March 17, 2007

Day 3: Hong Kong

So we're sitting in a little room on the fifth floor of the Ling Do building on Hong Kong Island. It looks a little like one of those trailer classrooms that elementary schools build when they run out of space (except for the Chinese banners, the shoes for sale and the girl singing kareoke at the top of her lungs).

We arrived last night after a lengthy 14 hour flight, which was made much easier for us as we sat on the exit row. There is nothing like having the leg room of business class and getting to pee without climbing over people. From there, we hopped on a local bus to a local's apartment to stay with a local guy named Imram, who Kari found online through (I'll explain later why I have a key to a stranger's apartment in my pocket.)

Well, the internet clock is winding down and Kari just asked me if I dare her to sing kareoke. I better get out of here fast.

March 15, 2007

Day 4: Hong Kong

"Chengdu or" We almost played rock, paper, scissors to decide as we sat for two hours in the Hong Woo train station, having no clue which direction we want the next leg of our trip to take.

Chengdu meant we leave HK tomorrow - on a 14 hour train ride - and head for Central China for some cheap hostels, hiking and temple visiting. Beijing, on the other hand, meant staying in Hong Kong for another week because the 24-hour train ride to Beijing was sold out until next Friday.

We went back and forth for two hours, returning to the ticketing desk nearly a dozen times, while the smiles on the ticket counter attendants were getting weaker and weaker each time we rolled up. But, this is what happens when you choose to drift vs. planning everything ahead of time. You're left sitting in a terminal trying to decide your least the next week of it. (And you thought traveling was all fun and games.) But of course, we wouldn't have it any other way. For us, it's these moments that make our trip.

So...we board the train to Beijing on Friday, having snagged two of the last four remaining tickets. We'll arrive in China's biggest city on Feb 17 - the very first day of the Chinese New Year.

March 14, 2007

Day 6 - HK/Lamma Island

Final notes on Hong Kong (after only four days, we have completely figured out the culture, ethos and people of Hong Kong):

- Gameboys here are like iPods in America.

- They're loads of McDonalds and 7/11 stores here. Hasn't anyone told our friends here that slurpees died in the early 90's and that McDonalds is the new K-Mart?

- Serious culture clashing. Seeing the old culture vs. the new modern culture was astonishing. On one block we'd be walking by street vendors cutting the heads off live fish. On the very next block would be a 4-story mall equipped with stores like Armani Exchange and Tiffany's. The West is fast taking over (maybe proven by the guy next to me looking at porn) and it raises all kinds of questions about technology, globalization and the economy (which I hope to be more informed about after my next book on globalization).

- Cell phones here are like cell phones in America.

- Hong Kong is a beautiful city (especially the nieghborhoods that haven't been turned into Orange County). The lights and amount of pedestrians were enough to make your head spin. We were speechless for an hour upon arrival here. And when you add beaches, mountains and hiking...well, what more could you ask for?

- High on fashion, low on Asian models. Why do all the stores have caucasions adorning their clothing?

- We played the 'spot the tourist' game. It was tougher than we thought because you forget about all the Chinese tourists that come here. Every time an Asian snapped a picture I was surprised. It's not like playing the game in LA where all the tourist are either fat or wearing a baggy sweatshirt.

A few more pictures can be found here.

March 13, 2007

Day 8,9 - Hong Kong - Wuzhou - Guilin - Yongshuo

Eight days in, and we're on an expressway headed for a small town (and by small town I mean Chicago-ish) in South West China...yes, we changed our minds again. The bus is full and the expressway is empty, having seemingly just opened. On either side are small farms, which seem to be in the duck raising business. I sit and wonder how this new six-lane monstrocity interrupted the lives of these farmers (but how convenient for us!). Did the government pay off these folks who were forced to uproot their homes made of tin and wood?

It seems more and more that what we've read about China is actually happening - East and West are colliding every where you turn. (Can these cultures possibly live in harmony?) I'm not sure what to make of it all, but I'm glad to be here, even though I'm most likely part of the problem.
Day 11 - Li River, Yengshuo, Xingping

For those of you who can't lip read, it went something like this:

"We're here at the Li River in the middle of China."
"A place that took us 32 hours by land to get to."
"It's absolutely stunning."

Enjoy. :)

Day 13 - Yengshuo

You don't expect to feel like a 7th grader while backpacking.

Remember in Junior High when you were in that awkward place of being in the middle grade - the constant struggle to feel cool, always feeling insecure around 8th graders but being self-assured around the 6th graders? Or how about the 7th grade power struggle - feeling defeated (embarrased, taunted) by the upper grade but always getting to take out your defeat on the lower grade?

So it seems a similar struggle for power and coolness in the world of backpacking. Almost everywhere you go, you have three groups of travelers. The 8th grade crowd are the locals, travelers who came to a certain city to work for an extended period of time (at least 3 months). These people are easily marked by long hair, ripped clothing and often speak the native language while buying water from a vendor. Then you have the 7th grade crowd, backpackers who are out traveling around for at least 3 months. This crowd is harder to spot, so you have to look at their clothing. If you look close enough you'll see zip-off pants, windbreakers and broken-in shoes. The 6th grade represents the tourist on holiday for a week or two. This group is easy to spot and are distinguished by jeans, sweaters, oversize cameras, hand sanitizer and can often be seen walking around in circles for no reason at all.

Sure, no one talks about these groups, but they exist and there's even politics involved. For example, these groups never interact with each other. It's just not appropriate for a tourist to have a meal with a local. Nor is it plausible for a backpacker to share an activity, say visiting a cave, with a tourist. Also, facial expressions are the only way to communicate with another group. If you're a backpacker and you walk by a tourist, it is completely natural to give a look of disgust to the girl wearing high heels. Or if you're a tourist and you walk into a bar full of locals, the locals can ignore you for as long as they want to.

So you can understand my amazement, when last night, for a brief moment in time, all these groups came together for the Chinese New Year. Tourist were drinking with locals and backpackers were playing music with tourists. It could have been the alcohol. Or maybe our unity was simply a mysterious Chinese phenomenon that happens every New Year's Eve. Or quite possibly, it could have been Kari, somehow being the one who sang in the Chinese New Year in 2007. Either way, last night was one for the ages.

Today? Well, it's back to the 7th grade.

March 12, 2007

Day 16 - Beijing, Forbidden City

Having just spent the last week in the dreamworld known as Yangshuo, we thought it appropriate to share what a typical day looked like for us (note: the night we saw Bruce Almighty has been purposefully omitted):

10am - Never needing to set the alarm on my Timex, we open our eyes sometime between 9:30 and 11am. Upon rising, we the next 30 minutes watching CCTV, Communist China's lone English program that was surprisingly high on information and low on propaganda. We treat this unit of time as part of our introduction to the complexities of Chinese Culture. The 90 minutes may (and far too often may not) include showering, teeth cleaning and the application of hand sanitizer.

12pm - Food, always on our minds, is next on our agenda. We drift (though still at a pace 10X faster than our Chinese counterparts) down to the local supermarket to buy fruit, crackers, noodles and bread.

12:05pm - After lunch we pursue an afternoon activity (is this beginning to sound like summer camp?), which included on different days: rock climbing in the mecca of Asian climbing; boating up and down the Li River; riding bicycles through remote villages; and wandering aimlessly for hours around town.

3pm - Journey towards a vendor for my daily dose of Peanut M&Ms.

5pm - Part of the backpackers staple diet is going on-line (which is often followed by bi-polar tendencies based on the amount of email received).

6pm - Despite the fact that 46 restaurants exists in Yangshuo, we went to the same one every night for dinner (we're suckers for being locals). The Karst Cafe offered splendid Red Curry among other tasty treats. Often, we shared a meal with fellow backpackers which always leads to envy induced conversations about their travels (my passport is nearly full, but I keep getting the feeling I've never actually been anywhere until now).

8pm - A $200 massage for $5 (need I say more?).

10pm - Our evening begins winding down with a bottle of Great Wall Cabernet, Yatzee and a book (Kari: Atlas Shrugged, Josh: All Families Are Psychotic). And sometime between Jay ending and Conan's first guest, we sleep.

Good night.

A few more pictures of Yangshuo can be found here.

March 10, 2007

Day 18 - Beijing

After a 28 hour train ride, we arrived in Beijing on Tuesday. On Wednesday we spent the day around Tian'anmen Square and in the Forbidden City. We were intrigued as we saw a woman protesting on the square and then being swiftly arrested and thrown into a van by some serious looking policemen. As for the Forbidden City, it was absolutely breathtaking. On Thursday we were taken to the "secret wall" with a small group from our hostel - a place along the Great Wall of China where we had all day to roam around where we pleased (we walked more than 2 miles along the wall).

Though we have been busy roaming around Northeast China, we did take some time to make a video that those of you who know us well will love. Peace!

Day 19 - Beijing

- What fortune. We arrive in Beijing the same week as the Chinese New Year. Besides the festivals and bonus attractions, the constant fireworks are what really makes it special to be here. Literally, day and night, fireworks (big and small) are being set off by locals all over the city. It's quite a trip to hear firecrackers all day long. (Sometimes I imagine we're in Sarajevo while it was under siege in the late 90's.) The exploding firecrackers are a sign of forgetting the past and welcoming in the new. I say bombs away.

- Nothing like a 5 star hotel, right? Well, not exactly in Beijing. An unusually large number of hotels here are a 5 star - because their actually is no standard for the rating. A room with a hole in the ground for a toilet? 5 Star. Hot water for four hours a day? 5 star. I keep thinking about the rich couple who come here for the olympics and end up squatting to go to the bathroom. Oh, the joy.

- The best thing about Beijing? Bike lanes. Every non-expressway road has bike lanes designed only for bikes and scooters. How's that for being accommodating? For the first time in China, we cycled without fear.

- It's hard to imagine that for two weeks next summer the world will be thinking about Beijing every day. The arrival of the Olympics will change any city, but maybe not as much as it is changing Beijing. Taxi Drivers are learning basic English. Factories are being shut down for the sake of the environment. Historic sites are being renovated. New subway lines are popping up all over the city. New signs that include English are being put up every day. Even new laws are being passed. Get this - In light of the Olympics, it is now illegal to give bad customer service in China.

- And finally, it takes Kari twenty minutes to use the bathroom. And not because the lines are so long. No, lines don't exist here. It's push, it's shove, it's do whatever it takes to squat and go. And when you add the fact that Kari is small and white, well, it's like she has a sign on her back that reads, "Don't mind me. I'm just here for the ambiance."

A few more photos can be seen here.

March 8, 2007

Day 21 - Kunming, Yunnan Province, China

Traveling isn't all fun and games.

Like... we just spent the last 44 hours on a cramped train. That's two consecutive nights on a train. Which may not sound that bad, except that three out of the six people in our little bunk area snored louder than you could possibly imagine. Which may not sound that bad, except that when this family wasn't sleeping, they were playing with this incredibly loud toy thingy that was louder than their snoring. Which may not sound that bad, except that during the day, their whole gigantic family would crowd into our bunk area which forced Kari and I to lie in our bunks for the entire 44 hours. Did I mention our bunks have about two and half feet of head room?

Like... at our hostel in Beijing we opted to stay in the dorm rooms (for five nights) because we couldn't afford a private room. Which was nice for a few nights until we felt like having sex. The only place that we figured this was even remotely possible was in one of the tiny showers, which happened to be right next to two other showers and in the same room as all the sinks where everyone seemed to spend a long time getting ready. It was quiet, quick and forgettable.

Like... today on our way to the Vietnam Consulant, a little beggar kid ran up to me and latched onto my leg and wouldn't let go. I wasn't sure what to do, so I kept walking with him attached to my leg (what fun for the little guy!). Finally, I had to forcefully pry him off my leg, which is when he ran over to Kari's leg and latched on for dear life.

March 4, 2007

Day 26 - Dali

Kari hasn't really been able to walk since our trek up the Great Wall. So much so that we had to buy her a cane. Not so much so that we had to buy her a wheelchair, if you know what I mean. After a week of giving Kari piggyback rides, we decided to venture down to the local hospital. The visit went down something like this:

Dr. Office - We visit a DR. who looks at Kari's leg and declares that she needs an X-ray. All of this is spoken to us through Phoebe, our new interpreter, whom we met outside the hospital while we were dismally trying to use hand gestures just to find the entrance. Pheobe stuck with us for the entire visit, as no one in the hospital spoke an ounce of english.

X-Ray Room - Kari has several "photographs" taken of her foot. We wait outside (literally) for ten minutes. The Doc calls us in. No broken bones. No fractures. Good.

Reception - We pay for the X-Rays and DR. visit at the front desk. Total cost: $3.80 USD. (When we express amazement at the cost, Pheobe simply explains that common people need to have health care. Interesting idea.) The woman types in Kari's information and tells Phoebe, "This is the first time I've ever typed in a foreigners name." The receipt was given to Karji Jacksarn.

Dr. Office - The same DR. as before reads the X-Ray report and orders Kari to stay off her leg for a few more days. He also prescribed some Chinese medicine. Everything should be fine.

Pharmacy - Here's what the Dr. ordered: Healing Spray and Yunnan Magic Powder. The spray is to be put on twice a day, but not too much, as to avoid "freezing the foot." We looked at the manual to find the ingredients, and it read, "Not to be discussed." The magic powder is to be mixed with warm water and drank four times daily. The instruction manuals reads, "Hemostatic Effects: Promoting the aggregation of platelet in rat and rabbit significantly, enhancing the activity and expression of surface glycoprotin, bleeding time of wounds in rats and rabbits, demonstrating significantly constriction of artery vessel strip of rabbit."

If all this sounds a little strange, don't worry. Pheobe explained to us the the magic powder is a part of a legend about a hunter who heals an ailing tiger. That made us feel alot better.

We'll let you know it goes.

March 3, 2007

Day 33 - Lijiang

Note: Apparently, the rat medicine worked wonders on Kari's foot. By the time we started our hike, it was strong enough to walk on.

We've spent the last ten days drifting around SW China in the Yunnan Province, which ended with a three day hike in the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Breathtaking is really the only way to describe it. It's the largest Gorge in the world and is surrounded by 18,000 foot peaks. The 36 kilometer trek was simply unbelievable. At night, we stayed in little farm guesthouses with outdoor toilets that faced the Gorge. It was the most beautiful view I've ever had while taking a shit. We ended up hiking with six others and had a blast walking together, eating home cooked meals and drinking Chinese beer. In the end, the Tiger Leaping Gorge was the most beautiful place we've ever been in the world.

A few more photos can be found here (not organized yet).

March 2, 2007

Day 35 - Hanoi, Vietnam
[Disclaimer: We spent a total of 34 days in China. That's barely a month and only a fraction of a year. If Chinese history is a 4-year degree, we've learned about a weeks worth. I say that to say this: our opinion of China is barely credible. Read with a thick lense...]

China was not what I expected.

Of course, what I expected, was some version of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon so I shouldn't be surprised that my portrayal was skewed. (Though I'm not the first person to let a movie influence their opinion of a place. Remember this?) So, here's to a top 7 list of stuff I didn't expect:

7. I didn't expect two weeks of limping (poor Kari), two cases of food poisoning (Kari again), or one week of miserable diahrea (yep, Kari again).

6. I didn't expect Chinese tourists. The people of China total 1.3 billion and I would guess we saw around 900,000 of them posing for photos. Whole cities and villages have been turned into modern day, disneyland-esque reconstructions of old China, and the Chinese go wild for the chance to put on a Tibetan costume and take their picture on a horse.

5. I didn't expect the Chinese countryside to be so spectacular. Our last bus trip, from Kunming to the Vietnam border, had the most breathtaking beauty I've ever seen. It's like the US, Norway, Switzerland and Australia wrapped into one country.

4. I didn't the expect Chinese countryside to be so bland. Much of the East and Central parts of China looked more like communist Russia than the China of my imagination. It often seemed, aesthetically speaking, that China just didn't care - which seems like a far cry from the days of the Forbidden City.

3. I didn't expect the communist government to seem so "good". Every time we watched CCTV9 (China's english news channel) we were left with a peaceful little feeling in our hearts about the Chinese governement.

2. I didn't expect to see a country that seemed so far away from becoming a "superpower". It's hard to think about China being a superpower anytime soon when millions of villagers are barely surviving on yearly wage less than $230. It seems if they do become a superpower, the power will be in the hands of a few.

1. I didn't expect the dramatic collision of East and West in every corner of the country. This is perhaps what perplexed me most about China. Apparantly, it seems that communism (via the Cultural Revolution and other means) has wiped out much of the Chinese culture and heritage, and the west has been rushing in to fill in the holes. The westernization of China is happening at a shocking rate, and China is embracing it with open arms.

Only 70 years ago, a Senator from Nebraska named Kenneth Wherry proclaimed, "With God's help, we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City." Sadly, maybe in 20 years, Kenneth and the rest of the West will finally have it's way.

In the end, we loved China, it's people, it's places, and it's suprises. Here's where we ventured: