Postcard 22.1: Seattle, Washington

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A few months ago, my good friend and college roommate Lilly asked me to be a bridesmaid in her wedding. Of course, that would mean I would be revisiting the Emerald City in which I spent four years of my life during college.

It’s been three years since I last visited the city that I consider to be my second home, so I was absolutely ecstatic to return. I booked my flight for Sept. 18 through 24 and was ready for yet another adventure that would help satisfy my Seattle appetite!

Pike Place Market

I contacted another one of my college friends, Rudia, who lives in Puyallup, located about 35 miles south of Seattle. She was nice enough to catch the bus up to downtown Seattle to meet up with me the day after I arrived.

After grabbing a cup of coffee at a Starbucks near Westlake Center, we ventured down to Pike Place Market, about a 15-minute walk away. As we headed down Pine Street toward Pike’s, a whiff of nostalgia brushed by. The scene was exactly how I remembered it to be on a nearly flawless day: Seeing the distinct, red “Public Market”  sign in front of a gorgeous backdrop of Elliott Bay took me back to my Saturday trips to the market, a perfect escape from the rough dorm conditions and grueling homework assignments.

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The “Public Market” sign near Pine Street beckons visitors to Pike Place Market.

After leisurely walking past a few bakeries and shops, we finally approached the corner of Pike and Pine for the famous fish area of the market. This part of Pike Place is best known for its tradition of fishmongers hurling orders at customers.

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A closer view of the “Public Market” sign at Pike’s Place.

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Walking down Pike Place toward the fish-throwing area.

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Visitors patiently wait for the fishmongers to throw fish around.

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The market’s monk fish greets customers.

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The renowned “Public Market Center” sign stands at the corner of Pike and Pine Streets.

But having seen this many times, we snapped a few photos and made our way out of the bustling market area and back out onto the main street.

Our next destination: The Seattle Great Wheel!

Seattle Great Wheel

I never got the chance to ride this since it first opened in 2012, three years after I graduated from college. Even as a Washington resident, Rudia never rode this giant ferris wheel either, so this was a treat for both of us.

Lucky for us, we were the only ones in line likely because we were there early on a weekday. We purchased our tickets and proceeded to enter our glass-enclosed car.

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The Seattle Great Wheel, launched in 2009, offers beautiful views of Seattle and has also become a new symbol of the city.

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A closer look at the Seattle Great Wheel from below.

The views in all directions were spectacular:  In front of me was the sight of ferries and sailboats gliding along the pristine waters of Elliott Bay.

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A sailboat floats along Elliott Bay.

To the left, I spotted CenturyLink and Safeco Fields, homes of the Seahawks and Mariners, respectively.

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Sports fanatics may have a field day seeing Safeco and CenturyLink Fields to the left.

Behind me, I could see the highrise buildings shrinking as we slowly rose higher and higher. As we descended, I got a glimpse of the Space Needle peeking out from behind the buildings.

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The Space Needle peeks out from behind buildings.

Circling three times and taking in the views, I paused for a moment, wondering what possessed me to ever consider moving away from this gorgeous city.

All in all, the Seattle Great Wheel was a great experience, making the $13 admission price no problem at all.

Gum Wall

When Rudia asked me what else I wanted to do, I thought of all the other fun attractions around the downtown area — besides shopping of course — and I completely forgot about the famed Gum Wall. Throughout the years I’ve spent in Seattle, I couldn’t believe I’d never been to this landmark, so there was no way I could leave downtown without checking this place out.

The Gum Wall, located in Post Alley under Pike Place Market, is a brick alleyway wall covered in just that: gum. Supposedly, the tradition started in the early 1900s when patrons of a nearby theater started putting coins in their gum and sticking it to the wall. Theater workers tried to clean it up, but eventually gave up. It was later deemed an official tourist attraction by market officials.

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Post Alley lures tourists to this icky and germy yet fascinating attraction.

Today, the Gum Wall stands as a germy yet fascinating part of downtown Seattle, giving it its quirky character.

We left our marks on the wall — thankfully, Rudia was prepared with two pieces of Eclipse — and bid adieu.

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A colorful part of the Gum Wall.

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A closer look at the sticky mess of the brick wall.

After a bit of retail therapy at Westlake Center and Pacific Place, we caught a bus to Chinatown and said our goodbyes. I had a great day and was ready to start the next chapter of my Seattle trip: Lilly’s wedding!

Postcard 21: North Shore, Oahu, Hawaii

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I’ve now been living on Oahu for a little over a year since returning from graduate school in Phoenix, Ariz. Honestly, when you live here, you tend to take everything this island has to offer for granted. I almost fell back into that state of mind. But in recent months, I’ve been joining friends in various hiking and outdoor expeditions.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that the ocean is one of the best remedies to cure the stress and exhaustion resulting from day-to-day activities. My best friend Jade and I felt like we needed a day trip to the beach to escape reality: a place to just relax and let the sound of the waves take us away from everything.

Fortunately, my job — which requires me to come in at 3 a.m. and end around 10 a.m. — gives me ample time during the day to pursue all kinds of leisure activities. Jade also has a variable schedule, so after work on Tuesday, we drove to the North Shore, about 25 miles from where I live. Traveling here quite frequently in the past, we already had a rough itinerary of places we’d absolutely need to revisit.

Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck
The farther north you drive on Kamehameha Highway — one of Oahu’s longest highways which starts from the Pearl Harbor area and circles the northern part of the island — you’ll reach a town called Kahuku. Kahuku is home to some of the best food trucks and vendors, serving up the freshest shrimp and corn you’ll probably ever find on Oahu.

We agreed that the drive out there would’ve taken too long if we wanted to complete our itinerary, so we decided to stay in Haleiwa: a quaint and historic surf town full of shops and restaurants galore.

Entering the town, one of the first stops is an open lot with about five food trucks circling the area. We decided ahead of time that we would eat at Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck, a renowned shrimp truck on the island which was also featured on the Travel Channel.

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Customers wait for their orders on picnic tables fronting Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck.

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A “SHRIMP” surfboard leans against a tree in the food truck lot.

Though the white, graffiti-covered truck’s unassuming facade might deter the average person, the smell of fresh garlic shrimp would do just the opposite.

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A young girl orders a shrimp plate at the truck window.

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Although the exterior of Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck is covered with writing and graffiti, it doesn’t stop customers from ordering.

We both ordered Giovanni’s signature shrimp scampi dish — a simple plate stacked with about a dozen pieces of lemon butter-drenched shrimp served aside two scoops of rice.

The taste was even better than the smell. The rich and savory sauce — made of olive oil, fresh chopped garlic and lemon butter — combined with the warmth and freshness of the shrimp made every bite ever so delectable.

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The Giovanni’s shrimp scampi plate consists of about a dozen pieces of shrimp bathed in a specialty sauce.

After devouring the entire plate in less than 10 minutes, I was a happy camper.

Sunset Beach
The North Shore is comprised of many small beach parks, including the most popular ones like Waimea Bay, Shark’s Cove and Sunset Beach. Waimea Bay and Sunset Beach are home to some of the biggest surf competitions on Oahu.

Although I enjoy going to Waimea Bay — a small picturesque beach that includes a giant rock formation for people to jump off — the parking there is a pain. There are only about two dozen stalls, and with so many tourists and locals on spring break, we didn’t even want to take a chance. So we passed this one and headed towards Sunset Beach.

The waves were fairly large in size — not suitable for swimming — so we parked our towels and bags on the sand, content with the idea that we would just watch the waves and soak up the sun.

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A slightly overcast sky and trade winds made for a perfect day at Sunset Beach.

Being able to just lie down on the sand, watch the clouds make interesting formations, and listen to the waves crash along the shore is one of the most relaxing moments one can experience.

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Reflecting and enjoying the peace and tranquility of the ocean.

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“No swimming” signs warn beachgoers of the rough conditions.

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Jade bundles up for a windy day at the beach.

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The deep blue color of the ocean make for a perfect photo.

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I’m clearly thrilled about being at the beach!

Matsumoto’s Shave Ice
After about two hours of beach time, we drove back to Haleiwa for our afternoon treat: shave ice from Matsumoto’s! As I mentioned in a previous post about Hawaii, shave ice is practically a staple for locals. On a warm day — which is basically every day in Hawaii — shave ice is the best afternoon snack.

Matsumoto’s is one of the most popular shave ice spots on the island and possibly the entire state. As a family-owned store that opened in 1951, it offers nearly 40 different shave ice flavors, and customers can opt to mix their shave ice with azuki beans and/or ice cream.

A small hole-in-the wall shop right along Kamehameha Highway, you’ll almost always see a crowd of tourists and locals lined up out the doors even though there are several other shave ice stands in the town.

Lucky for us, the line wasn’t too long, so we got to the front in about 15 minutes or so. I ordered a small (yuzu, guava, lilikoi) shave ice with ice cream. Jade ordered a small (pina colada and guava) shave ice with ice cream.

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Customers line up out the doors of Matsumoto’s to get their hands on some of the best shave ice in town.

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Many tourists take pictures under the famous Matsumoto’s sign.

Standing beneath the sun with cold shave ice running down my throat was the icing on the cake for what amounted to a great day.

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A cold shave ice is the perfect treat on a warm day in Hawaii.

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I’m a happy camper when I have Matsumoto’s shave ice!

Haleiwa Town
After filling our stomachs with a sweet treat, we took some time to walk around the town and browse a few of the shops nearby.

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The landmark Haleiwa sign greets guests at the entrance of the town.

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The historic twin-span “Rainbow Bridge” over the Anahulu River marks the northern entrance of Haleiwa.

The quietness and slow pace of this town really define the environment of Haleiwa. It made me feel as if time stood still; that the hustle and bustle of daily life became obsolete.

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The calmness of Haleiwa takes visitors away from the hustle and bustle of reality.

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A surfboard truck fronts the entrance of a Haleiwa business.

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A local vendor sells a variety of items, including shells, glass and other souvenirs.

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A local vendor sells an “Aloha” sign.

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A local vendor displays shells outside the tent.

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A North Shore Marketplace sign attracts visitors to a small strip mall in Haleiwa.

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A bumper sticker on the door of Kono’s, a North Shore eatery, describes the pace of Hawaii.

One of the newest catchphrases here is, “lucky we live Hawaii.” I could say at this point that I felt beyond lucky to live Hawaii.

Postcard 20.2: Shanghai, China

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Shanghai can certainly be exciting — especially for those who enjoy shopping, eating and the fast-paced city life — but having spent only one week here, I didn’t expect to find myself in somewhat precarious situations.

Nanjing Road
No trip to Shanghai is complete without a walk down Nanjing Road. Considered the main shopping street in Shanghai, it’s also home to dozens of seedy knockoff businesses. From counterfeit bags to sophisticated replicas of iPhones, the illegal market of knockoffs has been a major issue in China. But it’s also considered normal business for merchants and consumers alike.

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Approaching the entrance of Nanjing Road, a street lined with shops, restaurants and bars.

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Professor Leckey gives students directions to shops and restaurants in the Nanjing area.

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A Nike store lights up Nanjing Road in the evening.

As my friends and I walked down Nanjing Road, some of those merchants called our attention, shouting “Cheap Ray-Ban sunglasses! Cheap Gucci bags!” These tempting words led us to follow them through a dark alleyway, up a few flights of crooked stairs and into a brightly light room gleaming with Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Coach purses left and right. It was almost like a scene from a James Bond movie!

Some would call this Heaven. But the worrywart in me envisioned a group of Shanghai police officers storming through the shop doors and pinning us all down on the glass tables.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen, but boy, did I feel like I was living on the edge!

Although I didn’t purchase any of the counterfeit handbags, some of my classmates were able to bargain them down to very affordable prices. Think $20 (U.S.) for a Louis Vuitton purse that looked like it was valued at $1,000. In retrospect, I might’ve missed out on a great opportunity to trick my friends back home into thinking I had a brand new Louis, but at the same time, I’m content simply sharing this story with them.

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Tourists may be approached by merchants of counterfeit and legitimate businesses while walking down the street.

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Signs illuminate this busy shopping area.

Getting Scammed
I never expected my last day in China to be one of the most emotionally terrifying days of my life.

On May 18, my professors gave us a free day to explore the city on our own. My friends Lily, Sarah and I decided to catch a subway to two highly recommended tourist attractions: the Shanghai Yu Garden and World Expo Park.

As we exited the subway at the nearest stop to the garden, three bright-eyed young Chinese people — two females and one male — approached us and asked if one of us could take a photo of them. After snapping a quick photo, we engaged ourselves in friendly conversation about our backgrounds and what we were doing in Shanghai.

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A bustling street of pedestrians and vehicles leads to the Shanghai Yu Garden.

Responding in remarkably good English, they claimed they were college students from a small town in northern China and were on their break, visiting here for the first time.

They asked us where we were headed to next, to which we responded the “Shanghai Yu Garden.” Conveniently, the students said they were also on their way there, but were planning to stop off at a tea house for a traditional tea ceremony. They asked if we’d like to join them. Being the naive and zealous American tourists we were, we happily took them up on their offer and followed them down the main drag, through an alleyway — yes, another one — and into a hole-in-the-wall shop.

A cute and friendly Chinese girl — who ended up being our tea server — dressed in a traditional cheongsam-style robe led us into a tiny room with a table holding tea pots and cups. We sat on six chairs, side by side, facing the server who only spoke Chinese. The student who spoke the best English volunteered to translate everything for us.

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The tea ceremony server shows us a menu of teas to choose from.

While pouring a variety of teas into our cups, the server gave us detailed explanations of tea ceremonies, including the history, meaning and types of teas served to specific people. I’m not going to deny the fact that it was all very interesting and I learned a lot. But little did I know that I would soon be in for the shock of a lifetime.

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A flowering tea consists of a bundle of dried tea leaves and flowers.

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Sarah poses in a photo with the student who translated the server’s explanations.

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The two other students flash “peace” signs for the camera.

We glanced at the amount in front of us: 1,845 yuan or $300 (U.S.).

This had to have been a joke! We had spent 30 minutes listening to a history lesson and sipping tea. I mean, how expensive could tea possibly be?! But we couldn’t leave without paying, so we handed our charge cards to the server. Funny, I didn’t even look to see if the three Chinese students paid their share.

We left the tea house and walked over to a busy shopping area where one of the students abruptly announced that they had to meet a friend for lunch. The strange part was that, earlier, they said they were going to the Shanghai Yu Garden. It just didn’t add up.

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After a bizarre tea ceremony experience, the students leave us at a busy shopping area.

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Shops nearby sell similar tea for affordable prices.

Pressed for time, Sarah, Lily and I never made it to the garden because we needed to get back to the hotel to meet up with the rest of our study abroad group. After reporting our bizarre experience to Professor Wu, he knew instantly that we had been scammed. He tried calling the business that we went to and the person on the other line gave some dubious response, claiming that the tea shop wasn’t even open that day.

We Googled “China tea ceremony scams,” and the results showed that what we went through was a common occurrence for foreigners. Apparently, young Chinese people who speak nearly perfect English will approach foreigners and suck them into tea houses or other tourist attractions that they work for.

I panicked for about a week, frantically checking my credit card statements to ensure no other fishy activity took place. Luckily, nothing else happened. But I felt angry and incredibly foolish for being duped so easily. I remembered exchanging emails with the students, so I was tempted to write a nasty email to them, but I resisted. It wasn’t even worth it.

The moral of the story is: No matter how friendly and kind someone appears, never fully trust them until you really get to know them. And always do your research about scams and other quirks about a place before traveling there.

But on the bright side, it could’ve been much worse. And at least I can say I got scammed in Shanghai. Not a lot of people can say that.

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Posing for a photo with our Shanghai scammers.

Postcard 20.1: Shanghai, China

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Visiting Shanghai was a completely different experience from Beijing. If you’re looking to explore China’s culture and history, Beijing is the place for you. If you’re seeking more of a city feel that involves perusing busy streets and alleyways offering quality knock-off goods at every corner, Shanghai is it.

Although I’ve had some bizarre moments in Shanghai — which I will delve into in a later post — this city is really what gives me fond memories of China as a whole.

The Bund
After a nearly three-hour flight from Beijing in the late afternoon of May 13, 2012, all my classmates and I could really look forward to was getting to our hotel to unpack, eat and get some sleep. A charter bus drove us about an hour from the airport to our hotel, and despite the rain, the view out the window was unlike anything I had ever seen: Massive skyscrapers decorated with giant Chinese characters hovered over our bus, making us seem like nothing but minuscule ants.

Upon arrival at our hotel, we unloaded and got ready for dinner at a nearby mall followed by a quick stop at the Bund, Shanghai’s renowned waterfront area that overlooks the city skyline.

The view from my hotel room shows a neighboring building with illuminated Chinese characters.

The view from my hotel room shows a neighboring building with illuminated Chinese characters.

The subway ride to central Shanghai, where the Bund is located, was a quick one that took less than 15 minutes to get to. Walking through the city with the rain lightly tapping on our umbrellas reminded me of what it must’ve felt like to walk through rainy New York City or Tokyo, even though I had never been to either cities.

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My friends Lily, Sarah and I enjoy our first subway ride in Shanghai.

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Walking down the rain-sodden streets of Shanghai offers a unique experience in itself.

As we approached the Bund, the view literally took my breath away: The mist from the rain created a soft glow of colorful lights reflected from European-style buildings that towered behind the Huangpu River. Until this day, I can’t forget the warm and fuzzy feeling I got from this image.

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The Bund overlooks the Huangpu River and city skyline.

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Umbrellas: a necessity on this rainy evening in Shanghai.

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European-influenced designs characterize the architecture in this city.

My first impression of Shanghai was perfect, to say the least.

Bloomberg News
I had never set foot in an international news agency until I went to China, so as a wide-eyed journalism student, having the opportunity to visit the Bloomberg Shanghai bureau was beyond thrilling!

We were fortunate to speak with a bureau editor as well as a broadcast reporter who both thoroughly discussed the ins and outs of foreign reporting in China. From what I learned, reporting in a country that’s so restrictive of its media seems like no easy feat — not only do journalists have to overcome language barriers, but they also face an extremely controlling government that keeps tight reins on the news media to avoid potential subversion of authority figures.

After visiting Bloomberg, I developed a newfound respect for international reporters, especially in a country as strict as this one.

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I met Margaret Conley, broadcast correspondent for Bloomberg Shanghai.

Oriental Pearl Tower
Bloomberg was conveniently located next to the Oriental Pearl Tower, a TV tower with distinct colorful spheres that bring to mind a futuristic space module. Standing at 1,535 feet opposite the Bund, the structure is the tallest TV tower in Asia and the third highest in the world. So undoubtedly, going to the top was a priority if we wanted to see sweeping views of the city.

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The Oriental Pearl Tower — a TV tower — resembles a space module.

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An Apple Store glass structure exemplifies the uniqueness of Shanghai.

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The Oriental Pearl Tower stands out amongst the city skyline.

Being at the top of the Oriental Pearl Tower was an exhilarating, yet gratifying experience: Standing on clear glass, thousands of feet up in the air didn’t exactly feel safe, but at the same time, the spectacular views of the city took away all my fears. Skyscrapers lined along the Huangpu River stretched on farther than the eye could see. I even saw construction of the Shanghai Tower, slated to be Asia’s tallest building.

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The first observation deck of the Oriental Pearl Tower displays panoramic views of the Huangpu River and skyscrapers of all shapes and sizes.

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The first observation deck of the Oriental Pearl Tower shows off views of high-rise buildings stretching out into the horizon.

Seeing the city under my feet was quite nerve-wracking!

Seeing the city under my feet was quite nerve-wracking!

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At the tower’s highest point, a window graphic exhibits its exact height.

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Construction of the Shanghai Tower, what would soon be Asia’s tallest building, can be seen from the top of the Oriental Pearl Tower.

The more I familiarized myself with Shanghai, the more impressed I was. It almost seemed like the city was growing and modernizing right before my eyes; I’m almost positive my next visit here will be a brand new experience altogether.

The study abroad group takes a quick photo in front of Shanghai skyscrapers.

The study abroad group takes a quick photo in front of gigantic Shanghai skyscrapers.

Postcard 18.3: The Great Wall of China

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I suppose you could say I’m a big dreamer: I’m one of those people who has a pretty long bucket list of things to do and places to see. Climbing the Great Wall of China was on my list, and I’m fortunate that I had the opportunity to check this one off in May 2012. However, the climb was not exactly what I envisioned it to be.

It’s Raining, It’s Pouring
On the days leading up to my study abroad group’s Great Wall visit, it hadn’t rained, not even once. But looking out the window during the hour-long bus ride from our hotel to the popular tourist destination, the raindrops that struggled to fight through dark storm clouds didn’t look the least bit promising.

Upon arrival at the Great Wall, all I could make out was a fuzzy view of colorful umbrellas slowly marching up various sections of the Great Wall, all hiding behind a thin layer of mist. But I wasn’t going to let a little rain damper my spirits: I was standing at the foot of the Great Wall of China for crying out loud. Most people could only dream of being in my position.

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The Great Wall of China emerges from behind a thin layer of misty rain.

We bought ourselves ponchos — making me feel like an 8-year-old all over again — and started our trek up the wall, which was more of a challenge than I anticipated. The wall was steep with uneven stairs — making our “walk” more of a hike — and the rain made the pavement slippery. Yet, my friend Lily, our professor Wu and I somehow managed to get ahead of the group.

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Lily marches up the wall ahead of the group.

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The Great Wall of China spans more than 13,000 miles, according to an archaeological survey by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.

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The Great Wall of China includes watch towers at regular intervals, used for military purposes.

Getting Lost on the Great Wall of China
Wu decided to stay back to wait for the rest of the group and told Lily and I to meet everyone at a specific part of the wall at a specific time. What we didn’t realize, while aimlessly wandering up, was that it split up into several different paths. We ended up following the crowd into a tunnel only to realize that we were standing in line to board the cable cars.

Let me backtrack a bit here. If you’re familiar with “YOLO” — a term popularized by the rapper Drake — you’ll know that it stands for “you only live once.” Well, Drake’s song came out around the same time as our time in China, thus this was an opportune time for 20-somethings to use this catchphrase as an excuse to take risks in a foreign country.

So as you might’ve guessed, as Lily and I stood in line for the cable cars, we used “YOLO” as an excuse to board one of the cable cars, thinking it would simply return to its original starting point.

We were wrong.

It dropped us off at the bottom of the wall, but in a completely different part from where we first started. I don’t think I had ever been as worried and panicked as I was at this point in time. I was standing at an unknown area of the Great Wall of China drenched from the rain, I couldn’t understand or speak Chinese, and cellphones were useless here. I was doomed.

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Cable cars take tourists up and down the Great Wall for easier access.

Luckily, Lily and I found the entrance to the cable cars, so we decided to get on board, hoping and praying it would take us back to where we first boarded. Thankfully, it did.

Instead of meeting the rest of the group where we were supposed to, we ended up going back down and meeting them at the bottom of the wall where everyone was worried sick about us. I was worried sick about us too.

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The view of one of the entrances to the Great Wall.

But in the end, only one thing mattered: I climbed the Great Wall of China.

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I climbed the Great Wall of China!