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#36 Unpack my bag, Pack my Heart

June 20, 2009

It has been a while since I’ve written. It has been a while since anything happened, since I packed my bag and left for home, and then I had to unpack my luggage, with all my possessions I had with me, from my mismatched pair of chopsticks to my trusty hoodie to my pile of random travel trinkets, and then…I had to take all the pieces of my heart and put them back in again. The pieces of my heart that I left in every corner, every street of every city and place I’ve been. To say the least, stepping out alone is a daunting experience. I am more than grateful for my exchange buddy Joey who came to pick me up on my first day when I arrived in Hong Kong. I wasn’t exactly petrified, but I was a little nervous as I didn’t know the way around or how things are done. Watching her bring me to my hall made everything less scary as I made them out to be in my head. I was late for orientation, so I didn’t meet the other exchange students from my same country. And as orientation came to an end, my six months began unfolding quicker than the rollercoaster’s whiz from the very top.

Settling down. Making myself at home was never easy. The bed was too hard, the closet too small…there wasn’t a proper place for me to set my belongings down. I wasn’t used to staying in a dorm since I commute back home. My roommate Jennifer is a godsent lifesaver, she let me borrow her spare duvet and her LAN cable to connect to the Internet. She’s easily one of the sweetest things that happened to me. A roommate from heaven, not easy to find, eh? As for the weather, it was freezing! Okay, not freezing, just really much too cold to do anything at all. I am a tropical girl, and I need my sunshine. The first few weeks was a battle against the unknown, the cold, the unfamiliar. The process to overcome was actually really refreshing and fun, since studying abroad is all about new experiences and challenges.

Stepping out of comfort zone. I admit, making friends isn’t as easy as “Hello, my name is…”. Well, it would if they forced us to wear those ugly nametags but we aren’t in kindergarten anymore. Since I’m Asian in an Asian city, I didn’t look like an obvious candidate as an exchange student. Naturally, nobody came up to me to say hello, since it was the second semester, and even the shyest freshman should have at least one friend by now, and from what I’ve seen, people generally tend to make friends with other exchange students quicker than the locals, just because we’re all strangers, outsiders. I had to say hello first, which wasn’t too difficult — I’m not particularly shy, and I made some friends by the end of first week.

Learning my way around. The minibus was a complete enigma. How to pay the fare. The fact that it can only fit 16 people, nothing more. Having to yell “”Mm goy, yao lok!” (Cantonese for “Please, I want to alight!”) so the bus will stop for you. A nightmare for the uninitiated, but something I had to get over. By the time I left, I was so completely confident and unabashed by my crummy Cantonese that I relish every chance I get to yell at the driver. 

Oh, the food! If you think Hong Kong is about dim sum, dim sum and more dim sum, you are WRONG. Tell me, how do the local people get by by eating dim sum everyday? Of course they don’t. They eat “Chinese food”, or what the Westerners like to call it. Chow mein and company, but not exactly the takeaway sort seen on American TV, and I haven’t seen a single “fortune cookie” in HK either. They have flavoured congee (aka porridge, a diluted version of rice), embellished with fried onion or century eggs or slices of chicken or duck meat, they have wanton (aka dumplings, not promiscuous) noodles, they have claypot rice, they have char siew or roasted pork, and of course, they have your standard array of Cantonese or Southern chinese dishes you can eat with rice. When all else fails, you can always head down to the little pockets of Thai or Western establishments for familiar food, or to Chungking Mansions for South Asian/Indian food, or SoHo for anything exotic (Nepalese/Mexican/Turkish/Thai) or European (Italian, French, German). And before you board your flight home, eat some egg tart and pineapple bun, please! It might just be the very thing you’ll miss!

Now, these things are only the beginning to the pains of packing my heart after heading for home.

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#35 The Ugly Side – Those FML moments

May 16, 2009

Going on exchange is fun, on the surface at least, but behind closed doors and behind those glamorous photos, there are many moments that made you wish a hole in the ground would swallow you up instantly, or you can just press Ctrl-Z and go back to a few seconds before when everything was A-OK. Alas, life often doesn’t go the way we want it to and that’s when FML moments happen to the best of us.

Top 5 FML moments

5. This has happened one too many times, but it seems like a recurring nightmare… when I was late and the sun is scorching my skin off, the minibuses are all full and zooming past me… and then one half-filled one FINALLY comes along and I happened to be rummaging in my bag and didn’t hail it down…and it happily went on its way.

4. The reception man/lady asking me if I live in my hall of residence on my last day in HK. Come on, my face is not THAT forgettable!

3. A full load of soapy clothes from the washing machine ’cause I didn’t know yet how much powder to use. Insert coin, press ‘Start…repeat.

2. Bug infestations in the bathroom…on the mirror, the ledge, the sink…everywhere, bleargh!

1. Getting my passport dripping wet ’cause I didn’t screw on the cap to my water bottle tight enough. ‘Nuff said.

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#34 Ten Things I Will Miss About Hong Kong

May 11, 2009

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View from the roof of my residence…Lamma Island in the distance 🙂

Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Hong Kong. What’s not to love? What’s not to hate?

I have this strong feeling that I will miss this place very very much. No, not in the sense where I worship this ground I walk on, this air I breathe in right now, but the experiences, the emotions and the enduring friendships that made Hong Kong more than the mere sum of all these, but so much more.

Ten things I will miss about HK

10. Getting and feeling lost in the cacophony of loud Cantonese conversations around me.

9. Well-dressed people on the streets… it’s a fashion parade everyday!

8. Starbucks at discounted rates on campus and an extensive selection of DVDs in the HKU library. (yeah, call me a nerd)

7. Beautiful, scenic hiking trails and island getaways…perfect for a day trip to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

6. Yummy food…in Mongkok, SoHo, Tsim Sha Tsui, Yuen Long…

5. Paying less than HKD40 for a taxi ride home after a late night out.

4. The gorgeous weather…and the rattling of the window panels when the wind gets really strong outside, how it gets from really warm in the day to really cold at night, how the day is really sunny but it’s actually freezing outside…I love the uncertainties.

3. HK’s highly efficient public transport system and also, being a mere 10 minutes’ bus ride from school, 20 minutes from Central, 30 minutes from Tsim Sha Tsui and with a little bit more time I can head to Mongkok.

2. Never having to wait more than 5 minutes for a train. Damn fantastic indeed. (An extension of point #3)

1. Amazing friendships you cherish dearly because you know it’s not going to last for long.

I am particularly torn when it comes to making friends here. When I first arrived, I told myself, make a few friends just to survive through these couple of months, and get out of here, don’t be too friendly with anyone, because at the end of the day we’re all heading home and we’re all only going to be heartbroken when we part ways to head home.

But the moment I began to meet new people, get to know them, hang out and exchange stories and life experiences with them…I realise, there is no way you can not become friends when you feel an instant connection with them or you have common interests. And from that moment on, I know that I have to brace myself for the heartbreak that’s going to come along with forming a deep friendship here. It’s not an eternal goodbye for sure, but honestly, chances that all of us from all over the world congregating in one place — Hong Kong, spending time and doing things together again after this are practically zero. This is our one and only, first and last chance, to be all together, and these moments will go down in history and be forever immortalized in crazy, sexy and cool Facebook photos…and we won’t hear our collective raucous laughter in the same space again.

The sense of finality is beginning to set in now, with many people I met in the past few months ready to leave. The exodus will begin early next week, and slowly but surely we will walk out of here. The rooms we’ve been in, the glasses we’ve drunk from, the places we’ve hung out in will hear our voices one last time before they ring out and be replaced by a new batch of wide-eyed excited exchange students.

If you ask me again if I were going to do this, I will say ‘Sign me up!’ a thousand times over. I will miss everything that I can never recreate but will forever be etched in my memory. As for the people, I wish one day, someday we will holler at each other over Facebook and meet up in a sunny Californian boulevard, or in the cobblestone streets of Sicily or at a romantic waterfront cafe on the French Riveria, have a Starbucks frappucino for old times’ sake and talk about the past, about life and the future.

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#33 Eight Lessons For Travelling to Beijing By Train

May 9, 2009

Not many people enjoy reading a descriptive travel piece without any extra value towards their base of knowledge, so I shall give some travel ideas and dish out some advice about going to Beijing  instead. What’s of utmost concern to you, the free and easy traveler? Getting to your destination of choice, before anything else!

Lesson #1: Travel guide books may have some doubtful content, but they are mostly right! Believe what Lonely Planet says, at least the travel advice!

My journey to Beijing is an exhausting, close to hellish, train ride, but nevertheless rather ‘adventurous’ and thus made it pretty unforgettable indeed. It did occur to me to book tickets in advance, but since we decided to take the train from Shenzhen (China) instead of Hung Hom (Hong Kong), we needed to buy them in SZ. And we didn’t want to make the extra trip across the border, so we just simply hoped there were tickets to Beijing while we arrived in SZ. Bad move, because there weren’t ANY seats left, let alone sleepers! Booking train tickets in China can be a bitch, so unless you go to a travel agent, you can’t get return tickets, because tickets are only sold at the point of departure. The only good thing is that we paid RMB260 for a one-way ticket, and that’s half the price of a hard-sleeper and near 1/10 of a plane ticket. Money saved in exchange for some physical hardship. Aah, come on, this is what travelling is ALL about! 🙂

Lesson #2: Always buy tickets in advance to avoid surprises and potentially uncomfortable situations, and especially if you can’t bear to stand throughout a 24-hour train ride.

We were determined to get our asses to Beijing the next day, so in the spirit of adrenaline-charged adventure, we bought a “no seat” ticket, which is essentially just a standing space confined to a particular carriage on the train. This proved to be a challenge, especially the culture shock at first. When Lonely Planet mentioned that hard seaters could be quite unbearable and not for the uninitiated, they were absolutely right. In a narrow aisle space of less than 50cm along the carriage stood at least 25-30 people who all purchased “no seat” tickets.

Lesson #3: Know your threshold before you embark on an adventurous journey.

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We sit, we stand, we whine and we grumble…in the hard seat carriage

After 1-2 hours of standing, and with the prospect of standing for another 23 hours at the back of our minds, we decided to sit in the aisle, while people continued to walk up and down the extremely narrow aisle, going to the extremely unsanitary bathroom, or just near the doors for a smoke. It was warm and stuffy, people were eating and YELLING at each other (no fear, this is how Chinese people conduct a cordial conversation). The smoke from both ends of the carriage wafted in and filled the space, since there was civic mindedness in people to close the carriage doors. On top of this olfactory annoyance, there would be annoying standing passengers who would plonk their butt down onto a seat they didn’t pay for, and ask a paid seated passenger to scoot aside to make space, and they usually do because they want to avoid making a scene. Essentially this means that you won’t be spared from having your private space invaded even if you DID manage to secure a hard seat for yourself. For the pampered tourist, this would be the part where you will flung your prissy ass across the tracks and contemplate suicide because you won’t be able to stand this nonsense.

Lesson #4: When in China, do as the Chinese do.

Very soon, adversity forced us to learn the Chinese way. Whenever someone stood up to use the bathroom, we would take their seats until they return to give us the evil eye, of which we would promptly ignore and dismiss. Close to nighttime, after 10 hours of sitting/crouching/standing like an illegal immigrant smuggling into another country, we decided to conquer some space, and sat at someone’s seat and just refused to get up, managing to get 2 hours’ of nap while the rightful passengers stood and watched us (rather patiently, in fact). At this point, I realized that these people must be regulars in these situations and they are quite nice indeed to not have demanded for their seats back, knowing that standing passengers have much rougher time on the ride than they do.

Lesson #5: Be flexible and willing to part with a little money for some precious slumber.

We didn’t learn the Chinese way quick enough though. By 2am, we felt the exhaustion settling in and we were desperate to look for a place to sleep. Looked for the train conductor in hopes of upgrading to a sleeper. No luck… Decided to go to sleep in the restaurant car instead. Passengers need to be paying customers in order to stay there, so we paid RMB35 each for the standard snack set they had on the menu to earn the right to stay until 6am. I later learnt that we could actually spend that RMB35 and stay in the restaurant car from 10pm to 6am, but it was good enough for us to have a bit of personal space for 4 hours. Even though the seats were too short length-wise and a little hard in spite of the padding, I promptly fell asleep, curled up like a fetus, only awoken by a crick in the neck…

Lesson #6: The beautiful moments on a journey are transient and unpredictable, when they appear, just sit back and enjoy.

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Sunrise, sunrise…

The sun began peeking out from under the horizon at a little before 6am. The scenery of the countryside was dream-like and whimsically beautiful. A thick blanket of fog shrouded the rolling plains of farmland somewhere 8 hours south of Beijing, around one-third of the journey left (near Jinan perhaps?). The sunrise was spectacular, since we were facing seawards towards the east. The weather was balmy and crisp, very promising for a great day out in the city…though it was really too early to tell since we were still far from reaching our destination. We were recharged even though we barely slept, but the little shuteye and the prospect of actually surviving this “worth a story-telling session” train ride perked us up and gave us the strength we needed to endure till the end.

Lesson #7: Do amaze yourself by how much discomfort and torture you can actually tolerate, after all, we are made to get used to all sorts of situations.

Many passengers began to alight at the few stations before entering Beijing proper. The carriages cleared up a little and soon there were vacant seats around. Like vultures hungry for a bloody meal, we swooped down and secured some and proceeded to snooze on and off until we reached Beijing West Railway Station. Along the way, babies squealed, grown men talked loudly on cell phones and a travelling salesman hawked his wares along the train aisles…but all of these were muted into a blur. We have developed immunity to what we had thought irritating and intolerable the day before. And, before long, we arrived in Beijing, bleary-eyed but fully charged with excitement, and ready to explore the capital of one of the biggest countries and greatest economic powerhouses of today, China.

Lesson #8: Trains are the new IT way to travel!

Train rides are affordable and relatively comfortable, if you take a soft seat, hard or soft sleeper. You save time from having to travel to an airport, which is usually situated at a far-off location from the city centre, and having to check in 2 hours earlier, all of which are precious time you could use for sightseeing. The rest of the ride can be spent sleeping (for overnight trains), reading, bonding with your travelling buddies, or enjoying the sights outside the window. Contrary to popular belief, trains are not entirely unsanitary and “rocky” (however this all depends on your threshold). Taking a plane may be the more sophisticated way to go, but trains have way better scenery than a crummy window seat. Wider windows, and being on the ground offers more things to see.

So if you are strong enough, don’t be afraid to endure some hardship to save money! All the discomfort and torturous moments would have been ‘nothing’… in retrospect, that is.

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#32 Hangzhou – Cascading Rain @ West Lake

April 20, 2009

Day 3 @ Hangzhou’s Xihu (杭州 西湖)

Date: 23 March
Weather: Rainy (4-6°C)

Hangzhou is famous for its historic relics and the Hangzhou cuisine, which includes the savoury and salty Dongpo Pork (东坡肉), Jiaohua chicken (叫花子鸡) and lotus root powder (西湖藕粉). The city also has its own tea, the Hangzhou Longjing (龙井) Tea, which is easily the most famous Chinese green tea. 

We headed to Hangzhou from Shanghai for a day trip to West Lake. The train ride from Hangzhou to Shanghai lasted a little under 2 hours, for RMB64 (single trip on a first-class soft seat). A steady stream of rain descended form the dark gray skies ahead, and began to pour and trickle intermittently. The temperatures dipped to below 6°C, and even though it wasn’t that much better the day before, it was exceptionally cold due to the relentless rain.

We weren’t about to give up without a fight…and since when does bad weather deter people from having fun? So we got ourselves a trusty map and made a beeline for Xihu the moment we alighted from the train.

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The last bit of Sudi (苏堤)

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Leifeng Pagoda (雷峰塔), as seen from the boat on Xihu

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Stone minature pagodas in one of Xihu’s great sights
Three Pools Mirroring the Moon (三潭印月)

Xihu (or West Lake) is a renowned freshwater lake in the historic district of Hangzhou. It is famous because of its breathtaking scenery, which transforms like a magical watercolour painting with the turn of every season. Xihu is also awarded national 5A scenic tourism spot (the best ranking) 3 years ago. Looking beyond the vast expanse of the lake, you can see pagodas and temples dot the peripheries of the lake, with three straight causeways, Sudi (蘇堤) , Baidi (白堤), and Yanggongdi (楊公堤) cutting across the lake.

We rented a private manually-rowed boat for RMB180 (RMB60/person), which is supposed to be cheap considering it is off-peak season and the weather is dismal as hell. I seem to have bad karma with sightseeing boats because the last time in Guilin I remember I was freezing my ass off as well. This time was no better. The only consolation about the rain was that it lent a misty quality to the scenery and the hills far beyond the lake and away from the city looked pristine and clean, and there are only very little sightseeing boats on the lake, which made it special, as though it was a private tour. The boatsman was candid and began to strike up a conversation with us, when he was too breathless or tired to sustain a dialogue with us. He did point out the sights to us and gave us a little history about the city. He seemed especially excited that we are from Singapore because he was there for a dragon-boating competition 10 years ago…it’s strange yet comforting to hear a complete stranger gush about fond memories about a place we took for granted all our lives. The scenery around the lake was indeed calming and beautiful in a poetic and melancholic way, especially with the endless rain draping like a silver curtain before the cherry blossom trees in full bloom with its pretty pink flowers.

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Train ride from Hangzhou back to Shanghai

First-class seats are spiffy and oh-so-comfortable. If you can afford it, it is worth the extra bit of comfort and space. 🙂

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#31 Shanghai – Enthralling Zhujiajiao

April 19, 2009

Day 4

Date: 24 March
Weather: 22°C

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Overlooking the canal

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On Fangsheng Qiao

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Streets of Zhujiajiao

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Black tiled roofs and white-washed walls

Zhujiajiao (朱家角) is a classic water town situated in an old village in the Qingpu district of Shanghai. It’s 1 hour 15 minutes by car from the city centre, as I’ve learnt from an expensive lesson. (You can take a tourist shuttle bus from the city centre; ask the hotel concierge or travel agency office.)

Despite being very popular amongst tourists, the place has not completely transformed into a commercialised touristy town (yet). If you are just there to admire the scenery, there is no need to purchase tickets at the counter at the entrance. Just walk right in and explore the place. If you like, you can also buy some tortoises and release them in the river at the Fangsheng Qiao (literally translated as Set Free Bridge).

The crisp and warm weather cheered me up instantly, especially after the frigid weather for the past few days! There wasn’t a wisp of cloud in the sky as we headed for Zhujiajiao. It was indeed a beautiful town, I guess there would be more tourists there if it were a little nearer to the city centre, but I’m okay with this because I don’t want to be jostling with a bunch of trigger-happy rowdy tourists. I love the cherry blossom trees and the bare trees against the backdrop of the main canal where small wooden sightseeing boats ferried tourists up and down. The whitewashed walls, black-tiled roofs and uneven rocky walkways lent a charming quality to the village. A good place to rent out a place, chill out and write a book.

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#30 Shanghai – View From the Top (of the World…almost)

April 19, 2009

Night 2

Date: 22 March (evening)
Weather: 8°C

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Sparkling Oriental Pearl Tower

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View from the top… Jinmao Tower

By night, Shanghai transforms into a gorgeous sea of twinkling lights. Bathed in an ethereal glow of platinum and gold from the lights in the streets below, the towering skyscrapers illuminated by rainbow lights popped against the inky black sky.

We headed up the Oriental Pearl Tower, Shanghai’s architectural icon, to catch a panaromic night view of the city of Shanghai. Ascending up skywards at 7 metres/second on the elevator, we reached the lower sphere where we could revel in the expanse of the city, as well as the night scene of the Huangpu River down below. The cars and people below were only slightly bigger than ants. The view from the upper sphere was almost the same as that of the lower sphere, the novelty quickly wore off especially after walking one round in the previous sphere. Nevertheless, it was a fun experience…the tower definitely looked more spectacular from outside. The wind was super duper strong up there, and you can feel your cheeks ripple. It also upped the wind chill factor, and we were freezing our asses up there… I jogged around the space module (first sphere from the bottom) to keep warm and tried to take some pictures before I catch frostbite. The weather was crisp and beautiful, would be just perfect if it weren’t so cold! 🙂

A better option would be to go to the Jinmao Tower’s observation deck instead, but I guess it is too late for me now. Laters…for you guys who have yet to see Shanghai…

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Shanghai Old Street (上海老街)

Shanghai Old Street runs adjacent to Yuyuan Gardens, and boasts a variety of small bargain clothing stores, restaurants, antique shops and tea shops etc. If you feel like flexing your bargaining muscles, here is probably a good place to do it…even though most of the stuff here are already at discounted rates and have prominent signs that warn “NO BARGAINING”. This street doesn’t have much shelter, so if it rains…good luck to you.

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Xintiandi (新天地)

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I’ll have one of those! Yum.

Xintiandi is a sophisticated, trendy entertainment and F&B nightlife spot where you can find cosy restaurants with ambience ranging from romantic to rowdy… The pubs and restaurants are restored from the old traditional stone gate houses (石库门) — a classic case of adaptive reuse! 🙂 The whole atmosphere oozes of old meets new Shanghai. Tres chic! Since it was my sister Kate’s birthday we decided to go into one of the restaurants there to celebrate.. Look at the drinks menu…they have the Shanghai-esque version of one of the most known cocktails of all the time…it’s called Sex on The Bund. Doesn’t sound very sexy, but could be fun… 😉