Only Planet

One Child, One Year, One Planet. A family of three traveling around the world...

You can contact us at werkingwells (at) gmail . com

Monday, October 31, 2005

Bangkok Thailand: No tricks, only treats

Is there a seasonal equivalent to a circadian rhythm or biological clock? Although the calendar says it’s Halloween today, our bodies are still in mid-August. In fact, I think I just realized why it feels like we are in a time warp while traveling, even though the days and months pass us by: the seasons have stood still and so we’ve felt like we’ve been gone for the world’s longest summer. It’s 95 degrees F with 80% humidity right now. A perfect time to wander over to the pool outside of our door and chill out.

For a sugar junkie like Dylan, Halloween is practically a high holy day, and so we’re not allowed to ignore it despite being 10,000 miles from anyone who would give her a treat. We stumbled across an office supply store today and for 80 baht (US$2) came up with the makings of a costume she could wear around the hotel. After raiding a 7-11 for candy, we’re going to hide it around the hotel room (à la the Easter Bunny) and let her entertain herself. We’d love to see any evidence of your Halloween. From the funny (a cross-dressing engineer) to the frightening (Supreme Court Justice Jerry Falwell), send it to us!

As for myself, it seems that I could go as a Japanese, Chinese, Thai or even Korean, since I’ve been mistaken for a local everywhere we’ve gone. Makes sense in Korea, but I’m kind of surprised here.

I actually read that the Thais have started adopting Halloween which isn’t too much of a stretch for them because they have a strong belief in ghosts and spirits. There is also a playful nature in the people here, so Halloween seems a holiday they could easily celebrate.

During the past week we’ve hung out at MBK & Siam Center, huge malls where we’ve browsed book stores and eaten great Thai meals in the food courts. We’ve wandered through the National Museum. We’ve made our way down the backpacker’s ghetto of Khao San Road, eaten a divine dinner and watched Thai dance while perched on the side of the Chao Phraya River at the Supatra River House,
and lasted for about 45 minutes in the weekend market because of the tropical heat. Mostly we’ve watched hours of our lives pass away in mind-numbingly long traffic jams which could put even the patience of a Thai Buddhist to the test. Bangkok has traffic worse than anything Los Angeles can throw out; perhaps like its counterpart, this city of angels has spread its wings way too far, forcing all who navigate it to drive everywhere. We’ve also sat around the apartment and watched movies, including the really awful Herbie Fully Loaded, and spent hours making further travel plans, for Thailand as well as the next couple of months. This week we are renting a car and P’Tu, a friend of the owners of the condo, is driving us to the floating market at Damnoen Saduak.

Thursday we head to Chiang Mai for a week. Then on to Phuket before our visa expires and we sadly have to leave this beautiful country.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Bangkok Thailand: Wat a day!

I know, terrible pun, but there must be a bazillion wats in Thailand and we saw some of the most famous and important ones in Bangkok on Sunday. A wat is a temple, a historic monument as well as a living house of worship for Thai Buddhists. We went to Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho and Wat Arun with new friends Samai and her 8 year old niece who I’m going to call Nola, because no matter how many times we asked her her name, we could never understand exactly how she pronounced it. The closest approximation I can come to what she would say is Nola. Sorry. Samai is the sister of the woman who owns the condo where we are staying. Amazingly it was her first time to Wat Phra Kaew or Wat Pho, so we didn’t feel too guilty because we weren’t dragging her along to tourist sights she had seen a million times.

Pictures do not do justice to Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace that adjoins it.

It is a huge, over-the-top, gilded series of buildings that have statutes, mirrored surfaces, soaring rooflines (like the typical Thai architecture) and most importantly a small green emerald Buddha, elevated high above the masses. Three times a year the King of Thailand comes and puts a different outfit on the Buddha, one for each season: hot, cool and rainy.

Wat Pho houses the longest reclining in Buddha in Thailand, if not the world. It is 46 meters (150 feet) long and 15 meters (50 feet) high. This is a representation of Buddha reaching nirvana at his death and it has a peaceful sense to it.

On the bottoms of his feet, mother of pearl inlays show different aspects of the Buddha. Samai bought us some incense we could light, as well as lotus flowers that we placed by one of the altars, and a small fleck of gold that we were to rub on a smaller Buddha at the altar. I think Dylan was more intrigued by the tiny flecks of gold than by the huge Buddha!

Both of these wats were swarming with tourists, in fact we’ve seen more westerners here than anywhere else we’ve been in Asia. Despite the post-tsunami recovery, and the dire predictions of avian flu, it seems we are not the only ones taking to exotic destinations these days and in some ways, there is comfort in numbers (despite the fact that most other western tourists seem to be 15 years younger or older than we are).

Wat Arun, the third wat we visited, is named after the Indian god of dawn, which might explain its striking similarities to the Hindu temples in India, with the thousands of gods and animals along the sides of the wat. Incredibly steep steps climb the sides of the wat, and it felt like we would pitch forward if we weren’t careful coming down.

We rode the river taxi along the Chao Phraya river, which has been the heart of Bangkok and the avenue of travel for hundreds of years for both locals and tourists alike.

After a long hot day of visiting wats, we stopped at the historic, opulent Oriental Hotel for a pricey drink and free aircon.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Bangkok Thailand: City of flowers and serpents

We arrived Thursday October 20th in Krungthep mahanakhon amonratanakosin mahintara ayuthaya mahadilok popnopparat ratchathani burirom udomratchaniwet mahasathan amonpiman avatansathit sakkathattiya witsanukamprasit* (in English this translates to “Great City of Angels, Repository of Divine Gems, Great Land Unconquerable, Grand and Prominent Realm, Royal and Delightful Capital City full of Nine Noble Gems, Highest Royal Dwelling and Grand Palace, Divine Shelter and Living Place of Reincarnated Spirits”). The Farangs (foreigners) just call it Bangkok!

We are staying at a friend’s condo about an hour’s cab ride outside of the heart of the city, a comfortable, spacious place where we’ve been able to do something we’ve wanted to do for weeks: cook! Our first day in Thailand was noted not for the temples, the palace, or any of the sites, but for the simple fact that since we left Montana (August 10th) it was the first day we didn’t have to go out to a restaurant for food! I made some of Dylan’s favorites, tuna noodle casserole and poppy seed chicken, sans poppy seeds.

We eventually ventured out and went to the Jim Thompson House for a glimpse of Thai architecture and beautiful Thai artwork. Jim Thompson was an American who was sent over to Bangkok by the OSS (precursor to the CIA) at the close of World War II, and fell in love with Thailand, especially the hand woven silks and the Thai architecture. He bought houses from parts of Thailand and had them reassembled to create his own home, a private oasis in the heart of Bangkok. He was an avid collector of art and a true friend of the Thais. He revived the silk industry here by selling it to his friends in the west and arranging for silks to be made into costumes for the play and the movie The King and I.

We walked through the surrounding gardens and took the tour of the inside of the house, which had some incredible artwork Thompson had collected over the years. An intriguing part of his story was his untimely demise. While on vacation in the highlands of Malaysia, he disappeared during an afternoon stroll. Wild theories abound regarding his disappearance- that he was assassinated, eaten by tigers, or what seems to be the current thought: hit by a truck and hid by a frightened driver. Later we ventured into the official Jim Thompson House restaurant, which is a gorgeous modern air-conditioned haven, serving some pretty good Thai food. It was pricier than what was on the street, but for us, seemed a deal at 900 baht, or US$23, for a huge lunch.

After visiting Jim Thompson’s House we found our way to the Bangkok Doll Factory and Museum, an adventure in itself since it’s tucked away in a tiny residential alley. The “museum” consisted of two rooms where they showcased the owner’s doll collection as well as hundred’s of dolls for sale. They supply dolls to vendors all over Thailand. The owner was seated in a wheelchair, as she is quite elderly, and seemed truly curious as to how we found her factory and gave us a special deal on some dolls we bought. (We later saw the same dolls for sale for 1000 baht more at the Oriental Hotel!)

We didn’t need to go to the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute, a/k/a snake farm, to see a slithering serpent. Going on a walk to the local Carrefour (international grocery store), we had just stepped out of the driveway to our condo and started down the sidewalk when I spotted what looked like a really long green reed. It looked like the many growing in the neighboring field. As I got closer the “reed” lifted its head to an imposing 5 inches and I, being totally terrified of snakes, yelled to Dylan “turn around and follow me now!” Dylan was close enough to step on it and I’m not sure how it is she didn’t spot it. This is where you get a picture in your mind of me running, yelling Dylan’s name and shrieking like a girly girl. She did so without question and when we were a few feet away I told her what it was. Then she joined me screaming and shaking. Andy, either being very brave, or not too bright (I’m not sure why he assumed it wasn’t a fast or poisonous snake) just stood there, so I yelled to him to get a picture. The guard was totally laughing at us and many people sitting around the complex came out to see what the commotion was about. Needless to say, we hailed a taxi—there was no way we were going to pass that way on foot again, and we’ve been replaying that traumatic moment again and again.

* I’ve been wanting an excuse to write that!

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Hong Kong: A vacation from our trip

I know there are some out there wondering: isn’t the whole damn trip you’re taking one big vacation? Aside from the daiquiri delivered to me poolside today, not really. A vacation is going somewhere nice, getting rest, having things made a little easier than they are at home and perhaps reconnecting with your family. What we are doing is making travel into a full-time occupation, and like any job you have your good times and your bad. As you all know, we’ve had our struggles in China and have lived to tell the tales. China was a country where our job as travelers was especially hard, and the usual challenges of getting a place to sleep, and navigating the language, the customs and the streets were difficult enough to be considered traumatizing. But our time in Hong Kong has allowed us to recharge our batteries and be a little less vigilant than we’ve been in months.

Our ten days in Hong Kong have been filled with a bit of sightseeing but mostly treating the entire time like one very long weekend. We’ve savored eggs benedict at the Flying Pan in Central (our first since leaving Milos!), shopped for old maps at Watti’s, experienced dim sum in a restaurant that seats 1000, rode up and down and up and down the world’s largest escalator, splurged on high tea at the Peninsula Hotel, commuted on the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbor, rode a hydrofoil to Macau, took the tram to the Peak, watched the huge fish in the world’s largest aquarium and rode Space Mountain ride four times at Hong Kong Disneyland. Okay, maybe we did cram a lot into a week, but we never felt rushed, and we spent plenty of time browsing in bookstores, reading and watching TV. We’ve found Hong Kong to be a fun, vibrant city which has retained much of its international feel even after the handover in 1997.

A mural in the post office created out of thousands of stamps

For geography buffs out there, Macau is actually a different country than Hong Kong, an hour away by high-speed ferry. Like Hong Kong, it became a special administrative region of China when it reverted from Portuguese rule in 1999, but it retains its individuality by having a different currency (the pataca) and language (Portuguese). We spent a day in Macau visiting the excellent Macau museum, which the three of us found totally engaging, and lunching at Os Gatos, where the Slaughter-Masons dined eight years ago! George & Sally, the food was wonderful there, especially the caldo verde.

One of Dylan’s “goals” is to visit every Disneyland in the world, and since we suffered through the one at Tokyo we thought we should probably make an effort to come to the new one that opened in Hong Kong on September 12th. Newspapers have been filled with horror stories of inefficient management evidenced by two hour waits to check into the hotels and three hour waits for rides. Hong Kong Disneyland is far smaller than any of the other Disneylands and there has been strong criticism of Disney for filling up the park with 30,000 people, because many believe that the park cannot handle that capacity. Although it doesn’t take much time to try the few rides, we managed to pass a pleasant five hours watching a number of stage and movie productions! We were efficiently and politely checked into the Hollywood Hotel, where we soaked in the pool (this is where the daiquiri comes in) and watched fireworks from our dinner table. Perhaps some of the problems with Disneyland had to do with ironing out the “first month” kinks as well as the volume of travelers over the National Day holiday (when we were in Xi’an), but we have had a fun time visiting. Note that we wouldn’t make it a destination, but it’s great if you’re passing through! Tomorrow we continue on to Bangkok Thailand, our sixth country in this crawl around the world.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Lhasa Tibet: The Potala Palace

After four days in Lhasa, Loey and Dylan were still not acclimated, had to rest even after 15 minutes of slow walking, and were worried how well they would do walking uphill. I (Andy) really wanted to see the inside of the Potala Palace, the historical seat of the Tibetan government run by the Dalai Lama, so I headed to the palace on our last afternoon in Lhasa. It turned out to be the most incredible experience of the trip for me so far.

Although it had rained heavily earlier in the day, the sun had come out and it was warm as I climbed the road leading from the base of the hill up and around the rear to the palace entrance, admiring the views of the newly-snowy mountains surrounding me.

I passed flat stones with Tibetan writing carved into them and prayer flags strung to the few low trees on the hillside. The path wound around corners and up stairs, and I found myself in the east courtyard, with a tall building in front of me draped with Tibetan hangings, large sheets of white or black cloth with simple geometric designs in primary colors stitched to them, while the short pleated drapes over all the windows flapped in waves in the wind.

I entered the palace up a very steep stairway, actually more like a ladder, and made my way up more stairways and past shrines up to the living quarters of the Dalai Lamas, with windows looking down on the city below.

It was amazing to walk through and see the bedrooms and think about the people who lived and worshipped and taught there, especially because the rooms were all furnished and the statuary and decorations are still there. It seems like the palace is just waiting for the Dalai Lama to return. The magic is broken by the presence of Red Army guards in almost every major room.

I continued through various living areas, rooms lined with statues and with cubbyholes full of boxes containing religious writings, and the throne rooms of the various Dalai Lamas. I came up behind an extended family bunched up at the top of a flight of stairs (again it was more like a ladder). The young girl and the hunched-over great-grandmother seemed to be having a slow time of it, but they were managing remarkably well. All the pilgrim families were dressed in what looked like their best, though run-down, clothes in many different traditional styles. They carried stacks of 1 jiao bills (about 1.2 US cents) to leave at altars in each room and plastic bottles full of yak butter which they portioned out into the candle urns in each room. The people also made it their mission to pray at every major statue and to touch every pillar and door handle as they walked through the palace.

The path moved me on to a different area of the palace, meant more for worship than for living. There were rooms with enormous model buildings, mandalas, made of gold. Other rooms contained the enormous jewel-encrusted pyramidal gold tombs of the Dalai Lamas. The ceilings were lost in the shadows and dusty cylindrical cloth flags hung all around like stalactites. There were endless rows of Buddhas and other important religious figures depicted in gold, bronze and steel statues.

Just as the rooms started to seem all the same, the path led out of the building. While I took photos of the courtyard I was in, a large family group exited behind me. The patriarch of the clan approached me (he seemed to be the one in charge, even though he was probably about my age: he looked like the oldest man in the group). He motioned that he’d like me to take a photo of the family. I said OK and the dozen or so people gathered together, I took a picture, and then showed the small image to them.

Everyone wanted a look at it and they all seemed very happy about how they looked, from the young kids to the old folks. I took several more photos of the family and the kids and showed them around, to great enjoyment.

I walked down the hill to the palace exit a bit behind the family, then ran across the street to a photo store. I managed to get them to make a print of the group photo in about ten minutes, then I ran back outside to find the family, who I’d last seen browsing the clothing and souvenir stalls outside the palace walls (I didn’t think they could afford anything there, but they probably enjoyed looking at the goods as much as I did). I ended up making a fast walk all the way around the palace, with market stalls on the left side of the path and prayer wheels lining the right side for the whole way around. As I approached the place where I’d started, I finally saw the family again. I gave them the photo and everyone wanted a look at it—they were so excited! I was worried that they would wrinkle or tear it, but eventually everyone got a look. I then asked them if I could take another photo of the family in front of the palace. They were again very happy with how they looked in the photo.

Then three of the women asked me if I could take a picture of them in front of the palace and make a print of it. I said sure, and resorted to gestures and writing to get across that I’d have to go back to the photo store and come back in ten minutes. So the women got busy making themselves pretty, trading necklaces so that they each had a nice one. A necklace got stuck in the braids of one woman and they were laughing really hard as they tried to unstick it.

I took the photo, got it printed, then walked back and found the patriarch, the woman who had asked me to take the photo, and a young boy running toward me at our meeting point. I gave them the photo and they looked very happy about it. They made motions to pay me for it, but 10 RMB (US$1.25) is cheap for me compared to the joy it gave them, and it probably would be a lot of money for them to spend. I wanted a picture with the family and tried to get the boy to take it, but he cut off our heads. Another passerby took one of the four of us, and then we said goodbye and they walked away as I took some more photos of the palace. My experience in the palace and with the family was definitely the highlight of my trip so far.

Lhasa Tibet: At the Top of the World in Shangri-La

We have delayed posting this blog entry until after leaving mainland China. Since the Chinese have censored and essentially blocked anything from Blogspot, we thought it would be best to get out of the country before writing what might be deemed a “highly political” piece. I have read of writers being thrown in jail for writing suspicious buzz words in their e-mails (words like democracy, Tibet, Dalai Lama, military), and so to avoid a Chinese prison, or at least have a smooth exit, we thought we should wait and err on the side of caution. We are counting on the fact that China’s “one country, two systems” policy will allow us the freedom of expression to post this commentary while in Hong Kong.

Getting to Tibet is not as easy as travel to other countries. When we applied for our Chinese visas we were advised that if we wrote Tibet as one of our destinations it may raise some eyebrows, so we wrote the usual safe destinations of Beijing and Shanghai. Upon further research we realized that it is possible to get to Tibet, but you must go with a tour group. The tour group not only is a way to control the tourists entering the region, but it assures that tourists to Tibet have to go either through China or Nepal. We learned a tour can be a legitimate group of people who are going to see Lhasa together, or it can be a list of names of the people whom the local agency, youth hostel, or travel bureau has put together on the same outgoing flight (who never see each other again once they depart the plane). The majority of flights to Tibet leave from Chengdu so that was another good reason to visit the pandas! Tibet is one of the most expensive destinations to reach within China, which limits the number of Chinese tourists, as well as backpackers who can afford to visit, but that might change with the completion of a railroad that is slated to be finished in 2007 (complete with pressurized cars to keep people from passing out as they cross a 5000 meter/17,000 foot pass) and which will further bring the outside world into Tibet.

It takes about an hour to get from the Gongkar airport to Lhasa, and the scenery is quite similar to western Montana, with the addition of yaks and prayer flags dotting the side of the road (not necessarily together)! The most depressing part of Lhasa is driving in on the main strip, and having a hard time seeing the Potala Palace for all of the usual Chinese junk shops that line the road.

Once you get past the fumes, the madly racing taxis and the never-ending road construction and enter the old part of the city, it is easy to imagine being transported back 400 years, seeing the open stalls, the pilgrims and the monks living a religion that has been going on for centuries.

We arrived in Lhasa Tibet at the most auspicious of times. It was the second day of Ramadan as well as the time for the annual (semi-annual?) pilgrimage of Buddhists from the hinterlands to the holy sites, and Tibetans both Muslim and Buddhist were celebrating. We wandered around the tiny alleys watching the Muslims sell their fruits and vegetables, enjoying the bright sun and cries of “hello” from the tiny children. Turning a corner we stumbled upon the Barkhor, the pilgrim’s circuit, as thousands of Tibetans passed us in a single-minded quest to complete their pilgrimage. Some were prostrating themselves, literally dropping to the ground and crawling as a means to get there. Tibetan women in long coats with strings of ribbon in their hair were walking with their children, and men sporting fur-lined satin coats wrapped up with intricate belts and trimmed with daggers (I am not making this up) were joining them. Monks in maroon and orange robes were also completing the circuit, which leads all of them to the Jokhang Temple, the Vatican of Tibetan Buddhism.

There aren’t the pushing and crowding people who we encountered everywhere else in China. It’s easy to get caught up in the throngs of pilgrims, but they go in an orderly way in their clockwise procession around the Barkhor circuit, and so there is an order to the chaos. The air here is cleaner than anywhere else in China, the sky a bright blue with scattered clouds and it’s very dry with cold temperatures in the morning.

There is a huge Chinese presence here, both of the military (ostensibly here to liberate the Tibetans) and the tourists who are engaging in their own form of assimilation of the Tibetan culture. Along the Barkhor, the military has set up tiny tables and chairs and sit around under umbrellas all day, eager to stop any demonstrations against the Chinese occupation. Hundreds of more “plain clothes” men, wearing some of the same outfits as the native Tibetans, also roam around the square. The Chinese also control who gets into Jokhang Temple. Tibetans too poor to pay the 70 RMB (about $9)—which is most of them—have to line up for hours around the courtyard of the temple, but the affluent western and Chinese tourists are pushed by guards through a tiny gate to the front of the line. When we were there, we saw a Chinese solider roughhousing a Tibetan who was trying to crowd into the front of the line.

If you have seen the movies Seven Years in Tibet, Kundun, or the documentary Cry of the Snow Lion, or have even seen Richard Gere with the Dalai Lama speaking about a free Tibet, you have a basic understanding of what happened here. In 1950 China invaded Tibet, claiming a long-held ownership of this strategically high country. From 1950 to 1970 the Chinese “liberated” the Tibetans and drove their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, out of the country as well as sending 100,000 priests into exile. Over a million Tibetans died and centuries of Tibetan cultural artifacts were destroyed. There is no mention of the Dalai Lama in Tibet. In fact when we visited the Tibetan Lama Temple in Beijing, there was of course no mention of the Dalai Lama, only of a Panchen Lama (approved by the Chinese), who was celebrated as the leader of the Tibetans. However in the Jokhang Temple we saw no pictures of the Chinese approved Lama, and had to wonder what it was like for the Tibetans to see their holy leader so completely erased. Before I get too outraged by the Chinese occupation of Tibet and start thinking the Chinese are uniquely barbaric in their behavior, I ought to think of my own country and its similar treatment of the Native Americans.

Our more immediate problem was dealing with the climate. At 3500 meters (12,000 feet) this is the highest place we have ever been for an extended period, and Dylan and I were using oxygen cylinders and pillows to alleviate the lack of oxygen in the air. Climbing 3 flights of stairs made me wheeze and shuffle, needing to rest like an 80-year-old, 4-pack-a-day, obese emphysema patient. We tried to move slowly, going at the pace of the pilgrims, in hopes of conserving energy in this oxygen-deprived paradise. Andy was hardly affected though, causing much resentment among the other members of the family, but at least he could run errands while Dylan and I rested.

While in Lhasa we sampled Tibetan food, including dumplings called momos, and a hearty soup called thukpa. Andy even ate a yak burger with yak cheese, chased with a Lhasa beer. There’s a good mix of restaurants catering to western backpacker types, which gave us a nice break from the greasy Chinese food that we’ve been avoiding for much of the trip. We also had the opportunity to meet fellow travelers Wendy and Andy in a restaurant one evening. They’re also on a year-long trip around the world and were finishing a stint of three months in China before heading off toward Vietnam. They’re both designers, and their talents are on great display in the photos in their blog. We had a great time comparing stories of travel in China, commiserating, and talking about our future destinations.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Hong Kong: Everything’s Relative!

We arrived this afternoon in Hong Kong, and already we can feel the grime and wear of the road falling off of us, shedding the traveling armor that has built up for the past month or so. It might have been the pleasant person checking us in at the YMCA Salisbury Hotel, or the cab that had seats clean enough to lick (or at least sit on without grimacing), or the way cars actually stop for red lights, or the abundance of restaurants offering every worldly cuisine, or the bookstore that stocked more English language books than we’ve seen since leaving Portland, or the cool, kitschy light show that we can see from our bedroom window which overlooks the harbor onto Central District, but we feel like we’ve come home, never mind that we’ve never visited before.

Of course the first-time visitor to China whose first stop is Hong Kong would be amazed by the crowds, the dirt, the decrepit buildings, and the traffic, but we wisely nod our heads and know that it’s all relative.

We plan to stay here a week, maybe more, until we can rearrange our tickets. We are staying with the original course, to go to Thailand after Hong Kong. Mostly because we have already paid for tickets to take us that far, and because almost everyone we’ve talked to has given us hope, telling us we’d love Thailand. If we still want to go to an English-speaking country, it looks like it would be far more pleasant to visit Australia and New Zealand for their summer than Great Britain and Ireland for their winter. Who knows. We can’t even drive from Oregon to Montana without changing our route, so there’s no telling where we will be after this.

Oh, exciting news, for the first time in a month we can access Blogspot so we can check out our blog and finally post our Tibet adventures.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Reflections on China

After four very interesting days in Lhasa Tibet, we're now in Guangzhou (formerly Canton) China, just a short hop away from Hong Kong, where we will be headed in a couple of days. For political reasons we'll be posting a blog entry about our experiences in Tibet after we leave mainland China. In the meantime, we thought we'd share some of our thoughts about the mainland after being in the country for the past month. We've also been making some plans for the next leg of our journey and would love any advice you have (see the end of this post).

China has been interesting, compelling, fascinating and unlike any country we have ever visited. We had wanted to visit China not only to see the ancient sites, but to catch a glimpse of what the buzz is about in the world's most populated nation and where it will be taking us in the next century. We have barely scratched the surface of China, but while it has been an education, we can't really say that much of it has been fun (except the time with our friends), and we have faced many challenges. China has brought me (Loey) to tears more times than I would like to admit. From the grinding poverty of the beggars in Tibet, to the obstinate contrary attitudes of many of the people we've had to interact with, to the insane and dangerous behavior of many of the drivers, China is a country where there never seems to be a clear picture of what you are getting. It seems that you are in a fun house, where the mirrors warp the reality of what you think you know and what you don't. Although this can be exciting, it can also be exhausting and we have really felt emotionally ground down by China.

Of course, we didn't think that it would be an "easy" country, but we were surprised by what we found difficult to cope with. Worries about SARS, disease, and getting lost were quickly overtaken by the more concrete risks of dealing with traffic, getting into arguments with taxi drivers over fares, the crushing crowds, and the pollution, both in the air and on the ground (the Chinese are big spitters). It has been a huge challenge being non-Chinese speakers here. While it is presumptuous to believe that the rest of the world speaks English, or at least should have some knowledge of the language, we found that the number of speakers comfortable with English was far fewer than we had expected. Imagine a Mandarin speaker traveling through Portland without a Chinese-speaking tour guide, knowing only the words "hello," "thank you," the numbers 1-10 and "yes" and "no," and you can see how frustrating it would be for both parties, the American and the Chinese, to have a smooth transaction.

That said, we do not regret coming here. From the grandeur of the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, to the cuddly Pandas, to the culturally rich Tibet, to the street vendors selling amazing souvenirs, we have gathered memories and images that will stay with us forever.

There is a part of us which still wants to be twenty-year-old backpackers, traveling for six weeks on the silk road, living in yurts and eating yak meat every day, sharing stories of exotic destinations like battle scars after a rugby match. But it has really hit home for us how much traveling with a child slows you down, and even a trip to Canada might be enough adventure. It seems that the English-speaking families we know of who have traveled around the world for a year have stayed for a considerable time in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada--with familiar languages and cultures--for much of their year abroad, and we now understand why! Our original plans were to stay in Asia for seven months, going to Thailand on November 1st. But after the past two months, and especially after traveling through China, we have had to readjust our expectations of what we can deal with and what would be fun for us. Our conclusion is that if we don't want to go home tomorrow, we really need to take a break from the constant travel and from Asia!

That said, our priority is to go to an English-speaking country: we've been in non-English-speaking countries since August 16th, and it's amazing how sweet it is to hear your native tongue. We have reached the part of our journey where there is nothing more desirable than staying somewhere for a few weeks, cooking a meal and having a bed to call our own. We hope to slow down, and to actually have a consistent routine, not only for the adults, but also for Dylan, who really thrives on knowing what's going to happen next.

Our tentative plan is to spend about a week in Hong Kong and then fly to London and stay there for a month or more, then take a few weeks to travel to Ireland and France, then head to Bangkok in mid-January. We feel that the culture in England is familiar enough that we can deal with the basics (lodging, food, transport) easily, yet different and rich enough that we will learn from and enjoy an extended immersion in the country. So we're currently researching airfares and rentals of furnished flats.

If anyone reading this has suggestions about the following, we'd really love to hear from you in the next couple of days:
* desirable neighborhoods to stay in London or the surrounding area
* people or agents or web sites which might have suitable lodging for us
* anyone in London who might need a house-sitter for a few weeks sometime between October and January (hey, it worked great for us in Portland this summer!)
* places other than London that we should consider (we've already thought of Dublin, Oxford, Sydney and Auckland, though haven't done much research into any of them)

Our priorities for places to stay include:
* Reasonable airfare from Hong Kong
* Reasonable cost of living (London's major failing)
* English spoken by a large portion of the populace
* Fairly good weather in October-January (London's other minus)
* A culture we can immerse ourselves in and learn from

Our desires for an apartment include:
* Two bedrooms
* Furnished with the basics
* No cat/dog/bird dander or smoking residue
* Clean and well-maintained
* Relatively quiet location
* Accessible to public transit and grocery shopping
* Not too far from cultural and tourist destinations
* Affordable

Thanks in advance for any suggestions you might have!

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Chengdu, China: Sugar panda

Chengdu has partially redeemed the country of China after our bad experience in Xi'an. There hasn't been any rain, temperatures are cool, and the crowds are not as bad as long as you stay away from the main shopping areas. We even found some quite-passable western restaurants and got our Mexican and American food cravings (partly) satisfied. But Chengdu's big attraction is the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base. They have about 40 giant pandas and a whole bunch of red pandas there, in quite nice settings compared to the relative squalor of the panda enclosure at the Beijing Zoo. We even got to pet the giant pandas and hold the red pandas (for a fee, of course--the Chinese are good capitalists these days). Check Dylan's Travel Rat blog for the details of our time with the pandas. Here's a picture of Loey with her new best friend:

Today we went to People's Park, where we found a lot of families on outings, enjoying the holiday week. We were on a mission to find animals made from melted sugar, we all enjoyed eating them, and Dylan wanted to keep her rat forever.

Tomorrow we're off to Tibet for a few days. It wasn't a place we thought we would be able to go to, but with further research (we had enough time and money) we are able to go! Loey and I (Andy) are both feeling a strong tug to the mountains, clear skies and low population density of Lhasa. Must be our Montana background. We're just hoping that the sudden gain in elevation (to 3500 meters / 12,000 feet) doesn't cause any serious health problems [touch wood].

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Xi’an China: the most overrated tourist destination in China

Xi’an is pouring rain. It has been raining here since the moment we landed, and is still downpouring. We hate Xi’an. It’s the first time on our trip that we really have wanted to go home or anywhere else and can’t, and it’s been an exercise in frustration. Most people come to Xi’an to see the terracotta warriors. They were discovered in 1974 by some poor farmer digging a well and since 1979 tourists, western and Chinese alike, have been flocking here at the rate of a million a year. Of all the sights in China that we’ve seen, the terracotta warriors have been the most anticlimactic. Maybe it was the presentation, maybe it was the 8-hour tour that we went on, or maybe it was because we felt more like cattle than ever, herded through the site with thousands of other tourists, but after experiencing the relative peace and awe that struck us at the Great Wall, this hardly seemed worth the effort and money to visit.
Here’s the scoop about Xi’an: This is a city of about 7 million people and there is nothing for a poor tourist or even traveler to do. Not many good restaurants, the shopping consists of a bunch of stores with no-name brands, sporting high-end facades, and aside from the warriors, the Big Goose Pagoda and some hot springs (which we saw on our tour of the warriors), Xi’an is kind of a one-hit town. Most westerners who come to Xi’an are with large tours, and spend at most a day or two. They are catered to by the large hotels, come, take pictures, eat dumplings at De Fa Chang, and then leave. They are the lucky ones. We had hoped that there might be more to this town—there is a cool Muslim section
and this was the famous eastern end to the Silk Road—so we thought that giving ourselves from Wednesday to Monday we would easily fill our time exploring this walled city. Perhaps if it wasn’t raining so bloody hard and not during the big National Holiday we would be having fun. Imagine a million people here on holiday; imagine them with umbrellas open, now imagine them walking kind of slowly and erratically, then imagine trying to avoid the water flooding the sidewalks while dodging the umbrella-wielding Chinese and you can picture what an outing has been like for us.

So after seeing the warriors on Thursday, trying to see the Muslim area on Friday and watching an obnoxious amount of CNN and Chinese shows that look like American Idol, we wanted to get out of here. Friday we tried to see if we could get out any earlier. Remember, we were trying to avoid the crush of people traveling at the start of the national holiday week on Saturday, which is another reason why we didn’t take our leave on the 30th or 1st. But hope springs eternal for your intrepid travelers and we went to a tourist office in our hotel to see if we could somehow move our tickets to another, earlier, day. The person at the desk said there were no flights Saturday, but yes on Sunday. But they couldn’t change it, so we had to go to the airline office itself. I (Loey) tried asking the crucial questions: “Is this something we need to hurry with? Do you know how many seats would be available for that Sunday flight?” They had no idea. Okay, so Saturday we got up leisurely, had lunch (another huge disappointment) and went to the airline’s office. There were no seats to be had on the flight. Maybe today, not tomorrow (the today flight would leave in one hour, and it is at least that long to get to the airport!). The exact opposite message we got from the day before. Here was our first head-on with pure communist inefficiency coupled with the Chinese concept of saving face: we weren’t getting or going anywhere!

So dejectedly we waded back to our hotel, this really lame place that is not equipped for people who might want to stay for more than one night, and who are not on a big tour. They are totally unable to answer simple questions for us, like “Do you know of a good non-Chinese restaurant?” Or “Can you tell me where I can catch a taxi around here?”

The hotel itself (the Bell Tower Hotel) is supposed to be this four star joint, and I suppose it would seem that way if you were here for about 10 hours, sleeping 8 of those hours. We have had a broken air conditioner, and our repeated pleas to fix it were ignored until they told us that they turned the air conditioning off for the year, we’ve engaged in a daily struggle for towels (The manager said two should be enough for us. “But you only gave us one,” we had to say!), we’ve found smokers puffing away on this supposedly non-smoking floor, a broken sink, and a TV (our link to the outside world) with two volumes: inaudible and blasting high! While we expected conditions like this in China, we thought it would come from one of the grimier youth hostels, not a four-star place. Mostly because of the rain, and partly because of the crowds, we’ve had to spend a huge amount of time in our room. Needless to say, we are feeling, for the first time, a bit kicked around by China. With any luck and the gods on our side, we should be able to leave Xi’an on Monday (our originally scheduled time) barring any flight cancellations or major delays. This weather may be part of a weather system that is causing a typhoon to hit Taiwan now. If we do escape here, we will be heading to Chengdu so that Dylan can have a picture with a drugged panda.