Thursday, October 26, 2006

Morocco... More African than Arab

Hello, again!

I want to share with you all what a great experience I had in Morocco. Before I left, I checked my favorite travel information resource to find out a little bit about Morocco. I ran across a very funny (and totally accurate) post on the forum regarding the stupid things people say to you when you announce you are going to Africa. Many of these were familiar from my trip to West Africa, but since Morocco seemed more touristy to me, I hadn't expected them again - but I got a few nonetheless. So once again I remind my general audience - Africa is not a scary place. Everyone should experience it at least once.

So anyway, after reading up, I expected lots of hassle. I put on my best leave-me-alone face and got ready to face the country. I then walked out of the Marrakech airport to zero taxi drivers harassing me, zero pickpockets, and zero anything, really. I was a bit stunned. I arrived after dark and, after a bit of difficulty, found my lovely little hotel situated right on the big square - Jemaa el Fna - which was a blur of movement after dark. I was traveling during Ramadan, which meant that days got started late, and after dark it was a big party. The square was crammed with vendors, restaurants, snake charmers, story tellers, henna tattooers and the many people being entertained by the aforementioned.

I spent the next day in the souks of Marrakech, looking at all the cool stuff there was to buy and talking to the locals, who were incredibly friendly. There was little hassle, though I did notice people started to get short-tempered around 3pm, when the heat and the lack of food, water and cigarettes really started to kick in. I had "Ramadan breakfast" with a few of the people I had met during the day. Though I was not officially observing the holiday, it ended up that I didn't really eat during the day, as it was hard to find food and I felt guilty eating in front of people who couldn't.

The next day I set out to actually see the sights of Marrakech, including the famous mosques and palaces and tombs and the tanneries, a stinky but interesting sight, where they are still preparing leather the way they have for centuries. I also met a local who at least claimed to be Jewish, so when I told him about my heritage, he showed me around the Jewish quarter and I got a personal tour of the synagogue from the old, blind rabbi. Most of the Jews in Morocco are gone now, though all the Moroccans I met claimed that there is no animosity and Jews could live with the Muslims if they so chose. In any case, it's interesting to see that the Jewish buildings are all painted in a gorgeous blue and white, while Muslim buildings are generally red.

The next day was my last in Marrakech, so I visited the Jardin Majorelle, gardens and a house painted an amazing shade of blue that has become known around the world. I saw a few other gardens and walked around the new part of town, and then I got to talking with a local person, and I ended up having Ramadan breakfast with his family. I don't know if it's Ramadan particularly, but I found Moroccans to be very open and I received more invitations to dinner than I can count (something like in West Africa). Anyway, they had a small room, and we sat on the floor with him, his sister, and her adorable little baby, and had porridge (harira), dates, and fresh mint tea.

That night I took the overnight bus to Fes, where I was less lucky with my hostel (they appeared to have gone through my stuff while I was out). The city was quite different - it's not built around one central square - but full of character as well. The market streets seemed even tinier and more confusing, and it seemed somehow less colorful than Marrakech. I spent the day walking around the Medina, the old part of town, and it turned out Fes was really nice too. Here again I ended up getting a big tour of the old Jewish Quarter (largely because the guy found out I was Jewish) and the Jewish cemetary, which was quite a sight.

I had also heard there was more hassle in Fes, but in fact, there wasn't really, though I did see the group tourists getting hassled. It was also interesting to see, though, one of the big reasons for the reduction in hassle. Morocco has implemented in the last few years a Brigade Touristique. This is a force of police, both uniformed and undercover, who go around making sure not only that the locals don't hassle the tourists, but that the locals don't even talk to the tourists. I found this to be a little extreme, but it did result in my being left largely alone by people who would otherwise have given me a hard time, so I can't complain too much. I did still manage to meet local people, though, and again had Ramadan breakfast (a little different this time) in their house.

The next day I decided I'd had enough of cities, and I struck out in a rickety local bus to a town called Sefrou, which apparently sees tourists every three days at best. I was accosted by a guide and ended up taking him, which turned out to be a good idea. The town was very untouristy, which was exactly what I was looking for. And with the guide, I was able to enter people's houses and see both the people and the interiors, which was very interesting. We also visited some homes that many years ago were built in caves in the mountainside. At the end of the day, I had Ramadan breakfast with the guide's family, who turned out to be extremely nice and generous with me. They even invited me to stay with them, but sadly, my time was too short there.

The next morning I boarded a bus for Chefchaouen, a little town in the mountains that used to be a bit of a get-away. However, it's quite close to Spain, and now that there is a highway, it's overrun by Spanish weekend tourists, which makes the locals pretty unfriendly and the atmosphere much more hassled. I will admit it was georgeous. The town is painted various shades of light blue along with white, and it's set on top of the mountains. If there weren't so damned many tourists there, it would be fantastic.

I spent one night there and then headed to Tanger for my airplane. I spent an hour walking around in Tanger and soon realized why the daytrippers hate it. It's what you'd expect from a border town in a developing country right next to a rich country, and I was happy I had decided to spend so little time there.

So all in all, Morocco far exceeded my expectations. I don't know if I was just lucky, or if it was related to people being nicer during Ramadan, or if it's because of the tourist police. But I would highly recommend Marrakech and Fes to anyone wishing a more unique holiday. The fact is, as sights go, there's not too much. It's more about absorbing the atmosphere, the old, tiny streets and the crazy markets and the donkeys coming through loaded with stuff and men behind them shouting "balak!" And amazing food and wonderful, friendly, happy people.

That's all for now, folks. I'm back in Brussels for the next few weeks, and then I'll be in California for a week and in New York for almost two weeks. Make sure you let me know if you'll be nearby, as I'd love to see as many people as possible while I'm home. And don't worry... there are MANY more pictures where those came from. If you'd like to see them, just ask when you see me.


PS. While I was in Morocco, I read the most amazing book. If you are at all interested in psychology, mental illness, or the failings of our government to deal with mental illness, and if you have a strong stomach, read The Shoemaker, by Flora Rheta Schreiber, author of Sybil. It's a fantastic, eye-opening, heartbreaking book.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Life in Brussels

Brussels, Belgium

Finally what you might call "settled" in Brussels, it's time for another update on my adventures. I had a whirlwind three days in New York City, during which time I got two more courses of antibiotics to try for my mysterious Chinese illness. After that, Ernie (my dog) and I flew to Paris via Detroit, a major detour because it turns out it's nearly impossible to fly internationally with a dog. Customs in France didn't even blink at us, and D. met us at the airport and drove us to Brussels.

We spent the first few weeks at a temporary residence that was in a very "ethnic" neighborhood - we picked it because it was the only one in Brussels that took dogs. After several days recovering and both courses of antibiotics, I finally kicked what has been most likely identified as a weird form of pneumonia, though I guess I'll never know exactly what I had or how much damage I did to my lungs. We got to know some of the neighborhoods and ultimately picked a great, sunny, 2-BR apartment with a huge terrace in Ixelles, a section of Brussels south of the center that is home to lots of students, artsy types and immigrants. It's a cute neighborhood with lots of character and diversity, nice parks and fantastic markets. We then started to learn about Belgian bureaucracy.

Not only do you have to register your lease with the government, but you have to register yourself with the police, which is followed by a home visit to make sure you actually live in your house (tax reasons, apparently). Even tourists are supposed to register with the police if you are staying over 3 days, but I doubt anyone ever does. And I thought I had left scary Chinese-style Big Brother behind... We tried to get a phone installed - we were granted an appointment SIX WEEKS after the day we requested it. Electricity required some strange paper that of course we didn't have when they came to turn it on, and the list keeps on going and going. Things don't work, no one answers their phone, things get done at a snail's pace. Very frustrating when you are trying to move into an apartment but have no light or hot water or internet.

Meanwhile, I still have seen very little of what tourists think of as Brussels. Instead of all the famous monuments - the Grande Place, the statue of the peeing boy, the Atomium, etc - I have visited more furniture stores than I care to recount, including the biggest Ikea in Belgium, where D. and I spent many long hours. Actually we learned they have great food at Ikea, but when D. started suggesting we decorate the apartment with a yellow and blue theme, we knew we'd hit our Ikea limit... We even went all the way to France to look at a store there, brought back a desk chair that we left in the car in front of our hotel overnight, and woke up the next morning to find the car window shattered and the desk chair stolen. The police came to take the report looking awfully bored, and they told D. that he should speak with his work to find out where to live, cause he shouldn't be where we were. Anyway, our new neighborhood seems a lot nicer, luckily!

And the apartment has come together now - we have all the basic necessities like furniture and electricity, and Ernie has made himself at home in my new favorite chair. It's funny the things you miss, though - right now I'm dying for some Mexican food... or good sushi... or even a measuring cup that has cups and ounces on it. But we've found that here there's great Turkish, Greek, and Vietnamese food, excellent waffles and fries, and some great ice cream places. So even though I'm missing the diversity of the offerings at home, there's fun stuff to discover here as well.

D.'s job officially starts on the 16th, so in the meantime he is going to Paris every week to work there at a temporary job, leaving me working in Brussels all alone. So now that I've caught up on most of the work from this summer, I'm taking advantage of the last week he'll be away to go to Morocco. I'll be leaving Saturday and coming back the following Sunday - a bit of a short trip, but I've been dying to see Morocco and it's close by, so it seemed like a good opportunity.

I still haven't had a chance to get up my pictures from China, but I'll be working on that soon, hopefully. In the meantime, here's a map of my route, and below is a picture of D. and me in the Yellow Mountains.

Most of you should have received an email by now with my new contact information. If you want it and don't have it, just send me an email. I'm available on skype and through the local New York number I sent out, and the time difference here is 6 hours later than New York. It's always good to hear from people, as it's tough to be away from you all over here. And now that we have a nice futon and a couch, of course anyone is welcome to come visit. Heck, maybe if you come visit me, I'll actually finally go see the sights of Brussels.

In the meantime, watch for another update post-Morocco, and I'll be back in California November 18-26, and in New York Nov. 27-Dec. 4, so hopefully I'll get to see a few of you then.

Keep in touch!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

...And Northern China

Tokyo Narita Airport, Japan
Somehow a month just went by without my getting a chance to update you all. Time has truly been flying. I am on a long layover on my way back to New York, enjoying the free internet access in the Tokyo airport, which was a very nice surprise. I really can't believe that two months is over already. It seems like I just left for China, and I really feel like I could keep traveling happily for many more months here. Since that's not possible, though, I'll try to give you a rundown on what I've been up to for the last few weeks. First some fun facts I've learned about China (some have not been verified):
* China is the world's most populous country, with over 1.3 billion inhabitants.
* At any given moment, there are 10 million people in the trains alone in China.
* Sixteen of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China.
* Spending one day in Beijing (without smoking) is equivalent to smoking 50-60 packs of cigarettes.
* China produces over 1.8 trillion cigarettes per year, 99% of which are consumed in China.
* China consumes over one third of all of the world's cigarettes.
* A pack of cigarettes can be bought in China for as little as US$0.20.
All this means that I have not seen blue sky for the past four weeks, except for about four days total, and instead have been looking at yellowish to whitish haze, which gets really depressing after a while. It also means that my bronchitis is still pretty bad, because my lungs have not had a chance to rest at all from the constant irritation. And it means that if China continues this way for much longer, the country will soon be uninhabitable, without breathable air or drinkable water, but it wont matter, because everyone will be dying prematurely anyway. It's one thing to read about the pollution in the newspaper, but it's really quite stunning to see it firsthand.
Anyway, when I last wrote I was about to get on a 20 hour train ride to Shanghai. The ride wasn't so bad, and D.'s flight came in without any problems. We found a very cute place to stay in Shanghai, and I promptly got extremely sick and couldn't get out of bed for two days. Other than that, Shanghai was a big, modern city, and the best thing about it was the skyline at night and the extremely impressive acrobatics show we saw. Definitely something to see, if you ever get a chance.
From there we went to Hangzhou, where China's supposedly most famous attraction, the West Lake, is located. It was a big lake covered in smog, and I have to admit we were a little disappointed.
One of the reasons I came to China was a little silly - almost 10 years ago, I was at an arts fair, and there was a man there selling nicely-framed photographs of gorgeous misty mountains. I was smitten, and I asked him where the pictures were taken. He told me, in a very thick accent that I've since come to know well, that they were taken in the Yellow Mountains. At the time, I had never heard of them and had no idea where they were, but I filed it away and promised myself I'd go there someday. So that was our next destination... a long-time dream realized for me. Over two days, we estimated we climbed up and down over 20,000 steps to the top of the mountains and around and then back down again. The first day we got so much mist we couldn't see anything, and the second day was clear, so it didn't quite look like the picture that inspired me so long ago, but still it was breathtaking. We stayed overnight on top of the mountain in a very loud, smoky dorm, and got up at 4am to see the sunrise over the mountaintops. We were sore for several days after that, but it was totally worth it.
Next we had a horrible hard seat overnight train ride to Kaifeng, which originally was where the majority of the Jewish immigrants had settled when they came to China. Unfortunately there was not much evidence of that left, and the museum that supposedly had a nice exhibit about the history of the Jews in Kaifeng was, well, disappointing to say the least. From here we headed west to Luoyang, where there are famous Buddhist caves with tens of thousands of buddhas carved out of the rock. They were very impressive, although most of the statues were missing their heads, either due to foreign collectors or the government of China, which destroyed all sorts of religious and artistic objects during the Cultural Revolution, though they put a big propaganda sign in front of the caves explaining how the regime has been a big champion of preservation of the caves, as though that makes all the history of destruction disappear.
We also did a day trip to the Shaolin Temple, home of the famous Shaolin kung-fu monks, but though the grounds were still beautiful, the whole place has taken on an air of Disneyland, and we could only imagine how great it would have been to be able to visit it 15 years ago.
Our next stop was the famous city of Xi'an, with the largest mausoleum in the world, containing the famous Terracotta Warriors. This is the second most important sight to see in China after the Great Wall, according to most visitors. The first emperor of China had a humongous underground city created for himself, complete with over 6 thousand lifesize terracotta statues of warriors, each with a unique face, holding real weapons to guard the tomb. Something like 150 servants, as well as the emperor's sisters and brothers, were buried alive or sacrificed so that the emperor wouldn't have to enter the next life alone. A while back, the roof caved in and knocked down all the statues, so they are painstakingly reconstructing them all and putting them back in their original positions, but they have only done about a thousand so far. It will be stunning if and when they ever finish the job.
From here we headed to Pingyao, a cute, well-preserved Ming Dynasty town with lots of huge old houses that have been turned into museums so we can see how people lived hundreds of years ago. And then on to Datong, which is in the center of the coal mining area and one of the most polluted cities in China, but also is home to the Hanging Monastery - a Buddhist monastery built on the side of a cliff - and the Yungang Grottoes, a series of breathtaking caves carved out of rock with statues of buddhas up to 17 meters high. Tens of thousands of people (slaves) labored for a very long time to make them, and since they are a bit out of the way, they weren't destroyed like the other caves we saw. Incidentally, these were built first (around 470AD), but when the capital of the empire was moved to Luoyang, they just gave up construction of the caves in the middle and started over at Luoyang. So much of what we saw these weeks is so wasteful. It's really quite amazing how wasteful people are when they have thousands of slaves to do whatever they want.
And lastly we came to Beijing, where we spent 6 days. We did the obligatory visits to the Forbidden City (the old imperial palace) and the Temple of Heaven, which are being restored for the Olympics, so some of the buildings look shiny and new and some are totally covered in scaffolding. We spent one day at the Great Wall and did a 10km hike from Jinshanling to Simatai, and basically had the wall to ourselves (and the others in our bus). It was a beautiful hike and definitely the best way to do the Wall these days, as the most famous portion is entirely overrun by tour groups. And obviously seeing the Great Wall was one of those weird and amazing experiences of something you've heard about so much that it sounds almost mythical until you are finally face to face with it.
Beijing was very interesting. It was quite modern and quite touristy. In fact, it, too, is starting to feel a little like Disneyland. Additionally, probably the majority of the city is under construction. Much of what we saw will not exist within a couple years. It's a weird thought, but I'm glad we could see it now. Already many of the restaurants and stores in the guidebook, from 2005, have disappeared. It was a little frustrating to get around, but the city has quite a bit of character for a big city.
So in summary, China is a fascinating place to visit. It is changing faster than any country I have ever seen. They have a long way to go, though. Having been there and really feeling like I've gotten to know the place a bit, I'm worried for the future of the country. The people and the government are extremely nearsighted as a general rule. They want to jump ahead, but they don't think about the consequences of their actions. Seeing how individual people act, it's not surprising to me that they have become so polluted. As a culture, people are generally quite rude. There doesn't seem to be a way to say 'excuse me' - instead you just shove people out of the way. Poking them in the face with your umbrella and hitting them with the side of your vehicle also apparently don't warrant a second thought. People don't form lines to wait for things - instead there is wild pushing and shoving and whoever gets his hand or face in front first gets helped first. Most people seem to think most about the immediate benefit to themselves of their actions, rather than the impact on others or even on themselves in 5 or 10 years. On an individual level it's simply annoying, but as a country, it means they are so excited to be modernizing that they don't care that it's slowly killing them.
And the place is full of propaganda. The government is making a great effort to show the people of China and the rest of the world how great and modern they are. Plus, since the news is heavily censored, the people of China have no way to find out how bad it really is. But in trying to modernize so fast, China is skipping the steps that will allow it to sustain the modernization in the long term. And that's scary for them and for the rest of the world that will also be living with the environmental consequences.
So I've rambled on once again, but it's been a month and lots has happened. There's lots more, but I wont write it all here. Just wanted to share with you all a few thoughts and observations from my time here. I've been very fortunate to get the opportunity to see China now and to really immerse myself in the place. I only wish I could stay a few more months and see even more, though preferably the less polluted parts.
I'll be in New York for the next two days, so anyone who is in town should please contact me and hopefully I'll be able to see a few of you. I'll send another update once we've made some progress on the apartment search in Brussels, where you will all be welcome to visit once we have a place of our own.
Please let me know about all your summer adventures. Hope you've enjoyed the season as much as I have.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Southern China

Wuhan, Hubei, China
Guess I kind of disappeared there for a couple weeks, but that way you had time to read my marathon email from Vietnam.  Over the last two weeks I was very ambitious.  I traveled hard and fast and covered a lot of ground.  I feel like I've been to about 5 different countries, and in a way I have.  China is so huge that going between different provinces or even different cities can feel like a complete change.
So... I left you last having arrived in Kunming, Yunnan Province.  It was a big city, but the highlight was the Stone Forest - a collection of big rock formations.  Trying to get there was fun - I asked at least 5 different people where to find the bus and was told it was impossible to get there that day.  But in China you just keep asking until you find someone who says yes. 
The next day I went north to Dali, a little "backpacker paradise" with beautiful pagodas and a huge monastery.  Did some hiking there and was amused by the fact that as you walk along the street, little old ladies in traditional dress come up to you and offer you pot ("you smokah da hash??")  It's hard not to laugh when a 70 year old woman offers you ganja and pretends to be selling you jewelry.
Yunnan, besides being chock full of great scenery, is also China's most ethnically diverse province, with the greatest number of ethnic minorities located there.  In fact, because of this, Yunnan kind of does what it wants, because it doesn't associate itself as strongly with the Han Chinese culture.  Most of these groups, at least the older people, still dress and live and eat in the traditional way (caterpillars and bee larvae, anyone?), which is very interesting to see.  Additionally, the Han Chinese (the dominant group - what you think of as "chinese") are the least friendly of all the ethnic groups, so being in these small, ethnic towns was a bit of a respite because the people were much nicer....although almost everywhere you go, you have to contend with hordes of screaming, pushing, spitting Chinese tour groups, which really wears you down after a while.
After Dali, I went to Lijiang, also in Yunnan and also a cute little old town, with very interesting Dongba architecture.  I wandered through the market - an interesting experience and one that I wished I hadn't worn sandals for.  They basically butcher their animals by laying them on the table and chopping them up, bones and all, so there were lots of heads lying around and a few stiff dogs, with their hair removed.  One guy was blackening meat with a blow torch, but I'm not sure why.    A fascinating experience - markets are one of the best ways (I think) of getting to know a culture, because you see how the people interact, how they bargain, how they treat their animals, and how they prepare their food and eat it. 
I also saw the "oldest dance school in the world" and some examples of the only remaining pictographic language - the Dongba language.  It's funny how one of the things you are reminded of by traveling around so much is just how much you don't know.  I have learned so much in the last month.
The next day I did the Tiger Leaping Gorge hike, which I was not previously aware included a steep hike gaining almost 1000 meters in altitude.  You start out already pretty high up, and I was just getting the flu, so it was a bit tough, but the views were worth it.  You climb way up a mountain to get a spectacular view of the Yangtze River, and you stay overnight and hike down the next day via a different route.
One interesting thing I learned from the experience is that websites about b ird f lu are censored here.  I've been sick for about two weeks, but I think it's just the standard flu that everyone here seems to get.  I felt like I was going to die for the first three days or so, but now it's almost gone.  The lady at my hostel the first two days was cute, though - she didn't speak any English, but when I finally got up, she was waiting with her phrasebook to ask if I wanted a doctor.
So from Lijiang I took a plane to Chengdu, Sichuan Province, to avoid more than 24 hours of bus travel.  I arrived at 1:30 am and ended up camping out on someone's hotel room floor, but it worked out in the end.  In the morning we went to see the Panda Research and Breeding Center.  I didn't realize that Sichuan was the only place in the world where pandas are remaining in the wild.  The conservation effort here seems to be sincere, although they do let tourists take pictures touching the pandas, which just seems unnatural to me.  But the breeding center was really interesting because not only did we get to see lots of pandas (and some little ones) close up, but they had videos and a museum about their reproductive process, and I learned lots of new things.  For example, first time mothers are usually so surprised at the thing that just popped out of them that they bat it around sometimes until it dies (and we wonder why they are endangered).  And baby pandas are born very underdeveloped - their eyes don't open for a few months and they have no hair or anything.  They have to be carried around in the mom's paw for a while before they can wiggle around on their own. 
That night I checked out the "Sichuan Opera"..which wasn't an opera at all, but a variety show in which people did such things as make shadow puppets with their hands and juggle tables with their feet.  They also had a "changing faces" act, in which they flipped masks on and off really fast.  It was really entertaining, but I still have yet to see an actual Chinese opera.  I'm told to look for this in Beijing.
So then I decided to splurge and buy myself plane tickets to see the north of Sichuan.  The alternative was to either not go at all or spend two of four days on the bus, so I went for it.  It was totally worth it (and quite an adventure).
Arriving at Jiuzhaigou airport, there are no buses to the park, so you have to wait till you have 5 people and then a bus will go.  After we had 4 (three middle-aged Chinese men and me), the guys decided to get a taxi for the same price.  One of them had been trying to talk to me and was enjoying my phrasebook.  On the way to the park, he invited me to go to the theater that night and see "dancing and singing".  I declined, but when we got close to the park, I found the taxi was dropping us at a hotel, and the man had the nerve to point to my phrasebook and indicate that he wanted to share a room at the hotel with me and tried to pay for my taxi and everything.  I found some girls and they called their English-speaking sister, who told me I was 2km from the park entrance.  I gave the taxi driver my share of the money and said sionara to the sketchy man and practically ran out of the hotel.  By the time I walked to the park, looked at the museum, paid my entrance fee and went to the entrance, guess who was waiting for me??  Yeap, but I was quite rude to him and went back inside, and he must have gotten the point, because I didn't see him again.
The rest of the day bordered on magical.  The tour groups had all gone in the morning, so I spent 4 hours walking completely alone through the forest.  I saw maybe 2 other people total.  The park is absolutely gorgeous, with sparkling, clear blue lakes and lots of trees and flowers and butterflies.  Very few westerners go there, and since I arrived in the afternoon after the taxi debacle, I had the entire place to myself at first.  Such a nice change from the noise and hassle of China. 
There are nine Tib etan villages in the park, as the area is very close to Ti bet, and the food, temples, people, and language in the area are almost all Tibe tan (and hence the people do what they please).  Technically it's now illegal to stay in the park, but there is a very cryptic piece of information that gets passed along from backpacker to backpacker, which I wont mention just in case it might get someone in trouble, about whom to talk to in order to get a room in one of the Ti betan villages.  I was a little worried about finding it, but I walked into the village around 5pm and sure enough I found the right person and was led down a bunch of winding staircases where no government raid was likely to find me, and I got a fairly nice room for the night.  I got dinner in the home of a monk and a very old Tib etan woman, who never stopped spinning her prayer wheel (I don't know what it's actually called, but if they spin it, it's supposed to make them live longer), and the food was great.  It was really a special experience. 
The next day I had to contend with the tour groups and it was back to reality.  The park was beautiful, but the silence was broken, so it wasn't quite as great.  I moved on to Songpan, famous for their horse treks, and signed myself up for a two day trek.  This turned out to be a big disappointment, as the two day one doesn't go to the places with the greatest scenery, and the whole thing is basically a glorified pony ride - a lot of fun if you've never ridden a horse before, but if you're an experienced rider, very annoying.  Plus we had to walk half the way.  We did get good food, though, and they piled up leaves for mattresses and saddles for pillows, so it was a fun little cowboy experience.
I came back to Chengdu and headed straight out for Chongqing, where I saw more temples before being herded onto a Chinese tour boat down the Yangtze River.  We were promised many things by the tour agency, several of which failed to appear, and it was kind of amusing to watch my fellow backpackers get really angry about all of it, when I had told them from the beginning that the promises were empty.  I guess I'm just over it, since I already know it's all lies and there's no point getting angry. 
I paid extra to be in "second class" - four bunks. Well, there were five of us in there... but apparently a child doesn't count.  On the second night she got a "fever" that I think was a ploy to get me out of the room, because the grandma spent the whole first day glaring at me like I was a huge cockroach that had wandered in through the window.  Since they were up tending to the girl, I complained that I'd never get to sleep, so I was very graciously moved to THIRD class (with no refund of money of course).  At least the people there were friendly, even if I couldn't really talk with them at all.  And the main reason everyone was mad was that we were promised an English-speaking guide and one never materialized.  On another boat, some Canadians didn't even get notified when it was time to get off the boat for sightseeing - just woke up and found the place empty.  But the way things work here is that you ask if you'll get something and they say "oh, yes, of course" but they are lying to your face every time.  You get used to it, but it is still frustrating.
The boat ride was interesting mainly because you see the level markers of the water.  They are building a humongous dam, which is going to raise the level of the part of the Yangtze before the dam by something like 80 meters, displacing a million and a half people by 2009.  The markers are now up to 140m or so. By October the water will be up to 156, and up to 170 by the end.   It's a bit surreal to see a big "170 M" painted on houses on the hill, and think that the people living in them are doing so knowing that in a couple years, their entire house will be under water.  Now is definitely the time to see the Three Gorges and the Yangtze, because it's going to be a much different place in a few years.  Even some of the famous sites along the river have been recently rebuilt, because the original ones are now completely submerged.
Additionally, the Yangtze is a good example of China's use of natural resources.  The water looks like gravy.  Brown and oily.  There is lots of debris and various trash floating on the water.  Someone told me he took a cruise on the Yangtze a few years ago, and at the end of each day they would collect all the trash from the bins on the boat and tie it up neatly and throw it overboard.  And they wonder why they have no drinking water left in this country.  And believe it or not, they still eat fish out of the river.  Worst of all, no one seems to have any thought that it might be a problem.  Any trash you might have, just throw it over your shoulder.  If you can't see it anymore, it must not exist.
I did finally have a good hotpot for dinner though - the local specialty is basically a big boiling bowl of broth (with a gas burner under the table to keep it boiling), and they bring different veggies and raw meat to throw in the pot, which you then fish out with your chopsticks and eat with rice, and it's very spicy.   Amusing, too, because we asked for "chicken and vegetables" and we got a CHICKEN.  Head, feet, all the rest of it chopped up bones and all, and the piece de resistance, at the end they brought over a bowl of various bloody organs and dumped them in, but fortunately by then we all had finished eating.  An Australian guy did eat some of the head just to be funny, though I don't know how his girlfriend stood it.
Anyway, at around 2am last night we were literally shoved onto a bus and taken to Wuhan, where I am currently awaiting my train for Shanghai.  I should be on the train for around 20 hours, so I'm really looking forward to that.  I have supposedly booked a hard sleeper - meaning there are 6 bunks in the room - so I'm praying that I have a top bunk at least.  Damien will be joining me the day after tomorrow, and I'm looking forward to not being alone anymore (and especially not sleeping in dorms anymore). 
So that's the update.  I've had a fantastic couple of weeks.  Frustrations and illnesses aside, I've seen beautiful scenery, met fascinating people, had interesting experiences and generally enjoyed China a whole lot.  Now that I'm over the initial culture shock and have accepted China and the Chinese for what they are (mostly), I'm really feeling like I could have spent a lot longer here and I've shortchanged it in an effort to see as much as possible.  It's definitely not easy to travel here, but it's worth making the effort, as the country has a lot to offer once you start to find a way in.  If I come back, though, I'd like to learn a lot more Chinese, because a lot of people seem like they are really wonderful if you can break through the language barrier and get to know them.  I can get around with the Chinese I know, but I can't get to know people - a first for me - and it's quite frustrating.
Well, I've rambled enough.  Thanks for the emails - keep them coming.  I can't believe my trip is half over already!  Can't wait to see as many of you as possible in August.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Scamorama in Vietnam

Kunming, Yunnan, China
Well, I'm back in China again and thought I'd take the opportunity to give you the run down on my week in Vietnam.  It's hard to summarize without running on and on, but hopefully I wont bore you all with too many details. 
I'll start by saying that I really liked Vietnam.  It's so much more relaxed than China, the people seemed nicer, and more people speak English, so it's easier to get around.  The tourist infrastructure is much more developed there, so it really helps those of us who don't speak Vietnamese.  At the same time, it is a place where you have to be constantly on your guard.  I have never been anywhere where the people were so happy to lie to your face and scam you out of your money, all the while wearing a friendly smile and acting like it's totally normal.  Yes, I got scammed, more than once, as does everyone.  You can't avoid it.  Many times you know you are being scammed and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it, which is so frustrating.
I've heard stories so much worse than any that happened to me.  One person I talked to met a guy who was given a "candy" by a new "friend" on a bus, and by the time he woke up, the friend had made off with all his valuables. This is a common one with drinks and even dropping pills into open water bottles.  One girl was attacked with a pair of scissors by some people in a tour agency.  Many people have stories about not getting what they paid for or agreed to.  One guy I met said it took him four tries to get somewhere once, as he kept getting on a motorbike, only to stop halfway there so the driver could demand more money to take him all the way.  And absolutely everyone in Vietnam has gotten in a taxi and been dropped at a hotel they did not request, where either the driver tries to pretend it's the one that was requested or he just flat out refuses to go anywhere else.
Here's the first one that happened to me: upon arriving at the border, all tourists are treated to the same - they are picked up by a taxi at the border, the only way to get to the nearest town, and the taxi says it is taking them to the bus to Hanoi. He then drops the poor tourists in the middle of nowhere, where conveniently only one bus goes to Hanoi, and it costs three times what the locals pay.  Even if you know there is a bus station, if you don't know how to get there (and nobody does and there are no signs and no Vietnamese people will tell you), you have no choice but to suck it up and pay the money even though you know you are being scammed.  Welcome to Vietnam.
After a 25 hour journey, I arrived in Hanoi.  I shared a dorm room with two British guys who exemplified a large number of the travelers I see here - couldn't stop talking about beer, soccer, and Asian women. I get the impression a lot of the solo male travelers here are running away from something - and hoping to run straight into the arms of the Asian women.  It's interesting to me to see the kinds of people who are traveling here, though I can't really say I approve of traveling around Asia to look for women.
My second day I spent wandering around Hanoi, which is quite a colorful city.  I don't think I've ever seen so many motorbikes in my life.  For the first day I was in Hanoi, I didn't even realize there were traffic lights there - the army of motorbikes on each street just does whatever it wants.  The Lonely Planet has some advice about crossing the street that I laughed at before I got to Hanoi - basically it says that you have to just take a deep breath and start crossing the street slowly (don't try to run across) and pray that the motorbikes will go around you.  And it's totally true.  It's very scary, but you have to just walk right out in front of them, and somehow they always manage to manoever around you.  The Old Quarter of Hanoi is filled with little shops selling everything you can imagine, and I ended up giving in and buying some and mailing it home.  They have so many beautiful things.  I also visited the "Hanoi Hilton" - the prison where they kept Vietnamese political prisoners and, later, American POWs, and that was quite interesting.  Didn't look like a fun place to live, but they did their best to show how happy the Americans were there.
I've been debating whether to share with you what happened next, but in the name of telling a good story, I feel I should.  I'll preface it by saying that I asked around and found out that at least turtles are farmed here, so no species should have been endangered in the making of this story.
So here goes:  when I travel, I like to get to know local people if I can, to get a better idea of the culture, etc.  When you don't speak the language, it limits who you can talk to, and I now know not to trust people here who speak English.  A lesson hard learned.  I was sitting by the lake on my first day and started talking to a very friendly guy.  He ended up showing me around the city and joining me for a tour of the Temple of Literature.  After spending several hours with him, I thought he seemed nice enough and agreed to go try some "local food" with him.  Now, I will take the blame for this part - I initiated the food idea, but I was intending to get some noodles in the local market.
He instead took me to a nearby town, where I was shown a cage full of turtles and a bag full of cobras.  Upstairs were huge jugs of snake wine - rice wine with whole cobras preserved in it.  Supposed to be good for your health.  They are awfully scary looking.  We sat down and they brought us a bunch of little appetizers.  Then up they came and put a flopping turtle on the ground for my new friend's approval.  I was horrified but didn't want to offend him, so I didn't say anything (I know, but it's hard when you are trying to be polite in a foreign culture).  After a little while they came up with grilled turtle pieces, and then three water bottles with dark liquid - one red, one green, and one gold.  Turns out that the custom is to take the fresh turtle's blood and mix it with rice wine - the red drink - and also take the turtle's bile and mix that with rice wine - the green drink - and all this was accompanied by the third bottle, the snake wine I saw earlier. 
Well, I managed to get down a little bit of the one with blood in it, but I think after seeing me turn green in the face at the thought of what I was doing, my host did not offer me the bile.  The snake wine was somewhat sweet, but I kept thinking I must be getting poisoned or something.  Anyway, this was followed by turtle stew made with the rest of the turtle, and then the usual tea.  And here's the worst part - at the end of dinner, my new "friend" did not have enough money, and I was left to pay an enormous bill, which I'm sure he then went back and split with the restaurant later. 
Apparently this is an extremely common scam - I've since heard from many people it's happened to - but I was unprepared, given that I've had great experiences doing the exact same thing in many other countries.  It took me a long time to get over being angry about that one, but it was a good lesson to me about Vietnam.  And at least I got a better story about it than most people, who just have a standard noodle dinner and then lose all their money.  The dinner I had is one that is a "special occasion" meal and expensive enough that there is actually a small possibility that I wasn't scammed and indeed just had a very expensive dinner.  But it was a very uniquely Vietnamese meal, and definitely makes for a funny, if slightly embarassing, story.
So anyway, the next day I determined to make a fresh start of it, after staying up all night feeling upset about the scamming and the turtle killing, and I got a tour to Halong Bay.  This was beautiful - karst formations jutting out of the ocean and a lovely cave that is nicely illuminated.  Unfortunately our guide spoke completely unintelligible English, and so half of us did not bring our cameras on the nicest hike with great views of the bay, since we all thought we were going kayaking.  And when we did go kayaking later, something was up with the water or the boat and we all kept turning in circles. 
However, the boat ride was very relaxing and we slept on the boat in the bay, which was really nice.  The next day we spent the morning going back to town on the boat, with a short stop for swimming on the way.  I wasn't feeling in the mood but decided to go in anyway, and after a few minutes I felt something bite my arm.  As I was looking down trying to figure out what was going on, my legs were suddenly besieged by an army of something.  I started yelling and swam as fast as I could out of the water, where they poured vinegar on my legs and I stood there in excruciating pain.  I never even saw the jellyfish, but he managed to sting the backs of both of my legs pretty much all over, so he must have been humongous.  To top it all off, the crew told me I couldn't lie down because we had already "checked out" so I had to lie on the wood floor for the next two hours while I was in the most pain. The pain didn't subside for about two days, and I still have huge red marks on me.
Anyway... the next day I spent again in Hanoi again, wandering around to the lakes, checking out temples and enjoying fresh lychees.  I did my shopping and was planning to stick around another day, when I found out that I had to leave that night or I would be stuck for three more days.  So I packed up and took the overnight train up into the mountains of the northwest to Sapa.  The ride up there was fantastic - beautiful mountain landscapes and minority groups dressed in their traditional dress and going about their business, including herding water buffaloes up the mountain. Once in Sapa, I got myself on a little tour of the surrounding villages, which meant a fairly long and precarious hike down into the valley and through rice terraces to visit villages of Black Hmong and Red Zao people.  They raise corn, rice, some small vegetables, and, most amusingly, hemp (only for clothing, not for smoking), so we walked by all of these crops. The little girls followed us around as we walked, asking a set group of questions to "get to know us" before they made the hard sell of their handicrafts.  They were adorable, and most of us ended up buying cheap things, even though I didn't really appreciate the tactics, which later included pushing me and yelling at me when I didn't buy something from a girl who had walked with me for a while. 
We had an overnight in a home in a village, and it was very nice.  Although they still live pretty much the way they always have, our house included a real western toilet that even flushed and had running water, though only bucket showers.  Tourism has really reached even the most remote parts of Vietnam.  It's not too hot there because it's high in the mountains, so I finally got a good night's sleep.  I was slightly nervous, though, as the guy sleeping next to me kept referring to his "illness", and when I finally asked, he had told me it was "psychosis", though evidently his medicine is working well enough for him to be out of the home...  yikes.
The next day it rained like nobody's business, and the 8km hike back was ridiculously muddy and slippery.  I was lucky and didn't fall, but only because I had a walking stick and some help from the tribal girls.  I got back totally soaked and fortunately the tour agency let me take a shower there and put on some dry clothes, before heading off to the border.  I bought a ticket from them all the way to Kunming, and in Vietnam's final insult, I got scammed one last time.
I do believe that the girl who sold me the ticket thought she was telling the truth that I was to be on a nice, new, air-conditioned sleeper bus.  However, her boss had other ideas, and he knew that once I crossed the border, I couldn't come back and get angry with him about it.  The border crossing was very complicated, and Vietnam not only took away my visa but never even stamped my passport, so it appears like I was never even there!  And the Chinese guys had a very long discussion, made me sign my name again, and compared me to my photo for a while before finally letting me through.  At the bus station, some guy showed me a badge that said "license" and tried to get me to go to his office to "ask me some questions".  I don't know what he wanted, but when I said he had to ask me the questions in public, he tried to sell me water and then to change my money before finally giving up.  And of course I was not on the nice sleeper, but one that was better than but quite similar to the horrible one I took to Vietnam in the first place, closing up a nice little circle for my sojourn in Vietnam.  Some guy on the bus kept yelling at me - I have no idea why - and the bus broke down in the middle of the night and they spent 90 minutes trying to fix the engine in the dark.  And to top it all off, they broke my backpack - ripping one of the straps right off the front of it.  At least they didn't steal anything, which is what I was expecting to happen.  The road was horrible, and there were times we bumped so hard I was bounced totally up off my bunk.  I had to hang on to the window for most of the night to keep from falling, and though I read a lot of my book, I didn't get much sleep.
And now I'm back in China.   It's weird to be back - it's much more challenging to travel here, and I was kind of enjoying the ease of travel in Vietnam.  In fact, I liked Vietnam so much I was very tempted to stay a lot longer.  It's definitely a place I'll return to.  But China is nice too, and actually the people I've met here have been extremely nice as well, but fewer of them speak any English at all, so it's hard to find out how nice they really are.
Well, I've rambled on, but it's been quite a week.   Hope I've kept you all entertained.  It's certainly been an adventure over here.
Till next time,

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Ahh, Chinese buses

Hanoi, Vietnam

You know, you think you've seen it all...

China is a land of many contrasts.  I have seen so many sides of China in the last week, and so far I have no grasp on what "is" China.  The country is undergoing a massive modernization, or at least so they would have us believe.  In some ways, it is very modern - so modern, in fact, that when you come face to face with some of the less modern aspects, it's that much more of a shock.

Yangshuo was a wonderful little town.  It was laid back and beautiful, teeming with tourists but relaxing.  I think I hit it at the wrong time, though - most people go at the end of their trip and appreciate it much more as a respite from the harassment.  As I have not been harassed too much yet, I didn't need it as badly as they did.  However, I did have several large cockroaches in my room - leading me to sleep with the lights on - and the guy who got me the hotel came in the morning to offer generously to share the room with me since my bed was so empty with me there alone.  So nice of him.

However, I had a very nice tour of a cave - which I came out of thoroughly covered in mud, as the exit to the cave was a 4 meter tunnel that you inch through on your belly "like a snake" because it's not tall enough to even lift your head up.   Then I climbed the famed Moon Hill - the only karst formation with a hole in it - all 1250 steps (according to the Lonely Planet).  Tiring, but amazing views.

The next two days I hiked up to a village of the minority Yao/Zhuang people in the Longji Rice Terraces.  There were many, many stairs there too, but it was really spectacular.  The terraces are somewhere around 2000 years old and spread as far as you can see.  We spent the night in the village, and we were up at 4:45 am the next day to see the sunrise.  We had to hike up stairs for a half an hour, passing a fairly large snake, and it was cloudy, but the light reflected off the water of the rice paddies, making them look like mirrors.  It was really beautiful.  And pretty much no tourists - only a few chinese tourists, including one who kept taking pictures of me till I got mad and put my bag in front of my face and yelled at him.

After that began the adventure of getting to Vietnam.  I had (stupidly on the advice of someone who had been here a while) booked a ticket on a sleeper bus (remember the nice one from the other day?) to the border town of Pingxiang leaving at 5:30.  We had to leave the terraces a bit early to get there, but I rushed and made it.  I was told to wait.  By 6:30 or so, the guy finally grunted at me to move, and led me on a long march down the middle of the highway.  Why down the middle of a highway when there was a sidewalk 20 feet away, I will never know.  Finally he flagged down a decrepit looking bus and threw me on it and disappeared.

This was now the "other" China - the not quite modernized part.  My first sleeper bus had nice bunks that were clean, they made you take off your shoes to enter and had an attendant, air conditioning, and even gave you water bottles.  This one had tiny bunks so small I couldn't even come close to fitting in them.  They can't have even been 5 feet long.  My pack was thrown on a bunk next to me and the place was filthy.  Trash on the floor and sleeping Chinese all around who looked like they'd been there a while.  There was a guy who kept getting in and out of the bunk above me, swinging his dirty feet over my head.  There was no way I was taking my shoes off, either, even though all the Chinese were barefoot.  The Chinese were doing their usual act of burping, farting, and spitting all over the floor, the guy next to me was chain smoking, and to top it all off, a woman behind me had some sort of cold and spent several hours blowing her nose onto the floor using the one finger blowing technique (those of you who aren't familiar with this one, count yourselves lucky).  Just listening to the sounds, there were a few times I almost threw up.  Actually someone yesterday made a joke that the sound of hocking up phlegm is China's unoffical national anthem... you better believe it.

I put on my mask to try to block out some of the germs and tried to sleep.  The bus drove around in the usual Chinese bus fashion for an hour or two, looking for more passengers.  Someone came by and loaded several large cages of chickens into the luggage compartment under the bus.  We then went to every bus station in town until I guess they finally gave up.  By about 7:30 they took off on the highway, stopping several times for no particular reason and waiting for half an hour on the side of the road.

Around 1:45 am we arrived in Nanning, the major town between Guilin, where I started, and Pingxiang, near the Vietnamese border.  They shut the bus off God knows where and for an hour unloaded the cargo.  First a motorcycle cart came and unloaded four large cages stuffed full of squawking chickens.  Then a bigger, covered truck came - and this I've never seen before - they unloaded several big baskets, all lined with plastic bags and full of water leaking everywhere, with some sort of fish or sea creature swimming around in them.  They poured some of the water on the ground to make them lighter and then trucked them off.  Out came boxes of something from under the seats and several sacks of rice and fruit that were inside the bus with the passengers.  At around 2:45 they were off, and I thought we would be at the border town in about 4 hours.  Haha.

At 3am they pulled into the Nanning bus station.  The bus driver turned off the engine and opened up a pack of mosquito coils.  He lit two of them and put them on the ground, filling the bus with a horrible thick air.  Then he and the other bus workers turned off the lights and went to bed.

I didn't know what to think.  I couldn't get out - it was 3am and I didn't know where I was, and everyone else on the bus seemed to be sleeping and thinking this was totally normal.  Finally at around 5:30 people started to slowly get up and get out of the bus.  I got up and went outside and was approached by a guy who told me my bus was not, in fact, going to Pingxiang, and offered to take me to the bus station to get a bus.  Of course, this is all taking place in Mandarin, as no one speaks a word of English.  So I woke up the bus drivers and tried to figure out what was going on, and after talking to three people, i found out that indeed my bus was not going to Pingxiang, so I tried to demand my money back.  Instead, one of the drivers took me to yet another bus, which wasn't leaving until 8am, and bought me a ticket on that one.

Thankfully, after all this ordeal, the bus did go to Pingxiang.  There I was followed for several blocks by a woman trying to sell me transportation, and finally I lost her and took a motorcycle-driven covered wagon of sorts to the border.  Crossing was no problem - though I did have to buy a "health certificate" for 2000 dong - and I very happily met some other travelers, with whom I continued on.

The bus in Vietnam wandered around for 2 hours until it filled up, and then finally we went to Hanoi.  Actually, I like Vietnam very much so far, although it took me 25 hours to get here.  It's much more laid back than China, and the people seem nicer and friendlier.  I'm really looking forward to spending some time here - and not on the bus.  I'll tell you all about Vietnam after I've finished my time here, but suffice it to say, I am very tempted to just stay here for the next month and forget about China altogether.

So back to my original statement.  I think really that in many ways my experience on the buses here in China summarizes the character of China as a country (at least from what I've seen so far, which admittedly isn't much).  You never know if you'll get the clean, modern, air conditioned bus, or the horrible, hot local bus filled with chickens.  Even in the nice, modern bus, you may have to stop on the highway to let a farmer cross with his water buffaloes.  And the buses that leave from the bus station all have a departure time and are very punctual - but they then drive around town for an hour or two looking for more passengers, which makes them seriously not on time.

There are signs of tourism everywhere - tons of hotels and tour guides, at least where I've been - but not so many foreign tourists.  In fact, the Chinese point and stare and laugh at us all the time, and worst of all, take tons of pictures.  It gets annoying to have people treat you like an animal in a zoo - it's not the first time it's happened to me, but it's the first time when they had big fancy cameras to remember the moment forever.
Anyway, just a few thoughts to give you all a little taste of China.  Time to go now. Thanks for all the emails - sorry I can't always respond individually, but I really appreciate them, so keep them coming.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Border crossing

Yangshou, Guangxi, China
I wasn't going to write you all again so soon, but I thought I'd recount the story of my arrival here in Yangshou.
Yesterday morning I went out to the Po Lin Monastery in Lantau, Hong Kong.  The Buddha was indeed very impressive (apparently the head alone weighs over 5 tons!), and the monastery was very nice.  The drive was great too, because it went through winding roads and very green, lush hills.  It rained, though, and when I came down from the Buddha, it was so foggy I couldn't see the Buddha anymore!  It was quite impressive really.
Anyway, Ming Ming's mom (and btw, for those who don't know, Ming Ming was my roommate all four years of college and remains a good friend) met me in the afternoon and wrote out some essential phrases for me in Chinese characters ("I need a bus ticket to Guilin," etc).  Then I got on a bus to the border, where the crossing wasn't too bad.  The funny part was that you had to check off a list of symptoms you might be having on the arrival card, including cough, fever, diarrhea, venereal diseases, AIDS, and pyschosis, among others.  And at the border crossing they had doctors - or at least people in white lab coats - waiting in case you were lying and showed visible symptoms, I guess.
On the other side, I soon realized I wasn't in Kansas anymore.  Gone were the people who spoke English, the English signs, or even any sign of pinyin, the transliteration of Mandarin that is an official way of writing it for those of us who haven't learned characters.  I was soon approached by a guy who spoke English, and since I didn't seem to have another option, I asked him.  He said that there were no buses to Guilin from there and we had to go somewhere else... we started leaving the bus station and I made him turn back and asked a couple people if there were buses to Guilin.  No one had any idea, but one said there were none from the bus terminal.  So he took me down the street to a storefront where they promised me a sleeper bus.  I gave them a third of the price and went back to the "mall" to wait the next three hours. "no p'oble'..."
Shenzhen, the Chinese border town, is a "special economic zone" and full of people from HK who come over for the day to buy tons of stuff on the cheap.  Also full of western tourists doing the same thing.  Lots of upscale tourists and businessmen.  I got a lot of funny looks as I sat on the bench and ate my sandwich that I had brought from HK. 
At 7:30 I went back to the bus store and sat down to wait.  I got a lot of attention, as there were no other western people anywhere in sight.  I had a whole conversation with a woman who squatted down next to me, using a mixture of Mandarin, hand gestures, and my phrasebook.  I am SO thankful that I took those Mandarin classes - I've used everything I can remember from them, and wish that I had reviewed more, since they were over a year ago.
Anyway, no one had any idea what was going on, or at least they didn't tell me, and at 8:20 (the bus was at 8:30) they told me to pay the rest of the money and get in a van  with two men.  Well, by then I had watched many other passengers go and the woman I was talking to was clearly traveling too, so I knew they were at least somewhat legitimate.  And they did take me to another bus station across town, where they put me on a real bus - and they only charged me an extra 70 yuan (about $8.50) for arranging the whole thing.  Frankly it was worth it cause I never would have found the other station on my own.
The funny thing was they made me take my shoes off when I got in the bus, because it was full of beds!  Three rows of bunk beds, in which I was just small enough to fit.  I got the best seat in the house - top bunk in the front, right in front of the window.  What an experience - that was definitely something I had never seen before!  And they played music videos for the first half hour or so on the TV... did you all know Jackie Chan is a recording artist over here?  At least, I'm pretty sure it was him - and his music videos are so cheesy!
The ride was 12 and a half hours, so I was glad to have a bed.  I awoke to a beautiful pink sunrise over jutting hills and green countryside.  Rural China looks a LOT different from what I've been seeing so far.  People walking huge pigs down the street, bicycles carrying baskets full of chickens, men in cone shaped hats tending to the fields and the rice paddies...
But finally they dropped me in Yangshou, which is unfortunately quite touristy.  I got a good deal on my hotel but got totally taken for a ride (literally, I guess) on the river tour down the Li River.  I think it was inevitable - everyone has to get taken advantage of a few times when they get somewhere new, and now I have learned my lesson.  The tour was nice though... this region is famous for the karst rock formations that jut out everywhere.  They are quite impressive and the scenery is all very beautiful.  The town is laid back, and in the surrounding areas it's definitely still the way it has been for a long, long time.  And also I was able to talk to other travelers who have been here a while and get some useful advice, which made me feel a lot better.
So anyway, China so far seems to be quite varied.  It's much more developed than I had realized, though fortunately still quite cheap.  This area is completely different from what I saw yesterday and from Hong Kong, and I'm very curious to see how much more it will change over the coming days.  Don't have a plan yet, but I'll be here in Yangshou at least one more day.
sorry if I'm clogging your inboxes, but hopefully most of you are entertained.  keep in touch...


Sunday, June 18, 2006

Hong Kong - Strangely like New York

I guess it's about time for an update, before I head off into China... Since you last heard from me, I went back to New York and had a crazy week of packing furiously, then a move to storage (with many thanks to Heather, Rachel, Regina, Jeanne, and associated boyfriends), and then lots of work to do before I made a hurried exit on Thursday morning.  I had about 24 hours of travel time through Tokyo to land in Hong Kong Friday night, and I have been staying with Ming Ming's family for the last two days.  They have been way too nice to me and I'm being quite spoiled.  In fact, these first few days are a bit reminiscent of my first few days in Africa - very nice, very air conditioned, and very unlike the rest of my trip, which is what I'm guessing is going to happen starting tomorrow. 
Maybe I'm the only one who didn't realize this, but the majority of the Chinese immigrants in the US, and definitely in New York, are Cantonese - meaning from Hong Kong and the neighboring regions in China.  So basically what that means for me is that Hong Kong is like walking through Chinatown in New York.  They have the same stores, sell the same things, eat the same food, and have the same amount of English available.  In fact, in many ways I feel like I haven't even left New York.  There is even a Times Square and a Mister Softee truck.  It's kind of surreal.  But there's also little differences - the fact that they sell dried out lizards to put in soup and boxes of huge fat black flying insects, also supposedly for soup.  If they have that in Chinatown, I've never seen it!
So anyway, the last couple days I took the Peak Tram up Victoria Peak to get a view of the city, then walked all over downtown Hong Kong, all over Kowloon and up to New Kowloon to see Buddhist and Taoist temples and nunneries. I've also been to several different kinds of markets and to the beach.  I've gone out to eat a few times with Ming Ming's family, and they are trying to show me how things work so I don't look like too much of an idiot in China, which I appreciate, though sometimes I feel like a little child right now.
I've been very lucky so far - knock on wood - in that it's been raining nonstop here for weeks and the first day that the rain stopped was the day I got here.  It's quite hot and humid, but it's sunny, so I'm very thankful.
Anyway, tomorrow I'm supposed to go to a big monastery in the morning and see the biggest seated Buddha in the world (I think).  Then I am planning to cross the border into China and catch an overnight "sleeper" bus to Guilin.  Not sure how that'll go, but keep your fingers crossed for me.  Ming Ming's mom seems worried about it and my lack of fluent Mandarin, but I'm guessing it'll be doable.  They do say China is a big change from here, though, so I'm very curious to see what it looks like on the other side. 
So no funny stories yet - Hong Kong is too westernized for that.  But I'm sure they'll be forthcoming shortly.  Please keep me posted on your own summer adventures, everybody.
Till soon,

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Iceland - So much better in the sun

I got back from Iceland last night, and I wanted to send you a quick summary with some of my favorite pictures. After I last wrote, I realized that I had forgotten to include a bunch of things, so I'll try to hit some of them here. After writing to you, it continued to rain heavily and we left the island we were on. We went east to Vik, where we ran into two German girls who told us that they had gone the other way around the island - the way we were planning to go but had been advised against - and had sunshine the whole time. We were feeling pretty rotten at that point and seriously were starting to give up hope on Iceland. But apparently that's what we needed to do, because the next morning we woke up to beautiful sunshine and a cloudless sky.

We rushed to take the most advantage of it we could and left for Skaftafell National Park, where we did an 8 hour hike up some mountains to see glaciers. It felt so nice to be in the sunshine finally and we even got a little burned. That night we camped out in the park, which was a nice change from the exorbitantly expensive guesthouses where it costs $70 for two single beds if you bring your own sleeping bag and towels. It's $15 more if you use their sheets. So ridiculous.

The next day brought more sun and we decided to take a tour of Ingolfshofdi farm on a humongous tractor. It was a little touristy, but pretty much the highlight of the trip for me. We were driven across a huge expanse of sand and then climbed a sand dune to the cliffs on a little peninsula in south-eastern Iceland.

There we were guided through the nesting grounds of several birds and saw them close up. Mostly I was excited cause we saw quite a few puffins flying around, but also we saw nesting gulls and guillemots, as well as ducks, kittiwakes and this huge bird called a "great skua," which apparently attacks people if they don't walk in a group. And it did fly very close to us and scare us a bit. It was pretty amazing to see so many birds together and so close.

After that we did the most touristy thing - the amphibious boat tour of Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon. It was a bright blue lake filled with icebergs at the foot of Iceland's biggest glacier.

We camped again, and the next day wasn't so sunny, but we went hiking again in the Lon area, which was less spectacular than the book seemed to think, but on the bright side, we saw huge colonies of whooping swans - they are quite weird, as you always see them sitting in fields with sheep, rather than in the water. And we saw reindeer. I'm an animal fan, so this was my favorite part of the day.

After that it rained for the next day and we had a long drive back to Reykjavik. Yesterday we used our last day to go to Iceland's number one attraction, the Blue Lagoon. It's a huge hot spring where the water is aquamarine and filled with a fine glacial silt, and they have buckets of mud to put on your skin. We were very soft and felt very pampered after that, and it was very sad to get on the plane home.

So in conclusion, we are thinking about going back next August. It is clearly a beautiful country with a lot to offer, but the weather is extremely unpredictable and all the hikes we were hoping to do were not open from the winter yet. This year saw very unusual weather, so we had no way of knowing this would happen. The country is expensive, the food is bad, and the people are not particularly nice, but we've learned some things that will help us (or you) to have a much smoother trip next time. It's definitely worth a visit - a long one to help be flexible about weather delays - and we're glad we went. The scenery is beautiful and it's the best place in the world to see puffins. And probably one of the best for sheep (and baby sheep at this time of year).

So that's my update. For those of you in New York, I hope I'll see you Saturday to move into my storage bin, and I'll be off again next Thursday for Hong Kong. Can't believe it's so soon! Keep in touch...


ps. Here is a picture from the first week when we were driving along and some horses were blocking the road. We had to stop and one of them got curious and actually stuck his head in the window before some Icelandic person stopped and shooed him away for us.

And here is D. saying hi to some super friendly sheep:

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

From Heimaey, Iceland

So... Iceland! It´s rainy. And cold. But it seems to be a really beautiful country when the sun comes out. Right now we are at the internet because there is nothing else to do. We are on the tiny island of Heimaey in the Vestmannajaer island chain (the Westman Islands) hoping to see puffins. yesterday we climbed out onto some cliffs and did see puffins flying around, and I have to say - they are exceedingly cute. But with the rain it´s a bit dangerous to be running around on the cliffs, and the puffins aren´t too active anyway.
My first day in Reykjavik was gorgeous. I walked all around the coast and sat in a hot tub for a while, and then D. got here in the evening. The airline lost his luggage with all his camping stuff in it, so that limited our possibilities a little. The next day we drove up to the Snaefellsness peninsula, which is full of weird volcanic lava formations. We had sun about half the time, and we saw a lot of cool scenery. There were some really great waterfalls, tons of different seabirds and we even saw an arctic fox. I think the birds are the coolest thing about the island so far. Other than that, everything is still sort of recovering from the winter. Then we came back and took the ferry down to the island we´re on now.
There´s not too much to say about everything so far. Iceland seems to be a weird country. We are definitely before the season, so there is nobody here and it´s cold. The people aren´t particularly friendly, the names are long and hard to say, and we have a tendency to get lost everywhere. So far we haven´t taken one 'trail´that has actually been marked from beginning to end. Fortunately we are doing a lot of laughing about it, especially the long Icelandic names. The food is not particularly good, but it is ridiculously expensive. Turns out sandwiches from gas stations are the best bet, and we are at least amused by the strange things on offer there.
Probably tomorow we will head along the southern coast over to the big glacier there. We heard it´s supposed to rain the rest of the time, so we´re going to try to see what we can. If not, we heard there are some nice geothermal hot springs outside of Reykjavik, and maybe we´ll just spend the rest of the time there.
Well, my time is up... till next time.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Why I finally have a blog

Welcome to my new blog! I never thought I'd make a blog, honestly, but it looks prettier than that online travel journal I was using before, and it's more practical, so here I am. Watch for updates on my travels to Iceland, China, and then Belgium, where I should be settled for a while.

You'll notice I put in the journal from Africa into this blog, so if you missed it before, feel free to read it now. You can see my pictures from that trip on my website: (or more specifically at

Since everyone seems confused about what I'm doing, I'll just use this space to give you my schedule.

May 24 - Jun 6 -- Iceland
Jun 10 -- Moving day
Jun 15 - Aug 16 -- China
Aug 17 - Aug 20 -- New York City
Aug 21 - ??? --- Brussels, Belgium

I'll be sending out my new address and phone number in Brussels when I have it, but that wont be for a while. I should be checking my usual email address while I'm away, but probably not every day till I get to Belgium and find an apartment.

This blog sends out automatic updates when a new entry has been posted. If you want to be added to the mailing list, email me (my first name . my last name at yahoo).

I hope you all will enjoy the updates and be sure to keep in touch!

Adventure map for 2009...