Join host Kelly Regan and guest Ensley Eikenburg for a recap of Eikenburg's recent travels through China -- and her wondrous and occasionally strange experiences. Learn about the Olympic excitement in Beijing, nightlife in Shanghai and the gorgeous sights to see along the Li River. They also share tales of the Big Buddha, getting used to eating some seriously strange food items (mountain snake, anyone?) and the best ways to get around this very large developing country.

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  • Big Buddha: Giant Tian Tan Buddha on the island of Lantau. Part of Po Lin Monastery.
  • Olympics: Symbols and shops, The Friendlies.
  • Drinking districts: Hong Kong -- Lan Kwan Fong, Bejing - Lotus Lane, Shanghai -- Xin Tian Di.
  • Ease of Travel: Booking with a group makes things easier.
  • Independence: If you don't know the language hire a driver/translator.
  • CITS: Chinese International Travel Service.
  • When to go: Fall and Spring to avoid the extreme summer/winter weather.
  • Visa: Get your travel visa through your travel agent, or go to your local Chinese embassy.


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Kelly Regan: Hi, and welcome to the podcast, the latest in our continuing conversations about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan, editorial director of the Frommer's travel guides. I'll be your host. My guest today is Ensley Eikenburg, our marketing director here at Frommer's. Ensley has just returned from a trip to China. She's here to talk about the Beijing Olympics buzz, about nightlife in Shanghai, and about the ins and outs of traveling independently through China. Ensley, welcome, it's good to have you here.
Ensley Eikenburg: Thank you, it's good to be here.
Kelly: So to start off, just give us a brief overview of where you went when you were in China.
Ensley: I started off in Macau, which is an island right across the bay from Hong Kong that was colonized by the Portuguese in the 16th century. After Macau, I went to Hong Kong, then Guilin to the Li River, one of the scenic parts of China, then, Shanghai, then Xi'an which is the heart of China and where the famed terracotta warriors are, and then to Beijing. Also, when I was in Shanghai I went and took a day trip to Suzhou, which is a city noted for its garden architecture and it's beautiful.
Kelly: OK. Well, you're someone who's traveled a lot throughout Asia. What was your favorite experience on this trip and why was it your favorite?
Ensley: Well, it's interesting, it's so hard to choose. The thing about China is that it's just one amazing experience after another. I don't think that I have been to one country where it's so concentrated, the experiences and the sites. One of the first things that I did was actually Hong Kong, and it is one of the favorite things that I saw. When I was on the ferry from Macau going to Hong Kong, I looked up and there were these mountains, these green mountains, and blue sparkling water, and up on top of a mountain was this giant Buddha. And it was incredibly intriguing and I thought, I have to go and see that Buddha. And it's called the Giant Tian Tan Buddha, and it's on the island of Lantau, just off the island of Hong Kong. Actually, everyone calls it the Big Buddha.
Kelly: Oh, that's great.
Ensley: It was amazing to see up close, it's amazing to see from the water, amazing to see up close, but what's really cool right now is that it used to take forever, used to be quite a voyage to get to Big Buddha. You would have to take a ferry from Central Hong Kong that would take about an hour, and then take this hair-rising bus ride through the mountains to get up to it.
Kelly: OK.
Ensley: They've made it a lot easier. A lot is easier in China because of the Beijing Olympics. And now, you can take the subway, which is a beautiful subway in Hong Kong, to a cable car. It's this huge cable car, it's about twenty-five minutes cable car there.
Kelly: Wow.
Ensley: And up through the mountains and you can see Hong Kong shimmering in the distance. You see the rivers and the ocean and all these mountains. And as you're sort of snaking up this mountain, Big Buddha comes in.
Kelly: That's great.
Ensley: And the Big Buddha is about twenty-four hundred feet tall, weighs two hundred and forty pounds. It is big and it's on top of the mountain.
Kelly: Two hundred and forty tons, probably, right? Two hundred and forty pounds is the size of an average football star.


Ensley: I meant two hundred and forty tons.


Ensley: And it's part of a working monastery that was established about a hundred years ago, the Po Lin Monastery. There's no admission fee to see the Big Buddha. What you're encouraged to do is provide a meal ticket, and they serve you this really wonderful vegetarian meal for about ten bucks. And with that you can go up and see the Buddha and walk around. It makes for a really spectacular day.
Kelly: So that's a day trip from Hong Kong?
Ensley: Yes.
Kelly: OK. You also alluded to the Beijing Olympics. Obviously, they're coming in 2008. You did go to Beijing. I imagine that things are really gearing up in preparation for the Games. What was the mood like in the city?
Ensley: They're totally psyched about it. You can't walk two feet in Beijing or any of the big tourist attractions in China without hearing about the Olympics one way or another. When I was in Beijing right after National Day, this is in their big holiday, in Tiananmen Square they had these huge flower recreations of the things the Chinese government is most proud of. So, the big dam going into the Yangtze River. They just opened up a new high-speed train to Tibet, and so that was realized in a huge floral decoration. And then, most of Tiananmen Square was this huge flower arrangement of the Olympics Friendlies.
Kelly: I know, I understand that you became quite a fan of the Friendlies when you were there. For people who might not know, tell us what the Friendlies are and their significance.
Ensley: The Friendlies are the mascots of the Beijing Olympics. And this being China, everything is bigger and more plentiful than anyplace else, so there are five mascots.
Kelly: One for each of the Olympic rings.
Ensley: Yes. And this being China, also everything is loaded with symbolism. A dissertation could be given on the Friendlies.


Ensley: They're called Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying, and Nini. And if you take that apart, and you don't do the double name and you just say "Beijing huanying ni", that means "Beijing welcomes you."
Kelly: Oh, wow. OK.
Ensley: They all represent animals that are particularly Chinese: fish, which represents water, which is important in Chinese symbolism, it also represents prosperity. It's the blue ring. It represents all the swimming and water sports. There's a panda, and he represents strength, and he's black. Black is traditionally the sign of strength in China. There's Huan, and she represents the fire, the eternal flame of the Olympics. So she's the only one not an animal.
Kelly: Ah, OK.
Ensley: And she represents passion, and ball games, for some reason.
Kelly: Ball games?
Ensley: So she's seen with a soccer ball, often. I don't understand that. Then there's Ying. And Ying is a Tibetan antelope, and he represents the running sports and all -- this comes straight from the Beijing website, but -- the vastness of China.
Kelly: Oh, wow.
Ensley: And then there's Ni, and Ni is a swallow, and she has a kite hat on. So she represents kite and the more airborne sports, like gymnastics.
Kelly: Oh, OK.
Ensley: Anyway, they're all over the place, and you can buy just about anything made with the Friendlies. Stuffed animals, towel holders, Kleenex, wraps --
Kelly: T-shirts, I'm sure.
Ensley: T-shirts, everything. And there's shops. There are official Olympic shops everywhere. In the Forbidden City, in the airport. They've got it going on.
Kelly: So keep an eye out for the Friendlies when you're in Beijing. So it sounds like construction's happening, and things seem to be on track for the Olympics?
Ensley: You can literally smell the fresh paint. And there are cranes everywhere. Their new stadium is, I think, just about finished, and it's beautiful. It looks like a nest, is what the aesthetic is, and when it's represented in other places, it's called the nest, and it's called the bird's nest. And it's beautiful.

And what's interesting, because everything is loaded with symbolism, is that Beijing, its ancient name was Yanjing, and Yan is the word for "swallow" in the Chinese. So it's a nice symbolism to have the swallow representing Beijing, and then the nest as the stadium.

Kelly: You said there's a Beijing Olympics website?
Ensley: Yes.
Kelly: So if people want more information about the Olympics, they can go to the Beijing Olympics website.
Ensley: Yes. There are lots of them. One that I was on is
Kelly: OK. So that would probably be the English-speaking version of the site.
Ensley: Exactly. And there's even more information than I just gave you about the Friendlies on that site.
Kelly: OK. Well, there you go. [laughter]

Well, moving on to China's other big city, Shanghai, I know that you said that nightlife there is really exciting and buzzing. Can you describe the nightlife scene and talk a little about what you did when you were there?

Ensley: Sure. One of the things that China is known for is their drinking districts. And in every city, you have one. So in Hong Kong, it's Lan Kwai Fong. In Beijing, it's Lotus Lane.

In Shanghai, it's a place called Xin Tian Di. And it is a state-of-the-art entertainment complex. And it means "new heaven and earth", and basically, they have tried to recreate heaven and earth in entertainment. So there are cinemas, there are coffee shops, there are bars, there are restaurants, and everything is brand new and beautifully, beautifully done.

I had a wonderful meal at a restaurant called T8, which is international cuisine, and one of the hippest places I have ever been. Beautiful foie gras, and lamb, and couscous, and curry, and so I ate more non-Chinese meals than I thought I would in China overall, because there are just so many great restaurants.

But just to give you an idea, at one point in Xin Tian Di, I was in a German-beer-hall type of bar where the Chinese waiters are wearing lederhosen, there's a band in go-go boots that are probably from Singapore, they're singing English songs from the 80s, and I'm talking to a guy at the bar who is from Louisville, Kentucky. So everything sort of comes together in this area, Xin Tian Di, in Shanghai.

But it's fascinating. It was probably built in the mid-90s, so it feels very new. They call it a historical reconstruction, in that they took over one of the old historic neighborhoods, called the Shikumen, where there was a lot of colonial architecture. They say it's a reconstruction. Basically they tore it down and rebuilt it.

But it's still really interesting, and there's a house museum that you can go into that's open till 11 P.M., so I loved that. You can go in and you can see how people around the turn of the century lived in that area. It's a really fascinating part of Shanghai history.

Kelly: Wow. Well, so, that's something that's characteristic of Shanghai as a whole, though, this newness. It's become such a business center. And skyscrapers, and lots of new construction and new money infused into the city.
Ensley: It's amazing, and it blew me away when I was there. The Bund, which is the area right on the river where around the turn of the century all the British and the French built their buildings. It's very European. You could be in any European city. And that's on one side of the river.

On the other side of the river, it's all brand new skyscrapers, built since 1992. Till 1990, it was pastures. And now it's this complete mirroring of the old Shanghai, this new Shanghai. And what's amazing is there's nothing typically that you would think of as Chinese. Of course, modern skyscrapers are very Chinese.

Kelly: It sounds like a fascinating contradiction of feels and styles and things like that.

So you mentioned the food briefly. You touched on the food. Tell me what the food was like on the trip. Did you eat anything particularly unusual or challenging?

Ensley: [laughter] Well, as a matter of fact, I did.
Kelly: You did?
Ensley: I did! I ate wonderful, wonderful food. And, surprisingly, there was more non-Chinese...the trend now is very international. So you can get any kind of international food, very high-end. I also ate a lot of great homemade noodles, too. So you can go in both directions.

One thing that I ate that I thought was an interesting phenomenon was something called fish-head fish.

Kelly: Sounds redundant.
Ensley: It does! It does. But the Chinese love fish heads. And they love to eat fish heads. So there is this fish that is all head. So it's head and then this little tiny tail.
Kelly: [laughter] Oh, that sounds very strange looking.
Ensley: It's very strange looking but they love it because it's all fish head. It tastes like regular fish and it was delicious and beautifully prepared. That was one of the funniest things I ate but you mentioned challenging.
Kelly: Challenging. Tell me about the food challenges.
Ensley: In Guilin, which is in southern China in this beautiful area on the Li River where there are lots of mountains surrounding, one of the delicacies that they eat there is mountain snake.
Kelly: OK.
Ensley: So we went to a restaurant and we asked for the snake and they said "OK. Come with me." We didn't know where we were going. They led us out back. There were these aquariums filled with snakes.
Kelly: Oh, God.
Ensley: They said "How many are you eating?" I said "Oh, three," and they said "Well, you need this one." And I said, "That one's a little big."
Kelly: OK.
Ensley: They were big, they were big. So we chose a smaller one. I'm not sure we could have eaten all that snake. And they pull it out and they snip off the head.
Kelly: While you're standing there?
Ensley: While you're standing there so that you know that's your snake.
Kelly: Yikes! That's your snake.
Ensley: Next time you see it, it's served up beautifully fried on a plate with an orchid.
Kelly: Really. And how did it taste?
Ensley: It was really bony. You couldn't get a lot of meat off of it. I mean this is not something I would have...
Kelly: Brave.
Ensley: It was a lot of work to actually eat it but it tasted fine, it tasted fried. And then they bring you the skin that they have sliced off the snake and then fried up separately.
Kelly: So that's also fried.
Ensley: That's also fried.
Kelly: [laughter] OK.
Ensley: It's very chewy and it tastes a little bit like pork rinds or something like...
Kelly: Right. And as a Texas girl you would know about pork rinds.
Ensley: I do. I felt very nostalgic! Like a taste of home.
Kelly: [laughter] I think you had an interesting experience on this trip because you did travel independently. You did not go with a tour group. And a lot of people who do go to China would choose to go with a group because it's a little bit easier for them to make arrangements and things are sort of planned for you. But there are a lot of people who would like to go on their own, who aren't really tour group travelers. Do you have any advice for people who might want to travel independently in China? How easy or hard is it to do it on your own?
Ensley: Well, I wouldn't claim that I traveled independently. I didn't travel with a group and what was interesting was that to travel independently without guides, without a travel agent, I think would be really challenging if you didn't know Chinese. But what I did was kind of a middle-of-the-road exercise in that I had a travel agent. I told him where I wanted to go. He booked all my hotels and I could weigh in whatever and how I wanted to, no not this one, here's another one.
Kelly: Sure.
Ensley: He booked my flights and then I had a car and driver and guide meet me in every city. Then she, they were mostly women, would take me around during the day to...
Kelly: And they spoke English.
Ensley: They spoke English. So it wasn't completely independent because I was with a guide the whole time. And it wasn't completely independent because I didn't always get to choose where I was going. This I found interesting because one of my big fears was that I was going to have to do a lot of shopping. I don't like to shop and it's a very big thing to do. And what the tour guides do, they'll say "All right, now we're going to the Jade Museum." And I'm looking through my Frommer's book and I'm like, there's no Jade Museum in this city.
Kelly: Oh. And it's a shop.
Ensley: It's a shop. It's this huge government sponsored shop. And when I try to wiggle out of these things, I say, "I really don't want to go to the Jade Museum." The guide will say, "Actually, I'll get in trouble if I don't take you there."
Kelly: Wow!
Ensley: It's required. At this point, you've bonded with your guide. You don't want to get him in trouble. And what's nice if you're on your own, you can go, look around and then leave and it takes all of five minutes. That too is also part of the experience. Being with a guide, you did get the official patter on things. It wasn't exactly free-flowing but that was interesting to hear that perspective as well.
Kelly: You had also mentioned working with a travel agent. Is that a travel agent that you worked with in the U.S. or a travel agent in China?
Ensley: Both, in that I worked with a company called CITS which is actually the official travel service in China. It's called China International Travel Service and they were very good and very efficient. They have an office in L.A. and they have offices in other places around the U.S. and their main office is in Hong Kong and Beijing. So it's a Chinese company but they do have U.S. outlets and they have outlets all over the world, as well. So that's a good option for people to use.
Kelly: OK. So to end with a few quick, practical matters, when's the best time to go to China? And I understand that there are non-stop flights that go from North America to Hong Kong and to Beijing but when would you recommend that people go?
Ensley: The ideal times to go are fall and spring to avoid the extreme weather of summer and also, winter. I just got back, I was there in the fall and I totally recommend it, firstly for Beijing which is further north. When I was on the Great Wall and walking around, all of the leaves on the trees were changing colors.
Kelly: Oh, beautiful!
Ensley: And it was an extraordinary sight. And it's cool enough in Beijing but still warm in the south so you can still go swimming and take advantage of the fall weather. One note is the first week of October is something called National Week, which is like the Fourth of July for Chinese and it's an entire week. And that's when the Chinese travel and take their vacations. So I really loved traveling at this time. There are a lot of people out traveling and it was great to observe the Chinese traveling and it was part of my trip. But there also can be a lot of crowds. So if you want to avoid crowds, don't go during that week.
Kelly: Is it always the first week of October?
Ensley: Always.
Kelly: OK, well that's good to know. And you do need a visa to go to China, correct?
Ensley: Yes, you do. It's pretty easy to deal with. Your travel agent or your tour group can get it for you or you could go to an embassy and get it in about three or four days.
Kelly: An embassy or a consulate.
Ensley: A consulate.
Kelly: OK, great. Well that's all we have time for today. I've been talking with Ensley Eikenburg, our marketing director here at Frommer's who just came back from China and wanted to share some thoughts about her trip with us. And if you'd like more information about China and have our Frommer's China Guide which is on sale now. Ensley, it's always good to talk to you. Thanks for being here.
Ensley: Thank you. It was fun.
Kelly: Yes. So join us next week for another conversation about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan and we will talk again soon.


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