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Nov. 25th, 2013

Day 10 Nanjing

Beaucracy has been catching up with anarchy growth these years, it appears. Now, you need ID to buy train tickets too.

So we trundled out this morning with our passports to buy early the train tickets for next Monday. The first ticket place we hit - empty counter and the store it shares space with tells us that sometimes the ticket person just won't bother to show up if there isn't likely to be much business. The second place we hit - empty counter with just a sign on the window saying there's computer issues and they're not open. So we took the metro to the station itself - where the counter person tells us they only take bookings up to four days in advance; any earlier and you need to book via internet or phone.

W. T. F.

The hell is this service?! -_-

So tired and fed up, we went back home for lunch (and a nap for my mom). Called the number on the cyclotron at the train station, and managed to book our tickets with the electronic answering machine. In the end it told us to make payment and pickup at any train ticket outlet (which brings us back to square one -_-).

My aunt made a call to my cousin (the younger one), and we asked her to do an online search for other ticket outlets in the region. Eventually, we came up with another location, called ahead to make sure there's someone there, and finally succeeded in picking up the tickets this afternoon.

I don't know if we were just extra-ordinarily unlucky this morning, or if that kind of shoddy service is common for public services, where counter people can just not bother to show up whenever. It certainly leaves much to be desired.

Also, the extra hassle of having to have ID for placing the ticket order and picking up the tickets is certainly new. The explanation for these new measures is that they are for anti-conterfiet and anti-scamming reasons. I can somewhat see the reason for it, and it probably isn't too much of a hassle to many locals. But to visitors like us who are paranoid about ID and who don't have easy access to the internet, it's a nightmare.

(I keep saying they should get internet installed at this place regardless if my grandparents use it or not - how much could they charge per month if not based on usage? - but no one listens to me. Feh.)

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Nov. 24th, 2013

Day 9 Nanjing

Went to the newly refurbished Nanjing museum today, along with my aunt and my (older) cousin who was off today. My mom stayed home since she wasn't interested in historical stuff, and also someone needs to stick around with the grandparents.

Although the museum does say they need ID to get a ticket, it didn't seem like they were all that strict about things. That is, I don't recall anyone checking the tickets we got through the day.

There were 7 major areas of the museum, many containing multiple galleries within themselves. We went first to the Ancient History building, which holds artifacts spanning neolithic to Qing. Unfortunately, my camera batteries died out around the Tang section. On the bright side, I seem to remember that most of the stuff from this building seems to have been much the same as the time I visited the museum in 2011 (though my memory might be wrong).

After we finished that first building, it was already 12:30ish. So we took a break for lunch. It was raining lightly, so we didn't go far, just to a...something about Blue Gulf Cafe? Anyway, it was a fairly simple lunch, and I also picked up new batteries (which was also dying out later in the day before we even finished viewing all the exhibits, so pfft, Chinese quality).

In the afternoon, we hit the Fine Arts area next. The galleries in this area seems to be actual historical pieces interspersed with galleries of contemporary artists. (In retrospect, I should've really saved my camera on the the contemporary galleries. Meh.) For the historical galleries, there was an Ancient Arts, Ancient Calligraphy, Ancient Sculpture, etc.

After the arts area, we went looking for a restroom and found ourselves in the Special Exhibitions building. Supposedly its galleries holds many current/temporary shows, many which are joint projects with other museums/places. There was a floor dedicated to gold workings throughout Chinese history. Another floor was mostly Qing court artifacts. All of them were very pretty of course.

A lot of the other areas/galleries we only took a brief glance through as the day drew to a close. There was a Digital Gallery, which was a lot of digital educational stuff - movies, moving wall murals, etc. - great for kids, I suppose. There was also a Nationalist Era gallery, which was basically a small scale demo of a small block or two in early 20th century style. They also had a few actual concession shop business being sold there, though, which was a bit jarring if you looked too close. Another was something called the Intagibles Gallery - which consisted of live demos of cultural crafts/arts (as well as a brisk business of selling said products) and some videos/pictures/etc. of other cultural stuff (dance, medicine, food, etc.) Not really something all that museum worthy IMO. They're reaching a bit there.


It was pretty dark by the time we go back home, although at least it had already stopped raining by the time we'd left the museum. My mom had bought local river crabs for dinner, and they were delicious. We are apparently in precisely the right season for crabs, as both the male and female ones were positively stuffed. Still a bit of a pain to eat though. :p

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Nov. 23rd, 2013

Day 8 Nanjing

Nothing much happened yesterday. Today is the big reunion day and 90th bday party for my grandmother. This morning, my uncle, his wife, and my older cousin arrived first. Then later, my aunt and her husband arrive with their daughter and son-in-law.

We all chatted for a while and exchanged gifts and whatnot, then all trundled off to the SEU restaurant that we had reserved (and ordered ahead of time yesterday).

Lunch was ok. We had turtle soup, which was cool and yummy. The rest was more standard fare. Grandma gave a speech, as did my uncle. It's all on video.

Afterwards, we took a short walk around the university before heading home and everyone basically chatted away the afternoon, catching up on...stuff. I guess.

In the afternoon, us cousins three took a short walk to the SEU campus again, where my older cousin met up with his wife, son (whom we met three days ago), and mother-in-law.

This evening my younger cousin, her husband, and their dad are going to head back to Wuxi. My aunt however will be staying behind for the rest of our stay in Nanjing.

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Nov. 21st, 2013

Day 6 Nanjing

Went out with my mom to meet two of her old friends (my aunts I guess). We had lunch at a seafood buffet. By seafood, here it's less crabs and lobster, and more every kind of fish you can think of. Of course it's all in Chinese so I didn't bother to remember what fish was what. There was also sushi and sashimi, which I haven't had for a long time now. Yum.

During the lunch, they mentioned that the Nanjing museum had finished renovations and has now opened as the second largest museum in China (behind Beijing). I recall that I had visited there the last time I was here, and it was right before the place closed for the major renovations. That was about 2 years ago. Also, apparently there's so many people aiming to visit, that they cap the # of visitors to the place, which kinda sucks. But, I was also told that foreign passport holders can get a guaranteed spot in admission compared to local visitors.

We also did some shopping. There was a clothing store right outside the building where the restaurant was, and they had some nice cheap clothing. I got a leather coat for 288 RMB, and a pretty shirt for 40. On the way home, we stopped by the shopping court underneath the local supermarket (where I had seen some nice fuzzy fabric type pants) and got 3 pairs of pants and 2 shirts for a total of 296 RMB. I think I've gotten all I need of clothing on this trip.

I had also checked in at a few telecomm stores to try and buy a SIM card for my old phone. Unfortunately, it seems most of them want proof of identity, typically the national ID card. We had also passed by a web cafe, which also wanted the same. So pretty much I would have to bring my passport out with me to see if that would work. Bleh.

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Nov. 20th, 2013

Day 5 Nanjing

This morning my uncle brought over his grandson, my... nephew? once removed? What is the English term for the son of my cousin? Any way, the little tyke is almost two years old and cute as buttons. He's got a cute squeaky voice, and he looks a lot like his father.

My uncle & aunt, it turns out, has been doing pretty much all of the raising of the kid, who more or less lives with them rather than his parents. His parents are all pretty busy with work and stuff - my cousin apparently has like a work commute that's over an hour long (one way). My uncle & aunt though are both retired so they have plenty of time to take care of the kid. So yeah. That's a thing here.

The kid apparently likes to play with plastic bottles (empty of course) and to tear things up. He's not 100% potty trained yet, but does have a decent vocabulary.


In the afternoon, I took a short walk around the block (into Southeastern University and back) with my grandfather. Took my phone along and tried to detect any open networks. Alas, there was nothing that was open, connectable, and didn't require a guest login. Bleh.

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Nov. 19th, 2013

Day 4 Hong Kong to Nanjing

Woke up around 4-5 AM and couldn't fall asleep again. I guess I'm still jetlagged.

We checked out of the hotel around 6, and took the metro to the airport. Actually had a second breakfast there, which was surprisingly yummy for airport food.

For that matter, the lunch we were served on the flight was surprisingly yummy as well. Good rice and tender fish. Leaps and bounds better than the stuff from the US trans-Pacific flights. I guess it's cuz this flight was a HK flight, and they really deserve the reputation for great food.

After arriving at Nanjing, we took the aiport bus first. Unfortunately, our stop did not have good access to taxis, so we ended up lugging the luggage up several flights of stairs and then further took the metro. And then, at our metro stop, we still had to walk like 2-4 blocks to get to my grandparents' place. Bleh. I still think it would've been worth avoiding all this hassel with the expense of just going for a taxi from the airport to begin with.

The rest of the afternoon and evening was as expected. A lot of small talk, greetings, phone calls (greetings and spreading the news). I am surprisingly sleepy so early in the evening though, unlike in HK. So going to hit the hay...

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Nov. 18th, 2013

Day 3 Hong Kong

Today was a much more...fruitful day, I think.

We didn't leave the hotel until about 9 AM. Found a breakfast place that looked very popular. Forgot to note down the name. The service was a little slow (possibly due to the being busy), but the food was decent - in the good tasting way.

A little after 10 (which is when the majority of places open), we went to the HK Art Museum. I didn't expect too much out of the place, and was pleasantly surprised that there were a few nice galleries apart from the bleh stuff like contemporary art and film history. Photography wasn't allowed, but I managed to sneak a few shots from their porcelain gallery. Will need to figure out how to upload them.

After the museum, we went to the nearby Harbor City. Unfortunately, the shops there turned out to be all brand names and too rich for our blood. The front door was kinda pretty though, all decked out with Christmas & Disney themes. Took some photos there and also of the next door building place that might've been the Consumer Education Info Center (not sure).

We then had lunch at the Jade Garden (翠園) restaurant. I'd found the place while searching for good/popular yet not too expensive dim sum places earlier in the morning. It was second on my list (the first being Serenade restaurant near the museum). The food was pretty good, as was the view. I don't recall the menu item names, but there was one with a lobster broth thing that was really nice - both in terms of presentation and taste.

A little after 1 PM, we hit the HK Space Museum. There was some very cool (and educational!) stuff there too. I didn't do any of the hands on demos (like the 1/6 gravity thing, the gyroscope thing, etc., as I was still feeling stuff from lunch and wasn't sure how my stomach would react to that kinda thing. I did take some photos much it's not much representative of all the nice stuff they have there.

We saw 2 of the large dome movies. One was the 3D dome movie about the "Wildest Weather in the Solar System" - which covered stuff like the planet-wide dust storms of Mars, the methane rains of Titan, the high speed winds of Neptune, etc. Also saw a non-3D movie about the "Dynamic Earth" - which talked about the carbon cycle on Earth and Venus, and so forth. Both were pretty cool.

After resting a bit back at the hotel, we left again for some further shopping at around 7. I didn't find much of anything aside from a T-shirt that was kinda nice and on sale. Mom bought a bunch of specialty food packs for gifting people.

Although it was close, we managed to drop off our bags back at the hotel and make it back to the Avenue of Stars in time for the 8 PM "Symphony of Lights" show. Tonight's was in English, and I managed to video most of it. Will need to see how well that turned out.

For dinner, we went to the Super Star (鴻星) Seafood Restaurant across the street from our hotel. Again, I'd researched for seafood places that were not too expensive. We ordered a lobster (which was rather standard fare), a Tiger fish (which was wow-tasty-good), and a little shrimp dumpling made in the form of little koi fish things (which was tasty and adorable). Total price came out to something like 716 HKD which isn't too bad for fresh seafood.

Our plane to Nanjing leaves at 10-something tomorrow. So we need to arrive at the airport by 8, which means leaving the hotel by at least 7, and so a wake up call at 6 or 5:30... Probably won't have access to the internet for a while after this then. The rest of the entries will likely need to be back-dated. Ah well.

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Nov. 17th, 2013

Day 2 Hong Kong

Started the trip on Friday morning. Got to the BART station and realized I forgot my passport (I know, shp). Dad had a doctor's appointment after dropping us off at the station, so no help could be expected there (both he and mom are horrible about having their cellphones with them and turned on. Thus, I had to spend $15 for a taxi to pop back home. Bleh. Silver lining - at least I didn't find out about it after we arrived at the airport; that would've probably caused a missed flight.

Long boring flight; the most surprising thing was that they gave us ice cream for one of the snack breaks, which was cool. This was an older model plane, so no personal TV screen. I didn't bother and just read on my nook. Finished Blindsight and a few other short stories I'd downloaded before the trip.

Got to HK at night. When we arrived at the hotel, it turned out there was an issue where the tour group had not cleared out when they should have, leaving no rooms in that building. We got shuffled off to the last remaining room in another building off in some dark iffy-looking alley. The room was a dinky thing that was maybe the size of the walk in closet in my parents' bedroom, with only 1 bed. Ugh. Not much we could do but make do.

At least to make up for it, this morning, they moved us to a much nicer 3 person (2 bed) room in the main building. No extra charge, which is better.

The downside of having gotten up so early this morning (whether due to jetlag or due to the accommodations), though, seems to be the problem that Hong Kong is not a morning place. Almost *nothing* was open before like 10/11 AM - museums, restaurants (I saw no breakfast places anywhere, seriously WTH), special bus routes to tour areas, etc. So we took a slow walk to the Star Ferry pier near the Cultural Center, then another meandering walk from Pier 7 to the Peak Tram.

We took some pics of some skyscrapers and interesting looking buildings, as well as several gardens/parks. And I noticed something else - everything is really really small here. Their parks for the most part are smaller than my high school PE grounds. The tram only had one car and one track. Even the sky terrace building seems smaller than the 101 building in Taiwan. We ended up leaving a lot earlier instead of waiting for the night view simply cuz there was nothing there to do for who knows how many hours.

So here we are taking a rest back at the hotel, in the nice new room. We'll probably hit the shopping districts tonight and if those turn out to be better than the tourist spots. I want to buy some lighter clothing, cuz I brought clothes expecting cold weather (for Nanjing) but HK is like 10 degrees hotter than back home in CA so I've been sweltering. Bleh.

Tomorrow we will know better and stay in until like 10. :p

EDIT: This evening we had a simple dinner and then took a brief stroll through Temple St. It was... typical of Chinese street markets, I thought. I didn't end up buying anything except another USB adapter for my Zen Mosaic, which for some reason refused to charge.

(Thought, turns out the new adapter didn't make any difference. When I connect it to my laptop, the charge light/icon don't come up on the Zen (actually it flashes once and then goes dark again), and my computer does not detect a new device. I tested the adapters on my camera as well since they use the same type of port, and I'm not able to pick up the camera either. I am able to pick up my nook and smart phone which uses a different time of adapter tough, which makes it seem unlikely to be a problem with the computer. I can't tell if there is some issue with both adapters, or with my zen and camera... Ugh.)

At 8 PM we went by the shore again to watch the symphony of lights show. It was pretty nice. I'll bring the camera and record some of it tomorrow.

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Nov. 12th, 2013

Airline baggage notes (for self)

Purse or backpack, purse or backback... hrm...

Dragon Air (HK - PRC)

http://www.dragonair.com/ka/en_HK/travel-information/baggage/carry-on-baggage.html

For all classes, each passenger (except an infant) can bring a free baggage allowance of one cabin bag not exceeding 56x36x23cm (22x14x9 in) in size and 5kg (11lbs) in weight. These dimensions include wheels, handles and side pockets.

In addition to the standard cabin baggage allowance, you may carry onboard one of the following items free:

a small handbag or a small backpack or a briefcase or a laptop bag

Note: Duty-free items are included in your cabin baggage allowance

UA (US - China)

http://www.united.com/CMS/en-US/travel/Pages/BaggageCarry-On.aspx

United Airlines will permit one bag plus one personal item (see below), per customer to be carried on the aircraft.

The maximum combined linear measurement (length + width + height) of carry-on bags must not exceed 14 inches x 9 inches x 22 inches (23 x 35 x 56 cm) or 45 linear inches (114 cm).

In addition to one carry-on item, you may bring one personal item, such as a shoulder bag, backpack, laptop bag or other small item (no larger than 9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches, or 36 linear inches).

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Oct. 14th, 2012

In Summary: Home Sweet Home?

...In a general sense, I guess - in that after this trip around Europe, home is still the best place to live. Everything is cheaper in the US, and that's just comparing tag prices and before converting between USD & Euro/Pound/Franks. It's fairly safe, at least where I live, unlike Paris/Italy, without being all Big Brother-y like London. And the food is everything I love and need...OMG the food (definitely prefer American Italian to "authentic" Italian; and "authentic" French food prices are just forget it). Also, great weather here in Cali all year around.

Of course, in a less general sense, homecoming was spoiled by the fact that my dad managed to turn the house into a bachelor pad in the week and a half we were gone. The kitchen is three kinds of disgusting and I think we need to replace/redo the sink cuz it's leaking and won't stop. Ugh.
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Oct. 13th, 2012

The cities of Europe

I was going to write something long... but looking back on my previous posts I decided to do something short and to the point for once. So, here are some thoughts about the various cities I visited on this trip:

Safety:

The two cities that I felt the safest was in Lucerne and London. This is despite the fact that there's often not a bobby in sight (not counting the guards in the funny hats which are more of a tourist attraction than crime deterrent in London). Now, London, this was explained away by our tour guide as due to the fact that every inch of the city is covered in security cameras (due to former issues with IRA bombings) such that you can't sneeze without being caught on tape, much less commit a crime. Lucerne...I have no idea why you can feel safe in a city that goes pretty much lights out at 7 PM even if you are alone walking the streets after dark.

Paris and Italy, despite often having armed troops in public locations (seriously, are you under martial law or something?) gives me the jeebies if I'm ever not with the group. These are also the two places that multiple tour guides warn us about. Paris is apparently a city where you need to be careful of being mugged. Italy is just a nation of pickpockets and swindlers. Given that several tour members fell prey to the swindling, and almost fell prey to "pro" pickpocketing... it is kinda scary.

Bathrooms:

Lucerne had the best bathrooms hands down. Of course, that's probably cuz it had the least population, including tourism. Paris and London are okay when it comes to cleanliness, but the restrooms are often either require or "encourage" mandatory donations. >.>

Italy is the worst, especially Milan and Rome. Many of the toilets in the public restrooms there don't even have the bench part of the toilet, just the underlying bowl. That's just... ugh. I'd take even the squat toilets of China from 10 years ago over some of those.

Ambience/Architecture:

Personal opinion time...but I think pretty much all the post-renaissance stuff is overly gilded and tacky. That just leaves Lucerne and the older parts of Rome. The Roman ruins are fun from a historical perspective. But personally I like the quaint calmness of Lucerne

General Annoyances:

* Breakfasts in European hotels suck; don't hold any expectations unless you're paying exorbitant prices for the gourmet experience.

* Every freaking country has a different outlet format. Apparently if you buy a set of international adapters, you get like 7 different ones for Europe. This makes no sense to me - why would you unify your monetary system but not the electrical things bought with said money? Wouldn't this make it hell to buy any kind of equipment/appliance that comes with a plug from a different European country? WTF.

* Hot water is an alien concept unheard of in many European shops. Including the ones that serve tea.

* There's nothing all that special about 99% of the ice cream shops (gellateria) in Italy. You just need to find that one store which offers unlimited number of tiny scoops of every flavor in the shop on a single cone for an affordable price. That is, I've heard of such a thing. Never seen it with my own eyes though.

* Beware the pickpockets and guard your purse carefully. Do not make any form of eye contact of do anything to acknowledge random street vendors coming up to you and try to shake your hand/take your picture/stuff things in your hand. If you do, expect to pay or have a escape route/scapegoat handy.

* Prices are horrendous all around, and that's even before you convert to USD. I try not to think too much on it in order not to spoil what's supposed to be a fun vacation.
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Day 10 Rome & Vatican City

It looks like I still have some time for net access, so here's a quick summary of today...

Our first stop was the Coliseum, where we met our local tour guide for the day. We were able to go inside the arena and take photos, but the best views were of course from the top...of the first floor. My god the stairs were absolutely killer, each and every step being slippery and steep. It's easy to see how the Ancient Romans could have used it to control the crowds on the upper floors.

Then we headed over to the Roman forums and Basilica. Or at least the ruins thereof.

After that, we stopped outside of the Vatican for lunch. Which really was more expensive than it would have been across the street. Word to the wise - if a tour guide introduces you to a shop of any kind, first look around at the other shops in the same area. Chances are you're at the most expensive one and the tour guide gets a cut if you shop there.

Then, the Vatican Museum, which eventually leads into the Sistine Chapel. My god that was a long walk of over three miles. A very pretty and gilded long walk, but still incredibly long. Supposedly, you're not supposed to take any photos in the chapel itself; but no one apparently cared and there was no way to police all the people squeezed into that room, so I did take photos and video. :P Oh yeah, and to add - the place was absolutely packed, in the kind of tightly packed environment that you'd only find in popular Chinese tourist attractions. Also, it's one of the few places where it's not the Asians that are dominating the crowd. I guess there are a lot of devout Catholics out there?

Also, at this point, I need to stop and complain about our local tour guide for today. I have not had a single complaint about any of our tour guides, local and non, at any point before this. But today's lady was horrible. Her accent is thick, and she doesn't slow down, try to make things clear. She also does infodumps over her mike instead of anecdotes like all the other tour guides. This is horrible public speaking practice for the trade that she is in, because all of this information to anyone who cares too look online, and is absolutely useless at gaining the attention of her audience. Our guide yesterday was Italian with an accent too, but he was able to make the tour fun with anecdotes and facial expressions and a raw joy in the subject that is contagious. Also, whenever something goes wrong and a person on the tour doesn't do as she asks (like using the radio headphones or keeping up with the party), it's never *her* fault, but theirs. I can tell you right now that this is horrible customer service of any kind.

Anyway, the upshot of the rant above is that when we came out of the Sistine Chapel, she pointed out where the restrooms (toilettes) were for the group. Then she said something like the people who want to go should wait at the door for her to join them in 10 mins or so. So, naturally, some of us went. It wasn't until after a few of the party that didn't go to the restrooms rejoined us that we found out that she'd led the rest of the group onwards into the St. Peter cathedral, AND that once you got to the exit area with the restrooms, you are not allowed to go back. The guide insisted that she mentioned this caveat, and maybe she might have tried after we'd already left, but considering that 9 people out of 28 "misunderstood" her, that's her problem with not communicating clearly, not ours.

Anyway, the rest of us went back into line for just the cathedral, because that was one scenic spot that we should not be missing. Then afterwards, we all trundled back to the bus, only to find that we were missing one family (4 people) which held an elderly man in a wheelchair. So both our tour guides (our long term guide and our local one from today) spent the next hour looking for them while we spent that hour waiting, before deciding to move on.

Of course, that's when they finally called in to tell us that they'd already headed onto the next scenic spot on the tour a long time ago cuz they thought our group had already left while they were in the restroom. *sigh*

Anyways, better late than lost I guess. We met back up with our lost lambs at the wishing fountain place (formal name escapes me at the moment). Paused for wishes and photos. Then stopped by the Spanish Steps (I think it was called?) for a group photo. What was funny was that there was a group Finnish (Polish?) college kids at the place, who decided to invade our group photo. This lead up to a free for all of mixed group photos of mass hilarity.

Finally, we headed back for dinner, which was provided by the tour. This one was much better than the French cuisine one. It even had musical accompaniment with a nice lady who serenaded us several times throughout the meal. She also teased several of the male members of our party. Since the average age of our tour group was somewhere in the fifties (most are married with kids or even grandkids off to college), this was kinda hilarious.

Finally, we came back to the hotel, and tomorrow we say goodbye to Europe.

EDIT: OMG two more power outtages tonight. When calling in to the front desk, they're blaming it on someone using the wrong voltage plugs. No you idiots, if someone crashes their own room's outlet using the wrong plug, that's their fault. If a bunch of other unrelated customers are affected, that's YOUR fault, and YOUR responsibility. This is basic common sense in the service industry. What is wrong with you? In conclusion: do not book Holiday Inn.
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Oct. 12th, 2012

Chinese is the new international language

I figure since I might not get net time tomorrow night, I might as well write down some of the thoughts that have been swirling around my brain these last few days.

China is a rising power and a rising economy, everyone knows that. This of course means that a greater and greater number of the population are able and can afford to travel abroad. Given China's population, this means that even not accounting for ethnic Chinese but non Chinese citizens like me, there are large numbers of Chinese-origin people pouring out into the world into all the tourism hot spots.

So it's not too much of a surprise, even though it's hilarious, to turn around on the plaza of the Arc d' Triumph and see a sea of black hair and Asian features. Or to be walking along the streets of Venice and hear someone yelling Mandarin behind you, and then get overruntaken by yet another huge mob of mainland Chinese tourists and their very loud tour guide.

It's the little things, however, that really surprise me. The fluent chinese that are being spouted everywhere I go, for example. One of our tour guides in Paris is a fluent Chinese speaker. I also heard it from a waiter at the Moulin Rouge, who admits to have picked up all his vocab from just serving Chinese customers - no extra classes needed. Ok, these are pros, you might think... Of course, then you hear the mother tongue from the gondola rowers in Venice, and the ice cream shop vendors in Florence... the freaking street vendors and gypsies throughout Italy speak functional Chinese well enough to freaking haggle prices and flatter marks.

They also speak it with a more natural/correct mandarin accent than my ABC cousins, who have been taking Chinese classes for a few years now. That's kinda sad, actually.

Now - food for thought: If you go to any caucasian-run store in, say, Golden Gate park, you probably won't get far (I think, I could be wrong nowadays). And while London had a Chinatown, I didn't encounter any vendors who spoke Chinese. English is already the foremost international language. And it's the French (who are supposedly culturally adamant about not going English) and the Italians that are picking up Chinese "liek whoa". Could there be a deeper meaning or correlation there? Is the world going to end up being English versus Chinese for official international tongue in a few decades? In terms of population, I like our chances.

European Tour - Hotel Comparison

I figure I've seen all I need to see of all the hotels we've been staying at on this tour to give a ranking of them. Unless there's something really abnormal at breakfast tomorrow, there's not likely to be anything that will change my mind. Now, given that I haven't been noting down the names of the various hotels we stayed in, other than noting that all except the current/last one were local brand names and not international chains, I'm going to reference them by the city instead. I guess they can serve as a starting point in the city comparison that I'll do later.

So here they are, from best to worst.

1. Paris - Had everything, including complementary slippers, which no other place had. Also had the most fluffiest bedding/pillows.

2. London - Best breakfast of all the hotels, with the most choices and omelettes!

3. (just outside of) Florence - Only downside was that the water pressure was a little weak but that seems to be true of all of Europe. The keys were heavy brass keys instead of normal keycards, but I'm not sure if that's supposed to be on purpose as a flavor thing. WIFI was a wee bit fidgety but not too bad, and the service was really good/responsive. There was no cable TV, but I don't watch TV so it doesn't affect me.

4. Lucerne - Only downside was that the WIFI was only available in the lobby and seventh floor. However, since the room we got was on the ground floor right next to the lobby, I could still get online from the room. :)

5. Milan - Main complaint here was that the staff was pretty unresponsive and took forever to get around to servicing you even when you're the only person at the counter.

6. (just outside of) Venice - Only place where there was no flatscreen TV in the room but the old style TV. The front desk could not provide any adapters for US style plugs into Italian style outlets. There were stuff that was broken in the bathroom such as the step-button thing to open the trash can lid. Also, breakfast only had one warm dish and that was eggs.

7. Rome - This was the only US brand hotel - Holiday Inn. Also no adapters available at the front desk. Only hotel that didn't have a safe either (wtf!). WIFI is 14 Euros per 24 hours so I may or may not even be able to post something tomorrow. Also, the power went out for like 5-10 minutes while I was in the shower just now, which was awwkwaaard... EDIT: Also, the walls are paper thin and it's hard to sleep while listening to your neighbors talking and watching TV.

Some general notes...

Breakfast in general in Europe seems to suck a lot. There appears to be no attempt at all to make it "international". In London we started with warm dishes at breakfast including eggs, sausages, ham (bacon-like), potatoes, omelette station. Then in Paris it was just eggs, bacon, sausages, but at least they had some yummy croissants that are a specialty of the French. In pretty much everywhere in Italy there was just eggs and bacon. In the hotel outside Venice in particular there was just eggs, and that was it for the warm dishes.

I can't believe a lot of these hotels which are in tourist hot spots can't go the one small step further and offer something like pancakes or waffles (for US tastes) or something Asian-y to cater to the burgeoning Chinese tourist population. It seems to be very backwards to me. Or perhaps ethnocentric? Or maybe they just don't care about food as much as the Chinese do (going by any international breakfast offered by a Chinese hotel in a major city...)
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Day 9 Pisa & Florence

It was raining this morning when we got to Pisa, pretty hard too, which made taking photos a miserable pain. We got a tilted shot glass from a souvenir shop and then scuttled back to the tour bus.

Then we actually circled back to Florence. The city pretty much still uses the old stone roads from the medieval era so there's no room for any of the large buses to get into the city. This meant we had to park outside the city and then walk aaaallll the way inside. It was a long walk. Then, we got to the extremely overly-gilded Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral/duomo (yeah I googled the name) of Florence (made of white, green, and pink marble!) and were handed over to a local tour guide.

We then went to the Galleria dell' Accademia (more google) to gawk at the works of Michaelangelo, including the famous statue of David. No photos allowed, unfortunately.

After that we went to another chapel place supposedly interring Dante's wife & favorite mistress. And then swung by the city center/offices which are housed in the old Medicci palace. Then the Basilica of Santa Croce cathedral (yay google again) which is supposedly more famous for the people interred there - Machiavelli, Galileo, some other dudes I forget, and Michaelangelo (whose body was stolen back from Rome).

After that we took a long drive to Rome, where our hotel for the last day is going to be. Tomorrow we will tour Rome, and then the day after we will be departing for the US.
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Oct. 11th, 2012

Day 8 Venice

Our hotel last night was actually just outside Venice. This morning we took the boat onto the island itself. Our bus paid a hefty 400+ Euros to get into the city, and that's apparently twice what the price had been two years ago. But given the large number of people on the islands, it doesn't seem like the raised prices has deterred anyone. I guess the money goes to upkeeping, since the water is surprisingly clear of any debris or trash at all, even in the nooks and crannies.

The trip itself to Venice was on a motor boat. From the top, the view was ok and there's less chance of sea sickness with the cold morning wind blowing at you.

Our first stop in Venice was the Murano glass factory, where we got a short demo on glassmaking and then were ushered into the official gift shop. Lots of very pretty stuff there, and the local guide explained the contents and quirks of specialties like Venetian red or the pink-turned-blue-under-lighting glass and the baroque versus Venetian styles and etc. I admit we were a little overly dazzled by the shinies everywhere and ended up buying quite a bit of stuff there, that on later retrospection, would have cost less than half of what we paid for in the shops outside of that factory. *sigh* I should stop thinking about that before I ruin my vacation.

Then we passed by the San Marco plaza and took a short boat ride on the gondola. One of our tour group members paid for a singer, so the entire tour (including the boats before/after that one) got to also enjoy the signature serenade on the gondola. That was kinda neat, and is probably the best part of Italy so far. :p

After the gondola ride, we had about 2 hours of free time to scour the shops. The less said about the prices there versus the prices we'd paid earlier the better. We were also supposed to get lunch. But after tasting a bite of the fast food type things my mom and one of our tour members bought, I decided to skip. My god how much salt do the Italians put in their food? The pasta last night was very salty too. It's incredibly sad that I think the pasta from Giovanni's in Berkeley is better than the actual pasta from Italy. Bleh.

After the motor boat ride back to the mainland, we drove onwards past Florence to our hotel... which I guess is just outside Florence (something about Tuscani?). Tomorrow we're to visit the leaning tower of Pisa and then circle back to do Florence.

Our hotel is a rather quaint one, with actual heavy brass keys instead of the usual key cards so far. I'm not sure if they're just that old or if that's supposed to be on purpose for regional flavor. They also provided dinner, which was a fair bit better than the stuff we've had outside so far, in that it was only a little too salty. Ah well.
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Oct. 10th, 2012

Day 7 Milan & Verona

This morning we visited the Duormo (Dvormo?) in Milan. My mom had a scare where she got forced into a handshake with a street performer, who then expected her to pay for the photo that her companion took. I was keeping our money, so all she had was her camera. The performer wasn't very impressed by that. Another party was force given some corn to feed the pidgeons everywhere on the plaza. The men then wouldn't let them leave without paying. In the end, our tour guide paid for them and warned all of us to ignore all the hawkers and performers on the streets of Italy unless we are going to pay. It's a life lesson learned I guess.

Near the Duormo is Napoleon Street, where supposedly all the latest famous brands put out their newest stuff - the kind that show up on expos and shows and only make it over to the states in a few years time. Of course I'm the kind of person who don't wear anything leather and don't usually carry a purse either, famous brand or not. So that's kinda wasted on me. We did try some Italian ice cream and pizza, but I think the food at the plaza are mainly aimed for tourists (they were pretty cheap) and not the authentic type that people tend to rave about.

Then there was a two hour or so drive to Verona, the home of Romeo and Juliet, or, if we want to stick to real life, the home of Dante. The rest stop just before Verona, however, was a small Asian-run tourist trap. They were demoing some wines there, and to my surprise I've finally found one wine that doesn't make me want to spit and stick to water. A brand called Muscato, IIRC. Hopefully it's around in the US too.

Anyway, in Verona, we took some shots of the supposed place where Juliette's balcony was. Lots of couple-y people there. (Also made one candid camera shot of two guys who were dancing in the park nearby.) Took some shots of Dante's place - not all that impressive, really. Ate some bleh Itallian cuisine (too salty by half). And took some photos of the Arena there. I'm sure there's some grand history to that particular site, but there are zero pamphlets available in any language but Italian. Come to think of it, it's been like that through-out Italy. We don't even have a local tour guide. Are the Italians just that bad at the tourism business? Or just so super-confident that people will still come for the famous romantic hotspots that they can get away with not putting any effort into the tourism bits? Or do they just not care about the Roman Empire part of their history? I can't tell.

In other news, the toothache hasn't been acting up much at all today. Not sure if it's cuz of the warmer climes or if it's cuz I switched back to western pills instead of Chinese. Still, I've got a dentist appointment lined up for when I get back. I'm glad I'd scheduled my PTO for two extra days after the trip.
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Oct. 9th, 2012

Day 6 Luzern & Milan

Today was actually the Lucerne (Luzern in German) tour. We started early in the morning with a tram ride up Mt. Pilatus. Unfortunately, the normal cable cars that we were scheduled to take had been taken offline the whole day due to windy weather. It was also actually raining (as opposed to drizzling) for once in the morning, which didn't help either. All this resulted in the fact that once we got to the observatory at the top, there was nothing to see outside except fog and more fog. The only bright side was that on the way down, there were a few spots of less fog/rain which allowed some decent photos to be taken. I doubt it's as good as they would've been from the top though.

After Pilatus we took a boat tour of the Lucerne Lake. Lunch was served on the boat but it was kinda meh (way to salty). The scenery was pretty nice though, with the rain having stopped and the sun almost starting to come out.

After that we had about two hours of shopping before moving onto Milan. There were a lot of watch shops, as you'd expect. But I don't use watches, and I think they're being slowly replaced by cellphones anyway. We did end up buying a bunch of Swiss chocolates of various brands/types. Mostly for gifting of course. I'm certainly not going to be able to enjoy it while my tooth is still acting up.

(And yes, it is still aching. I'm starting to think that it's a problem with the fillings that had been renewed a few months ago. It seems to be centered around just one tooth and I really am not picking up any issue with the gums... Oh, and we also found a pharmacy in Lucerne where I was able to buy some more Aleve pills.)

Our bus later reached Milan in the evening. We stopped by a Chinese restaurant for dinner - fare was pretty meh. And then to the hotel. Tomorrow the schedule is to visit some place(s?) in Milan, and then a short stopover in Verona, before arriving in Venice.
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Oct. 8th, 2012

Day 5 To Lucerne

I think that's how you spell the name of the Swiss city we're staying at tonight, anyway...

We started to the drive to Switzerland at 8 AM in Paris and arrive somewhere around 6 PM. Accounting for about an hour or two worth of stopovers, that's still a lot of time spent on the road. Worse still was that for the first part of the drive, the driver was trying to take "shortcuts" via country routes rather than the main highway. This meant a lot of twists, turns... motion sickness in other words. When we stopped for lunch at around 2, I ended up losing everything left in my stomach from breakfast. Ugh. Well, this is supposed to be the longest drive on this trip so I hope the subsequent drive to Italy won't be as bad.

Lucerne itself is a nice quite town. A river and some pretty straw-type bridges... very pastoral. I found the settings more intimate than the Seine on Paris. Probably because it hasn't been overly commercialized. That and I find a lot of Parisian "style" gaudy for my tastes, and also there's always this sense of danger there like in a lot of mixed cities (Oakland comes to mind as a good comparison) - there are warnings everywhere in Paris about beware of pickpockets or beware of being alone after dark etc. Switzerland, on the other hand, has an excellent record for saftely and it doesn't actually feel like it's dangerous to be out on the streets here after dark. Boring maybe, cuz it looks like stores close fairly early here, but not dangerous.

I packed away my camera this morning so wasn't able to get any shots of the town. Not sure if there will be time tomorrow morning. That's a shame, cuz this is my favorite place so far.

In other news. Tooth still aching. Someone suggested salt water. I think that's only made it hurt more. Owwwwww...
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Oct. 7th, 2012

Day 4 Paris

This morning we made a stop near the Eiffel Tower for photos. Then, we hit the Cathedral of Notre Dame. There was a mass going on at the time (surrounded by tourists though as it was), with the organ music and the Latin. It was pretty cool. I had a heck of a time getting photos of the indoors though, due to the chandelier lights playing havok with my camera's auto-zoom. I ended up taking a lot of shots of the stained glass windows, of which there were many and all very pretty.

After that we went by the Arc d' Triumph. I have to amend yesterday's post at that... the arc at the Louvre was just a miniature version of the real Arc. The real one is much large and at the center of 12 streets radiating outwards from it. Unfortunately the line was way too long for us to have the time to get on top of it; ah well.

Afternoon was all spent at the Palace of Versailles. Very...lavish place. Not a piece of silver in the place aside from the recreation of the breakfast setting (which came from elsewhere) - it'd been all melted down way back when to pay for the military. Most of the rooms were full of paintings and frescos. And everywhere was all gilded gold, giving the very nicely designed architecture an extra layer of tacky. (Reminds me a lot of all the late Ming and Qing dynasty imperial buildings at that, what with the mix of art and gaudiness). I'll have to say the hall of mirrors is pretty impressive. But you can also tell why the mob lynched Louis XVI.

Dinner was arranged for us to have supposedly authentic French meal at some restaurant. I think we should've known better when the price for it wasn't something to give anyone heart attacks. As it turned out, what they actually served was the Chinese version of French cuisine. I couldn't even finish the main course cuz the meat was too tough and...ugh.

(I will have to note though, that you can tell who the up and coming power is on the international arena just by looking around the tourist spots. The vast majority of tourists I've been seeing are Asian...Chinese. The Arc d' Triumph was awash in a sea of black hair and you'd think it was a Chinese structure if it weren't for the fact that we were in Paris. The dinner place was packed with multiple Chinese tour groups by the time we were leaving. I guess it's the place most tours book with to hoodwink the tourists with promise of fancy foreign cuisine.)

Finally, the evening was a show at the Moulin Rouge. I got carded in the manner that both the waiter and the tour guide assumed I couldn't drink yet and offered fruit juice. Of course the drinking age in Paris is 18, which means they thought I was still in high school XD. As for the show itself, I have to say I was pretty underwhelmed there. I was sort of nodding off in my seat halfway through. You could say that's because I lack culture, but I wasn't the only one, and many of the other people who went in our group were saying that it was much less impressive than the shows at Las Vegas, so... Yeah, aside from the fact that the girls were dancing topless, there's not much going for it.

Tomorrow, the long road to Switzerland.
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Oct. 6th, 2012

Day 3 Paris

Got up early in the morning to catch the Eurostar from London to Paris. And then the train ended up stalling for like an hour in the middle of the trip due to...I'm not sure what cuz I couldn't understand the conductor's French accent. Wow and I thought BART could be bad.

It was drizzling the entire afternoon/evening when we got to Paris, but was still warmer than England. Higher humidity, mostly.

Immediately after we got to Paris, we were rushed off to the Louvre tour. This is apparently because tomorrow, or the first Sunday of every month, admission to the Louvre is free and open to all (except for groups...apparently tour groups aren't allowed then). So today was basically all the tour groups scrambling to get that done before tomorrow. Our bus had to circle the tour bus parking lot twice before finding a spot.

The Louvre itself is very packed, almost as much as the big museums in China. There's a lot of stuff there and since we only had 2 hours, our tour guides pretty much rushed us through and only hit some of highlights. We saw the three main attractions - the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory, and the Mona Lisa. I was not able to get any photos of the last one, not because they didn't allow photography (strangely enough this is the only museum that allowed people to take flash photos of everything, even the paintings), but because there was a veritable sea of people in front of her and I could not get close enough. This is a museum you most likely need to dedicate at least a week to seeing if you really want to get everything out of it. At the end, we also braved the drizzle and got some pics of the Arc d' Triumph at the entrance.

After the Louvre, some of the people on the tour requested to drop by the shopping district to look at all the famous brand bags or whatever. I stayed on the bus on that and dozed. Honestly, I don't see the point of shelling out a lot of money for a real Prada or whatever... or even window shopping for it if you don't plan to shell out said money.

Then, we went to a Chinese place for dinner. I don't know if it's cuz I was hungry as I skipped lunch on the train, or if it's just that the French are good cooks, but the food was pretty good. I'm not sure if it was authentic anything, but everyone agreed that it was very tasty. I'm probably leaning towards the idea that the French are just snobs at cooking and thus put more effort into making even westernized Chinese food than anywhere else.

Finally, the last event of the day was a boat ride down the Seine. It was still drizzling, but still barely bearable. However, I was fairly underwhelmed by the promised supposedly dazzling scenic sights of the river. I think anyone who's been to Shanghai / Huangpu in the evening would have to agree. The only lights that were really worth looking at was the ones on the Eiffel Tower. The only advantage that the Seine has is that the water is much cleaner and not polluted (much like the Thames in London). Oh and also there were a lot of barges lining the edge of the river. Some were restaurants and stuff but there were also quite a few that appeared to be personal lodging types. And of course every time I saw one of those, I was reminded of Duncan MacLeod and his barge on the Seine. XD

In other news... toothache still persisting. I think it's just my imagination but I feel like one of the back teeth on my lower left side is a teeny kinda wobbly at the root. I really hope that's just my imagination. And I really need to see the dentist ASAP when I get back to the US.
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Oct. 5th, 2012

Day 2 London

Went up to the Tower of London this morning. It was not as tall as I'd have thought for a "tower", more like a large castle-y thing. We got to see all the shinies...crown jewels and all that. But I think the best part was the raven (female named Merlin) that mugged for our tour group. Lots of photos.

We took a quick bus tour of the city. I didn't have the window seat so no photos of that. Then we stopped at Westminster Abbey. Didn't go inside though, since apparently you have to pay if you're not going in for actual worship.

Last stop before was at Buckingham. Didn't go in there either; apparently the tickets have been sold out for weeks (really?).

Lunch was at the Chinatown in London. My toothache thing started acting up just before then, so I wasn't really able to eat much. Did pop 2 pills of Aleve which kicked in later. Ugh I don't even know what's wrong. It doesn't hurt if I poke anywhere around my teeth or my gums with a toothpick. But it hurt like heck when I took a single sip of hot tea at lunch. Ice water surprisingly didn't hurt and actually (numbed?) lowered the pain. But it just came back worse than before afterwards. And yet I don't think/see anything swollen. *shrug* Eventually the two pain pills I took during lunch kicked in and the rest of the day was fine. Really need to see the dentist when I get home.

Anyway, for the afternoon the tour group pretty much split up. The tour guide offered to take whoever wanted to go to Cambridge, though there'd be an extra charge for that. The rest of the group were going to head off to the British Museum in the city, which was free admission. We went to the museum group. (A good choice in retrospect since it started raining later in the afternoon - we'd been lucky not to have caught any rain before then.) The museum had some really nice exhibits on Ancient Egypt and Greece. Got to see the actual Rosetta Stone. There was a small exhibit on China which really didn't hold much to speak of.

Our group headed back to Chinatown for dinner. And we took a taxi back to the hotel. Tomorrow we head for France, by chunnel. :)
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Oct. 4th, 2012

Day 1 London

So the flight was first 5 hours to Philedelphia and then 6 hours to London. I seem to have developed a toothache (gum-ache?) in my left cheek which kept me from being able to sleep the entire flight. Needless to say I was pretty out of it the entire time after getting to the UK.

We only hit one scenic spot today, and that was Windsor Castle. It's a nice place; lots of history...and recent not-so-history. It was also pretty cold since we were still sorta dressed for Cali weather. Took some pictures, but not sure I got any good ones of the guards with the funny bear-fur hats. Oh well, Buckingham is on tomorrow's itinerary so will probably have a better shot there.

Had a really early dinner since the tour guide was aware that we were all tired and jetlagged. I plan on just taking a bath and then going to bed early. Might take a pain reliever pill if the tooth ache starts again (it seems to come and go).
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Oct. 16th, 2011

Photos...

Ugh, why is my internet connection so slow... Took forever to upload just two albums onto Facebook, and that's just the stuff from Taipei. >_< Plus, the flash version of the uploader up and quit on me. Bleh.

Anyway... some pics that I'm not going to post to FB.

(Excerpts from the menu of the gourmet Italian restaurant known as PizzaHut in China)

Oct. 6th, 2011

I'm back!!

*is ded*

10 hour flight, stupid different baggage rules for US flights, then 1 hour BART...I managed to lose track of the bag of duty free food gift items stuff we bought at the Nanjing and Taipei airports, so Mom's not happy with me. T_T

Ugh. Only bright spot is I didn't get sick this time, the first time ever for a trip to China. Gonna crash.

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