Sublime Disruption. A pretty good way to describe tearing up your roots and taking a year off.
Anyway, when he was in Chengdu he visited the pandas (HIGHLY recommend) and ... well ... just sit back and enjoy the video ...
Thursday, July 21, 2011
|Sardines on wheat toast and pickles!|
I dug in, plopped a few on a bit of bread, and hesitantly took a bite. It was ... delicious! It turned out that the little fishies were smoked, and the dark bread was a revelation after the noodle kingdom I had just left to the south. They then proffered a jar of pickles. Pickles! Such an odd item for an Asian country. I happily crunched away.
Only a few hours ago I had been in China, the food as Asian as can be. And now, just a hop across the fence, I was tucking into very European fare: sardines, dark bread, and pickles. It is astonishing how radically things can change in such a short distance.
|Goodbye Beijing Smog! Waking up to the blue and green|
So, the Mongolians turned to their northern neighbor, and Russia more than happily obliged. Mongolian "roads" are roamed by Russian Furgans, indestructible metal coffin mini-buses outfitted with huge mud-tires. In the far provinces, tour operators use enormous old Russian military transports to get around, and after seeing some of the car-sucking swamps on horse-back, I can't blame them. But perhaps most jarring is to see a group of Asian faces speaking a language that sounds remarkably like Russian. And of couse, Cyrillic is a Western alphabet. But I'm not complaining, Cyrillic is a piece of cake compared to trying to memorize thousands of Chinese kanji. Then again, the Russians also brought in alcoholism in the form of vodka and slapped up a lot of horrible communist buildings around the capital. The purges of Stalin eventually reached Mongolia and many monasteries were destroyed during the climax from 1937-1939.
|Mongolia's Abraham Lincoln|
|Cruising the high country|
Get a compass and a good map, maybe buy a horse, and just go. Doesn't really matter where, it will be an adventure. That's precisely what I intend to do.
Posted by Unknown at 8:30 PM
As I picked the long black hairs out of my tiny sleeper berth onboard the filthy bus, I eyed the yellow-stained sheets and blotchy gray blanket. I realized with despair that my introduction to Mongolia had come a bit earlier than expected. And yet again, I found myself ruing my decision not to take the train. Forehead slaps could not salvage this nightmare.
I had been looking forward greatly to the train ride from Beijing to Mongolia… it was the true start of my Trans-Siberian journey! Finally a proper long train journey, and across international borders to boot! I had heard of how the carriages had to be switched across the different track gauges and it was done in the middle of the night, how the passengers were an interesting mix of Chinese, Mongol, Westerners, and Russian traders. How the food onboard was outstanding, until you switched to the Mongol train and suddenly only meat and milk was for sale.
But the reality was this: the train only ran on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and I found myself in Beijing on a Monday morning. If I waited a week to take the train, I would be cutting into my precious month of horse trekking in Mongolia, the highlight of my year away. I decided, against all better judgment and common sense, to take a bastardized chop-shop of buses, taxis, and trains that left on a Friday. It would grant me 2 more precious days in Mongolia.
|Why o why do I still take buses???|
Luckily I just picked up a head cold, so I’m sure I will quickly impress as I sneeze and cough all over my new Mongol friends. I assume I will arrive refreshed and invigorated at the capital city on Sunday morning, smelling like rose petals and ready for new adventure.
All to save 2 days of travel in a year away.
Then again, my level of stupidity has already been proven: I did drink snake blood and jump off a perfectly good skyscraper last week.
PS: I just realized I didn’t bring any food or water. And of course there is no toilet on a 12-hour sleeper bus!! And I already have to pee. Only 35 more hours to go!!! Woo-hoo!!!
|The Chinese mark the exit to Mongolia with the Rainbow of Relief|
Posted by Unknown at 9:39 AM
|I always wondered where Powerty came from|
At the end of my post Chinese First Impressions, I asked China to please prove me wrong. I will say it did a pretty good job. So China, I’m sorry. You’re not so bad, you’re just misunderstood. What people take as rudeness is really just a huge cultural gap, worsened by the generations of insular xenophobic oppression and getting your insides ripped apart during the Cultural Revolution by your own government.
Chinese people are loud and the language is not the prettiest to the ear. Old women do enjoy spitting up loogies near your shoes. It is true that it is virtually impossible to walk around any major city without a brick falling on your head from all the construction. The toilets are indeed direct conduits to hell. But, as in India, these surface differences between Chinese and the West are just that. They are surface differences.
|Doesn't matter who you are or where you're from, a good time is a good time|
Under all the pushing and shoving in the queues lies the same heart as anyone. I think my view really began to change that night out in Lijiang. It was the first time I had seen the Chinese out partying. The men we ran into were generous beyond belief, refusing to let us pay a kuai for anything. They heaped food on our plates and fed us more beers than a Yeti should drink. They honestly just wanted to show us a good time and make sure we were having fun and enjoying their country.
And in Kunming, it was such a pleasure to stroll through some of the parks and watch men playing chess, drinking their tea, old women chatting over games of Mahjong, and little groups playing songs on their exotic Chinese instruments. They were just making music for the pure joy of it. A middle-aged woman gracefully moving through the moves of Tai Chai with her plastic sword, alone in a temple. A man carrying his huge carved bong, 2 feet tall, through the cobblestone streets, smiling happily as he showed it off. And in Beijing, watching young kids breakdance, and older couples line-dancing in the square at 10pm.
Dancing in the streets... c'mon everybody...
All these little moments break though the Great Wall until it becomes clear that you are recognizing something very familiar. The Chinese are just people. They are the same as anyone in the West or anywhere in the world, really. The only difference is that you have to work a little harder, push a little deeper, and have a lot more patience. Especially if you are standing in a line!
One American girl I ran into made a funny comment that stuck with me. She had been living in Beijing for a while. And she said China is more like America than it’s different. I laughed incredulously. Shirley you can’t be serious, I said. But then she explained.
China is very insular and a bit xenophobic. America is very insular and a bit xenophobic. China thinks it’s the most important and most central country in the world. America thinks it’s the most important and most central in the world…
(just replace China with America in these next few statements)
- China likes to throw its weight around with its smaller neighbors, and its foreign policy is often resented for that reason
- Chinese people are very loud and can be considered abrasive when traveling abroad
- Chinese have a very distorted understanding of the world outside their country
I stood there and had nothing to say. She was dead right. So China, on behalf of an American, I say screw everyone else, we are pretty bad-ass countries. If we work together we can rule the world!!! <evil laugh> bwah hahahaha!!!!!
|Goodbye Tibetan pil-grums|
I will miss the colorful Tibetan pilgrims wandering around their haunted beautiful temples. I will miss the gorgeous canyons and mountains and lakes and ancient cities of Yunnan. I will miss the Tai Chai and line-dancing in the parks, the strong tea, and the even stronger and somewhat deadly bijou. I will miss the playground of Yangshuo and nightlife of Hong Kong and Beijing. I will miss how safe it feels everywhere I go, even in an alley of Beijing at night. And I will definitely miss the spicy and greasy food!
But most of all, as in every place, I will miss hanging out with a friendly and generous people just when I started to feel I was getting to know them a little bit.
Zaijian, Zhongguo. I will spit up a loogie in your honor tonight.
Posted by Unknown at 9:38 AM
I am surprised to be writing these words: I like Beijing. I don’t love it, no don’t get me wrong. The depressing gray smog in the air and endless traffic, urban jungle, and crowds are not fun at all. But Beijing has some well-known and few more hidden surprises hidden around its huge sprawling belly.
|They have a favorite color, but for some reason can't quite remember which one...|
|Not so secret police|
Everyone starts at Tiananmen of course, the biggest square in the world where the Chinese government, 22 years later, continues to hide from its own people what occurred on June 4, 1989. I have to say, it does impress. It is HUGE. And oppressing. You can’t stroll leisurely about the square as if it were a park. In fact, even to get in you have to cross an enormous congested 12-lane boulevard that encircles the square like a lifeless black serpent. Then, you have to toss your pack into an X-ray machine as you enter one of only 6 entrances to the massive square. Security cameras are everywhere, and plain-clothes officers in black pants and white shirts watch your every move. A huge jumbotron a couple football fields long plays a propaganda movie where smiling minorities aren’t oppressed, they are happy and dancing and joining hands. If you continue to watch, you will learn that China is apparently covered everywhere in only flowers and lakes, and everyone wears lots of Red, the color of the happy worker.
On the south side of the square squats the ugliest communist building in the country, Mao’s mausoleum. He apparently wanted to be cremated, but instead (to my delight) the Party pickled him and put him on display right here in the center of China. I was devastated to learn that it was closed on Monday; I really wanted to see if he did indeed look more like a waxed and stuffed penguin than a real person.
|Mao's big shiny forehead. A helpful sign you are heading north as it reflects the sun|
North of the square lies a portrait of Mao big enough to use as a house foundation, hanging off the main entrance to the Forbidden City. It is truly bizarre, these two prime tourist attractions next to each other, with Mao’s big balding head bridging the gap. One represents all that is modern China and the Cultural Revolution where every trace of the old world was burned to the ground; and just next to it lies the heart of ancient Imperial China where for a thousand years the sun and earth and phoenixes and dragons were all worshipped as gods.
|Ahhh... packaged tour groups. Always a sign you are making sure the beaten path stays beaten|
There is no denying that the Forbidden City is grand. It has 900 buildings, and the main halls along the north-south axis, where the old emperors would be crowned, pray to ancestors, and meet generals are impressive goliaths of architecture. But, I have to say it left me feeling empty. I much prefer the lonely jungle-covered ruins of Ta Prom in Angkor Wat or Tikal in Guatemala. The Potala was fascinating because it was a single winding castle of narrow corridors, dazzling colors, and opulent thrones you could walk right up to and touch. But the Forbidden City isn’t like that any of those.
|Cool... in a sterile kind of way|
The main palaces are blocked off, and the dingy little thrones sit alone within the dark expanses of the lifeless halls. All the riches have been long stolen away by Japanese or British invaders. The big plazas and even the imperial marble walkway reserved only for the Emperor are now stampeded by tour groups. It is nearly impossible to imagine it as it once was, a huge army standing solemnly before the Son of Heaven, incense burning from the massive iron cauldrons. Today only the squawk of loudspeakers and the yell of tourists on cell phones can be heard. The Zhongguo flood has buried this city so deep that it is hard to get a gasp of air.
|The bed of Imperial Boom-boom|
There was one bright spot. At the back, right before the pleasant garden, sits a little palace reserved for the emperor and empress on their wedding night. On one side sits a sacrificial pit, and on the other a bedroom drenched in red. And through a window you can see a red bed, where a golden phoenix and dragon dance around each other. The phoenix represents the empress, the dragon the emperor. It was nice to see that this intimate spot had survived, a little glimpse into that lost ancient world.
|My, what a long rod you have!!|
|Its just rude not to eat at least one huge scorpion|
|Sitting in the Supreme Harmonious Center of China|
|Dragons dance beneath the gorgeous Temple of Heaven|
I would never live in Beijing. But it’s definitely a city I would visit again. After buying some Japanese face-masks and an emergency oxygen tank, of course.
Posted by Unknown at 9:25 AM
|Great wall as seen from ESA's Proba satellite|
Of all the grand structures in the world, the Great Wall of China is the most tragically comic. It was built by the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, 1500 years ago, and then expanded and maintained for 1000 years more. Millions of people were used in its construction, and when the emperors ran out of men they used women. And it didn’t work! Genghis Khan simply bribed the sentries, and its huge span meant that of course it couldn’t be defended entirely along its length. When Japan and then Europe invaded from the sea, the Wall was about as much use as a hairdryer.
The Chinese call it the longest cemetery in the world, as those who died in its construction were simply used as more bricks. An infamous poem goes:
“The wall is so tall because it is stuffed with the bones of soldiers,
The wall is so deep because it is watered with the soldiers’ blood.”
|Endless Awesome-ness. I'm in the picture somewhere I think|
But I have to say, there is only word to describe it today… Frickin’ Awesome. OK, two words maybe, but at 10,000 li, the Wall is the longest man-made structure in the world. I went and saw it with an Irish guy named Logan from the hostel, and they hooked us up with what is considered the most beautiful and least touristed section at Jinshanling. And the hostel was right, it was beautiful, remote, and very untouristed compared the circus at Badaling (literally: Badaling has a sad zoo and cable car). In fact, our bus was the only one there at the time we pulled up, which is shocking when you think about the billion potential tourists in the country.
We wandered quickly past the group to see if we could get lost a little bit. Unfortunately, that turned out to be impossible because the battlements are still manned. Of course, instead of soldiers, the sentries were old women squawking “Cold beer! Water! Coke!”
But for the most part, we had it to ourselves, standing upon the Great Wonder in all its crumbly glory. It is 7m tall and 7m thick, a huge square bulk snaking off in both directions until it disappears far off in the misty mountains. It has 25,000 battlements! And each of these are multi-storey mini-houses, complete with living quarters. The mind-boggling construction is almost entirely over rugged mountainous terrain in the hills north of Beijing.
|Whatever you do, don't trust this guy's directions|
Posted by Unknown at 8:59 AM
|Pretty Macau skyline|
I asked the man at the counter, dressed in a shiny gold tuxedo, to please repeat himself.
“That would be 3,120 dollars, sir.”
“Jesus. That’s the cheapest room you got?!”
“It is a standard room, sir. Yes, sir.”
I was drenched in sweat. Again. I put down my backpack and shoulder bag and considered my situation. I was hungry and tired and had just paid a bit of money to cross the bridge over to Taipa to check out the new Venetian. However, unlike Vegas where the rooms at even the best hotels tend to be pretty cheap, apparently in Macau that was not the case. Not in the slightest. I was done, I really didn’t want to go looking for another hotel. And oh yeah, I had just jumped off a skyscraper and was feeling just a tiny bit drained.
I ended up in a Chinese-only hotel for the low low price of US$150, but hey, it included free breakfast (which of course I missed).
|The awesome Gran Lisboa above Portuguese style sidewalks|
My first port of call was the gleaming Hard Rock tower. After all, the legendary Hard Rock circle bar was THE place to start a night out in Vegas. To my disappointment, the Macau design put the bar off to a corner. I looked around at the tables. A few brave Westerners were scattered about, but mostly the hall was empty and depressing. In Macau, I guess it’s better to cater to the Chinese.
I went back to the Venetian and checked out the bar there. The design was not friendly for a lonely tourist, it bent in a slow arc that prevented the kind of natural conversation you can get at a round bar or the corner of a square bar. I managed to strike up a chat with an Aussie guy who was a scuba expert. It turns out in Macau there are quite a few scuba experts, but it’s not to check out the seafloor. It’s to keep the ubiquitous water shows, ala Cirque-style, running smoothly.
“What are you doing here, mate? All the action’s over in old-town Macau. Look, let me tell you about a few tidy spots that will sort you out.”
|Busty bathroom ad, Chinese men like western girls?|
He gave me some names of bars, and I realized that the “new” Macau over here on Taipa was sterile, boring, and very expensive. It was the old Macau I was looking for, the real reason that Chinese men flocked to this Portuguese colony looking for lucky tables, booze, and women.
Back in the taxi I found myself on a seedy strip of watering holes filled with transvestites, sloppy hookers, and men grabbing my arm and trying to force me into their clubs. Jackpot.
“You want lady? You want girls? Good price! Where you from, friend? Don’t go, good price!”
After a brief look around, I realized that I was a bit late for this street and headed off to the Aussie’s next recommendation, a little “gem” called Playmates.
I won’t go into too many details, but suffice it to say that it fulfilled all my expectations of old Macau, in every way imaginable. There was a stripper pole, and a rainbow of dancers from Ghana (yep) to Malaysia to Russia. They did very interesting things I have never seen before. And I’ve been to Bangkok.
But just to be clear, I only watched, paid my tab, and left.
And woke at Noon with the realization I was in Macau, and had a train to catch to Beijing leaving from Hong Kong in 2 hours. I could write a movie with what happened in those 2 hours. But all that matters is that after slapping my forehead a few times and knocking over an old man (it was an accident I swear!) I made it.
Karma levels a bit lower. And drenched in sweat. Again.
Posted by Unknown at 8:28 AM
I looked on the map, and realized that we were taking a ferry about 70km across the ocean to get to Macau. And yet, somehow, we were supposed to do it in about an hour. The math didn’t make sense, after all, this was a ferry boat.
Once we left the Hong Kong harbor, I looked out the window in amazement. The water was racing by as fast as if we were on the freeway, yet the ride was as smooth as a sedan. I knew we were on a catamaran, but this was no ordinary cat. This was a Turbo Jetfoil, with Rolls Royce engines. I read later the top speed on these 200-seat monsters exceeded 70 knots!! (when empty.) We were on the equivalent of a bullet train on the water.
Another jetfoil raced by in the opposite direction, the boat almost completely out of the water, spray flying 100 feet beyond. In an instant it was gone, only a white trail left behind like the vapors of a jet in the sky.
I like my motorcycles, and the GulfStream V is a nice toy. But for next Christmas, I am asking Santa for a Turbo Jetfoil.
Warp Speed Scotty
Posted by Unknown at 8:14 AM
|Coolest horse track in the world|
But there is nothing like the racetrack at Happy Valley in Hong Kong. In a country where skyscrapers and mountains are planted in every square inch of land, it is bizarre to see the expanse of green turf that is the horse track. Of course, the stands are built vertically in proper Hong Kong fashion, but the designers wisely left most of the course surrounded only by a low wall. Thus, when one sits in the stands, watching the horses fly by on the neon green turf, US$20 hot dog in hand, the view of 100-foot blinking buildings rising all around is mesmerizing.
And the best part: yes, you can buy a 2-Liter of draft beer. For 110 dollars. (I won’t tell you if that’s Hong Kong or US currency.)
|Hong Kong beer girls|
Posted by Unknown at 8:04 AM
|There is only one direction to build in Hong Kong|
As I boarded the Star Ferry, the sun began to set and the wonders of Hong Kong began to light up the horizon in all directions. For the cheap price of HKD$2.50 (30 cents), an incredible bargain in this most expensive of cities, you get the ride of a lifetime. The Star Ferry leaves from TST harbor (Tsim Sha Tsui) and in a short 20 minutes crosses over to Hong Kong proper. The 360 view of towering blinking skyscrapers reflected in the water, backed by mountain peaks is one-of-a-kind.
Hong Kong is perhaps one of the prettiest cities I’ve ever visited. The British demanded and received a small strip of land in this region after watching the Portuguese amass a fortune in neighboring Macau, and Hong Kong quickly took off and became the premier trading port in all of East Asia. There was only one problem: the little strip of land was ringed by mountains and water, leaving precious little real estate to build upon. The solution: go up, young man. Hong Kong has thus become a truly vertical city, from every patch of flat land near the water sprouts 60, 70, and even 100-storey skyscrapers. The population density in some neighborhoods is the highest in the world (53,000 people per square km in Kwun Tong!!) It looks like a kid’s shiny version of some far-off city of the future. And at night, when the sun sets and the lights turn on, it is a spectacle.
At night, the bars are a United Nations of immigrants and ex-pats from around the world, serving every type of food and drink you could want. Instead of sidewalks, elevated skyways carry pedestrians around decked out in a Buck Rogers version of futuristic brushed aluminum and soft lighting. The subway is excellent and air-conditioned, the city feels clean and safe despite the hordes of Malay prostitutes in certain areas. But perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of Hong Kong is that only a short subway-to-bus ride away, peaceful green mountains await hikers, and relatively untouristed fishing villages and beaches await surfers and sunbathers. Even kiteboarding has established a tentative foot-hold, although I was devastated to have just missed great wind conditions left by a passing typhoon.
There is only thing missing, really. And that is that sugary white stuff we call pow.
Posted by Unknown at 7:51 AM
|The mansion might collapse tomorrow. Hopefully|
When traveling the world as a budget backpacker, there are those days when you happily discover that the hostel you booked is clean, cozy, and fun. Surprisingly, this happens pretty often if you do your homework. And then... there are the hostels in Chun King Mansion in Hong Kong. Perhaps the funniest part about these hostels is the name of their building: Chun King Mansion is about as close to a mansion as a chihuahua is to a pit bull.
The stairwells are filled with the pleasant aroma of sewage, urine, and mold, and you might have the serendipity to stumble upon a homeless man sleeping on the steps or using the bathroom on your shoes. The mansion, and I use that word with a hysterical smile on my face, is 14 stories tall, and most of the hostels are on floors 10 and up. Which means you are required to queue up for the "elevators." A closer analogy though, to be honest, would be tiny aluminum coffins designed for pygmies. Let take a moment to ponder the the elevators... ommmm. No, that's not the sound of the universe. That's the sound of the live electric cables hanging down near your eyeballs while riding this sweet baby. A poor elevator "conductor" tries vainly to stem the flow off Chinese, Indians, Africans, and backpackers on and off these death-traps but he is usually swarmed over, around, and sometimes on. I do give him credit, even when he is lying on his back with an Indian sandal in his eye he still manages to yell so loud in Chinese that it temporarily drowns out the Indian disco beating from all the money-changers at the entrance. Respect.
Imagine a 2'x2' square of floor. Encase it in a metal cage. Then pack it full of 30 sweating people of all races and smells and body odor types. If you are lucky you will have remembered to bring your hands up to your waist, otherwise let's just say you might accidentally cop a feel on a 6'6" Nigerian taxi driver. Then hold in your breathe for the 6 or 7 minutes it takes for this United Nations of floral incense to stop at each and every floor to deposit people ... and sometimes pick up the ones who are so desperate they are willing to ride up to ensure a ride down.
Chun King Mansion, I will not miss you. May you crumble from termites or fall over in the next typhoon, and may a clean shopping mall filled with fake Rolex's rise from the ashes.
Posted by Unknown at 7:43 AM