Friday, December 26, 2008

12.21.08: Hong Kong

This incredible journey has been a lot of work...schlepping, hiking, freezing, defecating in holes in the ground, sleeping in train cars while being stared down by Chinese men or on rat-infested boats. Well, today, we were unexpectedly rewarded with a one-day-beach-resort vacation.

We boarded the top-level of a double decker bus on Hong Kong Island and went up, up, over the mountains until suddenly, the high-rises were behind us and we were on what seemed to be a tropical isle. Yes, south Hong Kong is the Honolulu to north Hong Kong's San Francisco and Kowloon's New York City. Hopping off at the completely inappropriately named Repulse Bay, we spent a couple hours lounging on the beautiful crescent of a beach, something I never thought I'd get to do on this trip. It was unseasonably warm, and although the winter clothing and heavy black boots that I brought for the rest of the trip wasn't exactly working for me, I wasn't complaining at all about the 80-degree weather. It felt WONDERFUL.

(Romantic Stanley...Two words that don't normally fit together)

From there, we went on to an area called Stanley, whose restaurant-lined seaside promenade was reminiscent of Monaco or any other high-end, European resort town. We sat outside and ordered an absolute! I know, we could have held out a few more days for the real deal in NY, but honestly, after Chinese food for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the past three weeks, I'll be just fine if I don't see another noodle 'til next Christmas. This trip definitely made me realize how spoiled by variety we are at home.

As the sun set over the harbor, we hopped back onto the bus and headed into downtown Hong Kong. Just about when we reached the bus depot, something caught the corner of my eye, but couldn't be. Could it? We jumped off early to investigate and yes! It was! An enormous menorah was erected in Hong Kong's Central Square for the first night of Chanukah, and several hundred Jews were hanging out, preparing to light it. If I thought a day at the beach was unexpected, this one really took my by surprise. Jews in China. Who knew?

(Chabad of Hong Kong Wishes You a Bright Happy Chanukah!)

Tomorrow will be our last day in this complex country, and despite the aforementioned less-than-comfortable conditions, this trip has been fascinating from the start. In just over three weeks, we covered thousands of miles and many different types of terrain, from city to jungle to mountain to beach. We experienced culinary adventures, physical challenges, breathtaking views, hilarious cultural misunderstandings, and even made some friends along the way. It truly was the trip of a lifetime.

(One of my favorites of an amazing trip...the view from Mt. Emei's summit)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

12.20.08: Hong Kong

Today we walked...and walked...and walked...and got a pretty good feel for Kowloon and the northern part of Hong Kong Island. Our adventure began with the route between our hotel and the Kowloon Harbor. The area around the harbor (Tsim Tsa Shui) is one of the most touristed in Hing Kong, with its high end shopping malls, expansive view of Hong Kong Island's glittering skyline, and Hollywood-esque star walk, featuring hand prints of Hong Kong's most famous movie stars (and a sweet Bruce Lee statue!)

At some of the upmarket shops, like Dolce & Gabbana, shoppers were actually lined up outside behind velvet ropes, awaiting their turns to spend hard-earned Hong Kong dollars. Oh yeah, it's the last Saturday before Christmas. It makes sense that Christmas shopping is happening here in Hong Kong, with so many expats and the vestiges of British rule. However, we were surprised that, even in the smallest cities we visited, Christmas lights twinkled and English carols pumped over the loudspeakers. We were hoping that this would be one December of our lives unbeseiged by tinsel, but no such luck. The interesting part is that, outside of Hong Kong, there isn't even a pretense of Christmas being a religious holiday. Ammy basically explained it to us as a "shopping holiday" celebrated among young Chinese who are pushing for Westernization.

(The man, the myth, the statue...and Hong Kong Island from Kowloon's harbor)

Anyway, our destination at Kowloon's harbor was the Star Ferry, a short but scenic trip that would take us across to Hong Kong Island. Upon arrival, we walked through a series of overpasses above wide city avenues until we reached the Central-Mid-Level escalators, apparently the longest electric people-movers in the world. If Kowloon is like New York, northern Hong Kong Island is similar to San Francisco, with its dramatic hills and prominent green areas. And San Francisco could definitely benefit from some escalators like these, that ascend story after story of steep, mid-city inclines.

We stepped off the escalator in trendy SoHo (sound familiar?) for lunch at an organic joint called "Life," that could easily find a home in SF's Potrero Hill. This charged us up for the afternoon's excursion--walking back down to Central Hong Kong (The escalators only go up) and jumping onto the historic, high-speed (and highly vertical) tram to the top of Victoria Peak. From this vantage point, we got an awesome bird's eye view of skyscraper-filled downtown Hong Kong and beyond, across the harbor o our home-base of Kowloon and also a glimpse of the lush, green, south side of the island and some of the surrounding isles, like Lantau Island, home of Hong Kong's Disneyland.

(One view from Victoria Peak)
Rather than take the tram, we walked down Victoria Peak along the winding, wooded path that twists down its sides. This was a long but peaceful trip, and we passed other tourists, joggers, and ladies walking full-outfitted poodles wearing ridiculous little poodle sneakers. We continued our way back down to the ferry terminal, and when I say down I really mean it...our walk was strictly vertical for about two hours. We passed through shopping areas, enormously tall apartment complexes, and a lively neighborhood jam-packed with bars and nightclubs before getting back onto the ferry.

Hong Kong Island's skyline was even more impressive at night, with its myriad lights reflecting into the water. Back on the other side, we met up with the other folks from our Intrepid group who were still in town, to watch Hong Kong Island's fame nightly light show from across the harbor. It was actually pretty lame--a series of laser beams shooting out from different buildings, and coming off a little like bad special effects from the original version of Dr. Who--but it was cool that the group voluntarily got together for one last hurrah. Totally sacked from hours of city-trekking, we left the group to sleep it off in anticipation of another adventure-filled day.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

12.19.08: Hong Kong/ Kowloon

We arrived in Hong Kong this afternoon. Even though the islands are officially part of China again (and not the UK), we still had to go through customs. This involved filling out departure cards, leaving China, walking 300 meters, filling out arrival cards, and entering Hong Kong. They do love the red tape in these parts!

We are staying in Kowloon, which is across the harbor from Hong Kong Island but still part of HK, kind of like a Manhattan-Brooklyn situation. Speaking of home-sweet-home, Hong Kong so far is very different from the other Chinese cities we've seen, yet very similar to New York's Chinatown...on steroids. We learned that most Chinese who emigrate stateside are actually Cantonese, rather than from mainland China, which helps explain our familiarity with this scene.

(Kowloon at night)
My first impression of Kowloon is all action, all the time--packed with people, shops, and neon lights, lights, lights 24/7. It is a little bit of a shock to the system after mellow Yangshuo.

Our first night in Kowloon was our final night with Ammy and our Intrepid group. We had an adventuresome "last supper" smack in the middle of the bustling Temple Street Night Market. The food was nothing special, but the ambiance was priceless. We sat outside; our table was literally in the street. Diners on the street side of our long table had to scoot their chairs in when big buses drove by. We were surrounded by stalls with vendors hawking their cheap wares, like men's underwear by "Gioven Kelvin," aka Calvin Klein, and the cacophony of shoppers bargaining for those goods filled our ears. After dinner, perusing of those stalls and warm hugs goodbye from our now former travel companions closed out the night.

(Dinner at the Temple Street Night Market)
Tomorrow, off to explore Hong Kong Island!

12.18.08: Yangshuo

Our full day in lovely Yangshuo was one of the best of the trip. We started out with a 15-or-so-mile bike ride through the countryside. Once out of town, the views of the massive, rocky karsts was uninterrupted by buildings. We rode past streams, tiny villages, rice paddies, cows, chickens, bulls, mandarin orange trees, and beautiful views on all sides.

(Along the bike route)

We stopped for lunch at a village farmhouse, where our meal was made of the freshest possible ingredients, as they were grown or raised right there. One of the dishes was a dumpling where the wrapper was like a tiny omelets, and the hens who laid those eggs were clucking around by our feet as we ate. Lunch also included a local specialty, beer fish, which was a whole fish marinated in beer, tomatoes, and onions.

We rode for another few hours after lunch. The trip became somewhat terrifying when we hit some really rocky dirt paths on our fixed gear city bikes--definitely not designed for such terrain. Among our group of 12, we had four spills resulting in small amounts of blood loss. Miraculously, I was not one of them, probably because I rode at the back of the pack at approximately .002 miles per hour.

As wiped out as I was when we rode back into town, I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to become part of that gorgeous landscape and absorb it with all of my senses--smelling the river-tinged air, hearing the cattle moo, saying hello to the women shelling peanuts roadside--rather than just viewing it from a tour bus window.

(Illuminations performers in canoes on the Yi River)

In the evening, Seth and I attended a show called something like "Illuminations" that we were a bit skeptical about because the way it had been described to us sounded very heavy on the cheese factor, enough so that the rest of our group decided to skip it. However, I read that it was created by the director of the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. That epic brought a new level of artistry to the classic kung fu film, and so my interest was definitely piqued. Fortunately, our investment in curiosity paid off in spades.

The show was nothing short of spectacular. The entire cast included SIX HUNDRED performers, who sang in Mandarin, telling a famous Chinese tale pf unrequited love. The "stage" and seats were outside, and most of the performances occurred directly on the water of the Li River. The night was pitch black, concealing the mechanics of the process, and highly choreographed colored lights were used heavily, so it literally looked like these people were walking, gliding, and dancing on top of the water, and every so often, a beam would dramatically illuminate one of the karst peaks behind the set.

At one point, about 100 single-person canoes rowed out onto the water in ten straight rows, and suddenly the rowers lifted ribbons of bright red fabric out of the water and moved them up and down in succession, so it looked like waves of brilliant red were ripping through the night sky. There were several such dramatic, visual stunts, which are really hard to describe, but suffice it to say that the show was a one-of-a-kind theatrical feat and if you ever find yourself in Guanxi Province, I highly recommend it!

(Yangshuo Farmer's Market)

We spent the next day lazily wandering around Yangshuo, killing time before our final overnight train to Hong Kong. The highlight of this excursion was the football-field-sized farmer's market in the center of town that was positively bursting with colors and activity. Some sights were tough to take. For instance, they really do use every part of the pig, so individual tails and testicles were readily available. And I'll spare you the stomach-churning details, but let's just say that the whole "They eat dogs in China" thing is not just a rumor.

That being said, the farmer's market also featured stall after stall of squatting farmers with exquisitely wrinkled faces selling the most incredible produce you've ever seen: carrots the size of cucumbers, cucumbers the size of eggplants, freshly made tofu, foot-long cinnamon sticks that you couldn't fit a child's hand around, Chinese broccoli with little yellow flowers at the top, chili peppers galore and a zillion varieties of mushrooms!

We also enjoyed souvenir shopping along the touristy, bar-and-restaurant-lined West Street and in junk stalls along the Li River. All in all, our time in Yangshuo was a real pleasure and now we're off to our final destination in China!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

12.17.08: YANGSHUO

Our trip is quickly being redeemed in the friendly and colorful town of Yangshuo. We arrived before sunrise from our overnight train ride and cleaned up a bit, and then sauntered out for a morning look around. It's a small, pretty town with Westerners aplenty (There are several English language schools here) so it was easy to feel comfortable walking down its stone-paved streets.

And then we looked up. Wow. The entire town is surrounded by these incredible geological formations called karsts, which are apparently limestone remainders of a prehistoric, volcanic era. Each one looks like its own mini-mountain, about 30-50 stories high, streaked with black and tan and topped with trees. This region has the largest collection of such features in the world. Ammy told us there are about 1,000 in the area, so wherever you look these impressive mounds are rising up in the background. It is really cool!

(Morning at the Li River)

We walked to the Li River at the edge of town, where the rock formations go on as far as the eye can see. It was a pretty romantic scene--the river and karsts; old women sitting under tall, fluffy bamboo grasses, eating oranges and playing cards; young women doing laundry in the river; bamboo rafts floating by, taking children to school. Thankfully, it was a far way removed from our nasty boat ride a couple of days earlier.

Our group met us for a small orientation and lunch (at Minnie Mao's Cafe--ugh! The puns!). We sat outside in the sun. It was the first time we could expose some skin to the rays this trip, and it was fabulous. Warm, comfortable, and well-fed, we were ready to enjoy a couple of days in Yangshuo.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

12.15.08: Yangtze/Yishan

We spent much of the next day on another, smaller boat, exploring China's Three Gorges. I suppose they were beautiful--one of them is depicted on the ten-yuan note--but honestly, my head and the sky were both so foggy that nothing much registered with me.

the second night on the boat wasn't as bad as the first, with the help of earplugs, Tylenol PM, and extra blankets. Our meal was tolerable, too, thanks to our local guide, Harry, requesting more vegetables and less "meat" on our behalves. Harry, by the way, is one of the craziest characters we've met so far, sort of like a Chinese leprechaun with dyed red hair, who responds with a hyena's laugh and "sank you very much" to just about every inquiry.

Before bed, our group tried to make the most of being on the boat with beer, wine, mah jongg lessons (surrounded by a crowd of curious Chinese passengers) and having Ammy read our palms and fortune cards. Looks like Seth and I are in for a happy, life-long marriage. Good stuff!

We gratefully disembarked on the third day, and moved on to the ultimate destination of our river journey, the Three Gorges Dam Project. This ambitious undertaking is the largest dam int he world, built over the last ten years or so and meant to supply about 10% of China's power through hydroelectricity. I wasn't particularly interested in the first place, to be honest, but the civic engineers on our trip (there are two) were sorely disappointed, as we were given very limited access to the project and could only view it from a distance. Nor surprisingly, our local guide was unable or unwilling to answer any of their more controversial questions, like what happens to all the toxic waste and garbage in the river once the dam causes it to stop producing oxygen and become stagnant.

(Thank goodness for our Intrepid group: Oliver, Korina, Joan, Clare, Ross, Li, David, me, Seth, Sarah, Ruth and Amy)

We stayed the night in Yichang, which was apparently a small country town until about five years ago, when a dam-related development boom began. Now, there are plenty of wide streets, modern buildings, and construction sites everywhere you turn. We ate a delicious group dinner (exotic mushroom soup, marinated beef strips, crunchy lotus root, spicy tofu, chicken with greens, pumpkin with dates...) which almost made up for the rank slop served on the boat.

I will mention that one of the high points of our last few less-than-stellar days has been spending time with our group. We are really lucky because everyone is pretty friendly and caring and can roll with the punches. Joan, our buddy from the Great Wall, has sort of taken on the role of group Mum, due partly to the fact that her own kids are the same age as half of the young'ns on this trip. She also, however, has a biting wit that, spoken in her thick Scottish brogue, can crack up the whole group at tenser moments. The English Clare, a teacher-cum hotel manager-cum civic engineer is as sweet as sugar with sparkly blue eyes. She seems to laugh at the same Chines absurdities that I do, so that's been fun. Ross and Amy, also Brits and recently graduated art and fashion students, respectively, are quieter but absolutely hilarious, especially when Ross gets going with his faux-American frat boy impressions. They are at the beginning of a six-month trip all around Asia and India. Ruth, our sole Austrian, breaks the stereotypes of a stern and serious German-speaker with her sunshine smile and great attitude. The other five--David, Li, Sarah and Oliver from Australia and Corina from New Zealand are great, too.

We are now on a five-hour bus ride to an overnight train to Yangshuo, entering the third portion of our trip. The first ten days were amazing but the last few I could have lived without. I hope that the final part tops them all.

12.12.08: Chonqing/Yangtze River

Every trip has its low points, and after many highlights, I think we've hit ours. On the insane chicken/duck bus ride I mentioned a few entries ago, we were told that the five-star cruise that we were supposed to take down the Yangtze River (usually a highlight of this itinerary) stopped running in winter, and we would be taking a "regular" Chinese boat. That also meant that we would be spending the first night in Chonqing rather than on board. We arrived in Chonqing to discover that it is a filthy, putrid, stinkhole of a city, with brown smog so thick that it makes L.A. look like a Fresh Air Fund destination.

We wasted a day there, only to be sorely disappointed in thinking that we might find some relief once we got on our boat, another 3.5 hour bus ride away.

The boat literally looked like a giant, floating tin can. Our "first class" cabin smelled like a mixture of piss and cigarettes, due in part to the fact that the toilet in our room is just a porcelain hole in the ground akin to a really bad port-a-potty with no seat. By the way, you have to stand over said hole to shower. The sheets were filthy and the drawers below our bed (which is a series of wooden slats covered by a 1/2 inch piece of foam) were filled with RAT TURDS. By the way, the heater didn't work. Did I mention it's winter?

(Our floating home away from home)

Upon arrival, our local guide told us to keep the windows locked at night because if we docked, people from local villages might try to sneak in. GREAT. I spent the first night shivering, shifting from side to side, trying not to breathe through my nose, holding in my pee, and worrying that rats would crawl out from under my bed or a Chinese pirate would swoop in through the window.

You'd think at least we could escape our rooms for a more pleasant, public area of the boat. Yeah, not so much. Our highly unappetizing dinner the first night was served in a dining room that we shared with a large table of rowdy Chinese men playing a drinking game with some crazy, 60% alcohol rice wine. Our food was nothing short of revolting, with one dish resembling a cess pool. Seth swore a hand of the undead was going to rise out of it. To make matters worse, the men frequently made big productions out of clearing their throats and hocking big lugies right onto the carpet. It's one thing to spit on the street, which the Chinese do constantly, but nothing will curb my appetite like a green wad of phlegm landing next to my foot while I'm trying to eat dinner. Ewwwwwwwwwwww!

12.11.08: Emei Shan

In the morning, we made our way back down Emei Shan, this time taking a more leisurely pace and getting to fully appreciate the glorious jade jungle, incredibly fresh air, and waterfalls.

We stopped for breakfast at the cleverly named Hard Wok Cafe about 1/4 way down the 1,200 steps. We had also eaten there the night before, as the curious establishment was the only restaurant for miles. It was a strangle little place, perched on a stone platform, under a tent, in the middle of the jungle. All of their supplies had to be schlepped through the woods and up all those stairs each day. Needless to say, the sweet couple who ran the place were glad for our low-season patronage.

(The kitchen at Hard Wok Cafe)

When we reached the end of our walk (It felt more like a walk than a hike on the way down), we headed back to the Bao Guo monastery and prepared for a well-deserved treat: a trip to the local hot springs.

The hot springs were run by a 5-star hotel, and the facilities were gorgeous. The super hot, clean, high-pressured shower--my first decent bathing experience in almost two weeks--was worth the entrance fee alone. The main area consisted of a dry sauna, swimming pool, a vat of little fishies meant to nibble away your dead skin, and about 15 small hot tubs of varying temperatures and conditions. (One, for example, was meant to be good for your liver.) Half of the tubs were outside along s wooden boardwalk, and we spent most of the afternoon in an especially hot stone pool, with a little waterfall running into it, overlooking a pretty pond. Not sure whether it was the gurgling water I heard, or our aching muscles whispering, "Thank you, thank you," but either way, the hot springs were the icing on the cake of a beautiful couple days.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

12.10.08: Emei Shan

Our poor night's sleep at the monastery was especially unfortunate since the following day would be our longest and most physically challenging of the trip. The payoff, however, is that it was also the most breathtakingly beautiful and magical, taking us through landscapes that looked like living versions of ancient Chinese paintings. I honestly don't think I can do justice with the written word to the beauty that surrounded us during our mountain trek, but I will try.

We began at the crack of dawn on a bus, which took us through thick fog to a cable car, which carried us to an even higher destination where we began hiking and then suddenly, lo and behold, we were literally above the clouds. All around us was a carpet of white, from which mountain peaks rose. Up ahead was a palatial stone staircase lined with porcelain elephant statues, leading to a large golden statue of a multi-headed Buddha riding atop four elephants, shining brilliantly against a cloudless, cerulean sky. It was so otherworldly, I really wasn't sure whether we were in heaven or on earth.

(Above the clouds on Emei Shan)

We took the cable car and bus down again, and then had a bit of lunch and took another short bus ride. That's when the real adventure began! In the lower part of Mt. Emei, we embarked on a hike into the most beautiful forest I have ever seen. It was so green and lush and damp, it felt more like a rainforest or jungle. Every so often, out of the mist would rise an arched stone bridge or pagoda. It was hard to believe that we were not walking through a movie set, and that at any moment a kung fu master wasn't going to fly down from some treetop and drop and ancient pearl of wisdom on us to help us save the princess.

(All those brown dots are monkeys!)

We trod for an hour or so on flat ground alongside a river, and then we began going up, up, upward sloping paths and stairs. We had borrowed walking sticks from the monastery and they ended up coming in very handy, both for the inclines and to scare off...wait for it...MONKEYS! Yup, I said monkeys. One one part of the climb in particular there were monkeys everywhere, on the path next to us, in the trees below us, and on the rocks above us, ready to pounce. I'm not talking cute, little Curious George guys; more like big, ugly, babboon-ish things with sharp teeth! And dudes were hungry! We saw one grab a woman's Gatorade out of her bag, tear open the bottle, and lap up the drink. Seriously! It was exhilarating and the baby monkeys were pretty darned cute, but we definitely weren't in Kansas anymore.

At last, after a few hours, we reached the last leg of our journey. In this case, it was quite literal, as our final descent up to the monastery where we would be staying consisted of 1,200 stone steps. I honestly don't know how I made it. Ammy estimated that from the beginning of the day we probably climbed about 5,000 steps, and getting to the top of that last impossible set felt like a real accomplishment, which I was sure to appreciate after I fell down dead.

12.8.08: Le Shan/ Bao Guo

We left Chengdu to escape smoggy, urban China for a few days of exploring Buddhist holy sites in the mountains of Sichuan Province. Our first stop was the appropriately named "Giant Buddha," a 1,200 year-old statue built into the side of a riverside cliff. It's the largest Buddha left in the world after the previous record-holders were destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. To put it in perspective, his big toe is taller than a grown man.

(Okay--side note: I am writing this on an insane bus ride from Emei Shan to Chonqing. The driver is speeding through bumpy rural roads, and every once in a while he will stop short to pick up someone on the side of the road who has flagged him down, while all of the other passengers lurch forward. He frequently drives on the wrong side of the road and lays heavily on his horn every five minutes. At the last "stop" a woman got on the bus carrying a live chicken and duck in the same bag, with their heads sticking out either side. WTF?!)

(Hi, I'm Chucken. Call me Chuck, for short.)
So anyway, the Giant Buddha was pretty awe-inspiring. We climbed the stairs to the top of his head, then to his feet and back up again and finally explored the grounds atop the cliffs. Although we have seen several old holy sites since we've been here, this was the first time that I got that mystical feeling like when I'm in the Old City of Jerusalem...sensing the ghosts of worshippers past.

(The World's Most Giant Buddha)
After our climb down, we got on yet another bus to reach our first over night destination on Emei Shan (Mt. Emei), one of China's four "Buddhist mountains" and a world cultural heritage site. Our accommodation for the evening was the Bao Guo Buddhist monastery, but before I get to that, a word about our dinner at Nathan's Cafe. The highly animated Nathan was the proprietor of this establishment, and also our local guide for the next two days of mountain trekking. At Chinese restaurants in the U.S., Szechuan-style green beans are one of my favorite dishes, and here we were in the Sichuan (Szechuan) Province, so how could I resist? And yum! The salty, spicy, garlicky beans were a treat but some of the other items on the English-translated menu were a litter more questionable. Take, for example, "crisp pignut," "Saute hairy fungus szechuan style," or "hot and cold pig's lung." Mmmm. Dericious.

So, as you can imagine, staying at the monastery wasn't exactly luxury living. The winter weather is literally freezing and our room had no glass in the top windows. Poor Seth slept in his winter coat and hat on the "bed" which is really just a box spring with no mattress. I can see why the Buddhists have no attachment to earthly goods if these are the earthly goods we're talking about. Ha ha. I have to say, though, that passing by the six, illuminated, golden Buddha states on the way to the toilets and waking up to the soothing sounds of drumming and chanting monks almost made it worthwhile.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

12.7.08 Chengdu

Another overnight train ride (16 hours this time) brought us to the charming city of Chengdu, home of our trip leader, Ammy, and of the Giant Panda. The train rides are kind of fun but also kind of weird. Because we are in sleeper cars, there is nowhere really to sit except for the bottom bunk or small, foldout seats in the main aisle at the feet of the beds. Therefore, Chinese patrons take turns sitting in those foldout seats at the end of our compartments, often literally to sit and stare--sometimes for an hour--at US. It feels a little bit like being in a zoo, which brings me to one of the trip's highlights so far--a visit to the Chengdu Panda Reserve.

Our train arrived in Chengdu around 5:30 AM and we grabbed breakfast and went straight to the Pandas to catch them during their breakfast. Their main activities apparently include eating, sleeping, and playing. What a life!

So there are only about 1,000 pandas left in the entire world, and we had the great privilege of hanging out with about 15 of them today. They are the most lovable creatures I have ever seen. Surprisingly graceful for such stocky animals, I could have sat for hours just watching them roll around and munch on bamboo. The reserve is really huge and is meant to imitate the pandas' natural habitat, except for the wooden structures for the young ones to play on. My motherly instincts definitely came out watching them climb around. I just wanted to jump in there and play along! Nothing, however, compared on the adorability scale to the nursery where the tiny baby pandas were cared for until they grew big enough to join the rest of the group. These bears were roughly the size of human babies and looked like giant cotton balls with two little back eyes. Seriously, you have not seen cute 'til you've seen this.

(How do you say "adorable" in Mandarin?!)

It was hard to say goodbye to the pandas, but we moved on to yet another one-of-a-kind experience: a vegetarian banquet in the Wenshu Buddhist Temple. Seth and I have had lots of tofu and gluten-based veggie "meat" before, but nothing could compare to this. We were brought dish after colorful dish of every type you can image--sausage, Shepard's pie, sweet & sour pork, even squid with little tentacles--all strictly vegetarian! And the best part is that it was absolutely delicious. Each dish had its own incredible flavor and texture and sauce and vegetables prepared in every which way. Our table filled with serious carnivores all agreed that it was one of the best meals they'd had in China.

Feeling satisfied in our tummies, we still needed to satisfy our souls, and strolling around the magnificent temple gardens did just the trick. Stone pathways lined with natural rock sculptures, picturesque gazebos and ginkgo biloba trees led the way to the main temple courtyard, where worshippers were lighting incense and praying to larger than life statues of Buddha and various dieties. The smoke from the incense lent a haze to the air, making the scene seem even more magical.


A much-needed afternoon rest ensued, and before we knew it, it was time to eat again. We must have taken our cues from the pandas today! Our dinner was "hot pot," a Sichuan specialty and one of the craziest meals I've ever had. Think about a large fondue pot with handfuls of chili peppers, coriander seeds, and fish heads--yes, fish heads--floating in the spicy oil. Then, picture dumping all sorts of mysterious foodstuffs into it, like hard-boiled quail eggs, bamboo, meat dumplings, beef skewers (skewer included), and lotus root and swishing it around for a while. Finally, you plunge your chopsticks into the dark brew and fish around (no pun intended) for some of those items--now cooked, slippery, and damned hard to grab--and pluck them out to dip them into a garlic infused oil and finally into your mouth. When we ordered noodles to help balance out the strong flavors, a guy came by with some dough and made us one long, flat noodle that went right into the pot to cook, too, and then we had to find it with our chopsticks and break off our own portion. I don't think I've ever worked quite so hard for dinner!

(Sichuan Hot Pot)

After dinner, we checked out a performance of the Sichuan Opera, which was really more of a vaudeville show than an opera. I was pleased about that since most actual Chinese opera sounds like a late night turf fight between warring gangs of kitty cats. The show consisted of several acts where elaborately-costumed performers played traditional instruments, did shadow puppets, acted out comedic skits, and did physical feats like fire breathing and lying on their backs juggling large objects like coffee tables with their feet. There was something sort of old-timey and sad about the show and I was glad to witness what felt like a dying art in this ever-modernizing country.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

12.4.08: Xi'an

Xi'an is the ancient capital of China--home to around 12 dynasties during the first thousand years of Chinese dynastic history. The layout of the city and its surroundings is supposed to have good fen shui (Our local guide told us that girls get prettier and boys grow taller within a year of moving here.) and I actually did get a good feeling being here. That could also be due to that fact that we stayed inside the old city walls, near the majority of tourist attractions, an area much more manageable than the vast urban sprawl of Beijing.

We spent most of the first day in Xi'an wandering around its historic Muslim quarter with the two Australian couples on our trip, David and Li and Oliver and Sarah. There was something incredibly romantic and captivating about this area, dotted with strung lights, falling leaves, and little songbird cages hanging from tree branches. Between that and the street vendors selling exotic concoctions like cold sesame noodles, fried stuffed pancakes, and dried persimmons, it looked like something out of a 1920's film about Shanghai.

(A side street in the Muslim Quarter)

Off of the main drag, we wound our ways around stall after stall of bric-a-brac, Chinese "antiques" , knockoff designer handbags and Chairman Mao novelty items (all for "belly good plice!") to enter the Great Mosque, the main place of worship for Xi'an's appx. 400,000 Muslims. This series of courtyards, built only a few years after Mohammed's death, was an incredibly peaceful respite from the hustle and bustle outside. They led up to an enormous prayer hall, large enough for 1,200 worshippers to bow to Allah.

In the evening, we left the confines of the Old City walls to visit the Big Goose Pagoda, named after a legend in which geese sacrificed themselves to save starving monks during a famine. The pagoda itself was impressive, but we were there to see the nightly fountain show in front of it, which claims to be the largest light and water show in Asia, and it didn't disappoint in its absolute cheesiness. On a side note, I used the pagoda's facilities to do my first successful poop in one of the standard, squatty, hole-in-the ground toilets. Gold star for me! Plan to have well-toned thighs by the end of this trip.

The following morning we set out for one of the sights I had most been looking forward to--the Terra Cotta Warriors. This amazing discovery was made only about 30 years ago, when a local farmer dug up a bit of pottery while making his well, and ended up unearthing part of one of the estimated TWO MILLION full-scale, life-sized warriors built around the tomb of China's first emperor, to protect him in the afterlife.

Now, about 2,000 warriors have been found and painstakingly restored by archaeologists and 4,000 more were discovered in the same plot but are not yet put back together. These 6,000 fill up the area of a large airplane hangar, so I can't even imagine the size of the entire underground army. It is supposed to be the largest tomb in the world.

(Some of my new Chinese friends)

The statues are absolutely amazing. Every single one is slightly different, as they are meant to represent each actual individual member of the emperor's army, and they are detailed to the level of facial expressions and different hairstyles. Even more amazing is the amount of work it must have taken to complete such a task. AN army of artisans must have spent their entire lives preparing for the emperor's death. Now, a whole new level of work is being undertaken to piece together the remains of the discovered statues, many of which are smashed in several pieces. One of the most intricate works we saw is a chariot towed by four horses, which we were told took 20 archaeologists EIGHT years to complete. I am thankful for their dedication, as I'm sure are the loads of other tourists who visit this wondrous site.

We chilled in the afternoon after a fun group meal. The large meals are served family-style around a big lazy susan, and our group really is starting the feel like somewhat of a family, all looking out for one another.

Anyway, we had to rest up for the big night ahead, something I was told I HAD to do while in China...KARAOKE! Its reputation is well-deserved, because this was quite an experience. Ten of us walked into PARTY WORLD (already awesome) and were greeted by the grandest modern interior we had yet seen in China--marble floors and crystal chandeliers in an ornate lobby. It could have been the Waldorf-Astoria, but the entire place was dedicated to private karaoke suites, furbished with leather couches and huge, flat-screen TVs. Our room had three microphones, maracas & tambourines, and a digital control panel to adjust song choice, volume, and lights. This was some serious karaoke. I was shy at first, but after some liquid courage and a few group numbers, Seth and I pretty much rocked it with Livin' on a Prayer and then I was unstoppable. It was a really fun night!!

(Seth ROCKS!)

Friday, December 05, 2008

12.4.08: Beijing

Today began with an exhaustive group tour of Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City. Visiting Tienanmen Square was really weird for me. I was about 12 years old when the student protests and subsequent massacre of protesters occurred here, and I still remember it so clearly. I was deeply moved by the fact that these young people, only a few years older than me at the time, were fighting and dying for a democratic society that had been handed to me on a silver platter. I can easily say that the incident planted one of the seeds for my incident in social activism, and there we were, snapping photos just like all of the other tourists, while our Chinese tour guide not only didn't mention this unfortunate part of her nation's recent history, but she probably could have been punished for doing so.

Needless to say, I was eager to get out of there and move on to the Forbidden City across the street. The Forbidden City was the residence of all of the emperors and their entourages (including up to three thousand concubines) for the more recent half of Chinese dynastic history. The buildings inside were as grand as you might imagine, and bountifully maintained, so the gold, green, red and blue paint on the architectural details pooped out on almost hypercolor against the grey sky. Our friendly tour guide, Vivian, provided us with a zillion details about the various dynasties, which I will spare you here, but I found the most interesting tidbits to be about the drama among the concubines as they vied for the emperors' attention. Vivian seemed to particularly relish telling us the details of a failed plot among the top twelve concubines to murder one of the emperors. When his wife discovered the plot, she made examples of them by cutting off all of their flesh, piece by piece, while they were still alive. Yikes. It seemed to work--no such plot was ever attempted again, even against future emperor.

(Forbidden City garden)

After the Forbidden City, we visited a non-profit recreation center for the developmentally disabled, where the "trainees" made us lunch, gave us a calligraphy lesson (I attempted to write "Elizabeth" in Chinese, but it probably turned out more like "Ebqztr") and put on a highly entertaining song and dance show. One of the aspects of that attracted us to Intrepid is that they support such ventures. The center was located in a hutong, so we spent the next couple of hours with a small group from our trip, wandering around these stone alleyways and sampling shaped and colored street snacks.

The difference between the wildly colored royal buildings of the Forbidden City and the grey stone of the "common people" is purposely striking, but I actually found the hutongs as interesting, if not more than the emperor's quarters. The homes, steaming food carts, children playing, men crowded around game boards, and all the trappings of everyday life brings a real vitality to the cold stones.

So that pretty much brings us right back up to the top of the previous entry, boarding the train to Xi'an. See you there!

12.3.08: Beijing

I am sitting in the craziest place. It's the Beijing West Railway Station around 9 PM and we're awaiting the overnight train to Xi'an with about 1,000 other people, standing and sitting in just about every surface--the floor, chairs, boxes, luggage--and raising an incredible clatter. Our little group seems to be the only foreigners in the huge hall. This is the most like what I expected in Beijing of anyplace we've been, so it's kind of cool to be here on our final evening.

(Beijing West Railway Station)

Now on train. Boarding was no easy feat amidst the pushy throngs and getting into our bunkbeds was an accomplishment in and of itself. We are sharing a car with the two Aussie couples from our group and we were all in hysterics trying to sort out how all six of us and our luggage was to fit in this extremely tall and narrow space. Our six beds are stacked three high across a narrow pathway, all totaling the size of a tall closet. Not an ideal situation for the claustrophobes among us! We managed to sort it out and celebrate with shots of duty-free vodka. Ganbei!

(Our group on the train)

So the last couple days have been pretty interesting. Yesterday was a free day, and Seth and I spent it wandering around Beijing for hours. Our travels took us through wide, car-filled thoroughfares; narrow alleyways cluttered with houses and food vendors; a pedestrian mall with department stores and fancy shops; past the Forbidden City walls; and ultimately to Behai Park, an elaborately designed recreation area used by former emperors to entertain concubines among other activities. The park encircles a lake and is peppered with willow trees and buildings with amazing names like "The Palace of Infinite Coolness," which Seth and I have decided to call our next apartment.

Although Behai Park is peaceful and beautiful and the buildings are richly colored examples of Chinese imperial architecture, it is not a site as highly noted on the tourist must-see map as places like the Temple of Heaven or the Summer Palace. The nice thing about that is that it's just a "regular" park filled with regular people doing their thang, which is highly entertaining when their thangs include random spouts of ballroom dancing, playing instruments, and loudly screeching karaoke numbers over little PA systems.

(Beihai Park)

I spent the best $11 of my life on a massage along one of the alleyways we walked through. After our 15 hour flight, 6 hour round trip bus ride to the wall, hiking up and down, and hours of walking, the human meat tenderizer otherwise known as my masseuse was very necessary.

We tried to find another section of residential alleys, or hutongs, that was recommended by our guidebook to get a good glimpse of how the locals live and shop, and when we got there the entire area was a pile of rubble surrounded by locked walls. We had heard about several hutongs being razed to the ground in preparation for the Olympics and newer, more modern buildings and we guessed that this was one such neighborhood. It was reminiscent of the rampant gentrification that we witnessed in ethnic San Francisco neighborhoods during the dot-com era, and I couldn't help but wonder where the former residents of this hutong ended up.

In the evening, we found a Buddhist-run vegetarian restaurant where we had an incredible, seven course feast in what felt like some kind of alternate universe. In the U.S., veggie places are often sort of hippie havens, slightly dumpy. Here, none of the normal restaurants we've been to are exactly up to U.S. standards of cleanliness or hygiene, but the veggie place was immaculate and beautifully decorated, with service so attentive that the minute we put our tea cups to our lips, they were already rushing over to refill them.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

12.2.08 GREAT WALL

If I'm being honest, I really wasn't that excited about seeing the Great Wall of China, as compared to other sights planned for the trip. It's probably because the only other "wonder of the world" I've seen--Stonehenge--was a little underwhelming. Pile of rocks. Whoop-de-do. However, low expectations have served me well in the past and yesterday was no exception.

Seth was kind enough to take the "easy route" with me, while most of the group took the "challenging route," and holy crap, I was so glad because the easy route nearly killed me. It really IS a wonder how this thing was built, because it winds over the top of the craggidiest mountain peaks I've ever seen. (Craggidiest? You know, very craggy.) The workmen obviously didn't have the benefit of the ski lift that we took 3/4 of the way up! Ammy told us that at a time when the population of China was 5 million, 4 million people were working on the wall.

One of the amazing things about visiting in wintertime, during an economic crunch, is the relative lack of other tourists. In this case, we had one of China's greatest attractions almost entirely to ourselves. Our only other companion on the entire ski lift in either direction was our trip-mate, Joan, a 48-year-old mother of two from Scotland who recently put her daughters through college, sold her house, and is now on a year-long trip around the world. Go, Joan!

The lift ride was breathtaking for its beauty, with bright-blue sky capping seemingly endless miles of ancient brick ahead of us and an almost ethereal purple mountain range to our rear. The only mar to the scenery was poor Seth, whose face was turning a disturbing shade of green while we swung tenuously in our little metal cart high above the rocky landing pad.

We made it to the top, Seth managed to keep his breakfast inside his stomach, and the climb began. Admittedly, after the first several flights of stone steps and rocky inclines, my old-lady hip tried to convince me to be satisfied with viewing the wall from a distance, but I'm glad I didn't listen. Actually, it was pretty good teamwork. I helped Seth calm down after the cable car ride, Joan and Seth encouraged me to get to the top, and Seth and I aided Joan--who happens to be afraid of heights--on the way down.

(It really is pretty great.)

The wall is actually a series of stone towers, strung together by pathways with walls on either side. The towers were used both as shooting/guard posts and as means by which to send smoke signals all the way across China (Think Lord of the Rings.) We made our way between about six of the towers and then hiked all the way down, rather than putting Seth through the cable car experience again.

Now, the downside of being the only tourists is that we were also a magnet for the aggressive tchotchke vendors. We were warned that locals would approach us on the wall and "befriend" us in order to eventually suck us dry via useless Great Wall memorabilia. We did meet three such ladies on the way up and, being the only tourists in sight, we literally had no way to avoid them without jumping off into inner Mongolia. In the end, however, communicating with them turned out to be one of the most interesting parts of the trip. Their English was limited (they were not educated but actually learned just through speaking with tourists) but they were able to convey a lot of interesting info about the wall and to help us navigate the trickier bits. They walked with us for the better part of an hour, and hey! We needed some postcards anyway. :-)

The part of the wall we were on was "only" about 600 years old, and probably my favorite image of the day's journey is of Seth videoblogging with his new Flipcam atop this structure three times older than the United States. How China is that?! The very, very old meets the very, very new on a sunny afternoon.

(Seth vlogging on the Great Wall)

Monday, December 01, 2008


Ugh. Jetlag. It's 3:37 AM. Should be sleeping. Might as well take the opportunity to start writing!

We haven't even officially started the first day of our trip with Intrepid Travel--which begins in about 4 hours with a visit to the Great Wall--and there is SO much to say already!

First of all, I am really proud of myself & Seth and our "accomplishments" so far. Our first day and a half in China have already alleviated much of our anxiety about the trip. Our very long flight (15 hours) flew over the North Pole (didn't see Santa) and landed in Beijing safely. We got to our hotel, have found ourselves a couple of delicious vegetarian meals, and spent an awesome day wandering around Beijing's 798 District--a gaggle of contemporary art galleries. OK, so we didn't win the Nobel Prize or anything, but this felt like a great start in a place where we know no one and can't speak or read the language.

(Outside at the 7-9-8 Art District, a former factory)

Oh! The wonder and excitement of traveling again! When even a trip to the grocery store is a cultural experience, something to marvel at, and you take nothing for granted.

We did have one funny snafu. We thought that the flight attendant told us that "thanks" is pronounced "SAY SIEN" in Mandarin. Turns out that it's actually "SHAY SHIEN," but "SAY SIEN" means "goodbye." No wonder people looked at us funny when we thanked them profusely--ha!

We were sort of over-warned about some of the difficulties of traveling in China, so things like jostling crowds haven't seemed so dramatic yet, which may be partly due to the fact that we're in Beijing which was just flooded with Western tourists for the Olympics and whose public was apparently trained in the ways of being a polite host city.

There are certainly subtle reminders that we are in a Communist country, like the "no smoking" signs that proclaim: "It's your patriotic duty to stay in good health," or the bleeping red eye of video cameras EVERYWHERE, or the fact that our Chinese trip leader explained with wide-eyed fascination that Hong Kong is still so different from the rest of China because you can "say whatever you want to about Mao."

---The very next day---

Finally fell back asleep , not having finished yesterday's entry. Now onto another adventure, en route to the Great Wall on a bumpy bus ride!

So the 798 Art District, our first day's outing, was an awesome introduction not only to Beijing, but to the many contradictions of modern day China. The area consists of gallery after gallery of contemporary art, housed in old factory buildings. There are 100 galleries, at least, and the art truly is contemporary, as abstract painting and sculpture is a relatively new phenomenon here. Displaying this type pf work publicly was apparently illegal until about 20 years ago. The Chinese government has realized that in order to accelerate their society, progress must not only be made in commerce and technology, but in culture, as well, and so suddenly art is sanctioned. However, the content of the work is still restricted. So--contradictions. Artistic expression vs. government regulation.

The tension between art and commerce is already apparent, too, despite the relative infancy of the modern scene. Smack in the middle of this artistic hub was an enormous brick factory building with an imposing Nike swoosh on the side. This entire "gallery" was devoted to a multimedia exhibit on the life and times of an American NBA basketball player, LeBron James, and encased in glass at the back was his new line of Nike basketball shoes. Weird.
Though the content of the work was stifled, Seth and I agreed that most of the paintings and sculptures were beautiful and/or interesting. In gallery after gallery we preferred the work over what we had seen at last year's Whitney Biennial--supposedly the creme de la creme of American artwork. All in all we felt like we got a sense of modern China by viewing its long unleashed creative expressions.


We ate the most delicious lunch at a lively little dive filled with locals. Spinach with vermicelli and garlic sauce, and some kind of diced pancake with shredded vegetables--both absolutely bursting with flavor but not the slimy "white sauce" or salty soy sauce that I'm used to from Chinese food in the US. (And PS including drinks the grand total came to $3. Holla!) One thing we noticed was that the place was filled with chit chat, but as soon as the food hit the table, it was down to business. Some people came in, ordered, ate, paid, and left before we had eaten half of our meal. Definitely different than my experiences in, say, Italy, where one meal could last for hours!

Wow. Am I really still writing about the first day?!

So we went back to the hotel to rest before our organized trip would officially begin with a group meeting. Our group of twelve seems friendly and interesting, and our group leader is absolutely adorable. She is like a Chinese Bjork--a pixie-like energy ball called Ammy. She seems really excited about her job and this trip in particular, which in turn made me even more excited for the adventures ahead. We were hoping that the group would not be all American, and our desires were more than met. We are, in fact, the only Americans present (and thank G-d Obama won so I can easily show my face in internationally mixed company again) and we are joined by some Brits, Aussies, a Kiwi, a Scotswoman and an Austrian.

If the first day was any indication, it should be a pretty awesome few weeks.