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:

Adventure map for 2009...