Friday, March 31, 2006

Becca's Craving Ice Cream...

Just a little hint for y'all.

We'll be able to finish the trip, but come early October some things are definitely going to change. :-)

Brian & Becca

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Nee-how from Xiahe

The high (2920m) home of Tibetan Monks playing Grand Theft Auto, colorful pilgrums spinning prayer wheels, yak butter tea and cold nights. We'll post all about it and more once we're in Lanzhou in about five days time. In the meantime, the fearless travelers are off to the even more remote and evidently higher locale of Langmusi. In the meantime, please enjoy (or at least contemplate) the latest rant on the blog.

Hope everyone is well and that your Spring is currently warmer than ours.


Monday, March 27, 2006

A very bad day...

This is an excerpt from my written journal that I keep in addition to what I write on the blog. Things have gotten significantly better since this day but I figured for posterity's sake I'd post this. It really covers a lot of the frustrations/difficulties that I faced in the first two weeks of China (especially after our love affair with SE Asia.) I apologize if it seems bit too whiney or negative for people but it is how I felt on that day. And sometimes, we all just have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.


3/19/06 Pingyao, China

I just ordered a beer. I felt like ordering a double Jameson's. Hell, I just still might.

We got into Pingyao this morning, arriving on our third overnight train in four nights. I was ok getting off of it and the room we settled into is nice but four hours later, I'm just exhausted. Over the past five days or so we've picked up the pace considerably and it's taking it's toll. Throw in the fact that China is just a tiring place to travel in general and I'm running very, very thin.

When we got here originally, we decided that to give ourselves more time that we'd push our flight from Hong Kong to New Zealand back a few days. That being done I'm not sure it was such a good idea. 45 days is going to have been a very long time to be here. It's easily the most difficult place we've traveled and throw in the fact that we're hitting our second wall (the first was 4 months into Europe) and it's not good.

So many aspects of China are draining. We've ran into a very fierce language barrier; especially in regards to the tonal aspects of the language. A bigger barrier than the language itself though has been people's inability to be helpful/understanding with our pronunciations. I know I don't know your language. But I'm trying to learn at least a little to be friendly and do simple things like order food and find the nearest bathroom. Throw me a friggin' bone.

We do our best to pronounce something correctly (esp. Becca) however if you're not 100% spot on (which is very difficult for just about anyone to do who isn't a native speaker) they just give you a blank stare. There appears to be no attempt to put a slight mispronunciation into proper context. Just a blank stare. This makes it very, very difficult to communicate at times and can become so exasperating that you just lose the will to live. Or at least the will to do anything other than run away and curl up in a cocoon someplace far away.

Just beyond draining. It's definitely the biggest language barrier we've encountered on the trip. To be fair I've wondered how much of it is timing; we're on our 22nd country and we've had as many languages (not counting local dialects). We probably could have used an extended stay in an English speaking country before tackling China head on. Or maybe we would have gotten "soft" and have an even more difficult time of it. For now though it remains as big of a hurdle as the Great Wall.

The other difficult part of China to date is the sanitation and person space issues. The sanitation here is in some ways worse than Laos and Cambodia. Sure there isn't the garbage in the street, open sidewalks, pig crap to avoid, etc. Instead they are replaced with personal habits those of us in the west just aren't used to (highlighted by people spitting with a shudder-enducing hocking that must start from their ankles) and the steady dark choking haze of polluted air. It's made what otherwise have been beautiful sights just as memorable for their environmentally destructive elements.

A classic example was Tai Shan. Hoofing it all the way to the top sometimes gives the recipient a view that stretches for over 200km to the ocean. Instead we were lucky to see faint glimpses of the valley approximately 8-10km away. The rest was shrouded in coal produced smog. Even here in Pingyao you can tell the sun is out; you just can't see it amongst the grey blanket that permeates our eyes and lungs.

Personal space being an issue isn't as shocking. Looking through the guidebook even the smallest sounding outposts are over a million people. It just gets exhausting when you're constantly jockeying for position for everything. Lines are an afterthought. You'd better be ready with elbows sharpened and fists a flying to keep your ground. It's not the "big city" aspect of this that bothers me the most; I've done just fine surviving a number of major metropolises both before and during this trip. What frustrates me to no end is the lack of common consideration given to the fellow person. This may just be a west v. east issue but it's one that rankles me to no end. I hate finding myself being THAT guy elbowing his way past a 80 year old grandmother to get on the train.

Becca forwarded an interesting theory; in addition to the social fabric tearing impact of the Cultural Revolution, with the one child policy there is an entire generation of people growing up as single children. As a result they are used to being the center of attention, they haven't had to be displaced by siblings, learn to play well with others, etc. I'm not sure if it's a right answer but it's a pretty interesting perspective.

Despite all of this and my sense of sensory overload/exhaustion at the moment, China has been at the very least an educational experience to date. Certainly a learning experience on how it truly feels to be a minority. Even at our previous stops in the trip if we were feeling too overwhelmed we could always huddle amongst the comfort of the packs of (mostly western) travelers. Here however the non-Chinese travelers are merely an afterthought. As well they should be I suppose; Chinese travelers make up something like 95% of the travel in China. A billion people can't be wrong, eh?

Hopefully the Gansu and Yunnan provinces will bring warmer weather & people, less smog and more tranquility. Or at the very least someplace where I can sit and enjoy my surroundings and do things like this without being immediately accosted. I tried to start this entry outside in an open space in a Pingyao courtyard only to be propositioned with various tourist trinkets multiple times within a five minute span. I ended up writing this instead in the safety of our hostel with a beer in hand. And you know what? That's more disappointing than anything else this trip has allowed me to experience.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Xi'an: The TC Warriors and the return of the Bangles

Another overnight hard sleeper brought us to the town of Xi'an. In our conversations with fellow travelers along the way, we weren't expecting much. People had pretty much just described it as a means as an end to visit the Terracotta Soldiers and then be off. With a population of over 6 million, we were expecting dirty, expensive and not much in the way of charm.

Instead, we found our first completely relaxing stop in China. One wouldn't expect to find it amongst the endless streams of pedestrians, buses, taxis and cars but we did. Xi'an was a very pleasant surprise. After getting off the train we (really for the first time of the trip) let ourselves get sucked in by the touts. (Becca kept saying "it's all good as long as you're using the touts instead of them using you.")The result in the end though was good; a centrally located hostel for the price we were looking for.

The center of Xi'an is inside of an ancient wall with the striking Bell Tower being ground zero. This ended up being a great area to wander around; lots of nice open public spaces, much better air quality than our previous stops, lively nightlife and incredibly clean. Throw in the incredibly tasty return of the cheap street food and we were very happy campers. It was also very nice to have a few days where we stayed in the same place. May not seem like much but it was a very needed chance to catch our breath. It was just nice to have the chance to actually sleep in a bed and prepare for our trip out west.

In our three plus days, we did a fair amount of exploring, including a trip to the surprisingly interesting and informative Shaanxi Museum. Within Xi'an itself though, the highlight was the Muslim Quarter. Not more than a quarter mile from our hostel was a 5-6 square block area where Chinese Muslims and amazingly good cheap food reigned. We made countless trips there, snacking our way through the area and just soaking in the scene. Very similar to the various ethnic enclaves found in countless cities around the world but very cool.

Outside of Xi'an, our trip was an obvious one. We joined up with Leslie (one of the Canadians we'd done the tour in Datong with) and headed out to see the Terracotta Warriors. Instead of paying 300 Yuan/person for one of the tours with no guarantee other than the fact that we'd be stopping at plenty of jade and pottery factories, we elected to take the public bus out to the warriors. Pretty uneventful ride though there was a revolving set of tour guides who'd get on, say their bit about the upcoming attraction (the stops were all tourist attractions along the way) in Mandarin and jump of. Needless to say they weren't on the return trip.

A few random thoughts on the visit:

- The introductory video explaining the origin of the Terracotta Warriors was actually quite helpful but I kept getting distracted by production values that gave Flash Gordon and Clash of the Titans a run for their money. I kept waiting for Medusa to come out of nowhere and turn the onscreen warriors to stone. Or maybe they did...

- Even though you are expecting it, the scale of the army just blows you away

- Two interesting points about the warriors that I didn't know before. The warriors were actually originally pillaged in the peasant revolt (not surprisingly they revolted since they'd just spent the past 40 years building the tomb) and the ones found had been scattered about. Also, I had no idea that they'd all been painted. It just increased the level of respect I had for the people that made them; not only did they do different faces, armor, hairdo's, etc. but they painted them. Very impressive.

- We had an interesting discussion about the amount of work (40 years by a ton of people) and the value of something like this. In so many ways (much like many of the churches in Europe) it's a waste of human talent for something that probably doesn't need that level of extravagance. It makes a great tourist attraction but was it really such a good thing? Becca did raise the valid point that at least in this case, the Emperor decided to have the warriors made instead of following past (and some future) precedent and just throwing in live warriors, concubines, etc. A kind and gentle despotic emperor I suppose.

- The 4 hours we spent at the facility had us around more Western people than we've been around at one time since Denmark. I'm VERY happy we have NZ and OZ as a bridge between Asia and heading home. Not that it's good, bad or otherwise, it's just a shock hearing that much English being spoken and seeing that many similar people in one place. A bizarre feeling and one that made it really hit home how much we've been out of our element for the last four months. And how much I've enjoyed it. And hated it. More on that in a later post.

And for those of you bored enough at work to still be reading, why the Bangles reference? Evidently all these years of communist rule have truly set back Chinese pop culture. Or at least fashion because the streets of Xi'an have been a treat. The 15-24 population has been full of really tacky wide collar shirts, permed hair, spiked hair, permed female mullets and I think even the occasional set of leg warmers. Just frightening. We fully expected to see Ratt warming up in one of the open courtyards...

So congrats to Xi'an, somehow a welcoming haven disguised in a town of six million. Thank you for giving us a chance to recover and get ready for the adventures ahead in the west. My stomach is already anticipating the Yak Burgers and yak butter tea with glee.


Friday, March 24, 2006

Touristy Update

(More in the catching up from Xi'an series. Hopefully we can even get Xi'an up by tonight. After that we're off to yak country.)

In amongst all the overnight trains (I'm writing this having just completed our fourth in six nights), we have actually done a little touristy exploring. Here's some quick thoughts on two of our stops:

Our Day Trip from Datong with CITS. We went to Datong in an effort to see the Yungang Caves and the Hanging Monastery. Datong was an ancient capital of the country and former seat of power. As we got off the train, we went searching for CITS (the Government run tourist agency) as they were recommended for a tour and potential train tickets going forward. Instead the CITS man came to us, whisking us away like the scary touts we usually avoid and signing us up for a tour the next day.

The Yungang Caves contain over 50,000 Buddhist statues that cover an area over a kilometer long. The most impressive of them though are the larger Buddhas, the greatest of which measured in at over 18 meters (over 54 ft). Also of note was how the caves were carved; they were developed from the top down. As a result a few of the caves go a little lower than ground level but the accuracy in which these caves were developed is certainly breathtaking. The caves ranked right up there as one of the most impressive cultural sights we've seen in Asia.

From there the tour headed to the Hanging Monastery. The Monastery is over 1400 years old and is just up on the side of a cliff in a now dammed valley. The rooms were all built to the contours of the cliff face. The real prize though is the insides of the rooms; intricately carved statues of old religious figures, including the Three Religions Hall where Buddha, Laotzu and Confucius all sit side by side. Of course with it being China, this sign was a requirement as well.

The CITS tour ended up being very good. Our tour guide had good English, showed us the sights and was willing to go into surprising depth answering our questions. It was also a relatively inexpensive way to see both the Yungang Caves and the Hanging Monastery and meet five other great people (two Canucks, two Aussies and a Japanese woman) that we were able to swap stories with from stop to stop.

Offsetting the cool things to see in Datong however was the ungodly pollution. Datong is coal country which was evident in every attempted breath. (The caves are actually across the highway from a coal mine!). We couldn't get out of town fast enough. The best anecdote from this was when we couldn't decide whether to open the window in our hotel room to try and air out the heavy cigarette smoke smell or keep it closed to try and keep out the coal dust.

Our next stop was the town of Pingyao. Surrounded by a completely intact 6km Ming dynasty city wall, it was an example of a well-preserved traditional Han Chinese city. For people who had limited time and wanted a slice of history it would be a perfectly fine place to go. For me though it was full of unappealing tourist restaurants and stands selling "traditional" trinkets...basically another tourist trap.

(ed note: while I thought it was a tourist trap too (a la Carcassonne in France, etc), I also found the streets very picturesque and enjoyed walking around the maze of the city and seeing sights like these.)

The one highlight was watching Becca become famous; she purchased a set of paper cuttings from an older lady the first day we were there (didn't say it was all junk). The next day we went back by and she wanted a picture with Becca. By that afternoon, Becca was a famous happy customer in a 8x11 photo next to the lady set up in the street. Good stuff.

So there you go. A Cliff Notes version of two of our stops. If you want to learn more, check out the links or the pics when we get them up. More general thoughts on China to follow from yours truly down the road.



Thursday, March 23, 2006

Jumping into the deep end...

(In Xi'an now, after stops in Datong and Pingyao. This entry covers our exit from Beijing before that. We will hopefully get caught up soon. )

Over the past 36 hours we had three incredible experiences giving us a hardcore immersion into the culture of today's China.

Brian had been intrigued by descriptions of Taishan, one of the 5 sacred Buddhist peaks in China. So we decided to take a one-day detour east before heading west out of Beijing towards Xi'an and then on to mountain country. Our plan was ambitious: take a night train from Beijing to Taishan, arrive in the morning, climb up and down the peak, then take a night train back to Beijing and on to Datong, which is where we needed to be that evening. However when we went to the train station in Beijing to make our tickets, they would only sell us the tickets to Datong. They kept insisting we could only purchase any return tickets there in Datong. While I still remain convinced that there must be some way to arrange round-trip tickets, we clearly weren't getting that communicated. Brian really wanted to climb Taishan, so we decided to buy the tickets there anyway, optimistically believing that we would be able to get tickets back. [this dear readers, is called foreshadowing.....]

No Beauty Sleep For Us

Our tickets from Beijing were in hard sleeper class, one of 4 kinds of train classes (along with soft sleeper, soft seat and hard seat). We had been travelling by soft sleeper so far, which is like (or slightly nicer than) the couchette cars in Europe: 4 bunks in a cabin with a table, thermos of hot water, and fake flower. Hard sleeper could be best described as a dormitory in a train car. There are bays of 6 beds (3 stacked) around a table, but open to the corridor instead of in a compartment. And there are probably 5 sets of those in the car. Soft seat is just like a normal nice train car with seats and Hard seat (according to what we'd heard and the pictures we seen) were like wooden park benches.

Hard sleeper is a perfectly fine way to travel and is in fact the preferred choice for most Chinese and budget traveller as they are usually significantly less than soft sleeper and about the same price as soft seat. However they are definitely a different world. You have no privacy and are privy to all the slurping, hocking, spitting, eating, trash dropping and smoking going on around you. I was a little concerned about it simply because we would only be on the train (from boarding to getting off) for 7 hours and I was hoping for some sleep before climbing. We had the bottom bunks so we stuffed our bags down under the beds, grabbed eye masks, and tried to snuggle down into bed. This was a little bit of a challenge as people were walking up and down the aisle (and talking) for most of the time (especially during the 6 stops we made during the night when people got on and off) and because the lights stayed at least partly on all night. We were roused by the conductor at 5:30 am and got ready to hit the ground running.

As soon as the train arrived we got into line to get tickets back to Beijing that night. Silly, silly rabbits. (To be fair, we had actually figured the odds to be 3-1 against). Nothing tonight or the next night??? Um...what about hard sleeper?.... Meanwhile the line behind me full of folks looking to buy a ticket on the next train was getting exceedingly restless. So I stepped out of line, wrote up another piece of paper with characters and dates and tried again. Still no escape from Taishan. Brian and I powwowed a bit and then got back in line again. Finally we were able to find that there WERE tickets back to Beijing; it's just that they were hard SEAT tickets on a night train. Given the choice of a potentially miserable night or falling 3+ days behind on our itinerary we opted for the band-aid removal strategy: get the pain over quickly.

So with (undesirable) tickets in hand we stashed our luggage at the station and headed up toward the mountain.

Working Out On Nature's Stairmaster...

The climb itself was a neat thing to do. We arrived in early morning and started up the path along with many other Chinese of varying ages and apparent purposes. Some seemed more like tourists, some like pilgrims. We also ran into a steady stream of people on the way down who had been up at mountain top for sunrise. (We had actually considered doing that, but our tight schedule didn't allow it.)

The climb is in two halves, covering 7.5 kilometers (~4.5 miles), 1300 meters (~4300 feet) of elevation gain, and 6660 steps. In the middle there is a complex with hotels and a cable car up to the top peak (which on principle we couldn't even consider). The second half is much steeper and more intimidating than the first half, especially the final section, "The 18 Bends". You feel like you are climbing straight up into the sky and can get some good vertigo going when you look back down.

The path up was paved the whole way, and led through forests and rocky mountainsides. All along the way Chinese characters representing poetry, epigraphs, wordplay and other sayings were carved into rocks and cliffs to inspire and entertain. Vendors and bathrooms made frequent appearances as well. While it was actually quite pretty, I think both of us were a bit disconcerted about "climbing a mountain" on a fully paved path. We're much more used to the rougher mountains of N. America and Europe. On the other hand, without stairs we would have had a tough time making it up the last section.

The people watching was great. We were astounded by how many people made the climb up and down in their best clothes, including suits and ties, dress shoes, and heels. Crazy. But it did impress on us the importance of the place for many people. We made 3/4 of the climb together with 3 Chinese college students who chatted with us and tried to translate some of the rock carvings for us. They were very cute and friendly and glad for the chance to practice their English. Between our dictionary and phrase book and their electronic dictionary we were mostly able to make ourselves understood.

The only sour note of the climb was when we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by 75 American college students studying abroad in Shanghai who were out on a field trip. We decided to slow down and let them all pass, as we a) didn't want to be confused as being part of their group and b) preferred to observe the locals to 20-year-old Americans.

The complex of temples and restaurants and hotels at the top is a little overwhelming, but we did find a neat Tibetan-influenced temple that was very different from what we've come to expect from SE Asia. We're looking forward to seeing more of that as we travel west. From the top (1520 meters) there is supposed to be a spectacular view. On a clear day you can see over all the way to the sea. Unfortunately, we had so much smog and pollution that we couldn't even see the town of Taian at the bottom of the mountain. :-(

The way up, though tiring and a little tough was actually easier than we expected and we made it in less time than we thought it would take. Confidence buoyed, we headed back down the mountain in high spirits after picnicking and exploring the temples on the top of the mountain. About an hour into it our knees and calves and assorted other muscles were letting us know that this was WAY more stairs than they were used to. And we still had two more hours to go...). Three days later we're still sore.

We capped off the day with a fantastic dumpling dinner in a little local dive. We had been told that 1/2 jin (about 0.25 kg) was about right per person so we tried two different 1/2 jin portions. When the food came there was no way we could eat it all, even after climbing up and down Taishan. Meanwhile the two petite Chinese girls at the table next to us each ate a 1/2 jin and an entree. Unbelievable.

When Push Comes To Shove

As our departure time approached Brian noticed that I was getting my Sunday "I'm already thinking about work" look again: hunched shoulders, tense neck, stress on face etc. I realized he was right. I was just dreading how bad the ride had the potential to be: 8 hours of hard wood benches, seatmates chain-smoking unfiltered cigarettes, rice bags taking up floor space and people piled everywhere. In reality, it was nowhere near this bad, though lord it wasn't good.

Our first clue came as the departure was called out and people filed through the gate to get their ticket checked. As soon as they were past the gate they RAN down the gangway to the platform. We could see how this was going to go, but we were too tired and too sore from the climb to play along. When we eventually gimped our way to the edge of the platform we saw a huge crowd already forming quasi-lines.

As soon as the train pulled up the lines disappeared as 50+ people frantically tried to push and shove their way onto our train car. Now this is a car with assigned seats, so I was a little confused by the rush (though not surprised). However as the scrum continued, it started to dawn on us that we might have trouble even getting on the train. Just then I noticed that they had opened the doors at the other end of the carriage and raced down to that end with some of the remaining crowd. I just had a chance to see Brian's hat disappear up into the train before I focused all my attention to shoving and pulling my way up into the doorway.

Once I got up into the car I realized the magnitude of my error. I had just been focused on "get on the train" and then I figured I could walk through the car back to Brian and find my seat. What I hadn't reckoned on was the fact that the car and seats had already been full and now 50+ people and their luggage had just been stuffed into it. I was smashed against 10 other people in the entryway and didn't foresee myself moving any time in the next couple of hours. And without any way to contact Brian (who was probably similarly smashed on the other end of the car) I was worried that he'd be worried that I didn't make it on the train.

After a bit we surged forward a little and I was just able to see down the aisle over heads if I stood on my tiptoes. All of a sudden Brian's head appeared as he stood up on a seat evidently looking for me. I grabbed our phrase book and waved it above my head hoping that he'd at least be able to see that.

After 15 minutes or so the people in front of me began pushing and shoving forward towards the aisle as other people were trying to force their way back towards us. Evidently what was happening was the people with seat reservations were slowly displacing the opportunists from the far end back towards us as my group was trying to get in to get to their seats. Over the next 25 minutes I moved an inch at a time, getting bashed by luggage and shoulders and elbows and dragging my bags behind and in front of me. People were surprised to see me (a foreign woman) and tried to help me out a little or at least shared a smile and laugh with me. (While Brian was waiting for me, he struck up a conversation with a Chinese student who said, "First time in hard seats? Quite an experience, isn't it?") A couple of times they tried to lift my bag up so that it would pass more easily, but that pretty much just put the backpack on my head or neck, which didn't work so well.

I did eventually and with much relief make it to Brian, who had quickly found and claimed our reserved seats (he choose the right door to enter), and discovered that the scrum in the aisle had been so crazy, that my watch had been torn off my wrist. Ah well, one more thing to replace.
(ed. note: while I will be the first to admit that I did indeed choose the right door to enter, I was only able to actually board the train after grabbing on to one of the bars on the outside and with both bags attached somehow execute a modified Iron Cross while leaping over two people trying to board the train then convince the drunken businessmen in our seats that they were indeed ours).

The rest of the trip was uncomfortable and long, but nothing that extraordinary. The seats were upholstered, not wooden, and there was room for the big bags above. And thankfully, most people went out into the entrance way to smoke. The lights did stay on all night and we were on seats with very upright backs so you couldn't really find a way to sleep on them, but at least we had seats. At least 30-40 people spent the 8 hours standing and falling asleep on their feet.

All in all, not necessarily a 36 hours we would care to repeat frequently, but a great chance to experience things that are part of everyday experiences for many Chinese.

Westward ho!


Saturday, March 18, 2006

One Year Ago Today...

We officially left our jobs. In typical fashion, I celebrated by spending happy hour with my co-workers while Becca stayed until almost 6pm at night, desperately trying to tie up all the loose ends. Oh and there was the obligatory March Minnesota driving snowstorm. Definitely a memorable day.

Although we get nervous thinking about the future and what it might bring upon our return, we've never regretted the decision to quit and to do what we're doing. You only go around once and after we realized we were wasting it by failing to balance work and home it was time to make a change. We hope that what we've learned during this trip will allow us to keep the scales a little more even whereever we end up.


Friday, March 17, 2006

Happy St. Patty's Day!

I hope everyone takes the day off, has a pint or ten of Guinness and just generally embraces everything Irish.

Our St. Patty's Day was spent climbing the sacred Chinese buddhist mountain Tai Shan. After 6 hours, 15 kilometers and over 8000 feet in elevation changes, we treated ourselves to an unhealthy amount of dumplings and local beer. The kicker?

The chopsticks were green.

Erin go Bragh.


PS An actual coherent blog entry from the wife about the hike to follow.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Time Travel in the Big City...

(image: Yao Ming schooling what can only be described as someone who looks like he should be playing in the Sunday rec league. This was an ad for Rec Specs. Couldn't they find a old pic of James Worthy and photoshop him in there or something? I digress; on to the column.)

Beijing has been an very interesting entry into China. I was looking forward for a chance to see the city in it's run up for the 2008 Olympics. It's certainly been a memorable experience.

In some ways, it's a return to the West (McD's, KFC, Nike, etc). In other ways, it a wake up call to an entirely different world. Gone are the crowded alleyways and constant drone of motos of SE Asia. Instead there are non-stop cars and the feel of a major metropolis (though surprisingly only 13th; the winner? Seoul). The difference being that knowing English actually gets you someplace in most other major metropolises.

We're doing our best learning Mandarin; however we've had countless times now where we say something and get a blank look. We then show the person the word/phrase we're trying to say and they say it back to us with the slightest of differences. I'm not talking major differences here; just the slightest tonal change. And Beijing is easily the most western of the places we are visiting. Should be a very interesting next five weeks.

We discussed this point at dinner tonight; we realized that by the time we leave China we will have spent over nine months on the road and all but 12 days of it in non-English speaking countries. 22 countries and just as many languages (not counting various dialects). In short we're tired. (my apologies if this carries over into my writing...) We're just hoping that we have a little better luck picking up Mandarin/Tibetan/Cantonese during the rest of our time in China. If we can get through that, the hardest part of the rest of the trip will be trying to convince Becca that cricket really is interesting.

Putting that random weary rant aside, a few not-so-brief thoughts on Beijing:

- Time seems to fly here. We've literally had 3-4 days where time just seems to move at a much faster pace. You think 15 minutes have passed and 45 have. Just a bizarre feeling. We think a large part of it has to do with everything being so far apart but it still doesn't completely explain it.

- The work being done for the Olympics is impressive. All the major tourist attractions (Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, the Great Wall, etc.) are all undergoing major overhauls. I'm sure everything will be nice and proper come 2008. It will be very interesting to see two things: how the rest of the country is adjusting to the great economic surge of the country (my guess is not nearly as well as the big cities) and where China goes after the Olympics.

- A side note to the overhauls is how Beijing is trying their best to make the city all shiny and new. Unfortunately that means taking down older buildings and throwing up glassy skyscrapers (both for business and housing). You'd think there would be some middle ground between keeping some of the city's charm and making things more modern but it seems to be full steam ahead for the modern lifestyle.

- We've gotten a bit gun shy around the folks speaking English in the major tourist areas. It seems that China's grand plan for taking over the world seems to be in the area of Ancient Chinese Calligraphy and art. We've been invited to more showings/exhibitions/buy our stuff than we know what to do with. As a result, we've gotten very good at running a confusing routine involving Becca's fluent French and me using a scattering of Danish words. Good times.

- On the flip side of that, we have had a number of very friendly people strike up conversations with us and help us out in our hour of need. Everything from a kind older gentlemen with a strikingly good command of English helping us find the Peking Duck restaurant in a warren of Hutong alleys to two girls just striking up a conversation to practice their English to random people just saying "Hello. Welcome to Beijing". Well, the last one might have been straight from the government handbook but the friendly folks have somewhat balanced out the scammers.

- The major sites are all worth the visit. The Great Wall was worth the trip to China alone in my opinion. We visited the Forbidden City, Tienanmen Square, Mao's Mausoleum and the Temple of Heaven park and all four were worth it. Seeing Mao's body though leaves us one short of the trifecta (Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh) though I have to admit I was a bit disappointed to be rushed through directly into the "Mao chotzke store" in the actual mausoleum. Even Vietnam had the good taste to keep the money making activities outside...

- If you ever want a true cultural experience, go grocery shopping. Our visit in Beijing included the following: Pick up toiletry related item. Have one of the hundred helpers in the store take it away from you, give you a ticket and beckon you to pay. Upon payment you take the ticket back to the same helper and they give you said item. Not exactly cutting edge efficiency...

- Many, many thanks again to the Dolans. Sean & Linda, Alexandra, Nicole and Sarah were true saints to put up a few weary travelers badly in need of some western R&R. Between visiting The Wall, having a couch to recoup on and learning all we ever needed to know about negotiating from Linda it was a great introduction to the massiveness that is China.

More from somewhere down the road.


Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Dazed and Confused

Dateline: Beijing

A quick update from this small village of 14 million people:

  • The weather has finally moved from Siberian windchills to nice spring, right after we broke down and bought stocking caps, gloves, and the like.
  • Seeing the famous sights (The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall etc.) is definitely a pinch-me moment. Brian will write more about our sightseeing adventures later
  • We are now 3 for 3 in finding fantastic restaurants/cafes that we are looking for, but the walking around looking for them ranged from 45 minutes to 2 hours. Brutal.

Mostly right now we are tired, burnt out, stressed out, and dragging. No real cause for concern, however. Long-term travel like this has natural rhythms and phases and you go through highs and lows. We hit our first wall 4 months into the trip. I was so lethargic and exhausted all I wanted to do was sleep. So we chilled out in Seville, Spain and recharged our batteries. We also gave ourselves a mini-recharge living with our wonderful Danish family in Copenhagen in December.

However we are now 9 months into the trip, and 3 months into traveling in Asia (which has to be like 5 months of European travel!) so it's about time for another wall. We were even expecting it (though hoping it would pass us by). It's just unfortunate that it hits us just as we are entering the most difficult of our Asian stops and the one that takes the most energy and patience to negotiate.

Because of this we've had a somewhat subdued visit to Beijing. Though we have been in town a week we really haven't seen or done that many tourist things. Instead we have tried to make sure that we allowed time for curling up and reading a book or sleeping in. That's hard to do, as we feel like we should be out there seeing and doing and experiencing, but we know that it's important to do so that we can enjoy the rest of our time in this huge country.

One more day in Beijing tomorrow and then we head east to try and climb Taishan, a sacred mountain. 6660 steps. Should be interesting... After that, who knows? We have a plan but so far our success in getting train tickets to support that plan has been limited. I guess we'll just make it up as we go.

More in a few days...


Monday, March 13, 2006

Chinese Water Torture

Or some kind of torture at least.

Neehow from Beijing, where Brian and I are managing to both enjoy ourselves and navigate around the city while at the same time become totally overwhelmed and stressed about figuring out how to fit in all we want to see before our flight out of Hong Kong. We thought that we'd made things easier when we cut the whole eastern and southern seaboard and decided to focus on the Yunnan and Gansu provinces after a week or two of Beijing to Xi'an (with stops in between). But it takes so long to get anywhere that the days are running out faster than we can believe. And we're spending so much time trying to figure out the planning and buy train tickets, etc., it makes it hard to find time to be a tourist here and see things like the Forbidden City, etc.

I'm sure we'll figure it out though; we always seem to. We'll just have to drop a place or two that we had really wanted to see. :-( Meanwhile, we've had some great food here in Beijing, both from the street snack carts and a nice restaurant and we've got the subway system down pat. We even squeezed in a trip to the US embassy to get new pages added to our passport as we were about out. (Which is impressive considering the passports were brand new before the trip!).

Add a couple of the random kindness/conversations we have with folks on the street and things in general are going quite well here in China. (Now if we could only figure out how to teleport ourselves between cities, all would be perfect).


Sunday, March 12, 2006

Who needs Pink Floyd? B&B tackle the wall

On Friday Brian and I had the chance to do one of the things that we have been looking forward to ever since we started planning this trip.

(A quick sidebar: when we were in Siem Reap we were sitting in the lobby of a hotel waiting to meet some friends when we struck up a conversation with a family sitting in the next group of chairs. Turns out that Sean and Linda Dolan and their three cool daughters were living in Beijing for a two year stint and they very graciously invited us to drop by and visit when we hit the China portion of our trip. Fast forward a month and we checked back in with them to see if the invitation still stood. It did and that's how we found ourselves tucked into a comfy bed in an expat community on the outskirts of Beijing after our long days of travelling from Hanoi.)

Back to the main story. Linda had offered to drive us out to a more remote section of the wall (about 3 hours from downtown Beijing) that offered more challenging hiking and far fewer tourists and we eagerly and gratefully took her up on that. We ended up walking from Jinshanling to Simatai, a 10 km walk that usually takes about 4 hours because of the steepness and stoniness of the trail. Although it's harder to get to without your own transportation we highly, highly recommend this for anybody who wants to experience the Great Wall as it was.

We took way too many pictures and though I deleted a bunch, there are still a bunch on flickr. But that's okay. This was all about the visual experience. I don't want to spend too much more time on words but I will leave you with a couple of thoughts.

1) It was unbelievable in a country as crowded as China at a sight as famous as the Great Wall on a day as beautiful as ours was to have it all to ourselves. We didn't see another tourist for the first 3 hours of our walk and even the vendors made themselves pretty scarce. (This is in contrast to the most common place to see the wall, Badaling, which can be (no pun intended) wall to wall people)

2) Walking the wall is much harder than it looks, or at least much harder than we expected. Even though we'd seen the pictures all our lives of it winding sinuously up and down and around the hillsides, I don't think the implications of that had ever sunk in. The wall goes up and down along the top ridges/highest points of all the hills/mountains. That means that walking the wall is not so much getting up on the wall and going for a walk so much as climbing up and down and up and down a lot of steep slopes. (And add in the questionable footing on a lot of the unrestored parts...). With the blistering pace that Linda set (this was her third time here) it was a real challenge.

A HUGE thank you to the Dolans for their hospitality and to Linda and Mr. Gu for taking us out to the Wall.

So enough words. Go here and flip through the shots or put them on slideshow and enjoy.


Away through the rice fields we go...

(a brief detour back to Vietnam for an entry that hadn't gotten posted before we left for China)

After the soggy success of our trip out to the bay, we decided to sign up for a slightly more ambitious trek with Ethinic Travel. Accordingly, we set out for a 3 day/2 night trek to the Black River/Mai Chau area with Manh and our faithful driver (details here)

The thing we appreciate about this company is the fact that they take you places that other people don't go. That might mean that you go to the less famous younger sibling of a sight (Bai Ta Long Bay instead of Ha Long Bay) and the scenary might be a fraction less spectacular (there is, after all, a reason these places are tourist magnets), but you more than make up for it in the experience you have.

In the three days walking around the Mai Chau and Black River area, we saw exactly ONE other tourist. And he was a way cool Canadian biking around Australia and SE Asia. When we stopped and talked to him he had just passed 7000 km on his trip. (So here's to smooth riding for the rest of your trip, Dave!). Otherwise it was just Manh, us, and the dozens of people we met in villages along the way.

Highlights from the three days:

The scenary
The Mai Chau area is known for its spectacular rice terraces. It's funny, maybe locals just see functional fields, food, or the families' income but to our eyes it's a beautiful piece of art made of fanciful geometric shapes and brilliant shades of green. Add the otherworldly rock formations frequently rising out of the fields and you have a landscape that just doesn't grow old. We took waaay too many pictures of the rice terraces, because each corner we turned there seemed to be an even better shot.

Learning how rice is grown
This may seem ultra basic, but I have grown up seeing pictures of rice paddies without ever actually understanding the mechanics of how rice is grown. Once Manh got past his amazement at my lack of knowledge, he was able to not only talk us through the process step-by-step, but also find examples of each of those stages for us to see, so that we could truly understand it. I feel much more well-rounded now. :-)

The walking
Because Ethnic Tours does such small-group trips (like the two of us), their guides are able to tailor the trips to the guests' interests and ability levels. (There are a number of different villages at varying distances from each other that they can use for the trip.) Because we had expressed interest in being really active, Manh had arranged things such that we had a 12 mile walk in and out of small villages and along rice paddies on the second day. It was a fantastic experience, with great sceanary and interactions with locals and views of daily life, but it would have been a little more enjoyable if we both hadn't been sick and achy and feverish.

Experiencing life in one-room stilt houses
The houses that we stayed in in both the White Thai and Hmong villages were similar. Both were stilt houses (that is, they are built up off the ground with empty space below them) made out of wood and bamboo. The floors are just thin strips of bamboo laid across a framework and at least at our first place, there were large gaps allowing you to see the ground 10 feet below. Both places had a separate (but attached by a doorway/walkway) kitchen and one or two bed nooks, but were otherwise one big rooms with minimal-to-no furniture, other than the ubiquitous tv and stereo. When you drink tea or eat or socialize, you simply sit on a mat (or occasionally even luxuriate with a small cushion) and when it's time to sleep you just lay out the beddng and wrap a mosquito net around it. The next morning you pick it back up and poof! you're back to a living room again. This arrangement makes it very clear who the early risers were, as our hosts got up around 5 and managed to stay in the kitchen or elsewhere until their guests (and city slicker vietnamese) woke up/got up between 6:30 and 7:15. Mostly I found the system to be a good one, except that I have not developed the muscles/flexibility necessary to sit without a back for super long periods of time. Whether cross-legged, kneeling, or with legs outstretched, eventually my back and hip flexors started killing me.

The food and my reaction to it
We were spoiled by the food on previous treks. In Laos, we ate a lot of things that looked scary, but were ultimately quite tasty. On the Bai Tu Long Bay trek, we were blown away by the delicate tastes of the fresh seafood. This cuisine on this trip was a lot more about getting back to the basics. At the White Thai village there were a number of dishes that featured various animal meats boiled to a grey stringyness and a lot of fish dishes with choke-inducing little bones. The diners (except for the last one with the tofu-wrapped pork) where we stopped along the way were also less than inspiring. Coupled with my general under the weatherness, it meant that I picked at my food a lot more than usual. On the other hand, the folks at the Hmong village did some great things with the young bamboo shoots, tomatos and beef that we brought them and we hungrily and happily ate those dishes for dinner and again for breakfast.

The whole eating-thing on trips like this is a mind-trip anyway. When you travel in third world countries (especially if you have a chronically misbehaving digestive system like mine) you have all kinds of rules that you keep in your head and try to follow. Don't drink the water, don't eat fruits/veggies that can't be peeled, or haven't been cleaned in pure water. Don't eat meat that's been sitting out a long time. Try to eat at places where they wash the dishes/cooking implements in clean water. Don't use cups/dishes etc. that have just been used by other people. Avoid putting personal chopsticks into the joint dishes to serve them Etc. Etc. Etc.

When you make the decision to go visit a family, you in many ways make the decision to just throw all of those rules out the window. You watch them prepare the food, and sometimes decide that you would be better off not knowing what is going into it or being used to stir it, etc. You drink tea or do toasts of rice wine with glasses that were just used by other people to do the same thing. You make an effort to at least try almost everything that they have cooked or hand you to taste. And a lot of the time, you just cross your fingers and hope that your good intentions kill whatever bugs you might be running into. It's a hard thing to do sometimes, and I am often fighting with the voices (which frequently involve my Mom) in my head as we eat. But you know what? We have had some unexpectedly great food (and sometimes some dreadfully awful food), we have had marvellous moments of communion with our hosts, and (knock on every piece of available wood), we have yet to suffer any ill effects.

The rice wine phenomenon (aka moonshine chugging)
After the hill tribes of Laos we had thought we were pretty familiar with rice wine. However, as it has been said: I know rice wine and you, sir, are no rice wine. What we were being offered here in recycled 1 liter plastic bottles was a cloudy liquid with pieces of roots, honeycomb, and other unidentifiable bits floating in it. And the taste? A nice bouquet of paint thinner with a touch of sterno. Definitely a good vintage.

On top of that, and the fact that most of the toasts were for bottoms up ('tram phan tram' or 100%, though I could usually weasel a 50% slug), was a new cultural rule to deal with. Evidently as long as the toasts are going on and you are doing shots of the rice wine (which can last most of the dinner if you let it), you are not allowed to eat any rice. So just when you would want to be pounding the stuff to soak up the alcohol (or to soak up some of the good sauce on the food, or cover up the bad taste of the food), you were denied. That was rough.

The card playing
On our Bai Tu Long Bay trip Manh had taught us a Vietnamese card game, Ta La. We had noticed it being played on the streets with great enthusiasm and lots of slamming cards down on the table. We thought it might be a nice way to break the ice with the men in the villages we visited. Indeed, at the White Thai village our host Que and his neighbors eagerly jumped at the chance to fleece some new comers. Like taking candy from a baby doesn't even come close to it.. They were nice enough to waive the usual stakes (Ta La is often/usually played for money) but informed us that instead of financial penalties, there were other punishments. Accordingly we both ended up spending most of the game playing from our knees, to the increasing amusement of the locals. They did cheer for us though when we finally won the hands required to sit regularly again.

The rock-star treatment from the kids
We were used to kids pointing at us or running up to us and yelling "Hello! Hello!", especially in villages. But the volume got turned up to 11 on this trip. We felt like the pied piper with children following us through the streets and entire schools emptying out to run over and jump up and down and wave and say hello as we walked past. It was funny and ridiculous and cute and overwhelming and touching all at the same time.

The camaraderie with the families
One of the things that made this village trek better than any of the other similar trips that we had gone on was our interaction and camaraderie with the families we stayed with. Unlike other instances where either the language barrier or shyness/reserve kept us from getting to know that much at all, the combination of Manh's translation skills, their welcoming friendliness, and our willingness to eat/drink anything and help out really broke the ice.

In the White Thai village, Becca cut vegetables, tried various foods and hung out in the kitchen with the girls, while Brian drunk tea and chatted with the Dad (with an assist from Manh). At dinner, we chugged rice wine (more like moonshine whiskey) with the best of them, with Brian keeping up glass for glass with his host. There were lots of hugs all around, and Becca was especially feeling the loving from the teenage girls, who kept enveloping her in group hugs and saying "I love you".

(As an aside here, we have been a little overwhelmed here by the physical closeness we have experienced. As those who know me would agree, I have always been a big hugger and cuddler and don't have a whole lot of issues about personal space. However even I am scrambling to escape as Vietnamese women (hotel clerks, sales ladies, teen-agers we meet, vendors, etc) are continually throwing their arms around me in a death grip or patting my behind or other somewhat disconcerting moves)

In the Hmong village we stayed with a grandfather (his shy, so mostly invisible wife and mother) and a grandaughter. While we weren't able to have as many conversations with him, the smiling and nodding went on nonstop and we spent a lot of time playing with Thao, the irrepressible granddaughter.

In both cases we came away so impressed by the generosity, openness, friendliness and general good-heartedness of these people. It was a great impression with which to leave Vietnam.

All in all we can't say enough good things about Ethnic Travel and our experiences with them. We highly recommend anyone in Hanoi looking to get away from the hustle and bustles and experience some of the 'real' Vietnam to give them a call. (And tell them that Becca and Brian sent you.)


Beijing or Bust...

So I'd been really keen on traveling into China via ground. Somehow the idea of arriving to Beijing by plane just didn't have the same special feeling. Of course, neither did paying $320/ea.

As a result, we decided to take the train from Hanoi to Beijing. The train runs twice a week and takes somewhere between 40-48 hours in total. Not being sure what to expect (other than a long haul), I decided to do a running diary. So here we go!


6:30 pm We're off and running. Settle in to our home for the next four hours (we change trains at the border b/c they are on different gauge sizes). Becca is pretty disappointed because the train is much grimier than the Reunification Express that we rode up from Ho Chi Minh City.

6:40 pm Meet our two roommates; a Vietnamese fellow who immediately goes to sleep and Terrill Lee Graham. Mr. Graham evidently has spent the last two years trying to convince foreign powers to join in denouncing President Bush for various illegal activities as well as make the effort to impeach him now. Of course, he also mentioned that he was "chased out" of LA, had a 3 million dollar lawsuit filed against him, and was full of all sorts of interesting conspiracy theories. Needless to say we shifted to our books (we'd packed 4) post haste.

7:15 pm We change some of our small remaining Dong for Yuen with one of the train stewards. Nice to see the train company allows such lucrative side businesses...

8:50 pm Stomachs are growling so we prepare the first of many gourmet meals on the train. Thank god for ramen.

10:30 pm Arrive in the Vietnamese border town of Dong Deng. Pile out of the train with our bags to the border.

10:45 pm Are officially stamped out of Vietnam after a bit of confusion and an x-ray of our bags. Of course the x-ray is a bit useless when no one is there to actually watch it but the guard was
pretty insistent.

11:20 pm Board the newer Chinese train. Much swanker facilities complete with frilly edges. The only downside is that now Becca and I are both top bunking it which limits the sightseeing potential.

11:50 pm Finally leave Dong Deng. Off to China!


12:10 am Arrive at the Chinese border post. Of course we wouldn't know as we're required to stay in our compartments.

12:15 am Fill our various forms for entry. Included in this is a health form listing potential symptoms (check if you have a 'sore throat' 'cough' 'sniffles' etc) that leaves us wondering how long we can hold our breath while dealing with the border guards given Becca's raging sore throat and our wracking coughs.

12:30 am The Chinese Military Border Guard comes by and grumpily takes our passports. We continue to hold our breath, fearing that a mere cough might lead to our imprisonment.

1:54 am We FINALLY get our bloody passports back. Thankfully they're actually stamped and we quickly get ready for bed. By the time we're tucked in and the train pulls away, it's 2:20 in the morning. (Actually, at the border we crossed into the Beijing time zone so it's actually 3:20 in the morning.) It'll be nice to sleep in till whenever.

6:33 am Becca wakes me to inform me that the Chinese train porters have informed us that we have to get off the train in Nanning. Given the fact that we've gotten a whopping 3 1/2 hours of sleep, Becca is looking quite surly.

6:55 am Welcome to Nanning! Or at least a sterilized white colored waiting room with plush seats. Mr. Graham leaves us in search for a monastery who's location he's not entirely sure about.

7:11 am We find out that the train doesn't leave until 9:51am. Decide to take a walk after seeing our first bat in China flying around the room.

8:00 am After some brief exploring realize that nothing is really open yet or wishes they weren't (except for breakfast soup stands) and decide against a field trip to sample dog hotpot. Head back to the waiting room.

9:18 am Led back on the train by our ever present guide. They must have finally finished searching our bags. Pass a huge pack of people waiting to get on the same train in another waiting room.

9:19 am The train musical selection starts with Richard Marx's "Waiting for you" Ugh. Doesn't even faze Becca as she collapses back into bed.

9:24 am Musical selection swells to "Say you, say me" by Lionel Richie. New psychological torture perhaps?

9:33 am "Take my breath away" from Top Gun and then a Stevie Wonder tune play as background music for some official announcement. I'm about ready to throw myself out of the window and go find that dog hotpot.

9:50 am FINALLY leave Nanning!

9:51 am Becca goes down for a "nap"

11:00 am The intercom entertainment system (which this entire time has been going at ear splitting levels) continues with some sort of Chinese comedy routine. Or so I'm guessing by the random fits of laughter. Included in this is children's books being read in English.

11:50 am Nap Time for Brian

2:00 pm Finally wake up. Check out countryside which at this point is wet and brown.

2:40 pm Pit-stop in Guillin. Grab two noodle bowls which look remarkably similar to the two noodle bowls we had the night before. At least these are fresh and are lacking massive amounts of MSG.

3:45 pm Becca locates volume control. Bully!

5:35 pm An unexplainable PBR siting in the food car. Two cases worth. Somehow in the shock I fail to order what would have been my first US beer of the trip.

6:34 pm New arrival for our fourth seat. A stylish Chinese gentleman in a three piece suit ruins my lower bunk view.

6:48 pm Three piece suit guy has disrobed into a one piece set of 1800's goldrush PJ's and heads off to sleep. Our other roomie remains in his continually comatose state.

8:30 pm Stop in unknown town. Three-piece guy continues to try to sleep in amongst the 20 text messages he's received. As a bonus it's accompanied by an annoyingly catching ring tone.

8:55 pm Drink tray passes by. Complete with more PBR. Maybe I'll have one for breakfast.

8:56 pm Another train employee comes by with necklaces and other trinkets. Our Vietnamese roommate finally stirs and seems to be buying something for his girlfriend.

10:40 pm Bedtime. A VERY long day finally comes to an end.


7:40 am Wakeup. Promptly fall back asleep.

8:40 am Wakeup #2. Realize that at some point during the middle of the night Three-Piece guy has gotten off the train. Guess that explains his early bedtime.

10:10 am Vietnamese roommate wakes up. I'm continually amazed at how easily and for how long folks in SE Asia can sleep. Just phenomenal.

11:30 am More instant pho for lunch. We'll be very happy to be out and consuming some non-MSG food. We also arrive at our last stop before Beijing.

12:47 pm Nothing but empty fields and trees praying for spring. Working on getting my Mandarin vocab up to 5 words.

2:08 pm Start rolling through the outskirts of Beijing. We are immediately shocked by actual multi-lane highways with stoplights that drivers actually use. That and the endless high-rise apartments.

2:20 pm Arrive in Beijing West train station, nearly 44 hours after departing from Hanoi. We're feeling particularly good as our sleep deprivation happened earlier in the trip.

From there we're able to successfully get $, avoid the dodgy private cars and get a cab out to the Dolans, friends we met while in Siem Reap. We also quickly learn that we need to start getting a handle on Mandarin and quickly. Very little English is spoken and the expectation is Mandarin first and foremost (We were chastised by the cab driver for having the Dolans' address writen in English, though to our credit we did have a phone number to call for him to call for directions in Chinese). Over one billion people can't be wrong, eh?

In closing, the train trip was pretty painless especially compared to what we anticipated. It was long but outside of the initial hassles at the border it was pretty uneventful. And now I'm on the hunt to find PBR again; maybe on our next train ride I'll finally be able to PBR me ASAP.


Saturday, March 11, 2006

Getting away from the 'Junk' pile

Both in our time in Saigon and Hanoi, we were amazed at how many places were multi-purpose. For example many of the hotels in both cities also had restaurants, tour companies, internet service, etc. Although some of these can handle the various services at a decent level, most really fall short. Our initial discussions with a few of the "better" places left us very unexcited about being part of a "small" group of 15 for a few days. By sheer luck, we walked by Ethnic Travel. We were both surprised and relieved to be someplace where we weren't immediately being pressed into purchasing a tour right then and there. And after some discussion as to their desire to have small (2-6 person) groups and commitment to eco-tourism and we were sold.

We were also fortunate to have met someone who'd just returned from another one of their trips and was headed out the next day to Bai Tu Long Bay. As this was one of our major interest points for a tour, we discussed it a bit and then signed up with our new English friends Helen and Steffan and were off and running. Many people are familiar with Halong Bay, a major natural tourist destination in northern Vietnam, complete with huge limestone karsts. And most of the tours offered take you around all the famous spots, usually on replica ancient Chinese Junks. Although that might have made a perfectly fine trip, we were excited about exploring east of there into Bai Tu Long Bay as it sounded like the tourism factor was much lower.

Although the weather over the two days was a bit below average (think grey and drizzly the entire time), the experience was outstanding. After our 4 hour drive out to Halong city and a tasty lunch (accentuated by the gentlemen pounding shots of Bordeaux at the table next to us) we headed out on a hired local point into the bay. Over the next three hours, except for the occasional fishing boat, we had the entire bay to ourselves. An eerie setting, with the mist and fog but just breathtaking views.

We arrived at Van Don Island quite wet (especially Steffan, who had taken advantage of the clear water to go for a swim mid-cruise) but ready to spend some time with the locals. Our fearless tour guide Manh served as interpreter and expert spring roll teacher for the evening. We had the opportunity to spend some time talking with the grandfather of the family while learning how to hand roll fried spring rolls.

The next morning brought a 18km ride from one end of the island to the other where we were to meet the boat to head back to civilization. The ride was nice and we had a dog tag along the entire way. We named him Gaa (which phonetically with different tones can mean fish, chicken and pickle) and he stood his own amongst a variety of other dogs along the way. Upon our arrival to the dock though we had an interesting experience. We pulled up to see these men burying jellyfish. After a bit of looking around and some translation by Manh, we found out that they were being harvested for their bodies (the part that hangs down under the bell). The bodies are salted and then sold to the Chinese as a delicacy. Mmm... salted jellyfish pieces. Remind me not to try that one while we're there.

As a final crowning touch to the experience, we were treated to a world class fresh seafood meal on our way back to Halong courtesy of the crew on the boat . Just tasty fresh food that warmed us up for our trip home. And the nicest thing of all? Other than Helen and Steffan we saw zero other tourists the entire trip. Needless to say that by the time we'd gotten back to Hanoi we were already ready to see what Manh and Ethnic Travel had to offer us in NW Vietnam.


Tuesday, March 07, 2006

We're off!

48 hours straight on the train. Hanoi to Beijing (about the same distance as LA to NY). Here's to hoping we don't get roommates with a soft spot for cigarettes and karaoke.

We'll talk to everyone once we're on the other side. Until then, enjoy some new blog entries covering our week plus in and around Hanoi.

Brian & Becca

a couple more straggler Vietnam entries to come once we're settled again...Big surpise, Becca is late with her entries :-)

Monday, March 06, 2006

A little culture courtesy of Hanoi

Hanoi has been an interesting experience. Much like our time in Paris, we've only experienced it in 2-3 day portions as we've taken side trips to experience more than just the city itself. Add in the fact that we've been using the town as a logistical center for our China travel plans and one might think we haven't seen much of the city itself.

Thankfully, the town lends itself to easy visiting. The Old Quarter is fairly pedestrian friendly (there is only a 30% chance you're going to get run down by something) and has an interesting history. In the 13th century Hanoi's 36 guilds established themselves in one area, all on a different street. As a result, as you walk through the old quarter you move from the Shoe Street to the Electronics Street to Silk Street, etc. Our hotel was on the Silversmith street but could just have easily been mistaken for Pho Hang Du Lich (Tourist Street).

While in Hanoi, we also took in three very diverse cultural activities: the Thang Long water puppet theatre, the Temple of Literature and the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.

The Thang Long water puppets are a traditional art form from Vietnam that tell traditional folk stories as well as show life of the rural Vietnamese people. The show itself was about 50 minutes complete with a ear-splitting live music show, pyrotechnics and a lot of very interesting puppetry. The puppets are directed by eight workers who sit in the water (behind a curtain) and move the puppets via a large wooden pole. As a result, their movements tend to be a bit jerky but in the case of the animals, it seemed to give it a more realistic feel. The human puppets on the other hand looked like they were getting drilled with about 100,000 volts :-) An interesting experience, if only to hear some authentic music and see the famous puppets up close.

Our next stop was the Temple of Literature. The temple was founded in 1070 by the Emperor Ly Thanh Tong who dedicated it to Confucius in order to honor men of literary and scholarly accomplishment. The temple itself consists of a number of courtyards, all of which served various purposes but were reserved for the king. Nowadays they're reserved for tour groups and in the case of our visit, an entire school of kids.

The coolest part of the temple though was in the third courtyard. This is where the 82 stone stelae (all on top of a stone tortoise) stand and hold the names of all doctoral holders from 1442 to 1778. Each one listed the name birthplace and achievements of the doctoral holders. A nice nod to past educational achievements and one I'm sure a few of my friends who have PhD's wish they could have had themselves.

Our final stop was an eerie one. We went to visit the embalmed body of one Ho Chi Minh. The whole process went quite quickly; once you clear security you are kept on the move from the entrance, past the very soviet feeling empty roadway, past the sentries, up the stairs past the body and out the door. And just like that it's over.

A few interesting thoughts though went through my mind as we buzzed our way past the body of THE symbol of Vietnam over the past 50 years:

- There seemed to be soldier every 10 yards or so, including four on the corners of the tomb itself. A little research proved me right as evidently they are required to be no more than five paces apart. Becca and I wondered whether the guards are required to be there all the time; I voted yes.

- There is some question as to whether the body in there is actually HCM anymore or whether it's a wax sculpture. Unlike with Mao where there is actually an admitted wax embodiment, they swear it's the real thing. Of course no one is actually allowed close enough to it to really know.

- How much the mausoleum itself is an affront to the beliefs of Ho Chi Minh himself. He asked to be cremated and spread throughout Vietnam as he believed being buried took up valuable space. Instead they've taken a huge chunk of land in the middle of Hanoi and made it a reminder of a time past.

All in all, Hanoi has been a very interesting cultural experience. We've found it in many ways more enjoyable than our time in Saigon but at the same time, much more hectic. With it being the capital there are quite a few more cultural things yet it definitely lacks the western feel Saigon had.

One final note that seems to best show the coexistence of a communist government overseeing a free market economy: The roads here are 100x crazier thanks to all the motos drivers, most of whom only learned to drive within the last 3-4 years. Before that all people knew were bicycles. As a result, people try to make moves they used on their bikes with their motos, sometimes with disastrous results (we've seen more wrecks here than in the rest of SE Asia combined).

The locals have told us that the rules on importing cars (there currently is a 300% tax on vehicle purchases and you can't buy used cars) is about to be loosened and car ownership is about to increase dramatically. So what will most likely result is people trying to make moves in their cars that they used in their motos. Ack. This development can just about guarantee that this is the last time we'll see Hanoi this way for a very long time. As we told our tour guide Manh:

"You let us know when the car rules get invoked and then we'll come back to visit you in about 5 years once people have gotten the hang of driving"


Saturday, March 04, 2006

Soccer is a lot like Nutella...

Credit goes to a interview with Jon Stewart but we couldn't pass up posting it:

Stewart: To me, it's (soccer) probably more like Nutella. The rest of the world clearly loves it and puts it on almost everything, but here in America we're like, "I don't know, man, it tastes like almonds."

Nutella it is.


PS More soon. We leave for China on Tuesday (48 hours straight to Beijing via train) so everything will be updated by then. As a result, many, many posts coming over the next few days.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

No, thank you....

(Fill in the blank to finish the sentence)

a) we're walking
b) we don't want to buy anything
c) we already have one
d) we're not going to give you money

Any traveller who has spent time in this part of the world will agree that (no matter how wonderful the rest of the experience is) the constant bombardment by vendors and touts and moto/tuk tuk/cyclo drivers is absolutely exhausting and even surreal at times. On the plus side, we now know how to say "No thank you" in a number of new languages.

It's hard to describe how it feels to be viewed as a walking ATM machine. You definitely start resenting it though. That brings up all sorts of liberal guilt, as clearly we make so much more money and have so much more disposable income. The fact that we're on a budget (compared to many other tourists) doesn't carry much weight with people in Cambodia who can't imagine ever having enough money to fly anywhere, much less around the world. (our "astronomical" salaries make a little more sense to them when you explain how much things like a cup of coffee, clothing, groceries, rent, etc. cost. Of course most people could care less about having this conversation; they just want you to buy a pineapple.)

It would be one thing if it was just people trying to sell us things. But the blatant attempts to rip one off is what really gets on our nerves. To be told with a smug look that the price is 4-10 times what you know it should be is infuriating. Even though 99% of the time we either calmly bargain it down to close to what it should be or walk away, the swallowed frustration still eats at you. It's different than the bargaining that's common in markets all over the developing worlds where it's understood to be a game/ritual with rules where if things are done correctly both sides win. This frequently feels very much like pure rip offs and often occurs at the worst times (when you are exhausted and disoriented after long travels). I've actually been very impressed by the extent to which Brian has been able to keep his temper in these situations. ;-)

I don't know what the solution to this is, other than hoping that the standard of living and incomes in these countries improve. We wish we could explain that they actually might make more money if they would stop the hard sell/overcharging tactics that turn so many people off and can keep them away. I would frequently be willing to pay a slightly too high fixed price to avoid the hassle of having to negotiate everything and be always on guard against getting ripped off. In Hoi An, they seem to have gotten the message as the touts for the tailor shops have been clamped down on to a huge degree. Without that change in policy, we wouldn't have spent more than 1 day there as we would have been too exhausted and turned off by the onslaught. But since it was manageable, we stayed for multiple days, spending money across the town and even buying something from one of the clothing shops. So maybe there's hope.


Another random observation: Brian and I wonder whether a significant portion of the population in SE Asia suffer from hearing loss or injuries. We are constantly amazed by (and in serious pain from) the volume of life around here. Whether it is horns blaring on the road 24/7 (and constantly on a bus journey), the live music and miked performers at the Water Puppet Theater, or the karaoke music videos being blasted on the buses, we find ourselves wincing in pain and actually putting our fingers in our ears to try and lessen the impact. We can't imagine living through this on a full-time basis. Between the pollution we've breathed and the ringing ears, we hope this 4 months in Asia doesn't have permanent detrimental effects on our health.