Oakland

View of San Fran Bay AreaThe train ride from Los Angeles to Oakland was fairly unremarkable.  I slept for a few hours initially and then struck up a conversation with the guy sitting next to me.  He was going to college in Santa Barbara, but didn’t seem to like it and was considering dropping out to become an actor.  I gave him so advice, Entourage isn’t as easy as it looks, stick with college!  He hadn’t even seen Entourage though, therefore simply struck me as a young teenager struggling to decide what to do with his life (as most teenagers I keep meeting seem to be).  After our chat, he played some rap music way to loud through his laptop, then departed in Santa Barbra, giving me a 2-1 Fatburger voucher (not much use unfortunately where I was going).  Most importantly he left an empty seat next to me for the rest of the trip to allow me to spread out.

Seeing a power-point in the wall of the train, I then retreated into my laptop and churned through Season 3 of Sons of Anarchy, while also buying over-priced and rather average food from the dining cart for lunch and dinner.  I arrived in Oakland fairly late at night, and since I was quite far from where I was staying and still carrying far too much luggage, took a taxi to the guest house I had booked into for two nights.  I had since learned that the suburb I was staying called West Oakland is generally known as one of the most violent in the country, therefore the taxi idea was excellent.  I checked into B-Love’s Guesthouse, a nice little homestay, that while slightly over-priced, was the best option at the time (as its really the only hostel / homestay in Oakland).  In hindsight, I could’ve caught a free shuttle-bus from the train straight to San Francisco and found a reasonably priced hostel there, but glad I chose to stay in Oakland to start with.

My time in Oakland was relaxing, I took advantage of some great hospitality from a brother of a friend called Andrew, as well as from a couple I was related to who lived in an awesome shared community called Steve and Bonnie.  Oakland had some great sights to see, I hiked from West Oakland up to the Cemetery and got my first view of the San Francisco Bay Area on a perfect day, seeing the whole city and the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time.  I also enjoyed spending time around Lake Merritt, where I finally tried out my new Nike Plus shoes and wristband, a great device that is a cut above a pedometer and allows you to measure you running distance, pace and upload directly to the Nike website.  My run around the lake clocked in at just over 5km and was a good reminder that I’m not in the same shape I was in a year ago!

A West Oakland CafeI frequented a bar called Beer Revolution a couple times as well, they had an impressive selection of beers, around 30+ on tap and 300+ in bottles.  That being the case, I was alarmed to learn that they had not ONE Australian beer!  I tried a fair few of the tap beers, though never found anything that approached the quality of Townsville’s great Ned’s Red Ale.  Another bar of note was Cafe van Cleef, a great looking music venue I had lunch at one day and shared a Tequila shot with the owner (on the house).  Another bar, Club 21 resulted in me scoring two Whiskey Shots on the house!  On the whole, I’m finding my Australian charm is working FAR to well with American bartenders and the bars I’ve gone to where I scored free shots (usually during the day) definitely out-number the bars that don’t!

On the whole, my Oakland escapades didn’t involve too much drinking and for the most part I enjoyed relaxing, making good in-roads into the book I’m reading (Shantaram) and enjoying Thor in 3D one afternoon at a cinema.  Oakland really felt like the start of my trip, staying for the first time away from relatives and fully relaxing.  Then of course, I ran out of free accommodation  in Oakland and hit San Francisco, where any attempts at sobriety were swiftly brought to an end.

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Los Angeles

So with a direct flight out from Beijing I hit the city of Los Angeles.  From the start of this flight, nothing was going right.  Getting early enough to the airport with plenty of time to relax, I enjoyed some over-priced Airport food and then spent the rest of my Chinese money on a few drinks for the plane.  Whilst boarding the plane, literally before hitting the aero-bridge, there were security guards going through people’s carry-on baggage and confiscating drinks!  I tried to explain to the security guards that the drinks I had were sealed and I had literally just bought them 2 minutes ago, from the vending machine 10 meters away, but they still decided to take them.  Then of course, as soon as I got on the plane, I saw a passenger drinking a bottle of juice, almost identical to one of the bottles I had just bought.  Needless to say, I was quite annoyed!

Landing in Los Angeles I decided to take a shuttle to where I was staying, I was then put on the wrong shuttle which was going out to Santa Monica instead of Highland Park!  In the end though, I got to my destination, staying with my Cousin Ben in a cool area of Los Angeles.  Highland Park has plenty of great things to check out, being right near a college, the Occidental, there were a number of cool cafes, bars and a kick-ass ridiculously cheap and authentic Mexican restaurant.

Finally in America, I proceeded to start sorting out various mundane matters such as procuring a working mobile phone, getting a social security number and opening a new bank account.  In the first week, none of these activities were successful for various complicated reasons, mostly involving unhelpful Government employees, restrictive American phone companies and inconsistent advice from American financial institutions as to what I actually needed to open a U.S. bank account.  As it turns out, I needed a social security number, even though of course giving a bank my brand-new social security would in no way provide any useful information about my credit history!

In the middle of my Los Angeles visit I went to Coachella, a 3-day music festival in the middle of the desert near Palm Springs, a festival with a great line-up but run by ridiculously disorganised individuals.  Getting to a music festival and seeing an unmanned first-aid tent on the 1st day was of deep concern to me, naturally I assumed first-aid tents would be dispensing sun-screen (as they do in Australia), but alas, this was not the case!  Luckily they did assist me with removing sunscreen from my eye once I did acquire some, a painful and incredibly time-wasting experience that I am in no way keen to ever repeat!  Words of advice kids . . . . DO NOT GET SUNSCREEN IN YOUR EYES!

The line-up for Coachella was excellent and I returned to Los Angeles relatively unscathed, but missing a far amount of valuable gear, including my IPad (lots of other stuff happened at Coachella, but for various reasons I won’t put them here on this blog).  Upon returning to Los Angeles, I managed to shadow my Cousin Ben, a Piano Tuner, into the Playboy Mansion.  As would any hetrosexual male in my age bracket, setting foot inside an iconic building such as the Playboy Mansion was something I was extremely excited about.  Ben had tuned Hugh Hefner’s piano several times before and he informed me that the only rule was I had to stick with him and not take any pictures.

Ben had also told me about his previous tunings of Hugh’s piano and he advised usually something cool happened, once he met Hugh and once there were a few Playboy Bunny quality women hanging around the lobby.  Going in with no expectations something unexpected did happen, namely I met Andrew G (of Australian Idol fame) who was setting up to interview Hugh for the 7PM project.  I also scored a couple free magazines and some playboy branded water, all in all it was a good experience, next time I go there will hopefully be for a party!

The rest of Los Angeles was spent catching up with various cousins I had scattered around.  My cousin Sam took me fishing around Santa Barbra and despite catching no fish it was great to see a bit of the country side and smoke a couple of cigars out by the ocean.  A whale and school of dolphins were also spotted, but I decided to avoid a swim in the water as it was still fairly cold.  The lack of fish wasn’t a big deal for dinner either that night as we procured some salmon from the local supermarket and enjoyed it thanks to Sam’s excellent cooking skills.

All in all, my time in Los Angeles didn’t quite involve the partying I was hoping it would, but I did manage to see all my relatives and  a bit more of the city than last time.  Hiking up from the Observatory with Ben gave me some great views of the city and a car ride with my cousin Rachel on the way to find a cafe ended up taking us through some areas of L.A. I hadn’t seen before (what most of them were though, I have no idea, apart from the suburb of Bel-Air).  To continue my travels a bit lighter, I left my biggest suit-case with my Cousin Ben before hoping on a train up to Oakland, therefore will likely be heading back to L.A. before I head to South America.  More partying will definitely be in order next time!

Beijing

After frantic packing, throwing out of countless clothes, rubbish and memorabilia and the final stuffing of too much luggage into a rucksack, suitcase and sports bag, I finally set out aboard my Sydney to Beijing flight.  The was the first leg in my open-ended and unplanned journey across the world, with only a rough itinerary in mind and virtually nothing but the one way Sydney -> Beijing -> Los Angeles flight booked.  Stopping in Beijing  was never part of my original plan, but my coincidence it turned out cheaper to fly Air China through Beijing, I had a relative to stay with there and I thought I may as well check out the Great Wall whilst I was still over in this area of the world.First Chinese Beer

After a relatively restful flight consisting of an average selection of English movies I landed in Beijing, was collected by my relative Aleen and was taken to her excellently placed and very comfortable three bedroom apartment in the heart of Beijing, provided courtesy of the United States Department of State.  The next day consisted of us in a hire car visiting as many of the essential tourist spots as possible in a single day.  We did quite well, barelling through the Forbidden Palace, driving by Tienanmen Square, hiking around the Summer Palace, coasting through the main Beijing Olympic buildings and then collapsing into a restaurant seat with a beer in Hou-Hai.

Hou-Hai was by far the highlight, a historically preserved area of Beijing spread around a picturesque lake with a good selection of restaurants and bars, a welcome change from the busy traffic and crowded tourist  locales that were visited prior.  The Olympic buildings, namely the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube were impressive to see up close, but were more or less unsurprising in that they looked the same as observed on TV and not much excitement was to be had by entering.

The Great Wall!After knocking over so many of the “must-see” tourist attractions in one go, I spent the rest of my stay relatively relaxed, thanks in large part to Chinese food being prepared on-site by the house keeper and a decent selection of TV channels to watch.  Being in Beijing of course, I still had to visit the Great Wall, which I did through the previously recommended “Secret Wall” tour run our of Leo Hostel.  The tour was everything the hostel promised, a hike through an uncrowded area of the wall where pictures could be taken without thousands of tourists being in shot.  It was a particularly cold morning, especially on the windy sections of the wall, but once we got moving the hike proved exhausting enough to alleviate any of the problems with the biting wind-chill.

The tour also introduced me to some fellow travelers, the most notable being Bo from Kentucky who was stopping in Beijing on his way back from teaching English in South Korea.  Being an English speaker who also drank beer, it wasn’t too much effort to rope him into some late night drinking, which turned into quite a fun night once we ran into an English couple from the tour later on in Sanlitun (translation – dodgy strip of Touristy and mostly expensive drinking bars / soft-porn strip-clubs).  We quickly worked out Sanlitun wasn’t the place to be late and after a bit of farting around ended up in an establishment known as Coca Banana, basically a night-club almost entirely full of local Chinese where we could continue drinking and dancing the night away.

Live Scorpions on sticks . . . Mmmm, Delicious!

Thanks to hang-overs / laziness, there wasn’t a great deal else to say about my trip to Beijing.  There was one more night out with a couple Beijing locales which was interesting and involved eating at a local restaurant and gate-crashing a French doctor’s birthday party (he didn’t mind though and I scored a free beer).  The selection of live animals being served in food stalls was also the biggest I’ve seen, everything seemed to be available including live scorpions, all chicken body parts, sea-horses, centipedes and a number of insects.  I stayed with the chicken liver and some lamb which was very tasty, will have to try the scorpions next time.

Overall, Beijing was a great experience and I’m definitely keen to return back to China again one day to see more of this fascinating country.  Even though I’ve now visited China twice, there’s still plenty more I have to explore including Shanghai, Tibet and everything in between. I certainly felt though, in my week there, I did Beijing justice and got a good taste of what the city has to offer.