Sunday, July 26, 2009

Chinese Eclipse

We sat around a green felt table, a bit like a poker table, only it was square, and right then a spaceship-like plastic shape was sticking over the center about half a foot above the surface. I pushed a button and it smoothly sank back into place, flush with the table. As it did, four lines in the green felt about a foot long and an inch wide disappeared, and four rows of flush, shuffled ivory mah jong tiles rose magically to replace them.

It was about four in the morning. Half a dozen people were sleeping across the beds and floor of the hotel room, and I was pretty sure I could see twilight out of the window. I pushed another button to “roll” the magnetic dice in the plastic capsule and the four players around the table, one from Shanghai, one from Latvia, one from New Jersey, and I, started collecting our tiles and laying them out. It was my first game, and while I did win, it was thanks to the Colombian next to me who pointed out at least three key moves I would have otherwise missed.

The Venezuelan girl I had teamed up with as an adviser to learn the game's rules was snoring on a camping mat in front of the TV. The French-Chinese guy was watching the game keenly from the other side of the table, while my host from Italy was busy texting our friend from Australia trying to figure out whether or not he was still in the building or at the beach with the campers.

This is what happens when you're involved with couchsurfing and stay in the right city to view the biggest total solar eclipse in 500 years. People from all over the world had come for this by bus, boat, hitchhiking, or in my case, a rented 11-person van, to sneak up to four hotel rooms we had checked out closest to the best beach we could find from which to see the eclipse the next morning at 9:30. I have no realistic idea of how many people from across five continents we packed into those rooms that night, but it was a lot. I met people from Hamburg, Ningbo, and, against all odds, Seattle (though that one, after meeting me, privately admitted she was really from Spokane).

I don't know exactly why I stayed up the entire night. Lots of people went to sleep. There was just a core group of a half-dozen or so that stayed up with the fully-automatic mah jong table chatting and playing away past dawn, and finally waking everyone else up in time to meet at the lobby at 7:30.

As for the eclipse itself, we had what worked out to be just the right weather for it. It was just cloudy enough so that you could stare right at the sun with your bare eyes and watch what looked like a bite mark grow across the top until it looked more like a curved cartoon moon than the actual moon ever will.

Then it got dark. On the road I noticed that I could always tell when sunset was coming by when the birds started making noise and flying around. They started doing it then. I don't think I'd seen more than two or three birds my entire time in Shanghai up to that point, but more and more flew by us in low circles, going back to roost in a darkness that was falling just a little to fast to actually be dusk. For about five minutes, it stayed dark to cheers and flashes from hundreds of cameras. Then, it got light again, as if someone upstairs was slowly pushing the faders back on. More people cheered louder and some very confused birds flew around back to whatever they had been doing five minutes before.

That's right about when it started pouring down rain. We ran for cover, my friends and I separated from the group to pile into our van, and make our way back into Shanghai proper.

I'd changed a week's worth of plans involving three countries to see this, and it was worth it. Anyway, if I hadn't changed my mind and had hopped on the boat to Japan two weeks ago, I wouldn't have gotten to see ex-capital Nanjing, the silk road's end at the walled city of Xian, or the Shaolin Temple.

In case you live under a rock, the Shaolin Temple is probably the most famous Chinese Buddhist temple to the western world, and it's not because of Buddhism. It's because of what in China they now write as gongfu, or “hard work,” but what most of the rest of the world knows as kung fu martial arts.

I'm not a martial arts geek. I did Aikido for a year in middle school, but that's an art from Japan. I don't really know much about the history of kung fu or Shaolin in particular. It doesn't matter. Even if you don't know much about kung fu, the Shaolin temple is a little like antarctic penguins, the Sydney Opera House, or Machu Piccchu. You see it in person, and that's it. You lose it. It's just that famous and amazing. Everyone starts giggling, nobody can stop grinning like idiots, and all camera memory cards in a five-foot radius fill up within about 23 seconds. It's just that cool. And then you see the carvings. And then you see the dents in the floor from a main temple building where the monks practiced their stances. And then you see the monks themselves. And from there you start to geek out over every single detail from the traditional paintings (Shaolin paintings!), to the sleeping dog on the porch (Shaolin puppy!) to the not-so-traditional rusted basketball hoop out back (Shaolin basketball!... no, I didn't get to play basketball with the Shaolin monks, and I'm still kicking myself for not bringing a ball. If I'd only known...). I'm not saying the place itself was so amazing. It was almost as touristy as the Terra Cotta Warriors of Xian, and that's saying something. Little gold-plated Buddha statues perched on top of the pay phones, if that gives you an idea. But just the idea of the place, coupled with actually being there, was enough to make it worth the journey.

One of the best parts of the trip wasn't the temple itself, but the bus trip past the surrounding area. Not so much because of the countryside-- it's all wreathed in some of the worst haze of pollution I've ever seen-- but the schools. There are huge institutes filled with young boys in tracksuits lined up in rank and file, pulling off the coolest flying kicks you've ever seen in a concrete schoolyard. This is where the art is passed down. Rumor has it that Shaq is actually in there somewhere right now, training. About five years ago, I got Yao Ming's autograph in the US. I thought it would make a good story to get Shaq's in China, but I didn't see him around (wonder what he's been doing with that basketball hoop).

Several times along my journey, young guys would grab me and ask for photos, and then practice their English. Not only is this good for me in terms of getting to know people, but also they usually have some help for me. I've even been taken out for dinner. This happened the night I left Shaolin for Xian. Our conversation was slow. My new friend and benefactor would turn to me and ask something like “You.. uh... tree pick?” I would look at him quizzically, he would repeat the phrase. I would hand him a piece of paper and pen, and he would write something more like “Train Pick.” I would stare at that for a minute or two then look up and ask “train ticket?” and he would say yes and I would say yes, I still have my train ticket. Conversation went like that for most of the evening.

When we left the restaurant after more failed efforts on my part to pay for the meal, he pointed to all the people on the sidewalk in front of the train station, huddled in groups, some sleeping on sheets of cardboard. “This,” he said “is China. Many poor because there is too many people.”

It wasn't something I'd seen much of, but I did get glimpses of it. I came to China wondering whether I was going to find a developed country or a developing one. Turns out it's both. A contraband PBS Frontline documentary I saw recently called it “China A and China B.” China A is full of shopping malls, skyscrapers, and problems like traffic jams. China is full of subsistence farming, sweatshops, and problems like starvation.

My last night in Shanghai I went out to an expat bar (seemingly almost the only kind of nightlife in Shanghai) with two Spanish guys and a Dutch girl. I fell behind to chat with the girl on the way to grab a taxi, and she asked me where in China I'd been. I rattled off my list: Hong Kong, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Shaolin, and Xian. She frowned and asked me why I was so focused on cities. She told me that the better place to focus on would be the countryside-- that's where the real China lies. I can argue that I've learned a lot about the country from the places I've seen so far, but I think she might have a point. My next goal in China then is to get out of town and try to hunt out her version of the “real China”, China B.

But that's going to have to wait. I mentioned a ferry to Japan that I passed up two weeks ago? I'm writing this entry from the main passenger deck. By the time this is posted, I will have arrived in Osaka. It's time to explore the land of the rising sun.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Travel Tip: Backpackers, Keep This Thing Handy

There's one thing that's probably the most useful piece of gear I carry when I travel. It's not necessary for anything, but it's a versatile little tool independent travelers might otherwise forget to pack. I called for guesses on my last tip post and along with a couple messages from Douglas Adams fans about other uses they've found for towels (like bailing a swamped canoe), we got a lot of suggestions for other gear, including a couple I hadn't thought of at all (glue stick and eyeglass repair kit for a start). But nobody guessed my favorite:

It's a bandana.

It might be the least valuable thing I carry, but it might also be the most versatile. Here are a few examples of how you can use it:

-Blindfold when you're trying to sleep during the day or on a bus/train/plane.
-Dust mask for smoggy or dusty places (if you ever ride a motorbike in SE Asia, this is a must)
-Personal A/C system-- get it wet and tie it around your neck to keep cool—also keeps the sun off your neck so you won't get burned.
-Hand towel to dry your hands and face when you can't or don't want to get your towel out or wet.
-Bandage for minor wounds and something to stop bleeding in emergencies.
-Sweatband for athletic stuff. (Having sweat in your eyes when you go dune/volcano boarding or caving sucks.)
-Potholder/glove to handle stuff you don't want to touch with your bare hands because the stuff is too hot/cold/dirty.
-Signal to flag down buses or taxis, get people's attention (especially good for trying to get someone you're talking to on cell phone to spot you in a crowd-- you don't often hear "sorry, which person waving the bandana?").
-Hanky to blow your nose or wipe sweat off your brow (if you're feeling old-fashioned)

It does a lot of the stuff the towel did in the Hitchhiker's guide, except it's a bit cheaper, dries a lot faster, and fits in your pocket. It's a little like the rubber band bracelet in that it comes in handy in ways you probably wouldn't expect (like winning over kids with a game of peekaboo or cats by giving them something to chase). Just don't try using it to sail the River Motht (whatever planet that's on).

I suggest getting a dark-colored patterned one that doesn't show dirt too easily. Just remember to wash it every once in a while with your normal laundry, especially if you use it regularly to clean anything or handle dirty stuff, and especially if you ever have to use it as a bandage.

Friday, July 17, 2009

China Forward

I sat on top of a forested hill overlooking the city of Hangzhou, a view of the beautiful West Lake peeking through the trees. I was flipping through my China guidebook, getting ideas for what I wanted to do for the next few days leading up to the total solar eclipse next week. I happened to be sitting next to a tall pagoda-- that's where the benches were. Two Chinese guys, maybe nineteen or twenty, came up the path and approached me to practice their English. We chatted for a little bit, and when there was a lull in the conversation, I looked around for inspiration. That's when I noticed something odd poking out from the trees of the forest.

“Is that a security camera?” I asked.

“No” Some quick conferring in Chinese “Yes. Yes, that is camera.”

It looked like one of those cameras next to traffic lights that take pictures of people's license plates after they run a red light.

“What's it there for?” I asked.


“Uh, what?”

“Fair warning.”


Well, I thought, that's kind of them... fair warning for what, exactly?

China sometimes feels like an exercise of the “which of these things does not belong in this picture.” I hadn't realized it until I sat down and thought for a bit, but it's been an eye-opening visit. Most of what you read is controlled by the government in some way, shape, or form. It doesn't feel nearly as controlling, patronizing or overbearing big-brother-is-watching as I expected it to be. But it is definitely there if you're looking. Just like in Singapore, this means that you learn just as much from what's missing as you do from what's there. All over Hangzhou is gorgeous Chinese architecture, mostly in the form of tourist sites at this point, crowded around by loud groups of Chinese and Japanese amateur photographers following someone with a bullhorn walking backwards waving a brightly-colored flag on a stick. If you read the signs next to the pagodas, stone tablets, gates, and other artifacts, you'll notice a common theme: built during the Song dynasty, destroyed in the late 60s, rebuilt in the 80s. Often the date of destruction is omitted. No explanation of this mass destruction of historical and cultural artifacts is offered.

The untold explanation surfaces when you look up what was happening during the ten years everything was ripped up: Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution. In 1966, Mao Zedong (or Tse Tung depending on when your history book was published) staged a coup against his own communist party calling for a overthrow of all the other communist party leaders. Things got violent fast, and across the country, an unimaginable amount of 3000+ year-old heritage was ripped apart. After Mao's death and the succession of Deng Xiaoping, people began to restore some of what was lost. Or tried to.

I'm writing this from the city of Nanjing, one of the few cities that has kept its Ming-era city walls. Or most of it. Beijing, Xian, and Shanghai all lost their ancient city walls (though I don't know the story behind the destruction of each). I went to see one of the gates. It's the biggest on the the city had. The wall continues on either side for about twenty yards and then it ends. There's more to the wall than that in other parts of the city, but seeing that little piece of what was once a mighty Ming dynasty historical testament drives home just how much this country has lost.

What it's lost, it's moving hard to make up for in new stuff. Shanghai looks like someone dropped an enormous alien magnet designed to attract all skyscrapers for a mile radius. The third-tallest building in the world rises next to one almost as tall with, with a large square opening near the top about about ten stories high. I don't know what the intended effect was, but it looks like a gigantic bottle-opener. From the top, you can count the helicopter pads on top of the dozens of other skyscrapers thronged around the Pudong side of the river.

Half the town is under construction, including the historical lake walk known as The Bund. The 2010 world's fair is coming, and Shanghai wants to be ready. The effect is a huge, dusty city that is one half concrete, one quarter steel and glass, and one quarter scaffolding and construction equipment. High rise apartment buildings sprout from the concrete like weeds from a parking strip (and if you've ever seen the parking strip in front of my house, you'll know how impressive this must seem).

The Shanghai Museum protects some of the oldest things I'd ever seen. Pottery and sculpture casually dated from the 13th century, BC. I read that it has pieces much older than that. It's a beautiful collection of art, artifacts, and archeology, free of charge for anyone who has the patience to stand in line behind the metal detectors. Don't bring a laptop, they're not allowed inside.

I could go on for a long time about all the images I've been seeing. The mall full of eyeglass stores, for example. I got to the top floor of a mall and walked for ten minutes without backtracking past nothing but store after store selling prescription glasses and frames. Just imagine what shopping for anything else is like. The stores are clean and modern, the city streets are lined with designer shops. The high-speed trains run over 230 km/h (that's just the ones I've ridden so far), and everything feels pretty modern. In the city center.

Then I took a train from Shanghai to Hangzhou east train station, and I was back in the third world. Dirt roads, trash everywhere, cardboard signs, hawkers and touts, rust, and corrugated tin buildings. Then I got on a bus with a TV in the front and rode back into the tree-lined avenues with KFC sandwiched between Cartier and Dolce & Gabana. I remember seeing mansions in the middle of slums in India. Outright opulence loudly sitting right next to outright squalor with nothing hidden from either side. But in China, it's whole sections of towns that have squirreled themselves away from each other, completely hidden. You'll be walking down a developing world alleyway with peeling paint, potholes, and the ubiquitous fat shirtless men on stools sitting and watching the street in every developing nation in the world. Then you'll turn a corner, walk past a construction site and all of the sudden you're dodging sports cars and taxicabs in a sparkling modern metropolis and have no idea what magical portal you just walked through or where the fruit carts with busted axles just went and who replaced them with bubble-tea stalls.

My favorite experience so far was removed from all this. I was sitting in the apartment of some couchsurfers after a mouthwatering $1.25 dinner of home-made noodles (as in we watched the chef whack the dough on the table and pull it into individual noodles by hand before tossing it out the window into the boiling oil they were cooked in), and our host pulled out a tea set. This is not your little sister's take-the-dolls-out-for-a-tea-party set. This was the classic Chinese wood and pottery tea ceremony set. It became an informal tea ceremony-- the second I'd ever had (the first being with my host in Malaysia, the Chinese tea master). Though Jenny, our host, made a big deal about how there was really no one right way of doing this, there were clearly more protocols than I usually followed with tea. Each tea was served in the correct order, the water was heated to the right temperature, it was steeped the right number of seconds, and served into the correct type of cup. The first round was always disposed of without drinking. It was half wine tasting, half spiritual ceremony, though there was nothing religious involved. Little snacks kept appearing out of nowhere, from wasabi-coated dried lotus seeds to spicy, tomato-flavored Cheetos.

Something interesting happened. As we all sat there, going through the rituals, and sipping our tea, the conversation became a lot deeper. Politics came up, as did educational styles between different cultures, and the effect they have on each society, and how they relate to each other. Something about the tea ceremony brought that all out. The first tea ceremony I'd been to had the exact same effect on the conversation-- I was sure that if the same group been out drinking beer, we'd have been talking about movies or cracking jokes about whoever else was in the restaurant or bar.

And yes, I've had those nights too. Last night I spent in a bar listening to a Filipino cover band play Juanes while sitting with a British illustrator, her twin sister the foreign language student, their brother the law student, an actor from LA, and a Texan mining supervisor who kept buying us all drinks. In China. As this is what I think of as the tame side of my travels.

If my rambling on about one thing after another in this entry is interesting, confusing, and random, then you're getting a good feel of how this country makes me feel so far.

While I'm on the subject of *random*, if any of you have any connections to an employee of a Russian consular office in Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, or Ulaanbaatar, do me a big favor and email me.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Travel Tip: Gear to Keep on Hand

I make a habit of keeping a few things on my person at all times when traveling. Just the usual things lining my pockets or sitting next to my bed when I sleep. There's the obvious digital camera-passport-wallet-cell phone(maybe) set anybody will carry. There are also a few things you might not otherwise think of. Here's a list of those things in rough order of usefulness/importance.

-Pen and Paper. I keep a pocket notebook and a small pen handy everywhere. It saves a lot of time and trouble when trying to remember names of places, things, people, or just take notes. Also good for swapping contact information with any new friends along the way.

-Napkins. I always keep a stash of tissues and paper napkins in my back pocket. They come in useful at odd times, whether you just need to blow your nose, wipe your fingers and face off after eating, or try to get something off your clothes. You'll be surprised how often people ask for these. Also, in countries where the concept of toilet paper hasn't really caught on, it can help you in a pinch.

-Two Anti-Diarrhea Pills. I usually use what we call Imodium in the US-- Loperamide Hydrochloride is the real name. Hopefully you won't need it, but if you do, the sooner you have it, the better. I don't think I need to go into details why, aside from saying multiple hour bus rides can be really unpleasant in the wrong circumstances.

-Condoms. If you're even vaguely considering being sexually active on your trip, this is an absolute must. Very nasty STIs are much more common than you'd think in just about any country in the world, developing or developed. Other travelers from your home country aren't any less risky sexual partners than locals-- you don't know who travelers have had sex with where. Plus, if you think an unexpected pregnancy would be awkward when the parents live in the same country, try parents living of opposite sides of the planet. Don't risk it. Bring condoms from a brand you trust from home, as reliable ones aren't always readily available abroad (only resupply with brands you know and trust), and make a habit of keeping one on your person. Even if it seems unlikely that you'll use use it, it's much better to have one when you don't need it than to need one when you don't have it.

-Rubber Bracelet/ Hair Ties. I didn't pick up on this one until several months into the trip. You know those yellow "Livestrong" rubber bracelets that Lance Armstrong made so popular a few years ago? They still make knockoffs everywhere, and they turn out to be pretty handy on the road. Travel agencies hand them out in Australia as free advertising and charities around the world give them away in exchange for a small donation. You can even get orange ones that say "long live the king" for cheap in Thailand. People with long hair can use elastic hair ties for the same trick. Mostly I use them to keep food containers closed or to hold something together if it unexpectedly breaks, but there are weird situations that come up where having a rubber band on hand is really useful (I think the most unexpected was during a pub trivia night in Australia that included a random marathon competition with glowsticks-- I don't even remember why having several stuck to my wrists got our team so many points, but it did). If you have long hair, hair ties can be used for the same purpose.

-Pocketknife. This one's optional, I haven't found it as useful as most other backpackers make them out to be, and it's a liability whenever I go through any kind of security checkpoint. Still, it's good for quick repairs, odd jobs, and peeling fruit. Also makes me feel a bit safer when doing something like hitchhiking (though, unless you have training, I don't think it would help much in a fight, especially if your opponent is also armed). If you do get one, make it a cheap one that you won't mind surrendering to airport security if you forget you're carrying it.

-Lighter. Especially useful for solo non-smokers. Yes, you read that right, non-smokers. Smokers the world over speak your language and can't keep track of their lighters for more than five minutes at a time. In some backpacker hangouts, asking for a light is practically a running joke. I don't smoke, but I carry a lighter so that I can meet other people. In countries where smoking is common (or in places with a lot of European travelers) this comes in handy. In fact I would go so far as to say that if you are a solo traveling smoker, consider going without a lighter. It will force you to ask for one and meet other people. Also might help you if you're trying to quit. The lighter can also good for repairing thin broken plastic (melting parts together) and lighting mosquito coils, incense and candles. Same as the knife, buy a cheap one you won't mind surrendering to security somewhere (though surprisingly this doesn't come up very often).

Finally, there is one little piece of equipment that I don't always have on my person, but that I count as one of the most versatile and useful things a traveler can have anywhere (especially considering how little it costs). In the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, it was a towel-- you could do things like "use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Motht" or "wrap it round your head to avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-boggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can't see it, it can't see you)." Since I have yet to see a Bugblatter Beast or a river I could float down on with a towel for a sail, I've got something more practical in mind.

But I'm not telling you what it is yet. I'm not doing this to be a tease, I'm doing this because I'm curious as to what other people will guess. I want you to submit your ideas. There's a good chance that even if nobody gets what I'm thinking of, they'll come up with something else I wouldn't have thought to include, or maybe something even better. I'll post my answer in my next tip post. Guesses, anyone? Comment on the post or send them in by email. If you're reading this by email subscription, the comment link will be at the bottom of the post on the main site. If you're reading this on Facebook, try the main blog. I won't be able to see Facebook comments as China has blocked access to Facebook for a while now. If you can't comment on the post for some reason (people have been emailing me saying they couldn't on my last entry) send me an email and I'll get it up on the next tip post with my answer.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

This is a test.

Some of you might have heard of the "great firewall of China." It's a government filter on all Chinese ISPs that blocks access to websites the government doesn't like. My blogging engine is one of them, and therefore so is my blog. I can't access the site where I create new posts. I was warned about this before I left, so I think I have a workaround in place. I'm testing it now. If there's a picture on this post, you can expect more pictures. Comments you make on my post will still be forwarded to me by email, but I don't think I'll be able to respond to them. Just know they're being read, I guess.

My train to Shanghai leaves in a few hours. I'll be working on a better workaround so that my blog will be fully functional. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Cows in Hong Kong?

View from Hong Kong Peak, with lionNo, the title of this post is not a jab at tourists visiting the Bubba Gumps restaurant at The Peak (the ones who get to enjoy this view to the left). It means literal, four legged, big-brown-eyed bovines, sitting in front of my bus going through the New Territories until the driver honks and makes them move.

Whenever I'm in a new place, I kind of like seeing little echos of the places I've just left. The flyers for Argentine tango lessons in New Zealand shop windows, or the Aussie bar in Laos blasting "I Come from a Land Down Under." So when I saw the cows sitting in the road, I immediately thought "hey, just like Vietnam." Then I stopped, narrowed my eyes and realized that while it was fairly normal to see cows wandering around a mountainside in rural Vietnam, it couldn't be that common in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has been full of surprises like that. One of my hosts told me about a picture she took when she was out hiking on one of the nearby islands in Hong Kong. She sent it to friends of hers who replied "Where is that? I thought you were in Hong Kong!" The rolling forested hills, hiking trails, and beaches didn't add up to their image of the port metropolis.

It didn't to mine either. My first impression of Hong Kong came from sitting in the very front on top of a double-decker public bus from the airport on Lantau Island into Hong Kong Island. Everything looked vertical. It was an entire mass of skyscrapers and elevated highways surrounding hills in every direction for what looked like miles-- Gotham city come to life and filled with Chinese characters.

Then I arrived at my hosts' apartment. Scott and Brooke are the brother-in-law and sister of a semi-distant cousin's girlfriend. I think. It's funny, tell people you're going everywhere, and you will almost always have somebody say "Oooh! How about _____? I have a _____ there you should visit!" Months later, here I am. And man, am I grateful.

Keep in mind that, while I've been happy with my last couple months' style of accommodation, it generally followed the line of one bed (no sheets, sometimes a blanket) under a fan not far from a shared bathroom with an unheated shower head sticking out of the wall somewhere near the toilet, which usually comes without soap, often without toilet paper, and occasionally without a seat. A sink is usually considered an expendable extra. If I have my own bathroom, it's considered a splurge (let alone one with heated water). Don't even get me started on air-con. If I was too hot to sleep, I would take a shower, skip drying myself off, and go to sleep dripping under the fan going full blast.

So when my taxi pulled past the gate up two floors, and the doorman ushered me into the elevator where I went up to floor 25 of 35 to one of the two suites on the floor, I knew I was in for a change. I just didn't know how much of a change. The air conditioning, hot water (not only in the shower but in all the taps) with really good water pressure, my own soft bed and sheets would have been more than enough. The amazing view, Persian rugs and artwork everywhere from all over, polished wood floors, laundry machine, sound system, TV (including just about every channel I'd ever heard of), and wireless internet, were from another world. And that's just in the apartment itself-- 25 floors down sit the fitness center, swimming pool, and direct access to one of the nicest (flat) trails on Hong Kong Island around the mountain.

To top it off, Brooke and Scott have been fantastic hosts. Every other sentence seems to be followed by "oh but you should do what you want, we can arrange things just fine, and by the way do you need more food/drinks/information about cool stuff to do in town?" I brought a package of coconut candy from the Mekong Delta village I visited as a thank you gift. I think I should have brought a full-sized wooden crate of it instead, (though their dentist will probably be happier as things are).

They've pointed me towards some of the things in town worth seeing and the local tricks to get to know the place properly. For example, if Hanoi was a city for motorbikes, Hong Kong is a city to walk. But, unlike Hanoi, it doesn't make this obvious. Walking Hong Kong, especially in Hong Kong Island and southern Kowloon, it's all about finding the escalators to the elevated walkways. You can walk from one end of town to the other and hardly ever touch down on the sidewalk. And even if the city is full of hills, you hardly ever have to walk up or downhill either. You just need to find which buildings will let you walk in one side, take an elevator up fourteen floors, and walk out the other side. Or find the massive line of outdoor escalators going up Central and SoHo (biggest set in the world, I think).

Here's the other thing you might not realize. Yes, it's a massive throbbing metropolis of nearly seven million. But it's also full of natural parks, hiking trails, and beaches. It's half a system of islands after all, and the ferries to each one are quick and relatively cheap, especially if you can borrow an Octopus card (think London's Oyster Card, a Chicago Card, or the new Orca card in Seattle) just charge up at a 7-11, and you can swipe at any public transport line, many stores, and even the local ice cream truck.

The city is clean, well-run, and very safe. Early on, Scott and Brooke both warned me to watch out in crowds. I opened my mouth to tell them, yes I knew to watch for pickpockets and bag slashers, and they continued saying "you'll have to dodge umbrellas like crazy-- they can poke your eye out if you're not careful." It's a different world.

So that's why I'm spending my birthday out here. I just got back from salsa dancing for the first time in months, with a flyer for the next big salsa event tomorrow. For the day, after I pick up my Chinese visa (call it a birthday gift from the People's Republic) I've got hiking trails in mind if it's cool, and beach nearby to go to if it's hot. Then it's back for another tasty home-cooked meal, and then at night, I'm out dancing, and maybe swinging by the bar next door for some live jazz. I'm still a little sad being away from friends and family (this will be my first birthday spent somewhere other than Seattle), but with a lineup like that, I think it's going to be a pretty good day anyway.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Up to Hanoi

Hanoi was meant to be seen from a motorbike. Just do yourself a favor and make sure you've got a driver who knows how traffic works in the city. It doesn't stop. Nobody ever stops. There is no waiting. There is only dodging, weaving, and lots and lots of honking. So I joined forces with an English teacher who's been living here about as long as I've been on the road. We rented a motorcycle and two helmets and hit the town.

I can't even imagine what "Hanoi" must mean to half the people reading this. One of the first stops I made was to check out the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, where his embalmed remains are honored by a constant assembly line of hundreds upon thousands of Vietnamese and tourists shuffling in line at a pace strictly enforced and regulated by guards who will give you a firm push in the back if they think you're moving too slowly. The line is a normal, talkative loud line outside. It quiets down as the pillared granite building comes into view. It is silent inside its walls.

I can only imagine how Ho Chi Minh is viewed back home. After reading the about the war as shown by an American journalist, I've gotten my hands on a copy of Novel Without a Name by Duong Thu Huong. It tells a little about the war from the other side. The really interesting part? It's been banned by the Vietnamese government. I haven't started it yet, but I'm looking forward to it.

But, as expats here a quick to remind me, just like in El Salvador, there's a lot more to this place than the war. It is a bit like coming to France in the 1990s and asking everyone about WWII. You will find some fascinating stories, but life has moved on since then. When I sit on the three-inch tall foot stools they use for chairs to eat street food, people don't assume I'm here for the war history. People come here to see things like the water puppetry, with dragons dancing mysteriously unsupported over the surface of water, spewing smoke. Or the bending notes of the Dan Bau, an instrument so mesmerizing that young single women used to be banned from listening to male players for fear of being seduced by the art. Or the beaches in the south, the karst-filled coastline and islands of the northern Gulf of Tonkin. Or the mountains of the northwest, bordering Laos and China.

We took the bike for a road trip across the dust and mud of the city outskirts to the life the vast majority of the Vietnamese population still knows: the countryside. Rice paddies stretching as far as geography allows past rivers and lakes. Past that we entered Ba Vi national forest and climbed our way past ruined buildings, forest, and a stubborn herd of cows to a top vantage point.

We sat there, next to our bike, eating fresh mangoes we'd brought for the trip, watching the view stretch for miles in every direction, from the sunny skies to east and the jagged lightning moving our way from the west. I don't know what I would have thought of being here at any other time. But right then, it was just what I was looking for.

And that was a taste of the end of my adventures in Southeast Asia. I write this entry at the beginning of my new leg. It's time for the Asian heavyweights. I'm sitting in Hong Kong. It's past 2:00am my time, and in the next few days a trip to China's Foreign Ministry Office will determine my fate for the next chapter.

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