From a kitschy throwback hotel in North Korea to a nudist B&B in Portugal, we found a few unique places to stay in the world. Here are some of our favorites:

1) Little Petra Bedouin Camp, Jordan


Little Petra Bedouin camp Jordan

The Little Petra Bedouin Camp is so named because of its proximity to Little Petra, a smaller cousin of the world-renowned site of Petra. Just like the name implies, it’s little, but worth visiting as it gets less than 1% of the visitors of Petra. When we visited there were only three other people there. The Bedouin camp offers accommodations in tents. However, we were a little concerned at check-in when the owner cheerfully told us, “I’ve upgraded you to a cave.” So we spent a rather cold night in the cave but it was filled with blankets and pillows and ended up being quite cozy.

Website: Little Petra Bedouin Camp

2) Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel, Beijing, China


Unique places to stay Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel

Keen observers will notice that while Larissa is waiting for the next performance she is engrossed in a game of Solitaire.

Hutongs are traditional neighborhoods of small alleys and courtyard homes in Beijing that are rapidly being bulldozed over for new developments. While the hutongs are becoming a shadow of their former selves, will an art based on shadows help revive them? The Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel is in an old hutong neighborhood and showcases the ancient art of shadow puppetry. Banned by Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution, shadow puppetry is being revived by another Mao, this one an artist.

Unique Places to stay Shichachai Hotel Beijing

The man behind the curtain is puppet artist Mao.

Mao makes his own hand painted shadow puppets as he revives the lost art. A theater was built into the hotel lobby to showcase regular performances for guests.. Staying here provides the visitor a unique opportunity to experience life in an old hutong while watching an ancient art.

Book a room at the: Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel

3) Belar Homestead, Dubbo, Australia


Unique places to stay Belars Australia

The Belar Homestead sits in Australia’s bush country on a 3,000 acre ranch owned by 4th-generation cattle farmer Rob Wright and his wife Deb. In fact, the house was built by Rob’s great-grandfather. The setting off a mile-long driveway is perfect for someone seeking solitude with the only neighbors being a few cows, some chickens and the occasional kangaroo. The remote location provides a spectacular night sky for stargazing. It’s so clear that the Parkes Radio Telescope, which received the video of the first Apollo moon landing, is nearby.

4) Ai Aiba, The Rock Painting Lodge, Namibia


Ai Aiba rock painting lodge Namibia

Namibia has become a popular destination in Africa for independent self-drive safaris. Aside from the big game viewing, there are many areas with prehistoric cave art paintings. Ai Aiba sits within a 12,000 acre reserve boasting over 150 of these paintings. On a pre-breakfast hike we spotted some ancient artwork of giraffes while looking over our shoulder at real giraffes munching on the acacia trees. It was a sublime experience.

Ai Aiba rock painting lodge Namibia

Website: Ai Aiba, The Rock Painting Lodge

5) Yanggakdo Hotel, Pyongyang, North Korea


Yanggakdo Hotel Pyongyang North Korea

Okay this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it certainly wasn’t Larissa’s choice, but the Yanggakdo is the place to go when visiting the monolithic country of North Korea and experience some retro-70s style. There’s even a highlight of that era, a revolving restaurant on top. The rooms were nicer than we expected, although coated somewhat with several decades worth of tar and nicotine. The only way to visit North Korea is via an authorized tour operator. We recommend Koryo Tours. Extra bonus: There’s a two-lane bowling alley in the basement that comes with your own cheerleader.

Website: Koryo Tours

6) Casa Amarela, Algarve Coast, Portugal


Casa Amarela Naturist resort Portugal

If you’re seeking a vacation where you can pack light, really light, the Casa Amarela may be what you’re looking for. The guest house run by Brits Jane and Stewart is clothing optional. The feeling of diving into the pool and then drying off au natural in the warm Portuguese sun is so … well, you’ll just have to experience it for yourself. And while you’re relaxing just think of all the money you saved on baggage fees.

Web site: Casa Amarela

7) Munduk Moding Plantation, Bali


Unique places to stay Munduk Moding Bali

If you’ve dreamed of waking up to a view of a coffee plantation on the island of Bali then this is the place. True coffee addicts can hike the plantation then retire to the lodge for a fresh cup of Kopi Luwak. Made famous as the java of choice for Jack Nicholson in The Bucket List,  it’s brewed from beans that have first been eaten and shat out by the civet cat. Despite that history, Larissa tried it. Fortunately for Michael he’s not a coffee drinker. As an added bonus you can visit the civets in cages and watch them prepare the beans for roasting.

Munduk Moding Plantation Bali

Website: Munduk Moding Plantation

What unique places to stay can you recommend?

To receive updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

We’ve come across some unusual signs in our journey. Some funny signs caution people about not doing things that would seem to be self-evident. Like the sign posted above. It’s in the bathrooms at the Adelaide Airport in Australia. Not that we’ve ever been tempted to drink from the toilet, public or otherwise, it’s nice to know they care enough to give us another reason not to. Here are a few more funny warning signs:

Sign Bangkok taxi no humping (515x402)

These no-nos were posted on a taxi in Bangkok. We understand no animals, we didn’t realize the other one was such a major problem.

Dubai metro fish warning sign

Apparently people carrying fish is a real issue on the Dubai metro.

funny signs

I guess in the land of the hopping kangaroo, Aussie drivers need to be reminded that not everything bounces.

Spit Junction Sydney

An actual Metro stop in Sydney, it can’t be good for property values.

Sarah Palin passport

There was something about the face in this photo shop in Australia that looked familiar but we just couldn’t place it.

A clean toilet seat costs about 60 cents at this Kuala Lumpur Mall. If you’re not so particular you can go down the hall for free.

Squat toilet sign

Okay, in Asia there are Western style toilets and there are squatters. This sign in Cambodia warns against combining the two concepts.

durian warning sign

Durians, also known as stinky fruit, are banned from most hotels in Asia. Their stench is noted for its quite remarkable lingering effect.

What unusual signs have you seen in your travels?

Communist governments feel compelled to preserve the corpses of their founders and keep them on display for public viewing. It’s their way of sustaining the cult of personality that keeps the current regimes in place. In the past few months we hit the trifecta of embalmed communist Asian leaders: Ho Chi Minh, Mao Tse-tung and Kim Il-Sung.

The Ho Chi Minh Tale

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh, the man whose efforts eventually unified Vietnam, was apparently a simple man. He requested to be cremated and have his ashes spread over north and south Vietnam. However his successors ignored his request, resulting in a foreboding Stalinist pile that goes against his wishes.

Due to its heavy-handed architectural style, the mausoleum actually appears larger in photos than in person where it’s easier to determine its scale. Army honor guards wearing white dress uniforms surround the entrance. They appear to be selected based on height because they were all taller than Michael, a rarity in Vietnam.

The chamber housing Ho is fairly austere; the only decorations are two large reddish floor-to-ceiling marble panels behind him, one decorated by a yellow hammer-and-sickle and the other the gold star of the Vietnam flag. The body is remarkably well-preserved, even down to Ho’s signature wispy beard. As we gaped at his body lying under the exposed glare of spotlights we couldn’t help thinking that this was the exact opposite of what he requested.

We were in and out in less than a minute and on to the rest of the complex, which includes his small house built on stilts and the requisite Presidential automobiles.

The Chairman’s Mao-soleum

Mao Tse-Tung Mausoleum, Beijing, China

Mao mausoleum Beijing


The line to visit Chairman Mao wraps around Tiananmen Square but moves quickly and is well organized, one of the few places in Beijing where people queue in an orderly fashion. Mao’s tomb is strikingly similar to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, right down to the seated larger-than-life statue of him staring benevolently down on the masses teeming by.

We filed quietly past the raised casket. His body is covered by a large Communist flag leaving only his waxen face visible. We could easily have been viewing a likeness of Chairman Mao made by an artist surreptitiously hired away from Madame Tussauds Wax Museum.  We were in the room with Mao for about twenty seconds and then shunted on.

Outside the mausoleum vendors sell trinkets bearing Mao’s image. For a system that renounces religion, they have an amazing capability of suborning such symbols to glorify their own leaders. The baubles for sale included  gilded images, similar to religious icons, that the faithful could hang on their walls. It reminded us of the shrine-like gifts for sale upon leaving the Vatican.

The “Greatest” of them all: Kim Il Sung

Kim Il Sung mausoleum, Pyongyang, North Korea

Kim Il Sung Mausoleum

The mausoleum housing Kim Il Sung, forever known as The Great Leader, is a massive marble building that is all out of proportion to the tiny country. It overlooks a vast windswept square that is large enough to hold military parades or possibly land a small jet. In a country of such wretched poverty the contrast is astonishing.

We waited outside the entrance next to two lines of North Koreans from the countryside. The women were mostly under five feet tall, partly a product of heredity and likely a product of malnourishment. They wore the choson-ot , the traditional dress brought out for special occasions. For them it was the trip of a lifetime, probably the only time they would pay their respects to Kim Il Sung. For us it was just another stop on a tour.

Kim Il Sung mausoleum Pyongyang

North Korean women wearing the traditional “choson ot” prepare for a group photo.

In one room large bronze bas-relief murals depicted people of various races in agony: African farmers in their fields crying, Asian factory workers doubled over in pain. We were given headsets with an English language description of Kim Il-Sung’s death. The hyperbolic announcer, who sounded like a Korean Alistair Cooke hepped up on meth intoned, “All over the world, people beat their breasts in agony over the loss of the Great Leader!!!” 

Before entering the viewing area we walked across a contraption with rollers that cleaned the bottoms of our shoes. Then we entered another vestibule and went through an airlock type device; cold air was blasted at us from high-speed blowers to remove any stray particles of dust. The women in dresses looked like they were replicating Marilyn Monroe’s famous stop over the subway vent in The Seven Year Itch.

Suitably cleansed we finally entered the room where the Great Leader lay in repose. We marched around the body in groups of four, with a curt bow required at the feet and two sides of the casket.

We then entered a museum honoring Kim Il Sung. Along the walls, in a literal rogue’s gallery, hang large framed pictures of him shaking hands with notorious world leaders; some of whom, Hosni Mubarek and Muammar Gadhafi, had only recently been deposed by their own people. It makes one wonder what fate awaits the current leader of the DPRK.

Grave doubts

It struck us that the North Korean leader presided over the smallest of the three countries in Asia with embalmed leaders but had the gaudiest display devoted to him. It makes sense though. China and Vietnam are moving forward on a business-oriented track that engages the world, while North Korea is still mired in an isolated cult of personality to keep its current citizens in their place.

Other than the overblown architecture designed to make the common man feel, well, common, you will notice another similarity in these photos, they’re not very clear. This is the result of the horrible air pollution in Beijing, Hanoi and Pyongyang. Just another thing that totalitarian regimes unconcerned about their citizens can get away with.

Click the link to view more about our visit to North Korea.

Have you visited any of these sights?

To receive updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

Who is this guy?

Most people don’t like their passport photo but mine is worse than yours, I guarantee it. It was taken a few years back when I weighed 30 pounds more than I do now, no doubt a result of my ongoing donut fetish. I had more hair but apparently it was combed with a garden rake. I displayed an odd, gleeful smile, like I was sitting on a massage chair that was set to full vibrate. It was also taken pre-facial hair and many chins ago. All in all, not a pretty picture: literally.

The good news is that I no longer look like this photo. This has become evident as I keep getting pulled out of immigration lines by suspicious customs officers. As we were trying to leave China I was sent to a separate area that I assume is normally reserved for suspected drug mules and arms smugglers.

A higher-ranking official was called over to make some sense out of the apparent disconnect between my passport picture and my actual face. Much discussion took place between the two officers as they focused on my eyebrows, the one feature that was apparently unchanged. I tried to replicate the weird grin in the photo but that only made me look demonic and heightened their sense of suspicion.

A phone call was made with many guttural comments back-and-forth. A third officer came over. All three started rapidly glancing from my passport to my face like spectators at a ping-pong match. The senior officer pantomimed to me to arch my eyebrows, at least that’s what I thought he meant, so I arched away. He took out a pencil and held it up to my eyebrows in an odd attempt to figure out if they were still crooked. (They are.) Trying to clarify the situation I pulled out my driver’s license but unfortunately that looks like a third person altogether.

Current visa photo, maybe not much of an improvement but at least it looks like me.

By now Larissa had gotten used to my immigration shenanigans and moved on to the boarding area, apparently “for better or for sticky customs situations” was not part of our marriage vows. She figured no use both of us spending time in a Chinese prison. The officials finally tired of the situation and let me go, satisfied that I wasn’t a Chinese national trying to leave the country illegally.

This problem has continued throughout the journey. When we enter a country Larissa goes ahead to get the luggage while I lag behind to deal with wary customs officials. Ironically, the only place we didn’t have any problem was in North Korea. They searched every bit of luggage to make sure we didn’t have banned items such as cell phones or newspapers. However, the official seemed satisfied as he carefully scrutinized me and gestured to move on.

My advice is if you don’t look like your passport anymore, get a new one. It will save you headaches down the road. By the way, Larissa has nothing to add to this discussion since she looks cute in her passport picture.

What are some of the worst pictures you’ve ever taken?

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

We’ve generally rented apartments with some hotels thrown in. A few of them have had incredible views of either city scenes or country landscapes. The picture above is the view from our flat of the Sky Tower in Auckland. This being New Zealand, naturally they allow people to bungee jump off it. Throughout the day we’d hear the screams of people taking the plunge.

Ryugyong Hotel Pyongyang North Korea

Pyongyang, North Korea: View from our room of the unfinished Ryugyong Hotel. The world’s tallest hotel, construction stopped 20 years ago when benefactors the Soviet Union collapsed.

Shanghai skyline Rocky

Little Rocky admiring the view from the balcony of our flat in Shanghai.

Singapore skyline

The Singapore skyline from our room. The low building with the orange roof is the British colonial-era post office.

Hong Kong skyline at night

The Hong Kong skyline at night. Discerning readers will notice that this is the skyline in the banner for our web site.

New Zealand Twizel view

It’s not all buildings and skylines though, this is the stunning scenery from the back of our cottage in Twizel, New Zealand.

Bali neighborhood near Kuta Beach

We’ve also stayed in local neighborhoods. These kids were our friendly neighbors for two weeks in Bali.

Munduk Moding Plantation Bali

Sometimes it’s a jungle out there, like at this coffee plantation on the north coast of Bali.

Click on the link for advice and resources on a vacation rental for your next holiday.

Yesterday over two hundred flights were cancelled at Beijing’s airport due to smoggy skies from China air pollution. The air was so bad it wasn’t safe to fly. Like many things in China the truth behind the shutdown remains elusive. One news agency said it was caused by air pollution or smog; but then the government-run newspaper chimed in blaming the opaque skies on melting snow that made the sky wet and created fog. Seriously? Based on our trip to Beijing a few months ago we’ll have to accept the smog explanation.

Jimi Hendrix never played there, but his classic song Purple Haze could have been inspired by Beijing – a city where the sun puts up a good fight to be relevant but just can’t penetrate the miasma. We flew into Beijing from Jimi’s hometown of Seattle, a city famous for its relentless fog, but residents there know it will eventually burn off to reveal a glistening city by the bay. Not so for Beijingers.  For them the sky is sort of in a permanent twilight, as if it was early winter at the North Pole.

After we landed I strolled through the airport and looked out the window. I could see something that looked sort of orange and sort of roundish on the distant horizon. It really wasn’t clear if it was daytime or dusk, like the images of the sky in post-nuclear war movies.  At first I didn’t think that it actually was the sun. But then I detected a faint orange glow to it and realized that yes, I was staring directly at the sun. As children we were warned never to stare at the sun because it would burn our retinas and we’d go blind. There is no such problem in Beijing.

The smog acts like room darkening shades over the landscape, creating a semi-permanent solar eclipse. When we walked outside the airport I felt as if I was suspended inside the chimney stack of an active coal-fired plant. The air looked and breathed like tile grout or mortar. Beijing’s sky is how I imagine cities like Birmingham, England or Pittsburgh were like at the height of the Industrial Revolution, a time when steel plants and rolling mills belched out a constant stream of soot and grime.

A week into our stay there was an overnight cleansing rain. For the next two days the sky resembled a familiar shade of blue and breathing became easier. We were told by locals to enjoy it because that was the clearest the sky had been in three months.

In the post-Clean Air Act age it’s hard to imagine that places like this still exist on the planet. Unfortunately China’s sulfurous output isn’t limited to their own skies. The particulates take a free ride on the jet stream and make their way over to North America as inexorably as the fleets of cargo ships carrying the output of their factories to American shores. All those cheap products come at a price.

The air was poor throughout Southeast Asia but particularly bad during burning season in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Subscribe here to receive updates on our journey around the world and valuable travel tips.

The Great Wall of China is one of the most popular sites on earth. Movies like The Bucket List reinforce it as a must-see place to visit. It was also high on our list of the best places to visit in China, but we wanted to avoid the crowds of tour buses and souvenir vendors catering to those visitors that can turn a Great Wall of China visit into an ordeal. 

Most tour groups leave Beijing for one day trips to the access point at Badaling. This heavily photographed spot is where you’ll typically see photos of visiting celebrities and dignitaries astride the Great Wall. However, if you look in the background of those photos you’ll see hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of tourists elbow-to-elbow jostling each other for position as they climb the wall. These groups, armed with smart phone cameras instead of the swords of a bygone era, arrive by the thousands each day.

Our goal when we travel is to avoid the crowds. To see as many sites as we can in their more natural state. We managed to avoid the hordes at the Great Wall by veering slightly off the beaten path to tour a part of the Wall that is less visited. Hiring your own driver for not much more than the cost of a tour will also vastly improve your Great Wall experience.  That way you’re not showing up in a clump with eighty of your new closest friends.

Chinese emperors built the Great Wall to keep out rampaging hordes of Mongolian soldiers mounted on horseback streaming down from the north; but no amount of stone and mortar can repel conquering hordes of tourists straddling luxury motor coaches.

According to urban legend the Great Wall is visible from outer space. Like many of these tales that get passed around from modem to modem, it is wrong. The structure, which follows the undulating contours of the hills and is in some areas no more than an earth colored pile of dirt and rubble, is barely visible from an airplane flying at 40,000 feet; let alone by an astronaut probing the far reaches of the atmosphere.

What may be visible from outer space though are the numerous shiny trinkets and tchotkes sold at the unending souvenir stands at Badaling, the most popular choice for tourists to view the Wall. We’d wager that if all the souvenir stalls were placed end-to-end they may rival the length of the Great Wall itself.  The place should rightfully rename itself Bada-bling.

Great Wall of China Mutianyu

Badaling suffers from its close proximity to Beijing. From the capital it is easy to sign up for a bus tour or even hire a taxi that will take you there. Since Badaling is conveniently located right off of a multi-lane interstate highway, it is much more accessible to tour buses. The interstate also means that there will be more truck traffic causing congestion so while it is the closest access point to Beijing on a map, it is not always the quickest to get to.

To see the Wall in its more native state one must venture further afield, beyond the range of the Beijing tour buses to take in the true glory of ancient China. A much less visited section of the Wall is located 55 miles north of central Beijing at Mutianyu. The last ten miles to visit this section are by local roads which makes it less accessible for tour buses. The ride from Beijing took us about an hour and ten minutes, so even though Mutianyu is farther than Badaling it’s not exactly far. Badaling often has over 100 tour buses in its parking lot, when we went to Mutianyu there were two—and only enough parking spaces for about ten in total.

While the setting is every bit as spectacular as Badaling there are much less people to contend with. Visitors do walk through a row of souvenir vendors to get to the entry gate (they can’t be avoided wherever tourists congregate) but they are less intrusive here.

The Mutianyu section dates from 1368 and was built upon the foundation of an earlier wall from around 550 AD.  Visitors can amble anywhere over a 1.5-mile stretch.  The structure is about fourteen feet tall and is accessed via a steep hike or short cable car ride. Naturally we opted for the ride.

The view from the peak is superb and more importantly, not blocked by throngs of picture snapping tourists. On our weekday visit there were moments when we had entire sections to ourselves. There are 22 watchtowers along the ridgeline, spaced approximately 100 yards apart, dividing a hike into easily manageable portions.  As we strolled along the granite walkways from one watchtower to the next, we could imagine what it was like over 600 years ago for a solitary guard to be on the lookout for invaders.

We brought along a few sandwiches from, believe it or not, a Subway shop (that’s all there was) located near the tram entrance and enjoyed an impromptu picnic. From our vantage point we took in the view of the Wall undulating over the hills in the distance. At this angle it looks like a large gray snake happily sunning itself in the crisp mountain air.

rocky statue china

The day was also perfect for a young couple that was taking pictures before their upcoming wedding.  We were treated to an impromptu modeling session by the bride and groom as the photographer artfully worked them through various poses.  That alone demonstrates the solitude here; can you imagine a bride fanning out her wedding gown amidst a flock of tourists tromping around?

Bride Great Wall of China

Instead of signing up for a tour bus we hired an individual driver, Joe of Come To Beijing,  who we found by checking recommendations on Trip Advisor.  The total cost of $150 is not that much more than a bus tour but the benefits are many. Our guide, Joe, was fluent in English and gave us a personalized history lesson along the way. Joe’s greatest value though was that we went only to the Wall and wherever else that WE wanted to go.

Be aware that bus tour groups often only visit the Wall for a 20-minute photo op. The rest of the day is spent (literally) at jade stores, cloisonné factories, herbal medicine shops and various other souvenir stores to separate you from your money. With Joe as our dedicated driver we avoided these shopping detours and had enough time left after our visit to drive back into Beijing and stroll around the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium.

A hired driver also offers greater flexibility with timing. Most tour groups leave at first light so they can arrive early and avoid the crowds. Unfortunately, they arrive along with dozens of other tour groups that have all thought the same thing. We are not crowd people and we are certainly not morning people. We asked Joe to pick us up at 10 AM. We left at a reasonable time and quite often had the place practically to ourselves.

The Great Wall of China is arguably one of the “must see” places in the world.  It deserves time for quiet contemplation at its sheer mass and grandeur, as well as the scenic beauty that surrounds it. Unfortunately, the majority of visitors do not get to experience the magical silence of the Wall. For you to do so, go a bit further afield and travel independently.  You’ll probably only see the Wall once in your life, it’s worth venturing a little farther off the beaten path to make it a truly memorable experience.

The Great Wall of China

Little Rocky after climbing the Great Wall

Changes in Longitude Larissa & Michael Milne at Arctic Circle

We’re Larissa and Michael, your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive updates and valuable travel tips subscribe to our free travel newsletter here.

Before we left for a year one of our friends asked us what we would do about our laundry. Since our first month was in China we figured finding a laundry wouldn’t be a problem. We were wrong.

By the time we arrived in Shanghai three weeks into the journey we still hadn’t found a typical “Chinese laundry.”  Our apartments so far didn’t have washing machines and we hadn’t had time to find a laundry. This didn’t bother Michael, who is content to just turn things inside out and wear them again, but one of us has standards.

So far we had been hand-washing our clothes in the bathroom sink. Fortunately our Shanghai flat was in an apartment complex that included a cleaners in the building so, armed with two bags of dirty clothes, we made our way there shortly after our arrival.

chinese laundry hutong

We handed the first bag to the woman behind the counter, pointed to what we thought was the large washing machine across the room and pantomimed that was what we wanted. She tried to tell us something but we didn’t understand it and kept pointing at the machine. After shrugging her shoulders in the universal manner that means “these people are crazy” she began to quickly sort through the pile, tallying each item separately.

She then handed us a slip which said the two bags of clothes would be ready in three days—and that it would cost 450 yuan—about $60. What? This was a shock, we had been told laundries in China were inexpensive and offered quick turnaround.

What were we missing? Maybe the Chinese laundry of folklore was gone in the wake of the raging economy of the New China. We weren’t thrilled, but she had already whisked one bag of clothes away and our dumb tourist expressions weren’t getting us anywhere. So we only left half of our stuff there and took the quicker drying items back to the apartment for (sigh) more hand washing.

Washing clothes in the bathroom sink is the backup option for travelers everywhere.  It’s cheap, but it also wreaks havoc on your lodging for a few days.  Even the quick-dry items take a while to dry in an apartment or hotel room with limited air circulation—especially in a muggy climate like a Chinese summer.   The room becomes a humidity combat-zone.  As the clothes dry, the room gets clammy, making everything else a little moister, which puts the air-conditioning, if there is one, on overdrive, etc. etc.

When we picked up our clean clothes a few days later we were certainly impressed.  Each piece was carefully folded, wrapped in tissue and placed in its own cellophane bag; the thick type of bag that is usually reserved for wrapping a gift basket of fruit.  Even the socks were individually wrapped. It seemed a bit much.  As we turned to leave the shop we noticed some other clothes folded in groups in cheaper plastic bags.  This was more what we had been expecting.

We finally figured out that the machine we had so insistently pointed to a few days earlier was the dry-cleaning machine, not a washing machine.  “Wash/dry/fold” laundry is done by the pound, and is placed on a scale (which was located unobtrusively behind the counter) to be priced.  Since we have always washed our own clothes we just didn’t know this. The woman had probably been trying to explain to us that it was crazy to pay to dry clean socks and underwear but it got lost in translation. Chalk this one up in the “live and learn” column. We were $30 poorer, but it made us more laundry-savvy for the future.

In Hong Kong we finally figured things out. Go into the laundry, find the scale and plunk your bag down on it.  If you don’t see the scale, keep looking—or find another laundry. The attendant will weigh it, charge you approximately $3.50 for a full load and tell you to come back in about four hours. It will be neatly washed, dried, folded, stacked and packed in a bag to take home. Sweet. Kind of like being spoiled by mom on a weekend trip home from college.

Now that we know how to play the game, we’ll seek out similar laundries whenever we don’t have a washing machine. It’s a little luxury when traveling that is very affordable and a heck of a lot easier than hand washing and draping wet clothes all over the hotel room or apartment. Perhaps Michael won’t even turn his clothes inside out anymore, one can always dream.

You may be interested in reading how to pack for a year.

Changes in Longitude Larissa & Michael Milne at Arctic Circle
We’re Larissa and Michael, your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive updates and valuable travel tips subscribe to our travel newsletter here.

The Shanghai skyline reveals the city’s unrelenting growth. A taxi ride from the airport shows hundreds of bright yellow and red construction cranes whirling about its skyline. The parade of skyscrapers is measured not in blocks but in miles. All of Manhattan could fit in Shanghai’s back pocket.

The current population of Shanghai is estimated to be 23 million – up from 18 million only five years ago. This is a city that has more people than the entire continent of Australia. How does a visitor even begin to get a grip on this vast region?

Shanghai skyline pudong

The Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center is an excellent place to start. Located in the cultural hub of town at People’s Square, the center is part museum and part urban planning resource, all of it related to the city of Shanghai.

An interesting way to appreciate how far Shanghai has come in a short time is to enter the center via the past. The People’s Square subway station (the busiest in Shanghai) empties directly beneath the museum into a concourse that has been redone to look like a Shanghai street scene from 1930, including old streetlights, trams, and sepia-toned photos of the period. From here visitors ride the escalator to the Exhibition Center and are instantly launched into the 21st century.

A contemporary structure with an abundance of natural light, the center consists of five floors of both permanent and rotating exhibits. They all relate to Shanghai’s development and are presented in both passive and interactive formats to interest all ages. On our recent visit, there was a 360-degree film that was prepared for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, whose theme was “Better City, Better Life.”

Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center

The center’s crowning glory is its three-dimensional scale model of the city of Shanghai. It’s listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest model of its kind. At more than 6,500 square feet, it is the size of three singles tennis courts. It displays the entire urban region, including both of the city’s massive airports. Toss away the guidebooks and maps, none can compare to feeling like a modern-day Gulliver with the city laid out at your feet.

Visitors can view this Shanghai in miniature from multiple perspectives by wandering around a raised walkway that circumnavigates the model. For a bird’s-eye view, take the escalator up one floor and peer down from a balcony onto this “mini Shanghai.” Handsets can be rented in English that highlight the city’s development.

The model is a “living document” that is still used by urban planners and constantly updated with new building projects. Included are those that are still under construction – they are represented here in clear plastic to indicate their “work in progress” status. Thus the Shanghai of the future is also evident.

With this new perspective on the city, we set out to see the skyline firsthand in the city’s Pudong district, two subway stops from the exhibit. Just 20 years ago Pudong was mostly farmland and a few warehouses along the Huangpu River. Today it is the site of one of the most distinctive skylines in the world, boasting more than 35 skyscrapers including the two tallest buildings in China. The growth has been so remarkable that the district is even getting its own Disneyland, due to open in 2016.

shanghai world financial center and jin mao tower

A visitor to Shanghai only five years ago would have explored the observation deck atop the 88-story Jin Mao Tower, then the big game in town. Today the Jin Mao is passé as the 101-story Shanghai World Financial Center (SWFC) has risen across the street. In modern Shanghai, one-upmanship is the order of the day.

We bought tickets to the SWFC’s 100th-floor observation deck, the tallest in the world. Within about 90 seconds we were smoothly whisked to the viewing area in an elevator that for some reason featured 1970s-era disco flashing lights.

After our brief trip back in time we reentered the modern era as we strolled around the observation deck. Angled floor-to-ceiling windows, along with a few cleverly placed glass cutouts in the floor, give the impression that you are floating above the growing city. Having come so recently from the Urban Planning Center, we felt there was a surreal aspect to the whole experience. Laid out below us in every direction was the city, exactly as we had viewed it earlier in the day – only this was the real thing.

Using the Huangpu River as a landmark, it is easy to spot the Bund, the cluster of early-20th-century buildings that front the river and give Shanghai its signature blend of Asian and art deco architecture. We could even look down at the peak of the Jin Mao Tower.

View from Shanghai World Financial Center

A parade of high-rise apartment complexes stretched to the horizon, distinguishable from this height only by the color-coordinated rooftops that give it the appearance of a giant Lego set. From this perspective it is not hard to believe that more than 23 million people live in Shanghai.

The view was mesmerizing, but the observation deck was crowded, so after a half hour we left in search of a quieter vantage point. We walked across the street to the Jin Mao Tower. But instead of going to the observation deck, we opted for the 54th-floor lobby lounge of the Grand Hyatt nestled within the structure.

There we enjoyed a drink and took in the view at our own pace. Down below us, bright yellow construction cranes swung over the site of yet another future skyscraper, the Shanghai Tower. It had loomed large in the scale model at the Urban Planning Center. When it is completed in 2014, this new kid on the block will top out at 128 floors, surpassing both the Jin Mao Tower and the SWFC. In modern Shanghai, “bigger, faster, more” is an unending refrain.

Shanghai Tower construction

Meet the new boss.


Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center

100 Renmin Ave., Shanghai

Located on the north side of People’s Square Park, adjacent to the People’s Square Metro Station. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Closed Monday. Admission: 30 CNY ($4.70). The English audio guide is available for 40 CNY ($6.25).

Shanghai World Financial Center

100 Century Ave., Pudong New Area, Shanghai

 Take the Metro to the Lujiazui Station. Open daily 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Admission: 120 CNY ($18.75).

Shanghai Metro

Operates daily from 5:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Final train times are clearly marked, but vary by station so it is important to take note if you are out late. A single-journey ticket is 3 CNY ($0.50); a one-day unlimited pass (good for a full 24 hours after first use)

is 18 CNY ($2.80). Purchase tickets at automated machines at all stations; one-day passes must be purchased at customer service desk at the station.

This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Part the fun in visiting different countries is trying new foods we haven’t heard of or can’t find at home. Sometimes though, something gets lost in translation from the kitchen to the menu. Here are a few items we saw on our trip to China, a few we tried, a few we passed on. There were moments when we were eating something delicious but had absolutely no idea what it was.

There was one time when the menu was perfectly clear though. In North Korea we were offered the opportunity to try dog. We’re pretty adventurous eaters but we passed on that. The few people who did try it said it tasted like beef. We’ll take their word on it.

I don't even know where to begin with this one.

Not sure what face food is.

Gruel? You want more gruel?

I love donuts but germ?

Will that be one lump or two?

For obvious reasons I had a problem with the dessert listed at the bottom.


What’s the strangest food you’ve ever tried?


Crossing over to the other side is usually a term that refers to dying, to seeing the bright white light at the other end of the proverbial tunnel. In Beijing it may just as well refer to crossing over to the other side of the street, a procedure that may lead the unwary pedestrian to seeing that celestial white light sooner than they expected. In China there is no right-of-way for pedestrians. In fact, there were times when I thought that the cars were purposefully aiming for me.

Beijing isn’t like the chaotic streets of Rome where the little old ladies purposefully stride across the street, knowing that the Fiats and Alfas will swirl around them like they are so many rocks in a river. This was pure street mayhem, as if an undeclared war had been called on pedestrians and we were the last to know. If I could read lips in Mandarin I would have sworn that one truck driver looked me in the eyes and uttered, “Make my day.” No lip-reading was necessary for my response.

It reminded me of a late ‘70s video arcade game called Death Race. It was one of the first games of the post-Pong Era so it was still pretty rudimentary; basically a steering wheel and gas pedal attached to a black-and-white video monitor. After you plunked in your quarter, stick figures ran erratically across the screen. The player’s goal was to run over as many as possible. After impact a tombstone would pop up to represent points earned.

It was probably not a good game for me to be playing while I was still learning how to drive but I really enjoyed it. (C’mon, I was a male teenager, my brain wasn’t fully developed yet, if ever.) Larissa, being a bit more subtle than me, compared it to being in a real-life version of Frogger.

To cross a street in Beijing is to known firsthand how those stick figures felt. We were now the target and we didn’t like it very much. Like most cities, Beijing thoughtfully provides pedestrian crossing signs that show either a green man or a red man. I’m not sure why they bother because they are extremely misleading. Crossing on the green is no guarantee of any level of safety, in fact it just lulls the walker into a false sense of security.

Having a green crossing signal does not stop the cars that go right on red without slowing down, or the mopeds, bikes and motorized rickshaws that drive on the road (and sidewalk) in the opposite direction of traffic and for some reason can ignore all traffic signals. You don’t see them coming until it is often too late and your toes end up paying the price. And don’t get me started on the buses that play by their own set of rules.

To be more accurate, the pedestrian crossing sign should just flash a continuous red man and skip the green guy altogether. At least then pedestrians will know where they stand and will exercise extreme caution at all times.

We finally realized that we had to travel in packs, like the herds of gazelles we’d seen on the Discovery Channel who do so to avoid being eaten by lions. We didn’t want to be the weak gazelle who couldn’t keep up with the pack and was left behind to become the lions’ dinner. We’d find a group of strangers that was waiting to cross the street and then latch on to them. As we crossed we’d remind each other, “Don’t be the weak gazelle!” It must have worked since I’m now sitting here writing this.

So if you ever find yourself crossing the street in Beijing just remember two things: travel in packs and ignore the green man. Your life could depend on it.

Related Post: A calm haven in frenzied Beijing

Published on Sun, Oct. 9, 2011 in The Philadelphia Inquirer    

The White Dagoba at Bei Hai Park

By Larissa and Michael Milne

For The Inquirer

BEIJING – It was a late-summer day, and the air was thick with the combination of humidity and smog particular to this capital city. Beijing is nestled in a bowl between the Xishan and Yanshan mountain ranges, creating a trap for the dense smog blowing in from the industrial zones to the southeast. We had just spent the morning trudging through the Forbidden City with virtually every other tourist in town. The palaces and presentation courts were grand and imposing and beautiful. But the throngs of people, coupled with that sticky air, made it difficult to appreciate the wonders before us.

Leaving the grounds at the north end of the Forbidden City did not bring much relief. Since this is the only exit, the area just outside the gate was jammed with a gauntlet of aggressive hawkers. Departing tourists were bombarded with offers of rickshaw rides, guidebooks to what they had just seen, and all sorts of trinkets. Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book with a cheap plastic cover seemed to be the most popular item. It was the low point of the day – we were tired, thirsty, and cranky, and we needed to get out of there. Fortunately, respite was only a block away.

Just northwest of the Forbidden City lies Bei Hai Park, a five-minute walk in distance but worlds away in atmosphere. The park is a 170-acre enclave of nature in the midst of the bustling city streets. Built as a pleasure garden for the emperors during the Liao Dynasty more than 1,000 years ago, it was opened to the public in 1925. It is an oasis of lush landscaping, Buddhist shrines, and tea pavilions, all bordering a large man-made lake. On a small island in the center of the lake is a Buddhist temple that can be reached by crossing a white marble bridge. The park also offers a commodity rare in Beijing; an absence of crowds.

View of the White Dagoba from the lake where boats can be rented

The park’s combination of pretty scenery and interesting historic sites is perfect for a relaxing half-day. A small admission fee keeps it hawker-free, so we could meander without having our elbows grabbed repeatedly or trinkets shoved in our faces. We knew we were off the beaten track when we realized we were the only Westerners present. There are numerous paths around the lake for those seeking either a pleasant stroll or a more vigorous hike. Hundreds of trees and the breeze off the lake keep temperatures cool on otherwise oppressive days.

For a bit of old-time charm, we decided to rent a boat and view the scenery from the water. We had our choice of a pedal boat or a battery-powered one. The hike through the Forbidden City had been enough exercise for one hot day, so we chose the latter. After barely reaching a dizzying 3 m.p.h., we realized the boat’s battery was probably taken from an old flashlight. Images of the SS Minnow flashed through our heads.

We declared a victory when we managed to overtake a pedal boat that had a few 10-year-old kids pushing it along. Nothing too powerful here – the pace of the entire park is relaxing. After an hour or so drifting and taking in the scenery, we felt recharged enough (unlike our battery) to stroll across the marble bridge to explore the temple.

The Temple of Everlasting Peace is a relatively recent addition to the park, built in 1651. Near the entrance is a two-story bell tower. For a small fee, visitors can climb up and ring the bell that has hung in the belfry for more than three centuries. Legend claims that ringing it three times will ensure good luck for the coming year. Given our plans for traveling around the world, we had to do this. We swung a small log, suspended from the ceiling like a battering ram, to gently ring the bell. The sound that reverberated throughout the park was like a very deep wind chime – again in keeping with the serene theme of the gardens.

The complex consists of a collection of quiet courtyards, halls, and stone grottoes, the floors worn smooth by centuries of visiting devotees. It is still an active Buddhist temple, so it is important to be mindful that some are there to worship. Evidence of prayer is everywhere: Red wooden tiles asking for blessings hang by red silk cords from trees, urns, and statues. The path through the grounds gradually winds uphill, ending at a large white Tibetan-style stupa at the peak of the tiny island.

Known as the White Dagoba, the stupa was built on the hilltop site of the former Palace of the Moon. It was where Kublai Khan received Marco Polo during his travels to the East. The Dagoba was commissioned by a later ruler, Emperor Shunzhi, in the Tibetan style to demonstrate his belief in Buddhism, and his desire to unify various Chinese ethnic groups. At the base of the stupa stands the Shan Yin Pavilion, a tiny altar decorated with 455 glazed tile Buddhas – each was crafted in relief form to simulate wood carvings and were placed there to protect the shrine. The view from this pavilion is well worth the steep climb over uneven rocky steps. Handrails are an afterthought, so care is required when climbing.

View from Bei Hai Park over the rooftops of the Forbidden City

The Dagoba provides one of the best vantage points to look out over low, sprawling Beijing. From here we gazed down on the yellow-tiled rooftops of the Forbidden City. It looked so peaceful from above, hiding the tourist frenzy we had recently escaped. In the opposite direction, the view takes in the expansive urban growth that spreads for miles until it is blocked by the mountains that border Beijing to the west and north.

After our climb to the peak, we were ready for some relief, so we stopped at one of the many tea gardens scattered around the lake for a cool drink and a snack. Sitting under a weeping willow and watching the boats drift by, with the tiled roofs of old Beijing poking up in the distance, restored our appreciation for the Chinese capital city. It reminded us that it is often the lesser-known sights that are most worth visiting.

Bei Hai Park

It is just northwest of the exit to the Forbidden City, bordered by Wenjin Street to the south and Di’anmen W. Street to the north. There are entrances at both the southern and northern ends of the park. The easiest ways to get there are to take a taxi (which are plentiful and cheap in Beijing), or walk over after leaving the Forbidden City.

Hours: The park is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. in spring, summer, and fall. Opening times are shorter during winter. The White Dagoba and Temple is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Boating is available from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from late spring to early fall.

Admission: Tickets are 10 Chinese yuan or CNY (approx. $1.60) for admission to the park. A “Through Ticket,” which grants admission to the park and temple, is 20 CNY (approx. $3.20). There is a small additional fee of 3 CNY to ring the bell. Boating costs 40 to 60 CNY ($6.25 to $9.50) per hour, depending on the type of boat rented.

Related Post: Run, don’t walk, in Beijing

Note from Larissa & Michael: This was the first article we wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer. We’ve since written 150 more. Here they are: The Philadelphia Inquirer Travel section.

Since I grew up in New York I admit that I am somewhat picky about my pizza. I also had the added benefit of a Sicilian grandfather who ran a bakery on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. Every Saturday he made the pizza that he grew up with in the old country. He lived to be 100 years old, so well into my adulthood I was able to enjoy his authentic pizza.

I’ve lived in Philadelphia now for half my life and was fortunate to live near the best pizzeria in the area: Volare Pizza in the suburb of Ambler. Their crust has just the right combination of chewy and crisp that is representative of the true New York style. It has to do with using the right type of flour. The pizza maker, Nic, is from Naples and his wife from Brooklyn so they certainly have the pedigree for it.

Paisano's Pizzeria, Hong Kong

We were a month into our trip when I was really Jonesing for a slice. I don’t think I had been without pizza for that long since I started teething. One night I was walking down a side street in Hong Kong when I saw a bright green sign that said “Paisano’s NY Style Pizza, Home of the giant slice.”  I’m used to being disappointed by such promises but at this point I was desperate so I decided to give it a shot.

The slices are cut out of a 24” pie so they truly are giant. But it wasn’t the size that impressed, it was the flavor. The crust was both crispy and chewy in the finest NY style. The sauce had just the right balance of sweet and savory and the cheese was perfectly melted in their brick oven. It was the pizza I craved from my youth.

One of my requirements to live somewhere is that they have good pizza. After one bite of Paisano’s finest I said to Larissa, “I could live here.” Sometimes all it takes is a little slice of home.

I was riding on the new high-speed train connecting Beijing and Shanghai when I met Zhao Long, a sports reporter for China Central Television (CCTV). He was heading to Changzhou to cover the opening of a baseball academy which was also being attended by the owner of Major League Baseball’s Colorado Rockies. I had never heard of baseball in China so it was worth checking out.

Zhao explained that Major League Baseball (MLB) wants to follow in the footsteps of professional basketball to create growing popularity for their sport. Part of this effort is to develop Chinese talent that will eventually play at the major league level.

It’s already been proven that American sports can be big in China. In the 1980’s National Basketball Commissioner David Stern did a rather smart thing. He approached the Chinese government and offered to provide NBA programming to Chinese television for free. Stern knew the potential market was immense and wanted the NBA to have a toehold in it.

Due to Stern’s foresight, Chinese kids were raised watching the exploits of the NBA, a style of basketball they had never seen before, and were particularly impressed watching Michael Jordan. One of those impressionable youngsters was Yao Ming, who grew  to be 7’ 6” tall and an NBA superstar. He can be added to the long list of successful Chinese exports.

Baseball in china

Drill, baby, drill

Major League Baseball was a little slower to the table but is now actively seeking talent in China. In cooperation with the Chinese Baseball Association and the local government they recently opened a baseball academy in Changzhou, a city of three million people located between Beijing and Shanghai. In 2008, the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres played a series of games in China, it was the first time Chinese fans saw Major League Baseball firsthand. The MLB website is also now available in Chinese.

These are smart moves. Players such as Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki have made American baseball ever more popular in Japan so China is the next logical step, one that could dwarf the Japanese market. Increasing the popularity of baseball in China is not as easy as it was for basketball though. The Chinese government is focused on Olympic sports so it can increase the country’s medal count at the Games. Since baseball has been dropped from the Olympic roster, it does not receive government financing for its development.

In fact, after the 2008 Beijing Olympics the baseball stadium used for it was demolished. Like so many other sites in the capital city it is now covered by high-rise apartments. It’s a little difficult to play a sport when an elevator lobby now stands where home plate used to be.

But MLB and local Chinese groups will continue to provide funding to find the next Yao Ming for America’s pastime. In the intertwined global economy they can’t afford to ignore a market with a billion-plus potential viewers. Major League Baseball may be a little late to the party but it looks like it’s going to be an all-nighter.

It was a dreary, rainy day and we were sitting in a taxi that was stuck in traffic on the way to the Shanghai airport.  A car breakdown had caused the traffic to flow to the pace of a toddler. As the minutes ticked by we worried that we would miss our flight to Hong Kong. The gray mist outside had reduced visibility to about twenty feet, so there wasn’t much scenery to distract us.

Our taxi had a TV screen perched behind the front passenger seat headrest. Like every TV screen the world over that is hanging in an unlikely spot, it was showing non-stop commercials.  This must have been a deluxe screen—we could change channels to watch the commercials of our choice.   After a few minutes of fiddling, Michael managed to figure out how to turn off the volume. (Oh, if he had such a switch sometimes. . .)

We were doing our best to ignore the constant barrage of product placement assaulting our senses in the back of our small taxi, but eventually the lack of scenery outside had our eyes drifting to that little screen.  (I hate to admit it but those marketers who put ads in the back seats of taxis might be on to something.)  A colorful ad appeared showing a little Chinese boy happily spooning something neon green-colored into his mouth. 

It turns out it was a kiwifruit.  Eaten with a spoon?  I had only ever seen them peeled and sliced.  Back in the states in recent years they have been maligned, not for their taste, but because they have become the garnish that chefs have overused to decorate foods that were otherwise uninspired.  Kiwis have become the Generation X version of parsley.

But here in China they were simply slicing them in half and scooping out the juicy green pulp, “a la grapefruit.”  It looked so simple—no slippery peeling, no pretension. For all we know this is how everyone eats kiwi and we’re the last ones on the planet to figure it out, but it was new to us. We resolved to try this method the first chance we had.  

Shortly after we arrived in Hong Kong we were shopping in a local market to stock the kitchen of our rental apartment.  Right in the middle of the produce aisle was a large display of Zespri brand kiwifruit—the company whose advertisement we had seen in the Shanghai taxi.  (It turns out Zespri of New Zealand is the Chiquita of kiwifruit—who knew?)  We purchased a few and within minutes of getting back to our flat had sliced our kiwis and were scooping to our heart’s content.  Yummy!  A new addition to our list of quick and healthful snacks.

We certainly never expected to learn a food tip while stuck in traffic, but this is just one example of how travel can broaden your horizons—especially when you open your eyes and ears to the possibilities that travel brings. Even in the back of a Shanghai taxi on a rainy day.

When Larissa visited Shanghai five years ago the tallest building in town was the Jin Mao Tower, designed to resemble a pagoda it was the tallest building in China. She marveled at the view from the 88th floor observation deck. But five years in the turbocharged Shanghai economy is like thirty years anywhere else.

Shanghai World Financial Center and Jin Mao Tower duke it out

On this trip we sought out a newer building, the Shanghai World Financial Center (SWFC) with its 100th floor observation deck. It is built right across the street from the Jin Mao Tower so from certain angles the shorter building is completely blocked from view, as if David Copperfield had come along and figured out a way to make an 88-story building magically disappear. The Jin Mao’s observation deck was a must-see tourist attraction until it was eclipsed by its taller neighbor right next door.

Unlike the Jin Mao’s sympathetic architectural approach that blended Asian elements and angles, the SWFC is forward looking, not wanting to be tied down by the past. The end result looks like a swirling space-age opener for a Brobdingnagian bottle of Tsingtao beer. Visitors can purchase a cheaper ticket that only gets you to the 94th floor viewing platform but true building geeks (that includes us) spring for the higher price ticket to go all the way to the 100th floor.

Looking down on Jin Mao Tower, the former champ

The extra few bucks are well worth it as the view from the top is spectacular. At a current estimate of 23 million, the population of Shanghai exceeds the number of people living on the entire vast continent of Australia. All those people have to live somewhere. The evidence is at our feet as the parade of high-rise apartment buildings extends beyond the horizon, unable to be captured in a single photograph.

The observation deck spans a 10-story cutout in the building that creates the bottle opener look. The designers placed Plexiglass covered sheets in the floor so the visitor can look all the way down onto the streets and rooftops below. That feature may not be for the squeamish or the acrophobe. But you can step around these clear openings and plant yourself firmly on relatively solid ground to admire the distant view. 

Shanghai's Legoland

Each new development of 20 or 30 apartment buildings (these projects are massive) has a color coded rooftop providing a kaleidoscope effect measuring the march of progress of Shanghai. From this vantage point the city looks less like an actual place and more like a model put together with a gargantuan set of Legos.

At this point we noticed that the building was swaying. We’ve been on top of tall buildings before and known that they move. Far from being an item of concern it’s actually a good thing. If the building didn’t bend it would break. But we’ve never been on a structure that swayed this much. It felt like being on the deck of a cruise ship, one in calm waters, but moving at sea nevertheless. It’s hard to imagine having an office this high.

While we were busy congratulating ourselves for standing on top of the tallest building in China we noticed a building under construction down below us, just across the street. It looked like it was up to about 15 stories so far.  We learned that this is the site of the Shanghai Tower, due to open in 2014 and topping out at 126 floors.

Meet the new boss, the Shanghai Tower under construction

Yes, the sleek 100th floor observation deck upon which we were standing is about to become obsolete too. In Shanghai, the push to be king of the hill is relentless, but once it is earned the title is short-lived. Welcome to the new Shanghai.

Details for visiting can be found at the Shanghai World Financial Center web site. Or you can wait until 2014 and see the completed Shanghai Tower.

Click on the link to see more stories about our trip to China.

Lost On Planet China: One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation

By J. Maartin Troost


Lost On Planet China by J. Maartin Troost is one Westerner’s take on the riddle of modern China. The country that Troost explores is not all that appealing. It is obviously crowded, 1.3 billion people have to go somewhere, but it is also incredibly polluted. Wherever Troost ventures he describes the air as some variation of “dismal haze”, “hideous pollution”, “vile” or this nugget, “wheezing as if I’d just chain smoked three packs of Marlboro Reds.” Not to mention the quaint Chinese custom of spitting everywhere in public.
I’ve read many travel memoirs. The first part of the book is usually devoted to witty observations about the differences between country X and the author’s native land. Then there is some transcendent moment where the author “gets it.” Maybe it’s a delicious meal or a wonderful interaction with the locals. All of a sudden they have a newfound love for the country they are visiting and all is right with the world.

I kept waiting for that moment to occur in Lost In Planet China. At page 100, I noticed I still hadn’t heard much that was positive. By page 200 I was becoming a bit alarmed that Troost just wasn’t going to like China, although I did appreciate his glaring honesty. He did like Hong Kong a little but mostly because it wasn’t like China. He also liked Tibet. But since Tibet has been under the authoritarian thumb of China for 50 years it’s sort of politically correct to like Tibet. To not like it would be like pointing out that Girl Scout cookies really aren’t that tasty.

By the end of the book I realized, “Holy cow, he really didn’t like this place.” Based on his descriptions I can’t really blame him. That said, the book is an entertaining read. Those who enjoy the travelogues of Bill Bryson will appreciate Troost’s wry look at the sights and events unfolding around him.

If the last century was the American Century it looks more and more like the next one will be the Chinese Century. They are already America’s largest lender and continue to build up their military and manned space program. As American consumers demand ever cheaper “Made in China” consumer goods at the likes of Walmart we are actually hastening our own demise. Sorry to be such a downer but it’s actually quite depressing.

Despite reading this book we’ve been planning to spend a month in China for our upcoming around-the-world trip. I’m hoping that maybe Troost was exaggerating just a bit. God I really hope so.

China Road: A Journey Into the Future of a Rising Power

By Rob Gifford

Gifford is uniquely qualified to provide a Westerner’s view of the future of China. He traveled to China in 1987 as a language student, became fluent in Mandarin and has spent twenty years reporting on, and from, the country. For six of those years he was the Beijing correspondent for National Public Radio. His language skills have enabled him to break away from the bubble of Beijing and interview ordinary people in the heartland, far away from government eavesdroppers.

For China Road he traveled 3,000 miles from Shanghai to the far western border with Kazakhstan. He followed the mass exodus taking place along Route 312, the Chinese equivalent of America’s legendary Route 66.

Witnessing the largest migration in human history, as tens of millions of people leave their homes for opportunities in the cities and factory towns, Gifford was able to meet with everyday people. His goal was to determine if China is the next great superpower or a paper dragon, one that will inevitably be consumed by a system of government that does not allow full freedom for its people.

Gifford has a love/hate relationship with this complicated country. He loves many aspects of the people, but experiences frustration doing his job under a repressive regime where he needs to use unregistered phones in order to meet unimpeded with his interview subjects.

Before reading this book I thought the recent rise of China on the world stage was a new phenomenon. Not so. China was a technologically advanced world power during a time when Europeans were still living in caves. When you consider that one out of every five humans is Chinese, it seems that their eventual rise as a superpower, perhaps the only one, is inevitable.

But Gifford peeks behind the curtain of the “China miracle” and sees a few potential fissures. For a country to succeed in the global economy it must facilitate a free flow of information, both between its people and with the outside world. Yet the Communist party severely limits freedom of speech and blocks a free exchange of ideas.

As Gifford states, “The Party needs to promote knowledge in order to compete, but knowledge is dangerous. It needs empowered people in order to become strong, but it can’t let the people be too empowered.”

Even though this thinking limits technological and other beneficial breakthroughs, the government is  more concerned that people can organize to overthrow them. The 1989 uprisings in Tiananmen Square took place well before the advent of social media. Imagine what a few disgruntled Chinese could achieve now? Egypt provides just one such example.

What does this mean for the West? Some factions see China as a huge threat and from an economic basis they may be right; particularly when looking at the loss of manufacturing jobs to Chinese factories. But Gifford points out that if “the China threat” idea is pushed too far it could define our whole relationship with them.

The rise of the Chinese economy is also beneficial to the West. Chinese goods allow Western consumers to buy cheap products and help tamp down inflation. And the Chinese government’s investment in U.S. government debt has kept interest rates, and therefore mortgage rates, low. (Though I would argue that the availability of cheap mortgages got the US into the problems it is currently experiencing in the first place.)

Gifford concludes that while we must stand up to China in certain areas, we cannot demonize them so much that we end up hurting our own interests. We need to back off of thinking of China as “friend or foe” but as a combination of the two. The West needs a nuanced foreign policy that doesn’t descend into “emotional demagoguery.”

When Gifford finally left China he reflected that most of all he would miss the people. They have suffered for too long under Communist rule and are finally getting a taste of progress like those in the West. But if the system doesn’t change in the next ten years, he fears for the future of the people.

Related Posts: Stories from our trip to China

Related Post: Books about North Korea