Saturday, June 27, 2009

I (heart) HCMC

Within moments of setting foot in Viet Nam we fell victim to a scam. We had heard that Vietnam could be crooked, but wanted to keep an open-mind, only to be pushed into a cab, taken for a $14 ride as his "meter" jumped from $1 to $3 before our eyes and continued rising according to some formula based on time and kilometer multiplied exponentially. When he shoved us out he tried to leave without giving us change to make an extra $4. He gave it to us and got out of there. We tried to get over our bitterness at our most expensive cab ride ever, walked down the street, found a hotel, got some dinner and took a stroll around the block. That's when things started to look familiar. Sure enough our bus had dropped us half a block from our chosen hotel. Of course we feel like idiots for not knowing where we were, but we were sleep deprived from involuntarily attended raves and our bootleg photocopy of Lonely Planet Viet Nam had very poor quality maps. We were naive enough to believe a cab driver would tell us we were already in the neighborhood where we said we wanted to be... I am fairly confident that in any other country we have visited the cab driver would have kindly let us know we were already here, but this guy preyed on our unfamiliarity, jacked his meter, then tried to steal our change, all while asking us where we were from and telling us how to say hello in Vietnamese. Not only was it cruel to us, but it was also cruel to Viet Nam since almost every traveler we met in Lao and Cambodia told us stories of getting ripped off here.

But, other than that embittering first experience, all of our other experiences in Saigon, officially known as Ho Chi Minh City, have been wonderful, with the exception of the three million motorbikes that threaten your life at every intersection. The pho is delicious and the iced Vietnamese coffee is plentiful. The War Remnants Museum, formerly known as the Museum of American War Crimes, was educational for me since I never really understood how the US came to be involved in Vietnam's civil war. In combination with "The Quiet American" and a brief history lesson, I think I have a better understanding of the looong history of occupation endured by the Vietnamese. I wonder if thirty years from now my children might go to a similar museum in Baghdad...

Today we went to Saigon's Chinatown, which looked to my eye like pretty much anywhere else in Saigon. I think Grant Street in San Francisco's Chinatown might be one the best looking tourist streets in any Chinatown worldwide. We tried to go to Shark Waterworld, an waterpark in Chinatown, but swimming trunks were banned! in order to go John would have had to buy either an overpriced speedo or some boxer-brief style lycra suits that cost more than the entrance fee . So we ate durian ice cream instead to escape the heat.


Tomorrow we are headed into the central highlands and then up the coast. When I was in A.P. English in high school, my teacher, who may or may not have been a veteran, was obsessed with Viet Nam. We read 'The Things They Carried' and watched 'Apocalypse Now.' Everyone had to choose an aspect of Vietnamese culture to illustrate with a visual aid. With the help of my dad, I created a three-dimensional topographical map of Vietnam out of clay, which I baked in our oven, painted according to elevation complete with rivers, and mounted on a piece of wood. I think it is still sitting in the basement of my parents' house and I remember it every time I see the silhouette of Viet Nam on countless t-shirts and signs here. American popular culture is obsessed with Viet Nam - how many movies are there about the war? This little country looms very large in our collection imagination. I am grateful to have the chance to replace some of the myth with experience.

In a Cosmic Sleep /

Between Cosmic Eras / On a Cosmic Ocean: In this manner the leaning Vishnu at the National Museum in Phnom Penh resides.

Cambodia's attractions include some of the best and worst accomplishments of humanity: Angkor Wat and the Khmer Rouge' s Choeng Ek Genocidal Center / S21 Prison. It is a little disconcerting when your guesthouse has daily showings of a National Geographic special on the "Mysteries of Angkor Wat" followed by documentaries on S21, in which former prison guards stoically conduct reenactments of their daily prisoner abuses, and The Killing Fields, a well-known documentary about the longan orchard where all but 7 of the detainees from S21 were taken to be killed. It is a little strange to walk out of National Museum, riding high on the cultural accomplishments of the Khmer people, only to fend off tuk tuk drivers who want to cut you a package deal on a ride to S21 and the killing fields. Cheap, cheap. People need to make a living and the world needs to not forget what happened to Cambodia, but the glib commercialization of such a tragedy is a little nauseating.

Angkor Wat is amazing though. I would not have guessed that the god-kings that built these temples had inherited Hinduism (and curry!) from Indian merchants blown across the Andaman Sea by monsoon winds. At Angkor, I learned some of the basics of Hindu mythology, like the creation story of the Churning of the Sea of Milk, an epic tug-of-war between the demons and the gods that released countless topless goddesses into the sky. Or so it seemed from the bas-reliefs. I was particularly impressed by the "elephant gates" that I thought would have elephant statues but were actually doorways with no stairs used for mounting elephants!

On our way to Siem Reap we were treated to Khmer hip hop karaoke videos. In the darkness outside we saw fields of black lights strung on top of vertical tarps, sometimes one in front of house, sometimes whole fields of them as far as the eye could see. After drinking bottled water in Lao that was labeled as "disinfected by UV light," we thought it might be for the collection and purification of rainwater. But we later learned that the locals use the elaborate set-up to catch crickets, which they like to deep-fry and eat. They also enjoy deep-fried large furry spiders. We were too chicken to try it out, but a Frenchman told us they take like liver. Ew.

Strangely enough all of the cats in Cambodia have tail deformities, which I was first worried was actually the result of sadistic cat torture. Apparently it is the result of southeast asian cat inbreeding? Some have normal tails, but alot of have truncated tails, some with tips that are perpendicular to the rest, some like corkscrews! and some with stubs. And of course, geckos are everywhere. I tried to catch an already tail-less gecko and failed because trying to catch geckos is like trying to shoot squirrels in Oregon Trail.

Despite visiting around seven places in Lao, we only managed to visit three in Cambodia (not including bus snack breaks): Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and the coastal beach community named after the former king, Sihanoukville.

After untangling ourselves from the mess of moto drivers at the Sihanoukville bus station, we managed to get a ride to a certain guesthouse on the main drag off the beach, but it had just sold off its last room. The driver told us he had a guesthouse in mind and took us down the beach to another place, which was also full. No matter, he carted us across the street to Chiva's Shack and we were relieved to get a room since they seemed like a hot commodity. The room was only $4, but the room was also a plywood box with a fan in what was basically a corrugated metal garage, but still we were grateful. We got some Angkor beer, swam in the incredibly warm water, read some 'Count of Monte Cristo' on a beach chair, fended off girls hawking bracelets, who were determined to "thread" the 2mm long hairs off my legs by force. They tell you they are just going to show you what it is, then all the sudden the girl and her friend have you spread eagle for an hour... it was mortifying, but now my legs are *very* smooth!

There were some warning signs that Chiva's Shack was more than meets the eye: red bull cocktails sold in bucket-sized proportions, signs that said "Music all night" and "Don't start motos next to guest's rooms," and booty jams and strobe lights going during dinner, but we went to bed thinking the music would die down around midnight or at the latest 2am. Unfortunately ear plugs were no match for their sound system. We might have been more amicable to partying but hadn't gotten a good night's sleep in days on account of the ungodly screams that began at 3am from the pig slaughterhouse adjacent to our hotel in Siem Reap. Around 4am, I went out into Chiva's Shack to investigate, expecting the dj and his two friends as we had left them after dinner, but the place was packed with locals and foreigners swaying around on the dance floor, playing pool, scooting away on motos parked outside our door. I think I finally fell asleep around 5am, only to be woken up at 6am when the British girls next door settled in for the evening.

The next morning we switched hotels. We saw our British neighbors that night down the beach promoting "a really great 'full moon' party at Chiva's Shack" and did not take their flyer. Full Moon parties are a famous Thai invention that actually take place once a month on an island. This party took place every night in a shack and was hopefully not as fun as the real thing. Time will tell.

Adieu, Cambodge, adieu.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Hilarious Cambodian bar names

Unlike Vientiane, Phnom Penh seemed to have a healthy nightlife and more than that, Cambodians had a knack for witty / ridiculous bar names.

Here are my favorites:
Warehouse bar
Laundry bar
Le Tigre de papier
The Gym (Sports) bar
Heart of Darkness
Temple bar
Pontoon Lounge (on a boat)
Rock
Huxley's brave new world
Elsewhere
Green Vespa
A Lien Bar (misprint?)
Retox
Talking to a stranger
Freebird
Origami
Monsoon
Rainy Season
Mosquito

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Mother of the King holiday

Did you know Cambodia is a kingdom? Today I went to the US Embassy in Phnom Penh to see if I could get some pages added to my passport. Obnoxious, I know, my passport is full. I blame Argentina for stamping it sixteen times. Upon entering Cambodia, I was taken aside and it was demonstrated to me that my passport lacked "Visa" pages. There are several pages for "Amendments" and other sorts of things, but not visas specifically and for that reason, the Cambodian officials decided to fine me $10. The fortress that is the US Embassy was easy to spot, but the guards let us know that it was closed for a holiday. Assuming it would be a US holiday (isn't the land around embassies considered territory of the countries they represent?), I asked which one it was since June 18 didn't ring a bell. Perhaps they celebrate Father's Day early and bureaucratically treat themselves to a day off? The guard mumbled that it was Mother of the King's birthday, which my brain interpreted as Martin Luther King's birthday and I said, Isn't that in January? but shrugged and walked away, figuring I would try the embassy in Saigon.

There was no indication that today was a Cambodian holiday until fireworks started going off over the river. I was alarmed by the first boom and asked a girl if she knew what it was about, but I couldn't understand her. I appreciated the fireworks as an early American Independence Day since we will probably be in Vietnam and not having fireworks on July 4. Then as we continued down the riverfront, we saw a sign on the National Museum commemorating the King's Mother's Birthday and it all came together.

Happy Birthday, Lady also known as the Queen!?

First Cambodian bus ride

Our first Cambodian bus ride was hopefully a unique experience. We bought tickets from an internet cafe on an island in the middle of the Mekong River and had little bargaining power. We were told we would take a bus to a boat to a minibus to the border to a VIP bus to Phnom Penh, but that is not what happened. We walked to the boat, boated, then waited for a half hour for our minibus to show up. Then we minibused to the border and then our minibus turned around and went back to Laos. Only later did we realize that our bag of precious souvenirs was on that bus... We checked out of Laos, walked to the Cambodia side, and found our new minibus, at which point our fellow tourists started wondering where our VIP bus was. It was revealed that there would be no VIP bus, alas nor any air conditioning nor on-bus karaoke, and we, four Malaysians, one Englishman, three Americans, one Slovakian, four Frenchmen, and one Korean, would be crammed into this minibus for the next eight hours. We thundered along, then stopped for lunch in the town of Kratie, whose French colonial architecture was spared from late 20th century bombing. For unexplained reasons our luggage was unstrapped from the roof and shoved into the vehicle, where it would ride under our feet for the next several hours. Maybe the driver knew it was going to rain. As we bumped along on a shortcut off the national highway, we heard a thud and then a dragging sound and asked the driver if he cared to stop and investigate. He seemed like he planned to ignore it and keep going. Turns out our spare tire had fallen off about 1000 feet ago, but it could have been worse. Eventually we stopped at a gas station in another small town for a bathroom and snack break. We ate some "larb"-flavored pocky pretzels and grass jelly drink. Then we learned would be '"consolidating" with another van that just showed up. Nineteen people and their luggage were crammed into a 14-seater van. John, the Korean guy and I were unfortunately the last ones to get in and eyed the last remaining seat. The Korean was advised to sit on the wheel hub. John got the seat and I got some backpacks to sit on. A small boy scrambled up onto a tower of backpacks between the driver and shotgun. Finally we arrived in Phnom Penh. Surprisingly we got our bag of souvenirs back today (for a $20 reward and minus several beloved items from China).

Like I said, hopefully a unique experience. Tomorrow we take our second Cambodian bus ride to Siem Reap.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Too Hot Spicey Soup

One of the best things about Southeast Asia, so far, is the soup. A not so special bowl of broth and noodles arrives at your table along with a plate of green beans, cabbage, mint, fresh chilies and a couple lime wedges. After shredding the veggies and mint, you drop them in the hot broth to cook. As they cook, you can attend to flavoring the broth.

At the center of the table sit a series of condiments: dried ground chili paste, Squid Brand Fish Sauce, vinegar, soy sauce, and a Tupperware bowl of fermented fish paste which smells exactly like it sounds. The soup by itself is rather bland. You flavor it by adding moderate amounts of the various sauces and pastes, mixing them in and tasting as you go. The first thing that typically goes in when I'm preparing my soup is the dried chili paste. Usually I eyeball the amount taking what at the time looks like a small dab with my soup spoon, about half a tablespoon. It doesn't look like much. The problem is that its usually really hot outside, usually, and the soup broth is just a Fahrenheit degree or so away from boiling, so your pores open up around your lips and your face and for men, under their mustaches, and the lime stimulates your salivary glands.

By the time you've taken two sups or so the heat starts to get to you. The steam rises from teh broth further opening your pores, making your eyes water a little. Its hard to tell if its the spice of the chili or the heat of the broth, but your tongue and lips erupt in excruciating pain. By the third or fourth sup or so, your eyes begin to water, eventually to the point that your vision is slightly blurred. The synergy of the open pore sweating of your entire face and the chili oil getting deep into the heat expanding pores of your lips and the vermillion border under your mustache makes each bite a very small triumph of will. But its damn tasty...

...especially with the fermented fish paste.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Second and third Lao bus rides

Changing buses has become the popular theme for our recent Lao bus rides. The first time it happened it seemed like our bus driver called the bus ahead and was like, Hey there are not alot of people on my bus and you are going to Vientiane too, so why don't you take them? And the other bus driver said, Ok, and waited by the side of the road for us to catch up. So we consolidated, to achieve a more scrupulous use of non-renewable resources. Then we arrived in Vang Vieng, tubing capital of Laos, and our new bus driver did not realize that four of us had hoped to continue on to Vientiane. He said, Vang Vieng. We said, Vientiane, and so on. Finally he convinced another bus driver to take us to Vientiane, but we had to squish five across the back with another lady and her chickens. There is something to be said for a capital city of 200,000 people... but now is not the time.

Lao bus ride bathroom breaks consistently entail stopping at random points along the road where people go to do their business in the shrubbery. Now I am no longer surprised.

Our third Lao bus ride from Vientiane to Savannakhet was going fine until our bus driver decided not to continue to Savannakhet. I don't know where we were, at some bus station in some town in Southern Laos, and he indicated that we and our stuff should get on the bus next door. We hauled our backpacks across, got in, and saw that the aisle was filled with two motorcycles and every seat was occupied except for two seat next to an armoire blocking the aisle in the back. The last seats were filled with suitcases and boxes and an oscillating fan - apparently someone was moving via the bus. People standing in the remaining aisle space began staking their claims on plastic stools and space to set them. We realized we were either going to be straddling motorcycles on the last two hours of our bus journey or we were going to get those last two seats next to the furniture. John opted to crawl in through the window from the outside. Because I was wearing a dress, I was not sure this was the best way to prevent Lao giggles. So I stepped up onto the motorcycle seat, stepped over an orange-robed monk's seat back and landed safely in my chair. This bus was decked out with oscillating ceiling fans and flourescent lights, but both of these were blocked for us by the armoire... we bought some beerlao from the lady selling her goods outside the window and eventually arrived in Savannakhet.

Our bus ride today from Savannakhet to Pakse involved no bus switching, armoires, or motorcycles, but it did involve jungle bathroom breaks and chickens. Water buffalo proliferated in the rice paddies as we continued south along the Mekong. We have seen Thailand three times now across the river, but we won't be going there for awhile.

First comes Cambodia: after many conflicting reports, we finally confirmed that we can get a visa at the border with Laos. Second comes Vietnam. Third comes Thailand after a cheap cheap flight from Hanoi to Bangkok. Fourth comes Malaysia. Things are shaping up.

Baguettes, Bidets, and Smelly Cheese

During the end of the 19th century, while the rest of Europe was busy tending/losing their colonies in the America's, the French were busy sending explorers to the East, into the areas now occupied by Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. France has long lost its holdings in this area but has left a strong cultural legacy in its wake. French culture has seamlessly entrenched itself into the daily life of Laos, influencing its food, architecture, and toilet habits. Some things I've noted so far:

  • Baguettes and sandwiches.: They're everywhere. I think that the Laotions eat more baguettes than the French do... and they're usually pretty good baguettes. Lao sandwiches are usually topped with weird cured pork, pickled vegetables, spicy stuff, cheese (I haven't actually yet encountered smelly cheese), and PATE'. Pate', you know the French stuff which vaguely resembles dog food that most American's would not touch with a ten foot pole? Yea that stuff.
  • Architecture: French architecture is decaying, but well, in most major Lao towns. Graceful two story tall concrete buildings with wooden shutters and Portuguese tile grace most of the squares and waterfronts we've visited. Now they sit where they were built, slowly falling apart, rust and mold tarnishing their faces, and hint at what an exotic, tropical France may have looked like.
  • Coffee, Cafes and Restaurants with "Le and Aux" in their title: In reality, this stuff is probably for the tourists...
  • Motor Scooters: Well they aren't Vespas, but people here cruise around on 100cc motor scooters... everywhere. They even bring them on the bus.
  • Bidets: The bidet is a low slung porcelain fixture which looks like a cross between a sink and a toilet used for washing oneself after using the loo. To roughly 65 million people in the world, the Bidet is more civilized than using sanitary paper. Laos doesn't have bidets, per se. Most toilets in Laos come equipped with a spray nozzle not unlike the one in most American kitchen sinks built into the wall next to the toilet.
  • French People: I was in a cafe in Vientiene and a family, who I assumed to be the propieters walked in. The unit consisted of a grizzled undoubtedly French older man, a young Lao woman and her daughter. The older French man wore the wrinkled visage of someone who had been burnt by a life in the jungle.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Notorious

We stopped by a French/Lao bookstore/exchange tonight and picked up D.H. Lawrence's 'The Gipsy and the Virgin' and Daniel Defoe's 'Robinson Crusoe' and saw that they were showing a movi called 'Notorious' for free upstairs at 7pm. We took advantage of nearby happy hours drinking Laos cocktails made from laos laos spirits derived from sticky rice. Then we headed back, not knowing whether to expect some obscure French film, or some old murder mystery gangster sort of film, or a film about Notorious BIG. We went upstairs and asked a girl where she was from and if she knew what the movie was about, and it turns out, of all the films in the world, this bookstore was showing the dramatic interpretation of Chris Wallace's life. The other couple there was actually from Brooklyn and at first thought they were going to be seeing the Hitchcock film, but were equally excited to see the movie that was filmed in their old neighborhood. At the end of the film, the Laos staff turned the light back on, I hadn't realized Biggie and Tupac were friends (also, by the way, did you know Tupac was named after the last Incan king that stood up to the Spanish and was finally defeated in the jungle of Peru? Tupac's mother was a black panther!) and I asked the Irish girl if people were really into Biggie and Tupac when they died ten years ago, she looked at me with a tear drying on her cheek and said she had listened to them when she was in high school... the day Tupac died people refused to go to class and sang in the hallways at my highschool. Fascinating to see this movie here in Luang Prabang, Laos, of all places.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Our first Lao bus ride

Our first Lao bus ride was VIP because there was no other option from Luang Nam Tha to Luang Prabang today. Without anything with which to compare it, VIP seems to include on-bus karaoke to sing along with all your favorite Lao hits (including Creedence Clearwater Revival covers!) while the bus swings around blind turns and slams over potholes.

I had read that Laos was one of the poorest countries in the world, but I did not expect villagers to build their homes right next to the highway. Our first Lao bus ride was like a nine-hour long Unicef commercial, with little babies in varying degrees of nakedness bathing eating playing next to the road or sitting in the dirt, watched over by older siblings and grandmas in traditional clothing in front of thatch roof single story homes while pigs, dogs, chickens, and turklets ran amuck.

This first Lao bus ride confirmed that motion sickness is a world-wide phenomenon. Growing up in a family where everyone can read in cars, I did not realize how common motion sickness is. In South America and in Asia, at least in China and Laos, people seem to have a hard time keeping it down on the bus. This bus ride was particularly windy, but the lady in the seat behind me was in a near constant state of puking. John had to pick his backpack up off the floor...

The other noteworthy thing that happened on this first Lao bus ride was a conversation between John and a nice young Lao man on his way to Luang Prabang to learn English. They exchanged pleasantries about Laos, then the man sprung a question that has not been asked of us in our four months of traveling. He asked, what is your religion? John answered that he had been raised Catholic, but the man did not understand, so John said, Christian. The young man answered with something bordering on joy/relief that he was also Christian and that last night he had had a dream that he had met another Christian who had given him a hat and mittens. He said maybe his god was telling him he would meet John today... after that John didn't really know what to say, nor did the other man, who drifted off to talk to a French lady from New Zealand who was planning to teach English at a wat...

That sums up the goings-on of our first Lao bus ride.

Luang Prabang is very pretty, looks like some nice French colonial architecture even in the dark, and I have spied a few baguettes here and there.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

"Trekking"

What is the difference between trekking and hiking or backpacking? I do not know. Hiking seems to be something you do for the day and it becomes backpacking when you stay out overnight. Based on our experience today, trekking seems to entail being lead around the jungle for the day by three local teenagers with machetes on a barely discernible trail and it requires a bamboo walking stick to stay on your feet. This "trek" was advertised as an opportunity to see local ethnic tribespeoples' way of life. John and I weren't that interested in the 'human zoo' aspect of the tour, but as it turned out, it only entailed being led through the forest by a young kid wearing flip flops and whacking at vegetation with a machete. Apparently he and his no-socks-and-dress-shoes-wearing friend who brought up the rear were the local tribespeople? We "trekked" for about six hours with two Korean girls and an Israeli couple, up and down, slipping and sliding and falling, while our guides traipsed along and hardly broke a sweat. After we ate a buffet of local Laos cuisine with our fingers off and wads of sticky rice off of a table of banana leaves laid on the ground, the Israeli man asked us if there are trekking opportunities in the United States and I didn't really know what to say. People, myself included, hike and backpack in the US, but what defines trekking exactly? Maybe trekking is to hiking as torches are to flashlights or some other example of two words for the same thing; I am always really confuesed when I read or hear that I need to bring a "torch" with me somewhere, which doesn't happen all that often. In conclusion, we did not see any tigers and perhaps that is a good thing, but we didn't see much wildlife at all. I am starting to realize that Costa Rica is an extremely unique place where monkeys howl and throw poop at you and wild boars, giant guinea pigs, crocodiles, birds, and butterflies all wander around on your ordinary everyday hike (and in Costa Rica they never call it trekking). After study abroad in Central America, I figured jungles across the world teamed with wildlife, but based on my jungle experiences in Peru and Laos, that is apparently not the case! I hear Ecuador might also team with wildlife, but I am not sure if or when I will be able to verify that rumor.

Tomorrow we will try to catch a bus down to Luang Prabang. I think they eat baguettes there.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Escape from the Gulag!

Dear readers, we are finally free of China's ban on blogspot! Upon arriving in Beijing where we last left you, we found that blogspot had been blocked. We thought perhaps it was blocked only in the capital, but when we saw that it was blocked in Pingyao and Xi'an and so on, we assumed China was cutting back on people's freedoms with the approaching twenty year anniversary of Tianemen Square (June 5). The worst part was that we couldn't post to say we couldn't post! We didn't stick around to see when our right to blog might be restored. Despite its governmental shortcomings, Laos does not seem to have a problem with blogging.

I wrote this "Summary of our Chinese Travels" post in my head on a windy, bumpy, sleepless sleeper-bus from Zhongdian to Kunming a few days ago. Since we last wrote, this is what we have been doing in the lonely absence of our blog:
  • In Beijing, we saw older people waltzing to Christmas songs on our walk from the bus station to the hostel. People often whistled Christmas songs in May in this Buddhist/atheist country. Our hostel was located in one of the many hutong alleyways that have mostly been demolished to make way for 10-lane avenues. There are so many sights in Beijing you could stay for weeks. We saw a handful of famous ones, all very impressive.
  • We celebrated my 28th birthday in Pingyao, an ancient walled city, a tourist shadow of its former thriving village self. All the authentic action has moved outside the historic gates and inside people hawk glass jade bracelets and dubious antiques. John rented the kitteh from the shop next door by writing down the characters for "girlfriend" "birthday" "cat" "one hour," which made it an exceptionally memorable birthday. I love that the word for cat in Mandarin is "mao."
  • In Xi'an, we ate delicious Muslim mutton soup with bread crumbled in it, then we fought our way through armies of tourists to see the terra cotta warriors. We were also offered a kitteh for free, but the logistics of traveling with a xiao mao boggled our minds.
  • Rather than petting pandas in Chengdu and floating down the Yangtze in Chongqing, we got off the beaten path in Zhengzhou and for lack of English signage and Hostelling Internationals, we could not find a place to stay. We looked dejected enough that a girl with a pocket translator offered to help and lead us to a nearby hotel and got us a room, which we were promptly thrown out of for reasons that could not be fully explained with our pocket mandarin - english dictionary. We think no foreigners were allowed to stay in the hotel, but still don't know why we were allowed into a room in the first place... eventually we found a new hotel on our own. The whole point of going to Zhengzhou was the Shaolin temple, birthplace of Chinese kung fu, home of Shaolin shadowboxing and the Wutang sword-style (if what you say is true, the shaolin and the wutang could be dangerous).We saw several of the kung fu animal style (listed in the poll in the right side bar) in fist-flying action.
  • Our next stop was Wuhan, which we imagined might be what Shanghai was like twenty years ago, with a Bund that was not completely under construction and concession-era architecture falling into ruin, but we were itching to get a taste of the Chinese pastoral.
  • We did not quite find idyllic countryside in Fenghuang, which was very pretty by day with narrow alleys and houses supported by stilts hanging over the river, but discordantly thumping with booty jams by night. The crush of the stinky-tofu-eating tourist hoardes in town for a dragon boat racing holiday also made it difficult to soak up the scenery.
  • Dehang finally satisfied our search for small village life with the added bonus of some amazing hikes through limestone karsts and rice paddy-covered landscapes.
  • We caught a scenic train ride up to Yunnan province only to see more rural Chinese tourist disneyfication in Dali and Lijiang, where it was hard to see the historic architecture underneath all the tourist schlock and people putting on ethnic clothing and posing for photographs. Unlike in South America, the majority of tourists in China are Chinese and they seemed to be shameless consumers of whatever was on sale, such as local ethnic minorities' dignity.
  • Thankfully, the tourist hoardes did not make it all the way up the Himalayan foothills to Zhongdian, also known as Gyalthang to Tibetans, also known as Shangri-La to the Chinese tourist bureau. We sampled yak burger and yak yogurt and gaped at the ruins of what used to be the most important lamasery in southwest Tibet, which had been trashed by overly enthusiastic Red Guards in the cultural revolution and is still being slowly restored...
We are now inadvertently following in the footsteps of Edward Gargan as he flowed with the Mekong from its headwaters in Tibet to its delta in Vietnam. 'A River's Tale' is a very good read, but I got a little nervous holding it in China where it is undoubtedly banned.

After a minor scuffle with the Chinese officials over some "suspicious" creases in John's passport, we made a run for Laos. We are now in Luang Nam Tha and just enjoyed our first $4 steak, coconut milk soup, and lemon-mint drink. Tomorrow we are hoping to see some tigers (from a distance) in the neighboring jungle. Hopefully we will now return to our regularly scheduled blog posting.

China my china, i've wandered around and you're still here

The mist, clinging to the bambooed hills changed into a rain as we descended newly tunneled roads to China's border with Laos. With China at our backs my memories will be bitter sweet. China is a beautiful country, and its people are among the most friendly and helpful I've encountered on the planet. There was never a time when, looking lost and defeated, that someone didn't help us out. The landscape, punctured by limestone kartsts or blanketed by amoebic rice paddies, is otherwordly. I am envious of the smoothness of China's rail, and how easy travel is. Perhaps more Americans would actually see America if our rail compared to taht of China's. China has a sense of humor, too. Some of the funniest one liners I've seen in my life have been derived from mistranslated Engrish. (Actually, China does have a standup scene which seemed to be based around its musical traditions and opera... but I couldn't understand the jokes... and Jackie Chan can be a pretty funny dude, but he doesn't count, he's Cantonese.)

But China has a dark side that we butted up against periodically on our trip. The Cultural Revolution, begun in 1966 was a period of social upheaval. Mao wanted to purge the Four Olds: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. Intellectuals were sent to farms, books and musical instruments were burned, and temples were raized. China has moved on, from this philosophy, but the vestiges of the thought that led to the Cultural Revolution still remain and influence China's decisions.

The last province Shannon and I visited was the Yunnan province. The Yunnan province is unique in that it is host to many minority cultures in China, each with unique religion, architecture and language. While we were traveling in the province we began to read a book given to me be my mother's friend: The Rivers Tale by Edward Gargan which detailed his trip down the Mekong River from its source in Tibet. Gargan's trip happened to begin in the Yunnan Province and his interviews with people along the way who lived through the Cultural Revolution changed my perception of the vast country a bit. If you're traveling in China or Southeast Asia, I highly recommend this book. It has added a new layer of meaning into my travels.

China is still out to stifle the Four Olds. The government has little care for old architecture, music, and religion unless it serves the purpose of lining the pockets of communist Beuracrats. Much historic architecture has been destroyed in China to make way for drab high rise apartments. The Yunnan province is a remarkable example of China's attitude towards the old. Because they are so far from Beijing, the old cities of Lijian and Dali managed to escape the wrecking ball however what exists of them now looks more like shopping malls or Disneyland than anything of historic significance. We had the privelage, while in Lijian, to see the Naxi Orchestra. This orchestra is composed of ancient men playing 1000 year old musical scores on ancient instruments. The performance was great, except for the thumping bass of techno music filtering through from nightclubs which have taken up residence across the street. We made our way south of Lijian to the city of Zhongdian (dubbed Shangri-La by a local beurocrat). Zhongdian used to be part of Tibet and houses one of the priniciple Tibetan monastaries. As we ascended the stairs to the top of the hill in which the monastary is perched, the scars of the Cultural Revolution become apparent as the monastaries main building still lies in a heap of rubble. Though the Lamas are currently in the process of rebuilding this intimates the heavy role China is playing in modern Buddhist practice. Gargan speaks a lot about this.