Friday, August 03, 2007

A Day in Taipei

Taiwan's National Palace Museum.

We arrived back in Taipei late at night, and took a bus and then some taxis to A-ma's apartment. Dragging our luggage behind us, silence settled as we fought against our exhaustion. Imagine our shock when we arrived at the apartment with the clock hands nearing 2:30am, and who comes to open the door for us but A-ma herself!! She is one tough little old lady. After getting us all showered and settled, she finally went off to bed, and we shortly thereafter.

The next morning we were up early again -- details needed to be arranged for our meeting with the other students who were all coming to Taipei from Taichung. Kevin had tried to make contact with the program director earlier to no avail, with plans of storing our luggage in train stations and organizing mass subway outings to try and find our comrades, but it took just one phone call by A-ma to the director, and suddenly the chartered bus from Taichung was coming to A-ma's to pick all of us and our luggage up!

Breakfast with A-ma!
From left to right: Gabe, Shela, A-ma, Kevin, me, Chris, Eric.
(There in spirit: Matt and Manuel.)

This pleasant new arrangement gave us time for a traditional Taiwanese breakfast of scallion pancakes and hot, sweet soymilk, which we all devoured at a roadside stand across the bridge from A-ma's apartment. After that, it was time to return (quickly!) to the house, grab our things, and head back up the street to meet the bus. I felt we must have made a funny little parade down the sidewalk, six gangly foreigners lugging suitcases and backpacks, all in a little line behind A-ma, who walked serenely ahead (all 4'10" of her) with her parasol overhead and a magisterial air, for all the world like some stately duck leading her ducklings down the road.

Our first stop after re-joining our friends and teachers was the National Palace Museum, which Kevin and I had already visited. It was as incredible as ever, and I spent a lot of the time wandering the museum by myself, wrapped in contemplation of the exhibits and treasures on display. (This one was probably my favorite, although there were incredible ones about scholarly exams, rare books, and calligraphic tools that were also just enthralling; partial list of current, future, and past exhibits available here). Far too quickly, it was time to go -- I could have stayed there for days, or at least for another few hours! Still, I was comforted by the thought of our next destination, one which, unlike the National Palace Museum, I had so far only seen from afar...

Taipei 101!

...the tallest* building in the world!! I had, of course, seen it hovering in the skyline during other trips to Taipei, and had even taken a picture of it with the Jwos when they visited, but now it was our chance to see it up close and personal, inside and out.

We had a quick (and delicious!! Taiwan, how I will miss your food) lunch in the lavish food court in the building's base, then peeked at a few of the high-end stores that compromise the four-story mall on the building's lower floors. Still, I hadn't come to shop (not that I could have afforded anything in these stores); I had come to see the view. With this plan in mind, Kevin, a few other students, and I lined up for the next elevator journey to the top.

Getting ready to board the elevator.
Pictured at far right: Hank (Boston College).

The elevator was quite nice. I don't think I've ever had so smooth a ride, and it was remarkably quick when you consider how many floors it had to traverse. As we rode, a digital ticker on the wall spun off the floor numbers as the overhead lights dimmed, a glittering panorama of the night sky twinkled overhead, and our hostess repeated her welcome in Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, and English.

The view from the top.

Despite the foggy weather, the view from Taipei 101 was still stunning. I can't even imagine how amazing it must be on clear days. The top floor was filled with exhibits of native Taiwanese art, display boards explaining the technology and cultural elements which had been combined to create this building. Each of the four facets of the building was equipped with a labeled drawing of the view before you, allowing you to pick out buildings, rivers, mountains, and other landmarks. Guided audio tours also enabled you to learn more about each of a series of stations set up to describe various aspects of the project.

Me with "Damper Baby."

One of the coolest technological aspects was the enormous gold-plated "damper" which helps increase the building's stability, an especially important task in earthquake-ridden Taiwan. The damper weighs more than 600 tons, and hangs as a pendulum to offset structural agitation caused by earthquakes or high winds. (Popular Mechanics has an interesting article about the damper here.) Of course, since this is Taiwan, the damper has been "cutified" into "Damper Baby," a cartoon character with big baby eyes that says cute, baby-ish things like "Wee!" and "I love to swing!"** in pictures alongside explanations of the damper's mechanical purpose. I love Taiwan.

It was cold up top -- in the picture above you can see me clutching a cup of what turned out to be lavender tea, which I purchased for warmth in the frigid AC. I had a really awesome time at the top of Taipei 101, and perhaps the best part was that I was able to send "Mail from the Sky" to my family back home! This postcard will race its Chinese counterpart (mailed from Hong Kong the day before) to the States. My money's on the one from Taiwan.

Hsinchu Station -- note the "bamboo" motif in the architecture (hsin chu literally means "new bamboo" in Chinese). Gorgeous!

Again, all too soon, it was time to descend and rejoin the main group for a trip back to Taichung. We took the first part of the journey on Taiwan's justly famous High Speed Rail, disembarking at Hsinchu (or Xinzhu, for pinyin diehards like me) Station (with simply the most gorgeous train station architecture I have ever seen) before meeting up with our driver from earlier in the day. As the bus snaked its way back through the Taiwanese countryside, the rice paddies, stray dogs, and distant smoky mountains almost felt like a kind of homecoming after so many days of city excitement. It was good to be back.

*Tallest completed building, anyway. Apparently the "new" tallest building in the world, still under construction in Dubai, recently surpassed the height of Taipei 101 in its scaffolding. Still, it's not completed yet, and no one but workers can climb that high, so I think I'm justified in thinking I really did go to "the top of the [man-made] world" that day.

**Actually, it just said "I love swing!" Adorably incorrect English translations also make Taiwan fun.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Hong Kong X: The Long Journey Home

At the Hong Kong International Airport.

The airport, which we reached in record time thanks to the Airport Express, was one of the most awe-inspiring accomplishments of human ambition and technology that I think I've ever seen. One of the coolest things about Hong Kong and Taiwan, and I'm sure many other places in Asia, is that what isn't thousands of years old (and protected as a national treasure) is nearly always new, in a giant, shiny, dazzling kind of way. While many areas of the US's transportation infrastructure are aging -- due to the fact that they were built when the technology was first developed many years ago -- much of Asia is still playing "catch-up" with the Western world, so that they can take technological advancements from the West, refine and improve them, and then build things that would probably make the original engineers drop their jaws.

The architecture was stunning, and the scale of the place was simply awe-inspiring.

Still, the high-tech setting didn't prevent a variety bureaucratic snags that made our return home somewhat more interesting than expected for certain members of the group. I won't go into all the details here, but it transpired that every member of our party (except for me, Kevin, and Kevin's roommate Eric) hit some paperwork-related snag on the way home, one of which proved to be somewhat serious. By the time the survivors made it to Taipei around midnight, the mood had lightened and the proper phone calls had been made, and we were all more than ready for some sleep in A-ma's air-conditioned tatami rooms.

Hong Kong IX: Times Square and Kowloon

Times Square!

We made one last stop before lunch, however: Causeway Bay is also home to Hong Kong's "Times Square," a bit farther from our hostel than the Harbour, but too close to pass up on our last day. Surprisingly, Times Square turned out to be not a square at all, but a gigantic shopping mall filled with upscale stores and housing several art exhibits. I really enjoyed the art exhibits and the architecture of nearby buildings (did you know that the price of commercial real estate in Causeway Bay is second in only to 5th Avenue in NYC?), although there was obviously no way students like us would be buying anything in a ritzy district like that!

After this brief detour, we met up with our faithful comrades and found (eventually) some lunch in Wan Chai, one of the wilder districts on Kowloon. After that, we hopped back on the MRT and popped out again near the Ladies' Market, but with different shopping goals in mind. Kowloon is also home to the famous Goldfish Market, in which store after store sells dazzlingly colored fish and other marine animals, often displayed on the street in tiers of little water-filled plastic bags. The fish were pretty, and the turtles (above) were cute, but I'm always a little uncomfortable with the sight of so many animals in cramped captivity. I was glad -- especially after Manuel identified one captive turtle as an endangered Hawaiian species which had no business being sold in a tiny plastic bag for a pittance in HK Dollars -- to move on.

Turtles at the Goldfish Market.

We next found our way to another market Gabe's girlfriend had apprised us of: this one without a fancy name, but featuring a wide selection of "irregular" merchandise from a variety of respected (American, European, and Asian) brands. It was not much different from shopping at a factory or outlet store in the States, except that the brands were mixed, some of the stuff was fake, and all of it was dirt cheap.

We shopped there for quite some time -- Gabe was off with his girlfriend, Sheila with a friend who lives in Hong Kong, and before long the other guys had to go back to their hostel to retrieve their luggage for our evening flight. Kevin and I, who had (I forgot to mention) checked our baggage at the "Airport Express" MRT terminal earlier in the day, had no such time constraints, and happily shopped away the remainder of our HK currency before boarding the MRT once more to take us to the airport.

Hong Kong VIII: Victoria Harbour

The Harbour in the morning.

We were all pretty tired after our busy weekend, but Monday brings no rest to young vacationers, so we were up and about early the next morning. After another delectable bakery run, Kevin and I decided to make the most of our hostel's excellent location in Causeway Bay by exploring the area.

A view of the expressway and skyline from the overpass to the harborfront.

Our hostel was literally a block away from stunning views of Victoria Harbour, as well as a large park (維多利亞公園) also named for the Queen.

Some more of the boats. I took this picture because of the views of the city and mountains in the background... a sort of literal view of the juxtaposition of the sea-faring history, modern urbanization, and tropical landscape that make Hong Kong what it is today.

There's also some pretty interesting local history associated with the harbor, some of which I was able to ascertain by reading the plaques on various historical artifacts on display by the boardwalk path, and some of which I had simply read about before coming to Hong Kong: the firing of the Noon-Day Gun, for instance, which finds its roots in early colonial history, or the establishment of Jardine's Crescent and Jardine's Bazaar.

A well-laden fishing boat.

Still, after a little bit of wandering as the sun rose higher in the sky and our noon-time appointment with friends grew nearer, Kevin and I found our way back to the MRT station and hopped on the subway for our next step of the journey.

One of the particularly cool-looking boats.

(A final note: Excited by these photos? You, too, can have a real-time view of the harbor by visiting the Victoria Harbour Webcam. I'm serious. Click the link.)

Hong Kong VII: Ladies' Market

Outside the Mong Kok MRT Station.

We arrived back in Hong Kong and hopped on the subway to Kowloon, where we had plans to visit the famous Ladies' Market, a place Gabe's girlfriend had hoped to take us earlier but for which we wound up having insufficient time.

It was super-crowded!

As you will read if you click the link above, the Ladies' Market is home to a staggering array of items at absurdly cheap prices (as long as you know how to bargain for them). As the name suggests, this market also caters to women, with stall after stall of clothing, purses, cosmetics, collectibles, and more. I'll admit that I was a little surprised that our group (in which guys outnumbered girls almost 4:1) wanted to visit -- but I wasn't complaining!

Me near one of the main cross-streets.

As it happened, the market had plenty of interest to those of the male persuasion as well, so everyone wound up having a good time. See if you can spot my purchases (a bracelet for my sister and a fake LV bag) in subsequent photos of this trip!

Hong Kong VI: The Peak

The highlight of the night -- see the lights of Hong Kong behind me?

Our destination for the first part of the evening was Victoria Peak, known locally simply as The Peak. Victoria Peak is the highest mountain on Hong Kong Island, and houses a huge complex of shopping malls and fine dining at its summit, as well as The Peak Tower, the top of which affords, according to local sources, some of the most stunning views in the area. A bit of research beforehand had revealed which buses and shuttles were available to take us to the top. After the usual confusion, we found the proper station and were soon boarding another double-decker bus.

The view from the bus as we climbed up the mountain.

We had beautiful views of the cityscape as we wound our way up the mountain. Kevin and I had prime seating in the front row of the upper deck of the bus. We rode up and up and up a narrow, winding road, past houses and condominiums which grew more and more luxurious as our altitude rose. Victoria Peak was settled in early days by the city's most affluent residents, who found the stunning views and cooler breezes a welcome retreat from the city heat, especially in the days before air-conditioning. The same holds true today, and it was remarkable to note the predominance of British or otherwise Western-style architecture at higher elevations. We passed an English school, and several other indications of the demographic typically to be found on the mountain.

A bit higher.

Still, we were there to see the scenery, not the local history -- and what scenery it was! During the drive, some of the lights began to come out in the city below us, making the vistas which stretched before us at every turn sparkle and shine. As we rose higher, the haze began to obscure far-off buildings, and the colors grew cooler as the sun set.

Higher still!

Finally, we reached the top and got off the bus. The Peak Tower was a massive structure of glass and metal, with escalators gliding smoothly all the way to the top floor. We made our way up to the top and began taking pictures like crazy.

The city lights.

The top platform was packed, but we could still see the buildings beneath us as more and more lights came out and the sun slowly set.

Kevin at the top.

Isn't he cute? He was my date for a very fancy dinner....

Here I am at our window table...

For dinner, Kevin and I decided to splurge on a meal at Tien Yi, whose name means "the pinnacle of the world" in Cantonese. The restaurant purports to provide "a local flavour in upscale surroundings [with] both traditional and modern spins on Cantonese cuisine." I'm no expert on Cantonese cuisine, but the "upscale surroundings" bit was right on. The restaurant featured red, black, white, and gold furnishings in a minimalistic yet luxurious style, including a grand staircase past a two-story waterfall meant to bring prosperity to all who dine there (as per feng shui interior decorating philosophy).

...but instead of gazing adoringly at my date, you can see what I was really doing the whole time -- watching the lights below!

The light show began promptly at 8pm, and we watched as the buildings below us blinked in all different colors. It was so neat seeing it from an alternate perspective. Kevin ordered a whole baby pigeon and some pork dumplings, which was a good thing, since the pigeon (as you can see below) was big on style but short on substance.

The baby pigeon.

My dinner, on the other hand, was all I could have dreamed of. Although you can't really make it out from the photo below, the generous helping of stir-fried vegetables, tofu, and cashews I ordered were housed in an elegant little "nest" composed entirely of delicate strips of deep-fried taro. Taro is one of my favorite foods in any form, but I think that deep-fried taro might be my favorite. After polishing off the entire portion of tofu and vegetables, I ate the nest as well. So good!

The best dinner I've had this whole trip!!

After dinner, we headed back down to the base of the Peak Tower to meet up with the rest of the crew. We split up again into two teams for taxis, with plans to reconvene in on Kowloon for some night market fun.

Hong Kong V: Downtown

Hong Kong downtown.

We decided to see more of the city on our second day in Hong Kong, and Eric, Kevin, Sheila and I made plans to meet up with Gabriel and his girlfriend Iva (who lives in Hong Kong) for some shopping and sight-seeing.

Kevin and I had breakfast at a bakery brimming with fresh bread products of all descriptions, from pork floss buns to sweet milk rolls. I will miss the bakeries in Taiwan so much, but the bakeries we found in Hong Kong were unbelievable. I think it must be the European influence on the city. I ate more bread and pastries in my time there than any other point in this visit. Mmmm...

The incredible bakery where we had breakfast.

Eric, Sheila, Kevin, and I had heard of a free Tai Chi and Kung Fu exhibition in a park in the Central District, and we went to check it out before meeting up with Gabe and Iva.

The elder tai chi group.

The sun was blazingly, blisteringly hot. We sat beneath a yellow striped awning, passing a fan I had retained from Ocean Park from one person to the next in a feeble effort to cool off. Aside from the overwhelming heat, however, the show was really quite fun. Students of all ages and genders performed, incorporating fans, swords, spears, and various other implements into their routines.

Some of the kung fu students sparring.

I learned from Kevin that A-ma used to do sword Tai Chi, which seems fitting, somehow. I also learned that it was sword Tai Chi that Mulan's dad does in one of the earliest scenes of Disney's Mulan, and fan Kung Fu that she uses to defeat Shan Yu at the end of the film. (Interesting side note: according to Wikipedia, Mulan, based on an old Chinese poem called "The Ballad of Mulan," set box office records in China, and is used to this day in many Chinese schools to teach young girls the values of honor and self-sacrifice.)

After the show, we went to a local McDonald's for some mango ice cream and litchi slushies in an effort to cool off. We had some difficulty meeting up with Iva and Gabe because Iva stepped on a nail (!!) but was thankfully able to utilize the first aid tent that was set up for the Tai Chi and Kong Fu performers. All was soon well, and we made our way to some nearby stores and markets for some souvenier-hunting before meeting up with the rest of the group for the evening.

Hong Kong IV: Lan Kwai Fong

The beer festival. Don't I look thrilled?

By the time the fireworks ended, we were all starving and wayyy past ready for dinner. We set out from Kowloon to Lan Kwai Fong, an area in the Central district with many bars and restaurants. A few of the guys had heard there was a beer festival going on that weekend in Lan Kwai Fong, and couldn't wait to get there.

Packed, I tell you!

I'm definitely not a beer aficionado, but it was still a pretty cool experience. The streets were packed -- I mean, literally packed from side to side -- with people, mostly foreigners, all buying beer or calling to friends or simply (like us) trying to struggle through the masses of people to find somewhere to eat.

Eventually, we found it: a Thai and Malaysian restaurant with three different menus. Ordering stuff in Chinese is usually an interesting experience, even if English translations are provided, because these basic descriptors (like "red-cooked beef" or "fragrant pork") mean very little to foreign visitors. The challenge is doubled when they cuisine being ordered is not Chinese anyway, and (for me at least) doubled again when the language it's being ordered in is Cantonese and not Mandarin.

The "green coconut"! Pictured behind: Sheila.

I ordered some stir-fried vegetables and a drink the menu called "green coconut," which turned out to be an entire Thai young coconut, served with the top chopped off and a spoon and a straw inside. I drank up all the coconut milk inside (which was clear? I guess because it was a "young" coconut) and scraped out the interior with the spoon. It was like no drink I've ever had before, except maybe this one. (For more about that day, see here).

More beer market. Pictured: Manuel, Chris, Matt.

The festival was cool, but after dinner, Kevin and I were about done for the night. The guys and Sheila stayed on in search of further revelry, and we made our way back to the hostel.

Hong Kong III: Fireworks

The Hong Kong skyline at night.

We were supposed to meet Eric and Matt on the Avenue of Stars at 7:30 to watch the fireworks that Hong Kong has every Saturday night. We had specially arranged to meet on Kowloon (rather than Hong Kong Island) so that we could get a good view of the Hong Kong skyline.

Avenue of Stars is basically Hong Kong's answer to Hollywood Boulevard: a long promenade along the harbor built to pay tribute to the actors, directors, and other professionals of Hong Kong's film industry. As a former British colony (until 1997), Hong Kong had a greater degree of political and economic freedom than both mainland China and Taiwan, so it's little surprise that it developed into a filmmaking hub for East Asia, as well as Chinese-speaking people the world over. For decades, Hong Kong was the third largest motion picture industry in the world (after Bollywood and Hollywood).

We had arranged to meet by Jackie Chan's handprints.

As you see from the picture above, we found the handprints pretty easily, but Eric and Matt took a little longer to turn up. We whiled away the time taking photos...

Me with skyline.

...and exploring the area, which was rich with Hong Kong movie history.

Kevin found a statue of Bruce Lee.

However, it was the fireworks that we had come to see -- and it was so worth it!

The pyrotechnics were awesome!

Hong Kong has a light and laser show every evening at 8pm, to show off the glittering heights and lights of its famous skyline. I'm not sure if this is something Hong Kong is only doing in 2007, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its reunification with mainland China, or if it's something they've been doing for some time. The flashing lights of the buildings across the way and the exploding fireworks overhead were accompanied by rousing classical music that floated across the water from speakers along the promenade. It was a really magical experience.

Hong Kong II: Ocean Park

We arrived at Ocean Park around midmorning, the sun already high in the nearly cloudless sky. Although Hong Kong also boasts a Disney Land, a zoo, and several other smaller theme park attractions, Ocean Park (香港海洋公園) is by far the area's most popular. In fact, according to Wikipedia, Ocean Park was ranked seven in 'The World’s Most Popular Amusement Parks’ by Forbes last year. Featuring roller coasters, water rides, a jelly fish and shark aquarium, a dolphin amphitheatre, a hot air balloon, a mountainside gondola system, the world's second-longest outdoor escalator, and, most importantly, a Giant panda exhibit, Ocean Park sounded too good to be true, and we were determined to see it all.

The sign that greeted us.

We entered the park to the sound of carnival music and found our way to the first intersection, where the brightly colored sign you see above informed us of the various attractions to be found in this quadrant of the park. I was excited to find that we had apparently wandered into Ocean Park's Wet 'n' Wild Panda Mania -- I had come to see pandas, and the panda frenzy had already begun!

There were even panda-themed flower baskets.

Everything was pandas... panda flags, panda trashcans, panda fans, panda fences, and -- best of all -- a gigantic panda-themed foam party, complete with panda slides, a panda pit, and a giant bubble-blowing bamboo shoot.

Bambooistic Foam Party!!

More foam.

(In the two picures above, I am the one in the yellow dress, Chris (from the University of North Carolina) is the one in the green shirt, and Manuel (from the University of Hawaii at Hilo) is the one in the white shirt.)

The aforementioned panda pit of foam.

The foam party was tempting, but we had too much left to see and didn't want to see it covered in soapy residue. After frolicing in the foam bubbles for a while (I got foam on my sunglasses and shoulder), we decided to move on to some of the other attractions.

I rode on a scary ride.

The first ride we rode was one of those spinning rides that uses the centripetal force created by acceleration along a circular path to smoosh people against the ride and then flip them around and around and upside down without actually needing to buckle them in. I was scared, but prevailed. We were all really dizzy when we got off.

At the bottom of the log flume!

Undeterred, we pressed on, lining up straightaway for the next ride. We were all desperately sweaty -- the temperature was well over 100*F on that day in Hong Kong -- and were excited by the sparkly water of the log flume ride. I opted not to ride, and instead bought drinks and held everyone's bags as they got soaked.

The drenched survivors.
From left to right: Manuel, Kevin, Sheila, Chris.

They got pretty wet... making me even happier I didn't go on in my pretty yellow dress! I had iced tea to keep me cool, and was eager to move along on the winding trail of adventures that would bring us to the pandas.

The views of the bay were stunning.

We moved further up the mountain by using the next portion of Ocean Park's giant outdoor escalator, which is apparently the second-longest in the world. I don't know which is the first-longest, but I would be willing to bet that the views there couldn't compare to the beautiful views this one afforded us of Victoria Harbour and the outlying islands of Hong Kong.

On the world's second-longest outdoor escalator.

We paused at a few scenic overlooks to take photographs of -- and simply gape at -- the scenery.

Me and Kevin with Hong Kong in the background.

Another look at Victoria Harbour...

...and one looking out to sea. The spherical spiral in the foreground is a roller coaster.

I just couldn't stop taking pictures, the views were so stunning. The water looks really blue here for some reason.

However, the sun soon got to be too much, and we were happy to explore the highest part of the park -- the Marine Level. Besides being an amusement park, Ocean Park is also home to several observatories and laboratories, in addition to an education department and a Whales And Dolphins Fund. There was a big amphitheatre with dolphin shows (at which we unfortunately could not find seats), and a four-story aquarium with the most heavenly air conditioning I have ever felt.

Baby sand shark in an incubator meant to mimic its actual growing environment.

The exhibits in the aquarium were really awesome as well, besides simply being (literally) cool. There was a deep-sea tank like the one in Boston, plus several exhibitions of the kinds of new experiements in marine biology that are being undertaken in some of the laboratories at Ocean Park. I also saw a kind of marine organism I have never seen before: the sea angel, a tiny, shell-less mollusk with feet that have evolved into what look like little angel wings, which beat serenly in the icy cold waters it calls home. I was entranced.

The cable cars looked like colorful crystal bubbles going up and down the mountain.

Of course, all good things come to an end, and before long we were back outside in the blistering heat. After another ride or so, and another round of beverages (including the oddest cream soda I have ever had -- tasted more like melon than anything else, and came in a green bottle), we were finally ready to find the pandas, located in the opposite end of the park, and reachable only by bus and cable car.

We were right at the edge of the island, where the mountains met the water.

You can guess which method of transportation we chose -- after a remarkably short wait, the five of us piled into a lovely glass globe dangling from a wire and were whisked off up and down and over the green slope down to the sea.

It got pretty steep in places, but the view of the island was incredible.

Finally, finally, we were almost at the Giant Panda Habitat at last. We had to wait on a pretty long time -- the pandas are one of the most popular exhibits of the park (understandably so!), and their indoor, climate-controlled habitat is strictly crowd-controlled to avoid over-stimulation.

Touchdown on the other side of the mountain -- you can see a character landscaped into the mountainside in the background.

Ocean Park is home to four Giant pandas. Two -- Jia Jia (佳佳) and An An (安安) -- were given to the park by the PRC government in 1997 to celebrate Hong Kong's reunification with the mainland. This was neither the first nor the last time China was to use "panda diplomacy" as a foreign affairs strategy. Last year, China tried to send some panda ambassadors (cunningly named Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, reminisent of the word tuanyuan, Chinese for "reunion") to Taiwan, but they were (perhaps understandably) rejected, much to the Taiwanese population's distress.

An An lolls about on his back.

All this political baggage, however, exists only in the world surrounding the pandas, and not in the world of the pandas themselves. Although Jia Jia and An An since 1999, as well as Ying Ying (盈盈) and Le Le (樂樂) since 2006, have also served as symbolic ambassadors from China, the bears themselves are hardly interested in the political idealogy they represent.

Jia Jia, true to her name, sleeps peacefully in the center of her pen.

That's why it was easy to forget about all the political machinations that had brought these bears together here, and simply enjoy watching them. No flash photography was allowed, so the pictures are somewhat blurry, but I think their cuteness still shines through!

Ying Ying, the little girl cub, was sleeping down in the corner.

You might notice that most of the pandas are sleeping here. This is really no surprise -- with a natural diet of 99% bamboo, Giant pandas lack the energy to run around all day. Still, these pandas keep busy. They even have their ownblog! Jing Jing writes in pink, Le Le in blue. I still think Tai Shan might be the most loved panda in the world, but the four pandas at Ocean Park are clearly surrounded by devoted keepers and admirers as well.

Le Le, the baby boy panda, was sleeping almost the whole time we were there!

One of the most interesting things I learned is that Giant pandas are "living fossils," meaning that they have no close living relatives, and are instead related to a species otherwise only known from fossils. With the attention and love seen here (and in DC!) we have good reason to hope that this biological lineage will indeed be preserved for generations to come.

Before long, the staff inside shuffled us through and back out into the sunshine to let other visitors see the pandas, which I guess was only fair. Kevin took a whole bunch of videos of the bears stretching and flopping around as they slept (including an adorable one of Ying Ying getting up, taking a step, and then flopping back down to sleep, flattening a large tuft of grass in the process), but I can't seem to post them.

Afterwards, we saw an exhibition of native dance.

We paused briefly on our way out to watch some dancers in colorful garb. I'm not sure what type of dance they were performing, but it was pretty. We couldn't stay for too long, though -- we had people to meet and more adventures to pursue back in the main city.