Wednesday, July 18

Hong Kong Disneyland

We had voted to skip the Big Buddha, extend our stay past 3, past 6, all the way to half-past-nine. Even with warnings that HK Disneyland was a budding park, it was still the 'best thing' that ever happened to most of our group. Our bus took us to the parking lot, a far distance from the actual entrance. Mrs. James left us with one last thing: we would meet at 3 to decide if we wanted to leave around six instead of nine, in case the weather became unbearable.
I took off with Paulina and Peter, leaving Mrs. Grey and Kozden alone. We raided Tomorrowland, ate lunch (great teriyaki burger) and went to the teacups to meet Paulina's mom, as planned, at 1. Disneyland was surprisingly vacant. Our first ride on Space Mountain required only a ten minute wait, and lines grew to be no more than thirty minutes long. We weren't devouring the park at the rate I intended, however. But we didn't meet up with anyone else so I couldn't switch alliances.
Mrs. Grey didn't show up for nearly an hour, and Paulina sent us out frequently in little search parties to scour the grounds. They were going to wait there all day and all night until her mom showed up, so I gave up after an hour of pointless waiting. We were supposed to meet as a group at a specified location at 3, anyway. Why not enjoy yourself for an hour - her mom was probably doing just that, anyhow. As I departed my two solemn friends, I ran into Mrs. Grey and Kozden. I directed them to Paulina and Peter, and they reunited in a flurry of hugs and kisses. Mrs. Grey had been enjoying a show for forty minutes, having forgetten where exactly to meet her daughter. What a close call.
We joined them to have another lunch at the Corner Cafe on Main Street, after watching the first parade. I only had a drink, but still managed to make friends with the waiter, who told us precisely how wet we would get in the next parade.
I went off by myself for a while, to ride the Jungle Cruise (pirate style, now) and met up with Mrs. James and the gang at half-past-three. All but six or seven of us decided to leave - not even wait for the bus for a few hours, but take off on the MTR - claiming they had done everything this "lame" park had to offer. I stuck with the hardcore Disney lovers, because, as Mrs. James said, "We're only here once!"
We saw every show there was to see and rode every ride multiple times well into darkness. Some of the shows - Festival of the Lion King, the Golden Mickeys - were Disney on Broadway, worthy of the highest Disney honors. After downing some delicious crepe at the Pirate Chow stand, we moved on. The afternoon parade was a special summer event, with floats and music as usual - but the floats shot water at the audience. Nobody really cared about the performance, as long as they got wet.
We got front-row seats for the fireworks at nine, plopping down in front of the colorful "Sleeping Beauty Castle" with a few snacks from the bakery after another meal at the Corner Cafe, where the same waiter remembered me.
The fireworks display didn't seem to end. It was pretty spectacular, music blasting, perfectly synchronized, well orchestrated. We boarded our bus at half-past-nine and relaxed, with five or six seats for each of us. It was much more convenient than any Disneyland trip I've had before, taking us right down Nathan Road without much trouble. The last few miles took centuries, so we got out and walked the last bit. Mrs. James had bought ten shirts in her shopping at Disneyland, and much of the group had followed suit. We returned to the Majestic Hotel, exhausted. Disneyland was open until midnight, but my eyes weren't.

Sunday, July 15

The Big Noodle

After some controversy regarding the flight time, we figured to go along with what the tickets said. 12:50 was our departure time, which allowed for a late wake-up call and then some. We got to the airport two and a half hours before our flight, and the place wasn't even open. We sat in a pre-check-in waiting area and filled out departure cards. I played hearts with Emily, Riley and Will, losing miserably to them all. We eventually got to check in, and despite the strict warnings we had all received, we were all overweight and we all got away with it. Except for Riley and Will - Riley's ten-dollar, perfectly real sword from Tibet was a no-fly. Will, right behind him in line, was the victim of suspicion due to a legitimate metal object in his suitcase. We proceeded through security free of a few dozen kilos each, with still two hours to kill. Everybody bought Pringles at the convenience store, except for one or two people - but those of our group who bought multiple each made up for them. We nearly ran the store out of their stock.
My hunger couldn't be satisfied, so I chose to blow some yuan on a ten-dollar Häagen Dasz ice cream bar that Riley claimed to taste "orgasmic". So the minute-and-a-half I spent with it wasn't so guilt-ridden. Finally our Dragonair flight boarded, consisting of the most cramped seats but possibly the nicest service we had yet to encounter in China. The flight was also one of our longest, just over two hours. The landing in Hong Kong was a nostalgic one, for me. Just three weeks earlier I had parted with this very scenery, same weather, and a glimpse of things to come.
Our exit was quick with the exception of our lack of immigration documents, partly Dragonair's fault. It was a joy to have a big bus again, and especially in the traffic of Hong Kong. The door-to-door service made us feel like royalty, especially in my memory of the trouble of getting to and from Disneyland.
We arrived at the Majestic, not nearly majestic at all, looking upon the glorious wall of a tenament building. Our guide, Erik, explained our options for the free evening. We, in groups as always, could take the Star Ferry, watch the light show, see Harry Potter in Mong Kok, shop Nathan Road (of which our hotel was right in the middle, a mile from the harbor), or do whatever. Along with Paulina, Peter, and Mrs. Grey, I decided to see Harry Potter 36 hours or so before anyone in the States could dare to do so. I had plotted our route via MTR, bur Mrs. Grey insisted on taking a taxi. So, after so communication difficultues, in which Peter's Mandarin came in handy, we found ourselves at a theater right on the bay. It had three or four screens, each featuring about 100 seats. An interactive seat map displayed on a big screen above the counter, and the moviegoer could pick exactly which seats he or she wanted. Since there were no more than a dozen tickets sold as of yet, we got center seats near the front. In fact, there wasn't a soul in front of us.
We had an hour and a half until the showing, so we set off for dinner. The street was filled with Prada and Coach stores, until the first restaurant we found, the Hard Rock Cafe. It was a sporty little place, with a big shop and restaurant upstairs, hundreds of TVs as usual, and free wired and wireless internet for customers. The hand dryers in the bathrooms looked like something out of Star Trek. The food came in all varieties. I had chicken fajitas. Why not.
The theater wasn't even half full. It was a long, narrow room with not much height from front to back. The screen was a dumpy little thing, and the sound wasn't "surround" per se, but it was still impressive. Chinese subtitles are something one gets used to, I found out. And they don't just exist on the bootleg DVDs. The theater only offered sweet popcorn, or even sweeter popcorn - caramel corn. Something about the Cantonese taste...
The movie had few previews, most of which were in Cantonese. It lasted just over two hours, but didn't feel like it.
We had given in to the adult of the group, and took a taxi back. It took twice as long, seeing as we passed the hotel three times before our driver realized it, but we got home. As usual, I was out before anyone knew what happened.

Thursday, July 12

Haberdashery in Hangzhou

We were free from the trouble of visiting three monasteries in a day, but we still had just one left. The Lin Yin Temple was "one of the most famous" in China. I wondered when they would stop saying that about everything. It was certainly one of the more scenic ones, however.
The weather was over 35 °C, and humid, so the air was filled with bugs. Over 300 Buddhist figures were carved into the rocky faces of the mountains in which the temple was nestled. We walked through a small cave, under a hill, and over a bridge under which a mellow stream passed. An elaborate pagoda served as a tomb for an early Indian monk. Our guide led us into an even more secure area, where the massive temple structures rose up, their golden roofs blinding us. The first hall was pretty standard - four gigantic protectors, a great statue behind candles, incense, and anxious pilgrims. We moved on to an even bigger one, then even bigger. The last was big enough to get lost in. It was a giant maze, shaped in a clockwise-pointing swastika. Thousands of statues lined the path, all commemorating actual disciples of the past. The faces, size and all were supposed to be correct.
Our guide explained the meaning of one of the statues on the face of the mountain: a big Buddha with a big belly. The big belly means he has laughed a lot in life, a good thing.
We climbed to an even bigger hall, where only a few unimposing statues lined the walls. In the center, a 13-meter high solid gold Buddha sat - the largest sitting Buddha in China. I can't believe they have records for that kind of thing.
We had half an hour to explore, and Mrs. James pointed out several footpaths scaling the mountain we had passed earlier. I went alone, passing a few local tourists, as the steps went up and up across the mountain. It seemed like it never ended, but after twenty minutes I reached a viewpoint where I could see the city of buildings that was the temple below.
Mosquitoes swarmed my body dripping with sweat; I had to close my eyes and cover my nose and mouth to save myself from being eaten alive. So I ran down as fast as I could to the bus.
After lunch we headed off to a tea plantation. We got out in the sweltering sun, among row after row of tea bush. Our guide picked the smallest and most narrow leaves, telling us that these young, tender things would be the most valuable. Tea bushes could be harvested about 30 times a season, and they will last for 25 years. Once that time is up, they can be revived two more times before replanting is needed. Considering each pinch of tea can make several cups, that's a lot of tea.
We observed the process of drying the tea leaves, in which a man swirls tea leaves around in a deep, heated bowl.
We were taken next to a frigid room where the master tea packer of the plantation, a lady, distributed samples of the finest kind of tea available - the early spring harvest. It had a nickname: emporer's tea, because in ancient times the commoners were not allowed such fine quality. Also, this kind of tea is never exported out of China.
We continued through the complex after a relaxing teatime, and encountered many more tea products. The biggest hit for our group was tea candy - it tasted like a Butterfinger, slightly more grainy, and perfectly healthy aside from some honey to sweeten the small bar. We wound our way through the huge store, seemingly bigger than the fields of tea outside. A mob of tourists, we had no choice but to follow the winding path and ocassionally pick up a tasting sample.
On the bus to our West Lake cruise, Joy told us of the moon festival celebrated in Hanzhou. It was said that thirty-three moons could be visible: 5 from each pagoda, of which there are three, 15 more from their reflections, one real moon and its reflection, and "one in your heart".
The boat cruise was calm and cool, a break from the outside humidity and hassle. We drifted past the three pagodas, around the tiny island in the middle, and got a good glimpse of the city's skyline.
Although the sun was getting lower in the sky, our day wasn't hardly over. Our next stop was a beautiful tea museum. Every imaginable piece of knowledge about tea was contained in two small floors, with just a few artifacts and displays scattered around. The grounds were far more extensive than the building, however, and almost gave Hanzhou its name as "paradise on Earth".
Our last stop with the group, our final group activity in mainland China, was a pagoda that I didn't choose to climb. Harmony tower, with an original purpose to "control the tides of the river" and prevent floods (don't ask me how, something to do with pleasing the gods, though, probably), was 13 stories high on the outside and six or seven on the inside. I didn't choose to climb it, however; I was thoroughly baked and absolutely drenched in sweat - by just standing there.
After a few hours of recooperation at the hotel, we set off to our final group dinner on the mainland. Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region, but everybody treats it as an international flight. After dinner a few of the group found themselves at the waterfront watching a "musical water show". I had 17 yuan with me, and a Dairy Queen Oreo Vanilla Blizzard cost 15 - so I set off to find the DQ. After walking the wrong way for an hour, I realized my mistake and turned around. Not having enough money to take a taxi, I walked for another hour and five minutes more, to the Dairy Queen I was so familiar with. I knew how to get back to the hotel from there, so I returned to suck up all the extra sleep I could get. Tomorrow we would fly to the big city, civilization - Hong Kong.