Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Motorbikes, like a game

Riding around on a motorbike in Vietnam was truly fun. I started renting a bike one afternoon in Hoi An and had solitary rides through rice patties and became accustomed to riding in the town with many pedestrians and other motorbikes. The unwritten rule, I quickly understood, was just don't hit anything in front of you, and don't worry about anything hitting you. In this way, you don't stop at intersections, and you don't go so fast that you can't stop. Whatever you do, never stop. This causes chaos as everyone is watching you and where you are going, and if you stop and go, it is impossible to tell, and intersections get clogged.

When I got back to Hanoi, I once again rented a motorbike and realized there were sevral levels to this game. Level one, country side. Level 2, small town. Level 3, big city with cars. Level 4, trying to navigate using a map and reading road signs. Level 5, same as level 4 but with rain. Level 6, in darkness. I only made it to level 6, the later levels include more and more passengers, higher speeds, etc....

It was challenging and always an adventure. The system actually works quite well. I did see a guy in front of me get run over by a car. he was thrown, but realized he did cut the car off, so he picked up his motorbike, his passenger checked all his limbs, and they got out of the street. I guess there is really only one kind of game over.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Vietnam for Chinese New Year


I have been in Vietnam for over a week now and love it. The food is excellent, the scenery beautiful, and the people are very friendly. I came here with my parents for Chinese New Year,and my dad left yesterday to go back to work.
So far, we had a beautiful boat trip in Halong Bay, which included beautiful limestone caves and kayaking. The guide was very friendly and celebrated Lunar New Year when the guests went to sleep with the staff and myself which included rice wine and excellent food.

Our last night on the boat, the guide and I and one of the staff took a small boat to a floating Karaoke bar/fish market/home (see picture)
After a couple of days of that, we had a day in Hanoi which we used to do see a waterpuppet show. We also flew to Hue, which once once the capital for a short time and had a tour of the city, which had an excellent palace. After that, we spent a few days in Hoi An, which was a nice town with old architecture and I ended up getting a suit made. I also had the chance to rent a motorbike which was excellent fun as I could explore the countryside while listening to music.
On my trip, I met some old ladies making pottery for sale in town who invited me to also make a pot. It was good fun, and they helped me and then wanted me to sign it. I also met a lady smoking a homemade cigar.

Since my dad also likes cigars and hadn't found any in Vietnam, I asked her, and eventually started to roll a makeshift cigar from a bag of tobacco leaves.

After my dad left, my mom and I took an overnight train to Sapa, where we did some hiking around minority villages. It has been a lot of fun and we got to see how different people live and dress. The scenery is gorgeous with the rice patties shaping the mountain landscapes.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

China Travels, all the way to the Great Wall

On January 14th, Jana arrived with my sister leaving the following day. Since then Jana and I did a whirlwind tour of China, including stops in Hangzhou, Shanghai, Taishan, Beijing, Xian, and Chengdu.

As my sister missed her flight (it must run in the family) Jana and I stayed a few days in Hong Kong. We were able to see most of the sites, as well as eat on the peak at night, wander along the bay, etc..

After spending a week with my parents, we decided to a quick tour of China together.

Hangzhou
We flew into Hangzhou on the evening of Sunday Jan. 21st. Believe it or not, the hotel we found online was on top of a Ferrari dealership and convenient for walking around Westlake and into town. That evening we went for a walk and found some markets. Already, it was difficult restraining myself as there was limited room in our one small piece of luggage. This would continue to be an issue throughout the trip.
The weather was misty, but we rented bikes and rode around the lake. There were many beautiful bridges, amazing landscaping, and trails.


On the way to the train on our second day there, we walked right by a newly opened Hooters. As Jana had never been in one, we went in for some wings and a drink. The proprietor told us we missed our last train to Shanghai, so we went and got a room at the local hostel, which would end up having the softest mattress of our entire trip (mattresses are typically very hard) This was fine, however, as the following day we were able to see a Pagoda (see golden room picture) despite it being rebuilt somewhat tackily, and a street which was quite authentic where medicine (and now tourist stuff as well) See picture.





Shanghai Arriving in Shanghai was the equivalent of leaving China. It is very modern, an excellent subway system with an entire part of the network not even in our guide yet. We arrived quite late, and after walking in the wrong direction for a bit, decided we would go eat before going to the hostel. We wandered along a street full of little carts, and had wonderful dumplings and chocolate covered fruits. After that, we walked past some really nice architecture, went up to have a look at a rotating restaurant which was quite tacky, and found the Nepalese restaurant we were looking for was now a Frech cafe. We decided on eating at a Chinese place and had green mangoes, dumplings for me once again, and some vegetables. Walking back, we past a 24 hour Mcdonalds (pictured) and I noticed what I expected was apple pie was filled with peas. The picture above is of our "voluntary" guide when we went to see some sites.


After sleeping in and getting some really good coffee, we walked along the river (as much as possible as consruction forces you in and around so much it is quite difficult) The skyline is impressive, especially when you consider that 20 years ago there was only farmland on the opposite side of the river. We were able to cross the river on a ferry full of motorbikes, and then walked to the Pearl Tower. It was expensive to get in, but had a nice view, and a memorable museum.

We also had an excellent pannini at a restaurant nearby, and wandered around. That evening, after a wonderful Italian dinner by the river, we took the tourist tunnel back under the river towards our hotel, which had many neon lights (pictured).
It was touristy, but very cool, and we were the last ones to go before it closed fr the night. A quick game of Sega Outrun at an attached arcade, and some basketball, and we were on our way. When we got to the other side, we had a drink and took a cab to a western part of town, where we found a rock bar and played darts before going to bed.


Shanghai is very modern, with huge towers, modern buildings, and western chain restaurants on every corner. There was a lovely garden which was very Chinese, but other than that it was very western. In a temple is where we met the guide pictured above, and he showed us the garden, we had tea, excellent shrimp dumplings, and ended up wanting a sizeable tip. Later that night we made our way to the park, had a chance to view a couple of museums, and missed our original train after an excellent dinner on top of a museum.

Taishan

We missed our original train despite being 3 minutes early. Apparently several trains leave early, and ours was one of them. I was able to manage to get a partial refund, and we took a slow train and managed to get a place to sleep.

The first train only got us half way to our destination of Taishan, and ended up in Bengbu, a small town on the way. When we found another trainwhere there were no seats available, and we needed to pay to eat in the dining car in order to have a place to sit.

Once we arrived in Taishan we organized a hotel and figured out how to get to the sacred mountain. Over 6000 steps later and after having passed several temples, we reached the top. There were excellent views, we were the only westerners all day. It was an amazing day, with beautiful views and experiences. For instance, we had hot Red Bull(quite good) and I likely hurt my back trying to help a porter who gets paid $4 per trip (2 per day) when he carries 100lbs of incense and tourist products up the mountain. On top we did several minor hikes all alone, ate onion and funny sauce crepes, and took a cable car down. Since we were not able to get transportation all the way to Beijing, we ended up getting a bus to Jinan. There we found a nice hotel with internet in the room which was very inexpensive, 3-wheeled taxis, and another large serving of dumplings. The following morning we took a bus with beds on it to Beijing. On this bus we met an artist who shared his chicken feet and beer with me.

Beijing

Once we arrived, we took a cab to the Lama hostel. After that we used all sorts of public transport to navigate our way to a lovely Italian restaurant. In Beijing, after renting bikes, we were able to visit Chairman Mao's tomb (fully preserved, strangely yellow), the Forbidden City as well as the well hidden Starbucks within it, and a large hill behind the city where we met yet another friendly couple willing to invite us for overpriced tea.



The following day was a visit to the Summer palace, which was a gorgeous area outside Beijing, which was built when an empress used the money which was supposed to be used for a navy, to build a large palace area instead. There was a stone boat in the surrounding lake, and nice bridges and buildings.

The following morning, due to having very little time and having to catch a train that evening, we hired a cab for the whole day to go the great wall. This was actually quite good as we were able to go to a remote portion, and walk opposite of where most tourists go. We still managed to buy some morning dumplings for energy, have our own followers who claimed to be walking the same way, but were really trying to guilt us into buying something. I offered to pay them to leave us alone, and when I did, one requested I also buy something. This upset me greatly, and I demanded he give me some postcards as I already paid for them. They left us alone.

The walk was truly refreshing, and the views were nice. I realized that it may not be possible to do a walk like that in the near future as the "renovation" was evident in most places, and would likely transform the wall into something not as magical as it is in its present condition.

Some of the steep parts of the wall, and the twists and turns were truly amazing. To think of how something like that was built so long ago. After the wall, we had the cab meet us at another point on the wall and we headed back to the city where we grabbed our things, had a drink and some excellent pizza, and headed to the train station.


Xian
The train to Xian was excellent as there were only 4 beds per room, and they were comfortable, even an LCD screen with some program on Basketball on. There was a friendly gentleman sharing the room with us because the room he was supposed to be in stunk of feet. Arriving in Xian the following morning, we left our things at the train station and headed to see the Terra Cotta Army by public bus. The army itself is very amazing, but the compound that houses it seemed a bit too commercial, and parts weren't ideal for preserving them for the future. It was very interesting, and I did learn a lot, but was not too upset to get on a late train towards Chengdu.
Shortly before the train, we ended up grabbing some KFC and a coffee as it was late and most things were closed. I can't rememeber the last time I had KFC, but it tasted quite good.

Chengdu

The train to Chengdu was extrememly slow, despite being designated as fast. It seemed to halt for much of the night while other trains passed us. The bathroom facilities, after being on a train for 20 hours, were not the best. Unfortunately we did not get the luxury sleepers this time, and the train was crowded. We managed to get a lot of reading done, and saw some very nice landscapes.

Upon arriving in Chengdu, we ended up taking a bicycle taxi to a place called Grandma's place. It was another excellent meal (yes, the meals were getting progressivly more western) The following morning was a lovely trip to the Panda Research Park north of Chengdu. Chengdu also had excellent markets and food, and we were able to go to Qingcheng, a Taoist mountain retreat. This was a lovely hike which went through amazing forests and finshed with a huge Pagoda with a golden steer. THe walk down was also nice, meandering through several monk habitations, and ended with a boat trip across a lake.