Part #14: Traveling Solo and the Great Tea Festival Scam

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs
Part #5: A Walk in the Park
Part #6: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
Part #7: The Great Wall is Truly Great
Part #8: Beijing’s Art District
Part #9: Bulletting Toward Shanghai
Part #10: Radisson Blue Shanghai – A Review
Part #11: Family History in Shanghai
Part #12: Breaking News: I Did Not Find a Husband in Shanghai
Part #13: Traveling Like a Local to Zhijiajiao

My adventure as a solo traveler officially began Tuesday morning when I put my sister in a cab for the Shanghai airport, and I promptly freaked out.

What was I doing? I’m the girl who called my parents every day from sleepover camp because I was so homesick. Now, I had two days in Shanghai and five days in Japan to fend for myself. Seven days seemed like an eternity stretching out in front of me. I cursed myself and my incurable wanderlust. It’s easy to enjoy the promise of wanderlust in the comfort of my apartment; it’s  alot harder when I’m alone in a foreign country thousands of miles from home.

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But then I grabbed my camera and told myself to make the most of it. And I’m so glad I did. Traveling solo is scary, but it is also empowering and relaxing. I missed my sister, but there is a freedom in waking up when I wanted to, going where I wanted to, falling asleep when I wanted to. If I wanted to spend an hour (or three hours – who’s counting?) trying to get the perfect picture… well, I could. There was no one to stop me. Plus, it’s hard not to revel in the extraordinary pride I felt swelling in my chest. As I hit the streets, I found myself thinking: I am wandering around Shanghai all by myself. I’m awesome.

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I did discover the downside of traveling solo in China: I quickly became the target of a famous – and somewhat beguiling — traditional Chinese scam.

As I wandered over to Yuyuan Gardens I was stopped by a couple of young Chinese natives who told me they were students in Beijing on break. They told me how much they love meeting English speaking tourists so they can practice their English. I took this all in stride. Then, they invited me to join them at a famous Chinese tea festival. That’s so cute, I thought. “A Chinese tea festival! But I don’t like tea, and I had my heart set on seeing Yuyuan Gardens. I politely declined. They insisted I’d be missing out and they really wanted to practice their English. I thanked them and went on my merry way. What a nice bunch of kids, I thought.

Not ten minutes later, I was stopped by another small group who gave me the same shpiel. They were on break from school and headed to a traditional tea festival. I must come, they told me, and they would love to practice their English. Wow, I thought. The next generation of Chinese citizens are really committed to practicing their English. Again, I politely declined.

As I continued on my way, I thought: That can’t possibly be a coincidence. But for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what kind of scam they were attempting. I checked my backpack and all my essentials were still there. They clearly were not trying to pick-pocket me. Why in the world would they want me to go to some tea festival?

Later that night, I googled the words “tea festival scam,” and was shocked by the results.

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Apparently, the Chinese tea festival is a famous scam that has hoodwinked many a tourist. The Chinese “students” lure unsuspecting tourists to a hole in the wall (this would be the alleged “festival”) where a local offers an array of tea flavors to sample. After all this, the tourist is charged an exorbitant sum for the pleasure of partaking in this event.

For some reason, I found this hysterical. And a significant boost to my self esteem. On my first day as a solo traveler, I escaped the famous tea festival scam unscathed!

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Part #13: Traveling Like a Local to Zhujiajiao

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs
Part #5: A Walk in the Park
Part #6: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
Part #7: The Great Wall is Truly Great
Part #8: Beijing’s Art District
Part #9: Bulletting Toward Shanghai
Part #10: Radisson Blue Shanghai – A Review
Part #11: Family History in Shanghai
Part #12: Breaking News: I Did Not Find a Husband in Shanghai

On my sister’s last full day in Shanghai, we took a day trip to one of the many ancient water towns on the outskirts of the city. If you google “water towns near Shanghai,” you’ll find an abundance of options, each with advantages and disadvantages. After going back and forth, we finally decided on one of the closer towns – and we were very happy with our choice. Traveling by bus in China is not an easy feat for an English speaker. I was convinced we were going to end up halfway to Tibet before we realized we were on the wrong bus.

Thankfully, that did not happen.

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Zhujiajiao is a one hour-bus ride from the bus stop just south of the People’s Park. Thanks to some very detailed blog posts (here and here), we knew we were looking for the pink bus on Pu’an Road with the express symbol (it looks like this:快). And just to be sure, we asked every Western looking person on the bus, “Zhujiajiao?” and took their tentative nods as a good sign.

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Note: The bus will be very crowded. Leg space is non-existent.

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Once we got to Zhujiajiao, we took a pedicab to the entrance of the ancient city because we were afraid of getting lost. Okay fine, I admit it. I was also freezing. The directions are actually pretty straightforward and an easy 10-minute walk.

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One of the common complaints about Zhujiajiao is that it’s overly touristy and crowded, but we didn’t find it to be either of these things – maybe because we are tourists, and the cold weather kept the throngs away.

The thing we enjoyed most about Zhujiajiao was its effortless charm: the narrow alleyways that wind every which way; the elegant bridges; the houses and souvenir stores tucked into tiny corners; and the cultural oddities that make you stop in your tracks. We had a great time simply walking around. We splurged on a boat ride for 65 RMB just because it’s the kind of thing to do at least once in our lives.

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I’m obsessed with this shot. I love that there is a chair in the middle of all the laundry.

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Me taking pictures on a bridge:

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Here, we stumbled upon some kind of calligraphy shop:

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Our Chinese version of a gondola ride (without the crooning and so much cheaper):

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Part #12: Breaking News: I Did Not Find a Husband in Shanghai

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs
Part #5: A Walk in the Park
Part #6: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
Part #7: The Great Wall is Truly Great
Part #8: Beijing’s Art District
Part #9: Bulletting Toward Shanghai
Part #10: Radisson Blue Shanghai – A Review
Part #11: Family History in Shanghai

Most people go to Shanghai to see the mesmerizing skyline. I desperately wanted to see the Shanghai marriage market. Every Saturday and Sunday, hundreds of Chinese citizens gather in the People’s Park with descriptions of their children (or themselves), in search of the appropriate mate. For some reason, this fascinated me.

People’s Park is huge, so I asked concierge where exactly I could find the marriage market.

Concierge: Which market?

Me: The Shanghai marriage market.

Concierge: I don’t understand. Which market?

Me: The marriage market?

Concierge: Which market? What are you looking to buy?

Me: A Chinese husband!

So I set out to find the marriage market on my own. Luckily, it was hard to miss. Despite the afternoon rain, there were tons of people gathered in the park under umbrellas hawking pieces of paper.

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I was pretty impressed with their ingenuity. Everything in sight became a platform for hosting posters.

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I did not find a husband in Shanghai, and I got yelled at in Chinese, but I had a great time. The Shanghai marriage market should not be missed.

Glutton for Punishment

As many of you know, I do not like running. Not even a little bit. But I love the idea of being a runner. I love the idea of being in shape and conquering the miles one by one. Of course, I have never quite become the glorified runner of my imagination. Instead, I hobble along, complaining about each mile and wondering why I put myself through this. Why? Because, clearly, I’m a glutton for punishment.

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That must be why I signed up for the Nike 15K race in Toronto in June. Fortunately, I have two good friends who agreed to participate in this torturous journey with me. I’m super excited to see my friend Daveeda in Toronto even if I need a 9.3 mile excuse to make the trip. So now the training – and the complaining – begins in earnest!

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Part #11: Family History in Shanghai

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs
Part #5: A Walk in the Park
Part #6: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
Part #7: The Great Wall is Truly Great
Part #8: Beijing’s Art District
Part #9: Bulletting Toward Shanghai
Part #10: Radisson Blue Shanghai – A Review

Our Sunday morning in Shanghai was a special day – and one of the reasons we traveled across the globe. For years, my mom has been telling us about how my grandparents escaped Nazi-occupied Poland by securing illegal visas to Japan and ended up living in the Shanghai Ghetto until they were liberated in 1945. When I was kid growing up in Chicago, I never imagined that one day I would travel to China and walk those same streets as my grandparents.

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Many people have never heard the name Chiune Sugihara, but for thousands of Jews in Eastern Europe, Sugihara was a hero. Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat who became the vice-consul for Japan in Lithuania in 1929. During World War II, he handed out thousands of transit visas to Polish and Lithuanian Jews seeking travel to Japan. This was no small thing. According to official Japanese rules, visas were only supposed to be granted to people who had the appropriate funds and a visa for a third destination to leave Japan. Most of the Jews receiving Sugihara’s visas did not fill the bill.

Years later, Sugihara was asked why he worked so hard to save so many lives. He said:

“People in Tokyo were not united. I felt it silly to deal with them. So, I made up my mind not to wait for their reply. I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people’s lives….The spirit of humanity, philanthropy…neighborly friendship…with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation—and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage.”

My grandparents were lucky enough to secure two of Sugihara’s illicit visas and rode the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia before taking a boat to Kobe, Japan. The Japanese were not all that interested in taking in thousands of European Jews so the government shipped them, including my grandparents, off to Shanghai, which was under Japanese occupation at the time.

So that Sunday morning, my sister and I rode the subway to Shanghai’s northern Hongkou district. Today, there is nothing particularly spectacular about the area. It is a crowded and poor residential area filled with old apartment buildings and corner stores.

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The Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum is housed in the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue in the old ghetto neighborhood.

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All visitors are required to put plastic covers on their shoes to protect the synagogue. For some reason, we found this hysterical.

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The restored bottom floor of the synagoguge

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The back entrance to the synagogue

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A wall of names of many of the Jewish refugees who lived in Shanghai

The second and third floor contain photos of  and letters from the ghetto’s residents and other important people and places from the time period.

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The yellow portion represents the old Shanghai Ghetto

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Pictures of children born in the Shanghai Ghetto

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A photo of a former resident of the Shanghai Ghetto video chatting with a childhood friend in 2011

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When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin visited the Shanghai Ghetto in 1993, he inscribed these words: “To the People of Shanghai for unique humanitarian act of saving thousands of Jews during the Second World War, thanks in the name of the government of Israel.

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A photo of Chiune Sugihara

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A photo of Jewish refugees waiting in line for a pass to leave the ghetto

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Then-U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Michael Blumenthal visited the home of his youth in 1979

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The former home of U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Michael Blumenthal in the Shanghai Ghetto

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This building housed the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee

A Jewish monument was built in Houshan Park in memorial to the Jews who lived there.

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The museum is small, but it was an incredible — not to mention personal — experience. I left the following inscription in the guest notebook at the Ohel Moshe Synagogue.

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This Guy Took My Breath Away… And Not in a Good Way

I’ve dipped my toes in the online dating pool for a couple of months now, and I’ve been consistently disappointed. I know, I know… you have to kiss a lot of frogs… But the frogs are starting to get on my nerves. I know JDate isn’t exactly a scientific sample of the larger human race, but the profiles are starting to undermine my faith in humanity. They are also laugh-out-loud hysterical… and profoundly insane.

Take this guy — I will call him Joe. He messaged me expressing an interest in meeting, so I checked out his profile. His picture makes him look at least 50 – and that is being generous – he is probably closer to 60. But here’s the kicker: He lists his age as 40. I’m automatically suspicious, but curiosity gets the better of me. So I read on, and it gets better. Joe writes: “I picked the age to reflect as true a reality as possible as a compromise between the fact that I’m an outlier in terms of health, energy, and many other things, and my chronological age.”

What the what?!?!!?

Are you fucking kidding me?

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This guy lies about his age and then blatantly admits that he is lying about his age. Umm… How does he not realize that this is a) creepy and b) completely disingenuous? And here’s another question while I’m at it: Why does a 50 or 60-year-old guy think it’s appropriate to pursue a girl 15 to 20 years younger than him? Note to members of the male gender: The very fact that you are pursuing a girl young enough to be your daughter is a massive, flaming red flag that screams: “Stay away from me! I am a super creepazoid!” And what exactly is the thought process here? Do men assume I’m so desperate, I’ll fall over my feet grateful that any guy has expressed interest in me even if he is old enough to be my father?

I think not. If anyone is desperate, it’s a 60-year-old man, pretending he’s 40, trying to score a 34-year-old.

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Part #10: Radisson Blu Shanghai – A Review

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs
Part #5: A Walk in the Park
Part #6: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
Part #7: The Great Wall is Truly Great
Part #8: Beijing’s Art District
Part #9: Bulletting Toward Shanghai

The best thing about our Radisson Blu hotel in Shanghai was the price and the location. The hotel itself was just okay. The decor was a bit outdated; the room was on the small side; and I didn’t get much for my gold status.

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If you look closely you can see the Oriental Pearl TV Tower all the way on the Pudong.

That said, the price was hard to beat. Since I have the Club Carlson credit card, I get the last night free whenever I book a night with points. To maximize this bonus, I booked the first two nights as one reservation on points – getting the second night for free. I booked the third night using cash. And I booked the last two nights with points, getting the fifth night for free. In the end, I used 100,000 Club Carlson points and about $200 for five nights at a decent hotel. Not too shabby.

Radisson Blu Map

The next best thing about the hotel was the location. Shanghai is huge, with many distinct neighborhoods. The Radisson Blu is located across the street from the People’s Square and the intersection of three subway lines. It is also a pleasant 15 minute walk to Shanghai’s famous Bund. Finally, it is located on Nanjing Road, which is the equivalent of New York’s Broadway or Fifth Avenue. Teeming with stores and people, Nanjing Road stretches from east to west from the Bund all the way across Shanghai. It also contains a pedestrian-only stretch which fills with people day and night.

We spent some time walking around Nanjing Road at night, reveling in the throngs of people and the conflagration of lights. Think of what Times Square would look like if cars were prohibited – that was Nanjing Road at night. Except Times Square doesn’t feature spontaneous Chinese dancing.

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Part #9: Bulletting Toward Shanghai

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs
Part #5: A Walk in the Park
Part #6: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
Part #7: The Great Wall is Truly Great
Part #8: Beijing’s Art District

I confess: I was pretty excited to experience China’s bullet train to Shanghai. Sure, we have Acela in the U.S. but it’s a poor excuse for high-speed rail. At its fastest, Acela travels 150 mph, but on the DC to New York City route, it averages a measly 81.7 mph. I’m generally a rah-rah America is the best kind of girl, but when it comes to high-speed rail, Asia and Europe have us beat. The G category train is the fastest on the Beijing – Shanghai route with a maximum speed of 186 mph and an average speed of 173 mph. Suck on that America!

The G trains offer second, first and business class, with business class being the most luxurious and expensive. We decided to splurge on first class seats (approximately $140) which feel and look similar to Amtrak’s Acela business class seats.

Our Hilton concierge purchased the tickets for us a couple days in a advance, and we hopped a cab to Beijing’s South Railway Station Friday morning. The train station was extremely busy, but it was easy to find our way around. We had to go through security (you have to go through security everywhere in China), but it was quick, and we had plenty of time to spare.

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China’s famous bullet train!

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The seats were comfortable – I fell asleep pretty quickly upon sitting down, but given my preternatural ability to sleep pretty much anywhere, that may not be much of an indication. photo 3 (1)

And the view was pretty neat too!

photo 4Seat61 has all the details on the different train options, prices, and times. At just over five hours, my sister and I found the train trip very relaxing and enjoyable. I highly recommend it over flying any day.

Part #8: Beijing’s Art District

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs
Part #5: A Walk in the Park
Part #6: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
Part #7: The Great Wall is Truly Great

After three intense days exploring Beijing and the Great Wall, we spent our last day in Beijing taking it easy. We grabbed a cab (which is not as easy as it sounds in Beijing) to Beijing’s hip new art district, also known as, the 798 District. Located in northern Beijing, the district is not very accessible by subway, and the cabs are pretty cheap — assuming you can manage to find an available one. The district is built out of an old factory site and has a modern, grunge feel. It was fun to simply walk around and take funny pictures with the statues. Well, at least we found them funny…

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statues side by side

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Never Take No For An Answer (Oh, And I’m Going to Cancun!)

I’ve been AWOL for too long. Work has been busy — which is a good thing — but I have too many fun trips on the horizon and I can’t help wanting to gloat about them. So here’s the latest: Holy contributing to the delinquency of minors – I’m going to Cancun! (Andy yes, that is a real quote from the first season of Batman.)

I’ve never been a beach person so Cancun may seem like an odd choice. But I got the Hyatt Chase credit card last fall when my sister and I were thinking of going to Hawaii, and now I have two free nights at any Hyatt in the world that I need to use before September 30, 2015. I know, you’re crying on the inside for me.

I’ve read great reviews about the new all-inclusive Hyatt in Cancun, and Southwest offers nonstop flights from BWI to Cancun. I asked my friend Eliana if she wanted to go to Cancun for a weekend and this was her emailed response:

“I would freaking love to.”

So I transferred 17,000 Chase points to Southwest and booked a nonstop flight for 26,000 points and $75. Not bad for a flight that would have cost upwards of $500. I also transferred 17,000 Chase points to my Hyatt account to combine with my 8,000 Hyatt points. This gives us a third night in Cancun for a nice little weekend get away. And it gets sweeter still: Hyatt is offering a 20 percent points back promotion for award stays through July 31, 2015. So I should expect 5,000 points back in my account after our stay. More details on the promotion here.

When I called to book the free Hyatt nights the representative told me he only had one free night available. I insisted that I had called 10 minutes ago to confirm availability before I booked my flights, and he told me he couldn’t help me. I insisted on speaking to his manager, but he insisted that no one could change the available inventory for me. So I did what any intrepid travel hacker would do: I hung up and called back five minutes later. I got a new representative who, magically, had no trouble finding the free nights for me. The lesson I learned: NEVER TAKE NO FOR AN ANSWER. Especially when free nights in Cancun are on the line.

Despite the fact that Cancun has never been on my bucket list, I’m pretty excited. Every room is a suite (around 650 square feet) with an ocean view that looks mind-blowing. Somehow, I think I’ll manage to enjoy this view for three days.

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