Sunday, April 30, 2006

Penguins and Small Town Americana

Penguins and the feel of small town Americana (or probably more accurately the UK) have been what have struck me most about Christchurch, our first destination in New Zealand.

Our cuddly little animals in tuxedos first. While looking into things to do in Christchurch, I found out that the NZ, US and Italian Antarctic teams are based here in Christchurch. It also serves as the major hub for all flights and work done on the forgotten continent. Since it's winter in the Antarctic right now and it would be a bit cost-prohibitive to visit anyway, we did the next best thing and visit the International Antarctic Centre. It was incredibly informative; a ton of information regarding everything from the terrain and temps of the continent to what the people living there eat on a daily basis. Also a lot of very interactive, family friendly exhibits, including a chance to relive some of our Minnesota winters via the "Snow and Ice Experience". Brrr...

Christchurch itself has a quaint, almost college town atmosphere. In fact it reminded me of Becca's home town of Corvallis (minus the cow fields) in that it's got a nice downtown area to walk around and some really nice green spaces. Yet it's the second largest city in New Zealand. Throws you for a bit of a loop when you're watching everything shut down at 5:30. I'm sure it's a pain for those shopping after work but it gives you the feeling that the Kiwis are a bit more concerned about quality of life and thus want their workers to head home at a decent hour. We went to find someplace to eat at 8:30 last night and came close to having a vending machine dinner since most of the restaurants were starting to wrap up for the evening. A bit of a shift from walking down the streets of Hong Kong at 11:30pm and seeing most of the stores still open. But it's a shift both of us are ready for. It's nice to have the traveling be a bit less "adventurous" for awhile.

One final note; it has been a serious adjustment so far being back in an English speaking country. I still find myself starting to use my battle tested pigeon English/pantomime combo and having to catch myself. In addition, I find myself struggling through normal conversations because after 4 plus months I've forgotten how to have a normal conversation with anyone other than the wife. And at this point after spending 10 plus months together I'm not sure I'm term any of our conversations normal.

We're headed off tomorrow for the town of Greymouth and a scenic ride on the Tranzalpine train. From there we pick up a rental car and the real fun starts. Hopefully a few days on the ground has allowed our brain to pick up the whole "driving on the left" thing.


Thursday, April 27, 2006

Thank you, Asia!

This past Monday we flew out of Hong Kong for Sydney, ending the second leg of this around-the-word adventure.

Europe was a lot of fun, and a great introduction to the ups and downs of travel. We visited so many different counties to the north and south, and east and west, that we really got a taste of the range of cultures, flavors, and history that the continent offers. Plus we had some wonderful visits with folks we care a lot about. We left satisfied and looking forward to our next trip back.

But this was nothing compared to the impact that Asia has had on us. We spent 4.5 months travelling independently through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and China and we wouldn't trade this experience for the world. Neither of us had ever been to any of these countries so unlike Europe we were experiencing things for the first time together. The sights, smells, tastes, joys, sadness....everything about here is different from anything we had ever known.

We challenged ourselves and were pleased by how we responded and we learned so much about what it is we really need to be happy, and what we don't need. And we were humbled by the pleasure that we saw being found in circumstances of poverty and desperately difficult lives. This is not to romanticize the situation. We also left with a much better understanding of the social, economic, environmental and health issues facing these societies and were grateful that we were able to grow up free of them and interested in trying to find ways to help ease them.

There are pages and pages we could write on the subject and much was already covered in individual blog entries throughout the trip, but we couldn't leave the continent without paying tribute.

Thank you Asia. We will be back.

Becca and Brian

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Good time in the big city...

Hong Kong served as a rude awakening to us. Not rude as in "get out of my way" but more rude as in "time to wake up, otherwise you're going to miss the bus". After 6 1/2 weeks in China, hitting Hong Kong was a full-on reintroduction to Western Civilization. Sure the Chinese have ownership of it but it's still a lot more like the West than not. It's been a great warmup for making the trip down under if only to realize we can now buy something that doesn't come from a stall. Though I'm still getting used to that one :-)

And now without further ado, random thoughts and observations from the two of us about Hong Kong:

- Hong Kong is one of the more multi-cultural big cities we've been in on the trip. Lots of commonwealth folks (India, UK, Australia, etc.) as well as a good mix of Chinese and other Asian folk. Definitely makes for a vibrant atmosphere and one that we've really enjoyed.

- At different points of our visit here, I've felt like I'm in Seattle, San Francisco and Monaco. Again, a bustling melting pot of goodness.

- The public transportation here is clean, efficient and not too pricy. We've taken the MTR (the metro) and the ferries and both have been very good and an easy to use to get around. Haven't tried the buses but from the looks of them (ultra modern double deckers!) they look like they'd be as nice. Now if only the US could get their heads around proper public transport.

- Nothing tastes as good as Ben and Jerry's on a hot steamy summer day when you haven't had real ice cream for 4+ months. Even if it does cost $11.

- Hong Kong is expensive. :-)

- We got the opportunity to go hiking with our guesthouse owner and his local hiking group. 25 people aged between their late 20's and in one case 80 were in tow. Not for the meek at heart as after starting out on a flat paved portion we pretty much went straight up a hill and then offroaded for the next 4 hours. Quite impressive seeing folks just bushwhack their way through some pretty hairy terrain. Of course we finished up with a Cantonese lunch where Becca and I both tried chicken feet and roast pigeon. I tried both. That's all I have to say.

- It's a bit pathetic really but getting to browse through a western book store really made our day. Having actual options for what you want to read was a pleasant little treat for both of us.

- Hong Kong has very rainy summers and is susceptible to flash floods and the like. Enough so that they have a rain warning system with different colors for levels of risk (red, yellow, black, etc.). The only rain we had was a different type of Hong Kong rain: the water dripping down from the various air conditioners above us. Good times.

- We were quite amused by the Indian tailor mafia on Kowloon. As you walk down the street you are constantly approached by a somewhat shady looking men mumbling something about new suits, cheap handbags, designer tailoring etc.. The funny thing is the way that they kind of skulk on the sidewalks and make you the offers under their breath. It feels like they should be opening a trench coat or something and offering us something from the inside. Still, they're easy to shake off for the most part so we didn't mind them.

- We were really impressed by all the green spaces in the city, despite the crush of buildings. Kowloon had a fantastic park with all sorts of athletic facilities and on Hong Kong Island we passed a number of little parks in Central, as well as the botanical/zoological gardens closer to the midlevels. And on top of all of that is the forest land on Victoria Peak. It really makes for a nice atmosphere.

- The weather didn't cooperate with us very much while we were in town. At least, it didn't make for very good photos. Lots of clouds, rain, grey and smog. We did have one beautiful clear day but we weren't doing as many touristy things that day.

- I don't think I realized how much I'd gotten used to being in less developed countries until I was hit by shock after shock walking through Hong Kong. Whether it was all the 'western' food at the fancy supermarket (Brie! Salmon steaks! Cheerios!), the ability to use credit cards at stores, the glitzy malls with all the status symbol brand stores, the western food chains, the clean toilets well-stocked with toilet paper.....It was just reminder after reminder after reminder that things were different now. I don't know whether to be glad or sad about it, but we were definitely back in the developed world.

- While it may seem obvious, given Hong Kong's British history, we were also caught off-guard by how completely bilingual everything was: the signs, the stores, labels, transportation directions, people, etc. For people who are wanting to travel to Asia but are uncomfortable overcoming language barriers, this would certainly be an easy place to visit.

- While the words 'Hong Kong' in our minds conjure up the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island or crazy shops of Kowloon, we discovered that there is a lot more to Hong Kong. The New Territories feature lots of wilderness, great to hike in, and there a plethora of other much less developed islands, like Lamma Island, where our friends Pat and Meaghan live and which feels like a vacation town boardwalk and prohibits cars. If you're visiting Hong Kong, it's definitely worth your while to get beyond the cityscape and explore more of what the area has to offer.

- Even though it's famous for having Victoria peak in the middle of it, I didn't realize just how vertical a place Hong Kong Island. Whether it's the multi-part Central-MidLevels escalator (just a fantastic bit of infrastructure) or the steep roads, or all the flash flood drains, you are constantly reminded that you are perched on or trying to climb up the side of a mountain. It's pretty impressive, actually.

- Hong Kong has a fantastic system of pedways above the traffic on both Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. It was a great way to move around the don't have to cross streets or be stopped by traffic lights and you have a nice view down on everything. If only more major cities did this...

- A final note. Jackie Chan is the face of almost everything tourist related in the city. He keeps popping up when you least expect it. On the plus side, we could have bought our own life-sized Jackie Chan cardboard man.

Brian & Becca

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

And We're Off!

Leaving in an hour for the Hong Kong airport. Our flight to Sydney leaves at 9 pm tonight and takes about 8-9 hours. We hang out at the Sydney airport for 7 hours or so (sigh) and then fly out in the afternoon for New Zealand, landing in Auckland around 8 pm and then immediately flying out again at 6 o'clock the next morning. That means we arrive in Christchurch bright and early Tuesday morning to begin our NZ adventure!!!!

Understandably, that will keep us busy and off the cyber world for the next couple of days. In the meantime, never fear, we've put up a number of new blog entries for you to read (keep scrolling 'til you find them all) and a bunch of new pictures on Flickr.

Next time we'll be writing to you all it will be upside down!


Picture is from our hike out in the New Territories with the hiking club of our guesthouse owner. Very cool.

(There will be a couple more catch up entries trickling in, but we will get current soon since I'm sure we'll have a lot to say about New Zealand)

Monday, April 24, 2006

Grinning in the Gorge

Two weeks ago we had the chance to do one of the quintessential SW China outdoor activities: hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge. It's interesting: in Europe many of the 'big deal' sights/activities turned out to be kind of let-downs for us, while some of the much lesser-known attractions were our favorites.

In China however, the biggies have all been worthwhile. We were really moved and impressed hiking the deserted sections of the Great Wall (thanks again Linda!), we were suitably impressed by the terracotta soldiers in Xi'an, and we now we have really enjoyed our trek down Tiger Leaping Gorge.

It's by no means the most challenging or most breathtaking hike we've ever done, but something about the combination of the scenery (which is really pretty), the hike (enough uphill to make you work, but not to be too daunting), the guesthouses (small family-run places) and the other people doing the hike somehow all combined for a really enjoyable experience that definitely made our China highlight list.

The hike is easily done in two days and even possible in one, especially since most people don't do the full length of the gorge, but instead turn back at Walnut Garden. However, we were in no hurry, and also, I had no desire to do the hardest part of the hike either at the end of the day or in the hottest part of the day. So instead, we headed up from Lijiang early afternoon, arriving at the head of the gorge about 4 pm, leaving us just the time to attack the first 2 hours of so of the trek.

That turned out to be a great decision for a number of reasons. 1) We missed the early afternoon rainstorm that could have made things a little dicey. 2) We got our legs loosened up hiking uphill for the first two hours but then got a rest before climbing the notorious 28 bends the next morning, and best of all 3) It meant that we ended up spending the night at the Naxi Family Guesthouse (which we recommend, by the way) and meeting up with the rest of 'The Naxi Family Eight' (see below)

The second day was a great mix of hiking and soaking up the views. It was a pretty easy day of hiking (the 28 bends notwithstanding) with only about 5 hours of moving down the trails, but the scenary was great and we broke up the hikes with some snacks and beers at various guesthouses. After a slightly more basic night at the Five Fingers Guesthouse (which might not have been anywhere near as comfortable as the Halfway House, but was definitely authentic and came with the world's cutest grandmother), we easily rolled off the last 2-3 hours in time to grab some lunch at Sean's Guesthouse (which underwhelmed us, btw).

So what was the hike actually like?

-- Well, it started among the green, terraced hills of the river valley but quickly climbed into the gorge proper. For two days we had variations on looking down steep slopes to a narrow, rapid-filled gorge, looking forward along the gorge, looking across at spectacular rocky peaks that changed aspects as the light and weather changed, and walking a trail that wound through forests, dusty trails, and rocky cliff edges. (For all the pics from the trek click here)

-- Scattered along the way are spraypainted ads for the various guesthouses telling you (usually inaccurately) how far you have to go. Occasionally at some of the intersections it could get a bit overwhelming.

-- Each time we had stopped at a guesthouse, someone always came running out with a menu for our meal/snack etc. When we reached the Five Fingers Guesthouse late afternoon of the second day we checked in, put our things in rooms, and ordered a bunch of teas and beers. A food menu never appeared or was mentioned and so when an hour or two after our arrival we heard cooking sounds from the kitchen and began to smell some tantilizing scents, we all assumed that it must just be an 'eat whatever they cook for you' type of place, which was fine with all of us. After all, they knew we were there for the night, there were no other food options, and we clearly would be hungry having hiked through the day to get there.

About seven o'clock or so we looked up from our card game with some surprise, as we realized that we still hadn't seen the hosts or our food and we were getting quite hungry. Much to our chagrin, disappointment and amusement, we looked in and saw the family gathered around the table piled high with food and eating away; it had been THEIR dinner they were cooking. Thoroughly abashed at our assumption, we meekly went to them and asked for a menu. By the time they had cooked all of our dishes from scratch, it was after 9 pm when we finally were able to eat. But it was delicious.

-- While many tourists hike the gorge each year, thousands more visit it by tour bus. We strongly recommend against experiencing the gorge this way. Looking down from our peaceful trail above, we could see the backed-up jam of tour buses winding through the gorge and we spoke to some Belgian tourists who described the chaos and crush of tourists and touts and vendors at the viewpoint and path down to the middle rapids with disgust.

-- Though there was the occasional sheer drop off the trail, by far the hairiest part of the experience was the ride back through the gorge to Qiaotou. Due to shortage of taxis (and no phone to call more with) Pat and I managed to bargain with the driver of an ancient truck to drive us back to town. While I'm sure that he actually drove really well, I was a wreck as we headed back, seemingly oversteering and skidding on the gravel towards the sheer drops and driving way too close to the edge for my comfort. The only saving grace for me was that I was sitting on the cliff wall side, so I could just refuse to look towards the abyss. Poor Meaghan had it right out her window and she wasn't much enjoying her ride either. It took me a good 15 minutes to stop shaking afterwards.

All in all, it was a great couple of days doing the kind of things we love to do. We highly recommend the hike for those passing through Yunnan. If we had more time we would even have tried to extend the walk or combine it with a trek to the WenHai ecolodge or something. Rumor has it that the Chinese are going to dam up the gorge and soon this spectacular walk and scenary will be gone. Don't know if that will happen or not, but if so, get here and see it while you still can.


The Gang (aka 'the Naxi Family Eight')

One of the best parts of the hike was hooking up with 6 fellow travellers at the Naxi Family Guesthouse. We started by ordering dinner together so that we could all try more dishes and ended up spending the next day and a half hiking, eating, sleeping, playing cards, and sharing travel stories together. Our partners in crime were:

Scott and Ana, a couple from (of all places) Southeast Portland (!!) who are also travelling for a year. We all get back to Oregon about the same time and are looking forward to sharing stories and beer together.

Pat and Meaghan, two Canadians currently living and teaching in Hong Kong. They finish this vacation trip just as we hit Hong Kong, so hopefully we'll be able to get together there again.

Joachim and Katja, a German couple from Berlin currently living and working in Oudomxay, Laos. It was great to share stories about Laos and learn more about how life really works there.

Thanks again to all of them for enriching our gorge experience!

Sunday, April 23, 2006

A little story for your Sunday morning (North America edition)

In four plus months of traveling in Asia, I thought nothing could faze me anymore. Watching your meal be slaughtered in front of you, drinking local moonshine and not going blind, surviving the "freestyle driving" of just about every Asian bus/moto/tuk-tuk driver, random 1-2 hour delays for no particular reason and taking a step of faith into a steady stream of traffic knowing that people will just move around you. All of this after a while just becomes another day at the office (which hopefully will make a day at the office look pretty damn tame in about 5 months or so).

Then we took the mini-bus up to Qiaotou to go hike Tiger Leaping Gorge. A normal mini-bus ride; a full bus and people smoking here and there. We stopped about 20 minutes from our destination to fill up on gas. This particular stop was unique in that it included filling up the spare gas jug and placing it next to me in the aisle of the mini-bus. No problem, despite the gas soaked rag sticking out of it and the fumes coming at me like a French cheese.

This is where it got good. We start up and started heading down the road to Qiaotou. I happen to glance across the row and find that the Chinese man on the other side of the aisle is lighting a cigarette. After my mind envisions a big budget movie explosion, I quickly point this out to Becca and we both start yelling at him (not really any words, just yelling and gestures including an outstanding hand motion "boom" on my part). The other four foreigners figure out what we're getting antsy about and join in.

The Chinese fellow is able to finally figure out our worried faces and hand gestures and in an act of attempted reconciliation motions that he'll hold his cigarette out the window when he's not smoking. Obviously not a science major, this guy. After a lot more yelling, the driver finally turns around and says something to the guy to get him to throw it out (the window thankfully) and despite the fact that there was definitely a "let's just appease the stupid foreigners" vibe to it we were finally appeased.

Explosive experience narrowly avoided, about 5 minutes later we pick up someone on the side of the road and no less than 30 seconds later he's lighting up while sitting in the aisle. The whole process begins again and he actually yells back a bit before the driver once again convinces him to put it out. 5 minutes later he says something to the driver and gets out. And stays on the side of the road. Evidently he was willing to wait for a smoking mini-van. Fine by me.

I can't decide whether to chalk this one up to stupid hillbillies, Darwinism at work, a Chinese thing or just people who never were taught basic science. Either way Becca and I were VERY happy to get our butts off that bus pronto.

Just when you think you've got a part of the world figured out or at the very least understood, it surprises you yet again...


Friday, April 21, 2006

The Story of the Elusive Beer

Most of the people who read this blog know a simple fact:

I'm a beer snob.

After trying beer for the first time in college, I was subsequently subjected to four years drinking Budweiser and other related Bud products. One of the disadvantages of going to school in St. Louis. After that, I swore never again; if I was going to drink beer, it was going to be good beer. Or at least beer with a little personality.

Since then, I've sworn off bad beer (the exception being a well timed Hamms after a ultimate tournament; have to rehydrate you know...). Throughout this trip, this hasn't been much of a problem; the beers of Europe delivered, Asia surprised ( Beer Lao being the big winner) and I even had a Budweiser (the much tastier Czech beer of the same name) along the way.

However over ten months, I'd had zero US beer. Obviously anything you're going to get is of the mass produced variety and despite the Chinese folks digging into to their Buds on the train, I wasn't interested.

However when we arrived in Xiahe, I saw a curious thing. Buried on the shelves of the local market was a familiar sight. PBR. Pabst Blue Ribbon. Feeling a bit homesick and after some serious consideration I decided to break the streak and bought myself one on our last day out of town. We thought we could take a good picture of me, the PBR, and some Yaks or Tibetans. Surely between Xiahe and Langmusi we could make that happen.

To make an increasingly long story short, we never did take the picture and I never had the chance to drink it so I carried that bad boy around until we got to the Lanzhou airport for our flight to Kunming. At this point, I was determined to have it as a pre-flight drink. Unfortunately my plans were foiled by the staff at the metal detector. I put my bag through the x-ray and they wanted to take a look. To the amazement of everyone (including his fellow guard) the one guard CONFISCATED my PBR. Never mind the fact that I had a Leatherman in my bag. Me thinks someone wanted a little break time refreshment. Feeling confused and in many ways denied, I shrug it off with some disappointment move on.

Flash forward to Kunming. During my infamous trip to the Wal-Mart I'm headed to checkout and what do I see out of the corner of my eye? The LIQUOR section. Never one to pass up the opportunity to do a little window shopping, I walk over. What's the first thing to catch my attention?

The elusive PBR. I quickly throw one (and a Guinness in case one takes me for a beer heathen...) into the cart and head off. My reward is shown above, en route to Hong Kong. PBR me ASAP!


Tuesday, April 18, 2006

A bewildering experience...

With last night being our final night in Yunnan and a 25 hour train ride on the horizon, I was sent off in search of groceries for our commute to SE China and Hong Kong.  The nice lady at the front desk of our hotel had given me two options; the Carrefour (for those Stateside, a huge French chain) that was a healthy hike away from the hotel or the "wor" supermarket on the opposite side of the block.  Wanting to keep my walking to a minimum as well as my enjoyment in checking out local businesses, I headed off in search of the "wor".
After about a mile and a half (LONG block) I neared the corner and saw a sports store.  Of course, this being me I had to go in.  As I weaved my way through the endless workers on duty, I saw that the other entrance emptied out into... the Supermarket!
Properly excited (on a trip like this, it is the little things) I walked in, picked up a basket and started off.  Only to be rebuffed by the escalator going the other way.  And the endless supply of Chinese folks coming down it.  Ah, I must be trying to enter through the exit...  So as I headed towards the proper entrance I got a glimpse of someone's bag of groceries.  Right then I froze up and was horrified...
Yes, I was in Wal-Mart.  I don't shop at Wal-Mart at home (Costco on the other hand...).  Never mind their nefarious business practices, I just don't like the place.  But with a promise of bringing back actual food for our train trip lingering overhead, I took a deep breath and entered.
In short, let's just say I'm very glad we're not going directly home after this portion of the trip.  The simple sight of fresh groceries, a butcher and even fresh vegetables sent my head spinning.  Throw in the Chinese workers having blue light specials on such high end items as watermelon and doughnuts (damn Passover restrictions) and the endless rows of consumer goods and it was just too much.  Somehow I think reentering the western world via the quiet tranquility of a New Zealand and Australia winter will be a much needed transition period.  Now if only we can survive Hong Kong between now and then...
PS Posts on Tiger Leaping Gorge and random stories from China to come.   

Just cuz we love this picture

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Finding Paradise in a Theme Park

That's our experience in Lijiang in a nutshell. We arrived here a bit tired (it's a nine hour bus ride from Kunming) but still fairly rested given we'd just been on our best bus ride of the trip. Our seats resembled barcaloungers and over the nine hours there was zero karaoke. Woo, and may I say, hoo.

The new town of Lijiang itself isn't a whole lot to look at; the main appeal is the old town. So after reluctantly getting off the Chinese equivalent of the Madden Cruiser, we headed towards old town. The old town is cobblestone streets and old stone houses that give the feel that you've been transported back hundreds of years. Our first 10 minutes wandering through it had us wondering whether we'd again successfully avoided the tourist season; all the closed up shops and mostly empty guesthouses make us think we'd hit another ghost town.

Then we turned a corner and entered the old market square. Good freakin' lord. At 6pm on a Saturday night it could only be described as chaos: Chinese tour groups flying around, Naxi (the local minority) women selling various trinkets, more westerners than we'd seen in weeks and a two horse camera op complete with an Attila the Hun looking tout. We definitely weren't in Kansas any more. In fact a Irishman we ran into described it best when he stated "Did I just enter a theme park? I thought I'd have to buy a ticket to get into old town".

There is no doubt that Lijiang is definitely a tourist destination (some would say tourist hell). You can't walk through the main streets without using NFL running back-level dodging and weaving around all the tour groups (and you're still going to end up getting elbows in your ribs, shoulders in your back and your feet stepped on). We saw hordes of Chinese tour groups still being led around at 10pm, which has to be some kind of record. At night a couple of the more famous restaurant alleys felt more like Fraternity Row during pledge week, with people drunkenly hanging out of windows singing and the costumed workers all chanting trying to outdo each other to bring you in to their restaurant. Yuk, ick, and ugh. Get me out of here.

However like many tourist destinations, it has become that for a good reason. Old town is a picturesque blend of cherry blossoms, canals, stone bridges, and chinese lanterns. The endless maze of streets provide a charming place to lose yourself in for hours. And you CAN get away from the crowds; all it takes is a minimal effort to get out of the main streets and you're home free, wandering along the local homes and in our case, spending two hours trying to find this amazing restaurant we'd been to the night before.

The Petit Lijiang Bookcafe is restaurant/bookshop/jazz wine bar/travel agency run by a Belgian gentlemen and his Chinese wife. We happened upon it while "getting lost" in the back streets of Lijiang and stopped when Becca spotted a 5 year old version of Lonely Planet New Zealand on the shelf. (big deal you say? it is when you're unable to find a copy anywhere and need to figure out where you're going next...). We started by ordering drinks and got sucked in by the peaceful ambiance, friendly conversation and fantastic jazz and ordered dinner. Short of one or two meals in Beijing it was the best Chinese food we'd had on the trip. A must go place while in Lijiang; at the very least for a glass of wine and the best hash browns I've had since home.

My favorite place here in Lijiang though has to be the Black Dragon Pool Park. With its picture-perfect views of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, endless willow trees hanging over the water, flower-lined paths and numerous hidden grassy slopes to lay down on, it was the perfect place to relax. For one of the few times on our trip, we had that lazy Sunday afternoon we've sought and desired so much. Instead of feeling the need to do another "tourist must-see" or work on planning for New Zealand, we spent the day reading in the park and in my case napping and watching the clouds pass by overhead. Can't think of a more fitting way to enjoy Lijiang. The topper? While old town was jammed with people, the park (a 10 minute walk away) was nearly empty.

So in all, Lijiang (once we figured out how to escape the tourist chaos) has far exceeded our expectations. This is the first place in China we've seen with an actual nightlife (things were all still hopping when us two sticks in the mud headed for home at 10:30) and it has a little bit of something for everyone. It's a place where you can find madness and serenity all in a tightly bound package.


Petit Lijiang Bookcafe
No 50, Chongren Lane, Qiyi Street
(your best bet is to to call them for directions.....)

Friday, April 14, 2006

Jingjing and Chacha foiled!

Who are Jingjing and Chacha you ask?

These are Jingjing and Chacha, the lovable characters the Chinese Internet police (police=jingcha hence the names) use to make sure you're not reading democratic musings, the non-sanitized news or other important things like porn. They've been our foil during our time in China; as a result we've been unable to check out OUR blog (or anything with a blogspot address) since we crossed the border.

However, thanks to some kindly Belgian folks we met here in Lijiang, we've finally got the weapon to defeat the mighty anime forces of Jingjing and Chacha. It serves as a proxy and allows you to surf to your hearts content without having to worry about the Chinese hunting you down. Of course, an anonymous web savvy contact of ours has also pointed out that it's a popular tool amongst pedophiles as well. So if you're going to use it, please use it for good.

Posts about Lijiang and our trek to Tiger Leaping Gorge to come.


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

I'm back...

Becca has let me return to the blog, having done time served for the April Fool's fiasco. I think I'll stick to executing my April Fool's jokes in person from here on out.

So I hope you're ready for more low brow travel musings from everyone's favorite cynical world traveler. I'll be bringing you the latest from Lijiang, China after our return from hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge.


Friday, April 07, 2006

The Spring City Delivers...

A quick post from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. We've fallen in love with it in our wanderings today. It helps that it's living up to its other nickname (The San Diego of China) and has given us a beautiful day in the 70's. But even in bad weather I think we would have fallen under its spell. There is a vibrant enegery to the place, with restaurants, cafes, and nice stores everywhere. The streets are clean and lined with trees(!) and flowers(!) and there are a mulitude of parks to enjoy. And best of all: no pollution, just a clear blue sky with a couple of wispy clouds. Our favorite area to wander was around the university, with a great green campus, a park with lakes, and all kinds of interesting looking restaurants. The only strange note was seeing more westerners in one afternoon than in our first three weeks here. We're so used to just being among Asians that it's very strange to see other people who look like you.

Actually, that will probably be the theme of the next two weeks. We're heading north to Dali, Lijiang, and Tiger Leaping Gorge with the potential for a detour or two. While these areas should provide plenty of natural beauty and potential for outdoor activities, they are unfortunately no longer undiscovered backpacker gems but part of the veritable tourist trail. I'm sure within a couple of days we'll be shaking our heads at the traveler cafes and shunning them again, despite the fact that I would have given my right leg to have found a place like that to eat and hang out in last week in Langmusi.

One last quick story. We got further supporting evidence of our culinary crowd theorem in which the sight of a crowd of natives (in any country) filling a restaurant or queuing up to buy a food demands that we give it a try. We were running some errands today and passed a little bakery stand with a shoving crowd at the counter. They seemed to be waiting for something to come out of the oven with a bunch of bags open and ready. Later when I was waiting in a line, Brian went back to check it out and though the crowd still made it difficult for him to see, he reported that they seemed to be some sort of buns that the people making them (in a non-stop assembly line behind the glass) seemed to be stuffing some sort of red leaf or something into. He was baffled.

However when we passed a third time and saw yet more people we knew we had to give it a go. The red stuff was unidentifiable....cabbage? leaves? swiss chard? what? We got an order of 6 hot out of the oven and took a bite.


Evidently these piping hot soft rolls, whose dough seemed to have some orange zest or something in it (similar to the zing in Hamentaschen for the MOT in the crowd) and who had been brushed on top with a sweet butter, were stuffed with some sort of concoction of rose petals and sugar. Really different and REALLY good. We didn't get any pictures this time but we are hoping to stop by the stand again when we pass through Kunming on our way back down to Hong Kong. If we get photographic evidence we'll post it here.

So we highly recommend Kunming. We could have stayed and explored longer and its the first place in China we could actually imagine ourselves living in for awhile.

Off on a 8 hour bus ride tomorrow to Lijiang!


Thursday, April 06, 2006

Yak butter and stocking caps

We've just returned from a week out in the wild west of China. Not the lawless wild west vibe of Phnom Penh, but rather the frontier-town vibe I imagine from watching too many old episodes of Little House on the Prairie. (And actually, ironically, when you look on the map it was more like the very middle of china than the west....but we'll push on with the analogy anyway....)

We were in Xiahe and Langmusi, tiny towns/villages in the southwest corner of Gansu province. It was a fantastic break from the city tour we had been doing and went a long way towards refreshing our travel energies. We were near enough to the mountains of the Sichuan province to pretend we were in the Alps or Rockies (as well as to get to try out ALL our winter gear, such as it was). We'd love to return someday in the summer time though to see the grasslands in all their glory.

These towns were both high (almost 10,000 feet) and we really felt it trying to breathe, especially climbing stairs. The altitude made is quite COLD and it was very evident that we were a little early for tourist season. Though that led to some discomfort (and many things being closed) it was wonderful to see both places as the only westerners in town.

Xiahe is a long thin town and home of the Labrang monastery, the most important Tibetan monastery outside of Tibet. The monastery once held 4000 monks but was devastated during the Cultural Revolution. It is back up to 1,200 monks and had a bustling liveliness about it. The monastery is surrounded by a 3 km path of Tibetan prayer wheels (a very popular destination for the various Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims) and also serves to divide Xiahe into the Chinese Han/Hui half and the Tibetan half.

Langmusi was much smaller, just a short main street with a couple of neighborhoods building off of it and two monasteries across the river from each other. This had a similar feel to some of our visits in Laos; pigs roaming the streets, a lot dirty in places, etc. However it also had the same friendly feel that those places did. While not quite as modern as Xiahe was it had tons of charm and a beautiful background.

The week was fairly packed: arrive in Lanzhou on the overnight train from Xi'an, cab to the bus station, ride 6 hours out to Xiahe (including being unexpectedly dumped at a crossroads 34 freezing km from town). Then a couple of days later, take the bus 2 hours to Hezhou, change to another bus 3 hours to Langmusi, stay for two days, then bus 3 hours back to Hezhou and then 8 (painful) hours back to Lanzhou. Instead of giving you a blow by blow travelogue, we thought we'd just share some of our observations and highlights from the trip:

-- One of the best parts of this trip for us was being surrounded by a riot of colors and a large diversity of clothing and ethnicities. After the homogeneity of more mainstream China, this was a nice change and felt really exotic. The Tibetan clothing was very colorful (especially the women's) and incredibly distinctive. I really wanted to buy one of the huge coats that they wore like coats or cloaks, but finally decided that a) getting it home would be an issue and b) I wouldn't really have anywhere to wear it.

-- We were really struck by the friendliness of the people. Like anywhere in the world, when you get out of cities into smaller towns you have more of a chance to connect with people. In addition, we found the Tibetans in particular to be very friendly open, and curious.

-- In Xiahe we stayed at the Tara Guesthouse, a cute family run place just next to the monastery complex. The rooms were basic, but charming and the family was incredibly helpful. Unfortunately, though the rooms had character, they had no heat. We did have a stove in ours, but we didn't feel comfortable using it as at worst we were afraid of carbon monoxide (think Admiral Byrd) and at best we didn't need to be breathing any more coal smoke than already consumed on the trip.

-- When we checked into the guesthouse in Xiahe, we were informed that there was hot water for showers from 8-10 at night. We appreciated the info, but it was cold enough that we didn't feel under a compulsion to take a shower. However when the owner found us the second night to tell us the water had been heated up, he seemed so disappointed that we weren't going to shower (maybe they heated it up just for us?) that we promised him we would take one the next night. Well, that next evening came even more frigid than the former and we cursed our big mouths.

They were so pleased as they told us the water was ready that we smiled and headed off to meet our fate. The showers were in a little room across an open courtyard from where we were staying. So we took off a couple of layers and then shivered/sprinted across to the shower room. We entered to a cloud of steam (which was a good sign) and started to reluctantly strip off our clothes. That reluctance deepened when we saw the shower: it was warm/hot water to be sure, but it was coming out of the shower head in one thin dribble. We jumped in and used it to splash ourselves up and do a quick soap up and rinse and then teeth chattering tried to dry ourselves with our not-so-plush little travel towels. Let me tell you: if I have EVER wished for a bath-sized Egyptian cotton plush towel it was then. We threw our now-damp clothes back on, thanked the guesthouse keepers, and sprinted back to our room and under the covers. Mission accomplished. Somehow the rest of our stay they could never quite locate us at shower time. Go figure...

-- We also set a new personal record on this swing by each wearing the EXACT same outfit everyday, both day AND night. Yes, it was cold enough that we were sleeping in socks, pants, fleeces and stocking caps.

-- Like in Luang Prabang (in Laos), the internet cafe in Xiahe was full of monks, though in red robes instead of orange ones. This led to a couple of strange situations. The first was just the disconnect of watching the young monks play shoot 'em up computer games like Doom and Grand Theft Auto. I guess they're just young guys like any other, but you still expected them to be saying a blessing of forgiveness or something. The other strange situation came from the general oddity we represented. Throughout the time we worked there, monks would come and either stand behind us or sit right next to us and just stare at our screens intently for minutes on end. We'd say, uh, hello? or ni-how? and they'd kind of acknowledge us and then go right back to staring at our screen. It did make us a little self conscious about what we had up there though (had to curb that porn habit a little....). In one instance Brian tried to play revolutionary by going to the CNN website but the monk quickly lost interest and scooted away. (ed. In a good samartian moment, I spent 30 minutes helping a monk set up a new email account that someone had sent him. In Spanish. Needless to say we quickly switched languages on that one.)

-- One of our favorite moments in Xiahe occurred when we met a young monk, (a student at the prestigious philosophy college, the biggest of the monastery's 6 colleges) started a conversation with us and then invited us back into his dorm room. The students live seven to a room, each with a bed and bookcase of their own. The rooms are basic, but comfortable, and the monks have put up posters (mostly religious, but this dorm included small pics of Shaq and Jordan) to decorate. It was really cool to talk to him and find out more about the lives of these young monks.

-- Our primary eating establishment in Xiahe was the Nomad Cafe (our other sojourns having all ended in failure). This third floor restaurant was the local hangout of choice and by mid-afternoon, the window tables were packed with monks and Tibetan pilgrims drinking tea and looking down on the comings and goings below.

-- The Nomad was also where we were exposed to the highs and lows of Tibetan tea. The best: Tibetan black tea, which appeared to be a mug full of sticks, twigs, rock sugar crystals, dried berries, weird seed looking things, and other unidentifiable objects that none-the-less created a deceptively tasty brew. We spent several afternoons nursing these. The worst: Tibetan yak butter tea. What is yak butter tea? You might expect it to be a Tibetan tea with a tasty and refined dollop of yak butter placed inside. WRONG. What it would be more or less is a mug full of melted yak butter. Gag. Even Brian couldn't finish it. (ed. The taste was still in my mouth four days later)

-- Speaking of yak butter, it featured prominently at the monastery as well. The candles burning in honor at each of the temples are made of yak butter and give off a very strong and distinctive odor. I don't know that Crate and Barrel will be featuring them any time soon. More spectacularly, however, were the yak butter sculptures created for the recent New Years festivities. Now Brian and I consider ourselves to be relative butter sculpture connoisseurs being veterans of several trips to the Minnesota State Fair's dairy building with its butter carvings of the dairy princesses. However those are like finger paintings compared to Michaelangelo. These yak butter sculptures were intricately and delicately carved with unbelievably vibrant colors (though still that distinctive odor.....). Very cool.

-- I have to say that on this trip I have become quite the pro at the squat toilet. I can handle them all: porcelain, trench, ditch, hole, etc. (unlike my husband, who through some incredible combination of will power, mind-body cooperation, luck, and being a guy has only used one twice in 4+ months!!), and I have been able to manage even the ones in pretty distressing condition. However between Xiahe and Langmusi I had three episodes of 'hitting the wall'. This is where you approach not even the toilet but just the room/bldg where the toilet is (and in 2 of the 3 cases, it didn't look bad at all) and you just stop short, struck by a solid wall of stench and before you are even aware of what's happening your stomach has turned inside out and you retch and turn around and decide, you know, I don't really need to go to the bathroom that badly...... (ed. one of these locales is where I learned how to do #1 from the door frame. Even my horrible sense of smell was bowled over in that instance)

-- Langmusi was a wonderful place for us to visit and lived up to all our expectations and hopes in all ways except one (see below). It was nestled up against snow dusted mountains on one side, high grassland hills on another, and a red butte you'd swear was in Arizona on the third side. Really incredibly picturesque. After 3 weeks in big cities and fighting with pollution, etc. It was just fantastic for the two of us to get to spend a few days hiking around out in the hills and mountains and forests and streams. Very healing for the soul.

-- The one bummer in Langmusi was the fact that Leshas, home of the yak burger (as well as a number of good solid comfort western foods) was closed for remodeling. After having held out that yak burger to ourselves as a carrot through a number of less fun moments, we were seriously bummed. Guess we'll just have to go back in tourist season sometime...

-- We really liked the Chinese train system, despite the occasional horror story in hard sleeper. (That is, as long as we were able to avoid hard seat overnight journeys). Otherwise it has been convenient and (especially in the case of the soft sleeper) comfortable. The buses, on the other hand, have been a little bit more of a challenge. In Laos the buses were very old with large holes and more people and livestock than you know what to do with. In China it hasn't so much been that the buses are rickety, but just that we have been stuffed in with more people than you think can fit, two-thirds of whom are chain smoking unfiltered Chinese cigarettes. That can make for some very long bus-rides, especially over windy, bumpy roads.

I have more random tales, but this has gotten too long already. We'll add more stories in a general China/SE Asia roundup blog later...

Off to the Yunnan province!


Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Sartorial Sadness

Some quick and random musings while we get a bunch of stuff done today (like load photos from the past week and write a blog entry that will hopefully be up tomorrow.)

Part 1
We have to say, we're pretty pleased with the clothes (both the number and type of pieces and the actual items themselves) we chose before the trip. (Thanks to Danielle and Ryan and Laura for some fabulous advice!). However, we have been wearing them more or less nonstop for the past 10+ months. We have been making the occasional purchase to replace an item or two, but mostly it's the original REI purchases.

Needless to say, we are getting more than a little tired of wearing the same thing day in and day out. Heck, you're probably tired of seeing the same thing in every picture! Added to that, the clothes have been used hard and are starting to get a little threadworn with that ground-in grime that the sink washings can't quite conquer. However, we've recently been dealing with the ultimate indignity. As may or may not show in our pictures, we have been shedding a good deal of weight as we've traveled across Asia. Consequently, we're now finding that our clothes (and our rings) are falling off of us (which has lead to a couple of humorous occurrences, especially where Brian's pants and disappearing butt have been involved).

"So buy some new clothes" you are probably saying. (I definitely can hear the Moms saying that.) Unfortunately a) we're too stubborn, b) we're too cheap, and c) the options in our sizes (especially mine) are not overwhelming. I think we'll probably limp along with these as long as possible (at least until Australia/NZ) and then have a big bonfire while toasting their hard work when we return.

Part 2:
Oh...and random cultural experience of the day:

We had checked into a splurge hotel last night (of course, splurge to us here is $25/night*) because we were so desperate for a (lots of water pressure, actually in a bathtub not on the floor) hot shower and comfy room after the past week roughing it a little more out west (more coming on that tomorrow). This morning we checked out and stored our bags, planning to find either a) a cheaper place or b) find a posher place for the same money (as this place had turned out to be a little disappointing in that regard.)

However, a search of the neighborhood found only 3 other types of possibilities: 1) super schmancy rooms for $50-$100, 2) scuzzy rooms for $10-$15, or 3) great rooms for $12 or so that foreigners weren't allowed to stay in. So we resignedly (is that a word?) headed back to the Lanzhou Fandien to recheck-in.

Slight complication. In the interim we had gone to the Police Security Bureau to renew our tourist visas. (We had only gotten a 30 day visa instead of the 60 day one we requested in Hanoi so we needed to reup). They had taken our passports to do the paperwork and given us a receipt and photocopies of the passport and Chinese visa pages. So when Brian goes to check in again he gives them the photocopies and explains that our passports are at the PSB. No go.

No passport, no check in.

But we stayed here last night! You saw our passport/visa then and still have all the information in your record book.

No passport, no check in

But it's your government office that has our passport. We're just getting the visa extended.

No passport, no check in

Come on, how about we call the PSB and you can talk to the officer

No. Go away.

Hmmmm.....after contemplating a) fire bombing the check in desk or b) setting up camp in the (plush) lobby for the night (ed. with a six pack of Tsingtao and some particuarily smelly street food), we decided instead on c) retreating, marshalling our evidence (we found our receipt from the night before and baggage check claim slips) and explanations, and hoping return when someone else was manning the front desk.

Stay tuned for more of the sexy side of travel....


ps. We did in the end convince them to let us check in again.

*You may laugh at $25 being a splurge, but we just checked our records and that's officially the second highest price we've paid for a room in 4 months in Asia behind our illfated Tadfane 'resort' in Laos. Even Bangkok was only $22 and that included a huge buffet breakfast. And in Sihanoukville, we had a wonderful bungalow with a balcony and view of the sea, hammock, nice shower, mosquito net canopy bed, clean toilet, and great restaurant/bar/hang out area downstairs for only $10.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Becca clears things up (with an eyeroll at her mischevious husband)

Hey folks....

Given the number of comments and responses to the previous post, I thought I'd better step in quickly and point something out. LOOK AT THE DATE OF THE POST (and remember we have time zone challenges messing things up a little).

So many people predicted (even urged) that I would get pregnant during the trip that Brian thought he'd have a little bit of fun. (Remember, this is the same guy who PROPOSED to me on April Fools Day).

We are still unencumbered (and the ice cream in China isn't very good anyway).

The little ones will come, but we're going to wait 'til we return to the relative sanity and healthcare of home....


PS. Linc0ln? You're still wrong