But because this was my passion (and I was a pro of the all-nighter), the thrill and joy that come out of doing something I loved outweighed any stress and fatigue that I experienced.

Moving to UX

In the five-plus years I’ve been at my current job, I went from a purely graphic/UI designer to a UI-slash-UX designer, with an ever-growing lean towards the latter. I owe this partly to the experience I gained from working with product managers, addressing business goals in addition to making things pixel-perfect. I feel like my design consciousness had gone from the surface level of stressing over visual details to a deeper level of examining the nuances of modern human experiences. It’s opened up a new field of design for me to learn and to grow. It’s more than just driving less clicks or taps, or showing less copy or secondary content on a particular screen; it’s about honestly answering “Why do we want this?”, “How does this help our goals?”, and “Is this the best solution for this specific problem?” In addition to questions about colors, fonts, and sizes, there are now a greater number and wider range of questions for me to consider. As a result, the trick now is to ask the right ones that get to the core of the problem. When that is done correctly, I am rewarded with the clearest, simplest, and presumably the best answers.

Design in My Future

Even though my interest in design is slowly shifting from visual to experiential, I still enjoy all aspects of design. That’s because fundamentally, design is about problem solving. It just happens to be a special form where it mixes logic (which I love) with emotion and experience, and sometimes something visual. It was the case when I drew out “HAPPY NEW YEAR” on a grid; it was the case when I co-created a convertible cardboard bench/table-and-stools (called the “Collabench”) for a design student showcase in college, and it was the case when I adapted and optimized a mobile game at work to the web platform.

I used to worry that my skills and interest in graphic design would become irrelevant as I get older. But with this slow shift to UX, I know now that what I really love and am good at is solving problems, and graphic design just happened to be the vehicle in which I did it. So as long as there are problems in the world, I will have a way to make a living doing what I love.

See

4, 5, 11, 15, 17, 22.

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The Olympics is My Life Inspiration

In the year 2000, I was watching the closing ceremony of the Sydney Summer Olympics when the president of the IOC admired the spirit of the Australian people and said in a monotone voice, “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie.” to which the crowd instead responded in three simple but enthusiastic grunts, “Oy! Oy! Oy!”

I always go back to that moment whenever I think about how passionate a united group can be. This is what I want to see in the world.

The Olympics is one of the few times in life where the world peacefully gathers in one place, both physically and virtually, to celebrate the best of humanity (by having people in their best physical and mental shape show us how much more we humans can push our limits). It was such a powerful symbol to my fifteen-year-old self that I had remained optimistic to this day (and foreseeably for the rest of my life) about the future of human race.

Ever since then, I had become more fascinated by everything about the Olympics: the human stories, the history of past Games, the bidding process, the mascots, the opening and closing ceremony, the lighting of the cauldron, etc. As someone interested in graphic design, I absorbed as much content as possible related to the visuals: the logo and branding, the medals and their traditions (the medals from every Summer Games are the same on one side, whereas the Winter Games medals are more open to different designs), the pictograms, and the torch and cauldron designs.

The Sydney Olympics was the first time I was opened to the world. In school, my social studies teacher created a special unit on Australia to go with the Olympics. And the TV coverage painted a very beautiful and inspirational picture of Sydney and Australia, with the iconic images of the Opera House with the Harbor Bridge, the Outback and Uluru, with the aboriginal people and the sounds of the didgeridoo, and the native animals of the kangaroo and the koala. At fifteen, I had come to believe this is what the real world feels like and that it is waiting for me to join it.

Finally, four years and a week ago, after ten years of making that wish, I finally got to visit Australia. I even got to count down and watch the fireworks off the Harbor Bridge and in Sydney Harbor on New Year’s Eve. A panoramic photo of my view that day still hangs above my bed. In terms of the Olympic park and stadium, I missed my chance to visit them, but it will definitely be on my itinerary next time I’m in Australia.

In my recent travels, though, I visited the Olympic parks and stadiums of the two most recent Summer Games (Beijing and London). I also checked out the site of the current (and future) Olympic stadium in Tokyo. I hope I can return in five and a half years and attend my first opening ceremony. I would also like to volunteer at a Summer Games someday and be a part of history. Depending on the host city, maybe 2024 will be the year.

See

4, 10

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  1. I’ve always loved num_ers.
  2. They _onsistently make the most sense to me and bring order to my life.
  3. I love how such a simple concept creates so many _ifferent properties (Primes, Pythagorean, Pascal, just to name a basic few).
  4. Numbers equ_lizes _nd democr_tizes society.
  5. The more one understands powers, the more power and opportunities they get in li_e.
  6. Numbers connect with nature and science, like chemistry and physics, a_ain, to name the very basic few.
  7. It’s practically a universal language, as in a language of t_e universe!
  8. So is g_om_try, which is pack_d with numb_rs and probably how I got int_r_st_d in graphic d_sign.
  9. I’m a _unkie of numbers, and I’ve got time, quantities, rankings, lists, etc. on my mind.
  10. I group life’s moments in bus arrival estimates, the lunch hour, tabatas, wee_ends, seasons, birthdays, Olympics, anniversaries, etc.
  11. I design with screen reso_utions, tab_e ce__s, pixe_s, dynamic spacing, etc.
  12. I _onitor weights, sets, reps, percentages, and averages, etc.
  13. I ask i_ my head, “How old will I be/was I whe_ they’re my age?” a_d “How old do I _eed to be to be twice, or thrice, or half, or a third of their age?
  14. I com_are gains and losses against inflation and tax rates.
  15. _t’s an As_an stereotype that _ fully l_ve up to.
  16. Similarly, I l_ve puzzles.
  17. They work my brain and make me feel _uite smart.
  18. I enjoy the jou_ney f_om total myste_y to “It all makes sense!”
  19. Puzzle_ are ju_t a form of problem-_olving.
  20. Being a UI/UX designer is an excellen_ example of _ha_.
  21. And life is all about problem-sol_ing.
  22. I naturally try to solve life’s problems _ith numbers as much as I can.
  23. I often s_spect that I might be a robot.
  24. At the same time, I know that some things e_ceeds what math and formulas are capable of.
  25. And _et I still tr_.
  26. I just have to find the balance between numbers and pu__les.

See

11, 14, 15.

Chess Olympics News from Tromsø

I literally found out in the past ten minutes that 1) there’s a Chess Olympics, 2) it’s hosted in Tromsø, Norway (where I will visit in less than two months), and 3) there’s some sort pseudo-conspiracy surrounding two deaths at the Chess Olympics.

How did I not know about this? I thought Tromsø was a peaceful town. It probably is; this post is just making it sound more dramatic than it really is: http://www.vocativ.com/culture/sport/dead-chess-olympics-norway/

But whatever it is, Tromsø, get it together and stay classy. I’m coming.

(41 days until start of trip.)

(56 days until Tromsø.)

(I think the ALS Ice Bucket challenge is nearing its end.)

Dream Project of My Career

I just watched some On Demand programs promoting the Summer Olympics next month, and I was reminded of how much I am infatuated with the Olympics and the ideals and the visual branding campaigns that they’ve had (yes, including the London 2012 campaign by Wolff Olins).

I have long since dreamed to be a part of an Olympic Games visual branding team, preferably where the host city is in the States (although anywhere is totally fine with me; that way I get to take on the challenge and learn about other cultures). The Chicago 2016 campaign is too soon, and it seems like they’ve got it covered already, although they had to redesign their bid logo. So hopefully, 2024 or 2028, since 2020 is probably still too soon in my career.

Flush.