Friday, December 23, 2005

Yes, I'm a Groupie

Went to an amazing concert yesterday at Iota. And since this is my own personal space for making whatever ridiculous pronouncements I wish to, let me say this: The Echoes and Brainfang rock. I adore them, and I am fast on my way to being a groupie.

Now I realize there are only like three people that read this blog, but if by any chance you happen to stumble across this - especially if you live in the DC Metro region - you really must check them out.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

'Tis the Season to be Jolly

OK, I just have to say that I freakin' love the middle of December. Screw Chrismukah - I'm talking year-end lists! You know, when critics rank the best music releases of the year. I am basically wallowing in bliss. Today Pitchfork released their "Top 100 Albums of 2005," which I was pleased to note put my dear, dear friend Sufjan at #1, as did Amazon. I also dig the Onion AV Club's method of giving multiple reviewers a chance to publish their own lists instead of trying to compromise on one official ranking. Read, learn, and listen, kids!

Monday, December 19, 2005


Had a great time Sunday spending the day in Baltimore. Thanks to my friend Jan Louis I was able to experience the pleasure of a visit to the Dime Museum, a truly bizarre, creepy, and thus utterly appropriate homage to the dime museum of the late 19th Century and the carnival sideshow of the early 20th. Exhibits ranged from a stuffed two-headed calf to an aligator-woman in a glass case (as our guide said, "Feel free to be skeptical"). Very whacky but fun place - too bad it will be closing at the end of the year.

After a delicious dinner courtesy of Faith's parents, I then went with buddies Faith, Jan Louis, and Ray to the "Miracle on 34th Street" display of shocking Christmas excess on 34th Street in Hampden. It was visual cacophony, but awesome. Back in Los Gatos we had (still have, I guess) a house we always drove past on our way home that was super, super decked out for Christmas - it sometimes included a BMW M3 covered with lights (yuppie Santa's modern sleigh) and a roof lined with lights and programed to do a rippling sequence from top to bottom. That was cool too, but it would have been just another face in the crowd on 34th Street.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005


Made my first trip to the National Arboretum this past Sunday. My impression may have been slightly affected by the clear, sunny skies and unbelieveable, unseansonable 72ยบ weather, but it is easily one of the most beautiful places I have seen in DC. The cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin are the closest competitor (although I haven't yet been to the Botanical Gardens, and I hear they're pretty nice). At any rate, the arboretum is enormous and certainly worthy of a full-day exploration; in an effort to keep from getting too overwhelmed, however, I limited myself to the Bonsai & Penjing Museum. They have a really terrific display of bonsai from all over the world. Some of them - as you can see from the picture above - even change color in the fall. Amazing.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Halloween Greetings

Check out this cute little video to put you in the Halloween mood. Anyone who's ever been the victim of one of my scares knows how much this speaks to me. Plus it's given me some great ideas....

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Boring blog?

I was recently criticized for having "the boringest blog ever" (thanks, RA). OK, I admit I haven't been the most diligent with my posts. It's actually not because my life has been unremarkable in any way - in fact it is quite the opposite - but I don't have the DSL in my new apartment set up yet (it arrives on November 3) and I've been a wee bit busy between my new job, a car break-in, moving, and lots of other boring excuses. I'll be back sooner than you care.

Oh, and for the record, this is the boringest blog ever.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Cross-Country Fever

I'm back! I'm back in DC. Feels like an age ago that I left...and yet here I am sitting at my old desk in my old apartment and suddenly it feels as though everything in between was just a dream. I went to China and adventured all over the country and the District...stayed the same. That's comforting. And plus I missed the DC summer - score.

I arrived today from Pittsburgh, where I had a fun time catching up with my dear, dear friend Dok. Let me start from the beginning, though, that's really more interesting. My dad and I left on the 21st and spent the night in Elko, NV, then went up to Idaho to see the Craters of the Moon National Monument. My dad correctly pointed out that it's nothing we haven't seen before on the Big Island in Hawaii, but I still thought the views of the desolate, volcanic landscape were fascinating. In Jackson Hole, WY we took a day off to explore the town and go whitewater rafting on the Snake River. Tons of fun, despite the fact my dad whacked me in the head with his paddle as we thundered our way through the "Big Kahuna" rapid. Driving up along the stunning, stunning Tetons (see picture), we then ventured into Yellowstone and spent the day admiring geysers and buffalo and the Yellowstone "Grand Canyon". Yellowstone was gorgeous, but I must admit that some of the most magnificent scenery I have ever set eyes on lay between the East entrance to Yellowstone (where we exited) and Cody, WY. Just amazing. I think I want to retire there, but probably the winters suck. From Cody we went up across Montana and into North Dakota, thereby (DRUMROLL) eliminating the last two U.S. lower 48 states I haven't been to! What with having lived in Hawaii, I have only Alaska left, baby.

On the border between North Dakota and Minnesota my father and I did a bunch of amateur geneology research into his mother's family, which lived in Glyndon, Minnesota for a generation. Glyndon is just a small farming town of 1,000 residents now, but it used to be the intersection point for two major rail lines and was a good-sized town when my grandmother lived there (she was born in 1904). My great-great-grandfather, Luther Osborn, was not only a Civil War vet but the editor/publisher of the local newspaper, the Red River Valley News. Honestly I didn't know this stuff until this trip. On a lucky excursion to Moorhead, Fargo's sister-city, we came upon the Clay County Historical Society and did a bunch of research into the family with their help. The woman there even brought out Luther's Civil War saber! Amazing. Now I see why my friend Teresa is so into this geneology stuff.

I dropped my father off in Minnesota, after taking a day off of driving to spend time with the Winslows in Wayzata, and proceeded on my own to see my BFF Marjorie in Indiana. Marjorie and her husband, Jimmy, were going cross-country the other way (moving to Mountain View, CA) and so by chance we got to meet up at her home in Indiana. That was terrific. I took a day off to visit her, then continued on through Ohio on my way to Pittsburgh. Unfortunately a relatively simply and boring drive was anything but: Katrina's deformed and demented devil-spawn children harassed me all along the way; several times the rain was coming down so fiercely I was more than a little afraid to be on the highway. Strangely enough I had a very similar experience in June of 2001, when I drove through the South on another cross-country trip and had to go through the remnants of hurricane (or maybe just "tropical storm") Allison. Psycho.

Anyway, I did make it safely and I am so excited to be home again.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Carmel Tour d'Elegance

Today my father and I went to Carmel to witness the fabulous annual phenomenon known as the Tour d'Elegance. Several (by which I mean about 40) cars showing in the world-famous Concours d'Elegance at Pebble Beach on Sunday opt to participate in the tour, which is something like a 60-mile loop around Carmel Valley (and including the 17-Mile Drive). It's quite impressive that so many of these 50, 60, 70+ years-old cars, most of them worth multiple millions, are able to complete the tour. But of course even better that we get to see them at it! Around lunchtime the cars pull into line along Ocean Avenue in Carmel. The owners get lunch while the magnificent cars sit on display for roughly two hours. It was a blast. We also roped our Carmel tenant, Eric Schlosser, into joining us for a while. Along with him, we got to meet his wife Shauna and daughter Mica (see below).

Pictured above are two great examples from the display on Ocean: a 1947 Talbot-Lago Franay Coupe and a 1938 Mercedes-Benz 540K Tourenwagen (extremely rare, and the most beautiful paint job I have ever seen).

Me with the Schlosser-Redfords

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Photo album

Link to online photo album.

Eating Beijing Duck

Return from the Orient

Hooooo, I'm back. Got back last night after missing a connection in Vancouver, so at the end of the day my travel time from hotel to home was somewhere around 27 hours. Well, no matter - I'm safe and whole and but for a tragically broken bracelet, all my stuff made the journey intact. Now on to the post-trip breakdown. I'm hoping to have a link to an online photo album available soon, but first I have to upload and write captions for my 300+ photographic masterpieces, no small feat. I'll also have as extensive a description of my trip as I can manage (do not underestimate my laziness). In other words, this is just a placeholder...I'll return later with more. Zai jian!

Me at the "Long Wall"

Monday, August 01, 2005

China Trip: Hong Kong (last one!)

Days 20-23: Hong Kong

An overnight train brought us from Guilin to Guangzhou, where we frantically charged to the dock to catch the hydrofoil that would take us to Hong Kong. Three hours later, docking in Hong Kong, it felt like another country. We had to go through Hong Kong immigration, change money, and start using the ubiquitous hand-sanitizer dispensers. But it was more than that. Gone was the China that we had known so well over the past three weeks, replaced by an oasis of the modern East. There is simply no way I can describe Hong Kong adequately: the crowds, the infrastructure, the vibe. Honestly I had been worried that I wouldn't like Hong Kong too much - my experience in Yangshuo had taught me to be wary of over-Westernized China - but I loved it virtually the moment my foot hit the soil.

Friday night was our final night together as a group, and Dylan led us out into the Temple Street markets for dinner. The restaurant we went to was classic Dylan: shabby, local, and very basic. Not what most Hong Kong tourists would gravitate to. I loved it, though, and especially enjoyed ordering the frog dish when Dylan announced that he would leave the menu selection entirely in our hands (my subsequent attempts to convince the others that I had ordered chicken unfortunately did not meet with much success).

Although Friday evening marked the official end of the tour, I decided to spend a couple extra days enjoying Hong Kong before my return to the States. The first day I joined up with several other stragglers - Jen, Craig, and Georgina - for some exploring around Kowloon and Hong Kong. Our first adventure (to find some famous Hong Kong dim sum) ended in disaster when not only could we not find the place, but it began to pour cats and dogs. (Actually, the rain wasn't too much of a surprise, since it rained pretty much constantly during my time in HK.) We quickly decided on the fabulous Museum of Art as our back-up plan, and managed to kill an hour or so admiring the lovely scroll paintings and carved jade there until the rain finally let up enough for us to venture outside again. Then, with the sun shining, we hopped aboard the Star Ferry and traveled over to Hong Kong Island, where we caught the Peak Tram to the summit of Victoria Peak. Our timing really was outstanding; it was a rare sunny hour that coincided with our trip from Kowloon and allowed us to fully admire the gorgeous view from the peak. Of course at this point I was resigned to the wet of rain, but a cloud really would have sucked.

After a delicious dinner and another stroll through the Temple Street markets (through the pounding rain, naturally), I took my leave of Georgina, who was flying out that night, and the Scots, who were departing early the next morning. That left me on my own for Sunday. Although it was raining once again, I set off on my exploratory adventures undeterred. The lovely Hong Kong Park was my first destination. My mother had recommended the walk-through aviary, which I liked so much I walked through it twice. I also took a detour through the park's lovely botanical garden (which, I was grateful to note, was indoors) on my way back to the MTR. The afternoon I filled with directionless wanderings through the Plant, Bird, and Ladies Markets in Kowloon. The Bird Market was an absolute marvel, with dense stalls packed floor-to-ceiling with trilling, howling, chattering birds of all kinds. Cacophony reigned. The birds were great, though - I've already begun to plan for when I can get my own. Seems like a very sensible pet for an apartment dweller. The Plant Market was also great, and featured everything from blue roses to bamboo (oh, and in fact I even ran into a few venus flytraps, the coolest plant ever).

With the close of the day, I had finally reached the end of my China Adventure. All that was left was to catch the shuttle over to the airport and fly the twelve hours over the Pacific Ocean into Vancouver (piece of cake, really). What an experience it's been! I'm so grateful I had the opportunity to make this trip, and I can't wait to return to China in the future. I'm sure I'll hardly recognize it.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

China Trip: Yangshuo

Days 16-19: Yangshuo

Another long day of travel. Took a bus from Yichang to Wuhan, where we caught an overnight train to Guilin. We were thrilled to be back in the hard sleepers - once again safe (well, relatively) from Tricky Ricky the Rat and all his relatives. On the short bus ride from Guilin to Yangshuo we began to get a taste for the scenery that makes this region so famous. The karsts grew steadily in number until finally we were right in the midst of them, signifying our arrival in Yangshuo. I can't describe a karst too well: it's a little like a very steep, tall limestone hill. Check out the picture for yourself. At any rate, we were right in among them in Yangshuo.

Now, I have to say this about Yangshuo: A beautiful place, but extremely Western. That is to say, you saw as many Westerners as Chinese there, and Chinese food was a struggle to locate amidst all the Western cafes selling pizza and baguettes. It was a bit of a shock coming from Xi'an, Chengdu, Emei Shan, etc. and I admit I wasn't a fan. Fortunately there were so many things to do I didn't have much time to get wound up about it. Our first day was filled first with a two-hour calligraphy class and then by a cooking class at a farmhouse in the countryside. The cooking was a real blast - I enjoyed getting to flip things around in the wok, and of course the food was ten times more delicious since I made it myself. The following day our entire group rode out on a bike ride through the countryside. It wasn't long before the smooth pavement gave way to rutted, stony dirt paths that were a challenge to navigate but took us through some amazingly stunning scenery. After lunch we broke off into "long ride" and "short ride" groups. I was one of the four long riders, and I thought the ride back was even better than the ride out. Our guide Sally picked fresh peanuts out of the ground for us to try and even led us to a weir, which we had to walk across with our bikes (before it got too slippery, at which point we took a bamboo raft). We got back at 4, tired and dirty but very happy with the experience.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

China Trip: Yangtze River

Days 13-15: The Yangtze River

Our first "Yangtze day" and very little actual Yangtze. From Emei Shan we caught a large public bus for the transfer to Chongqing, where we were to meet our boat. The roughly six-hour bus ride only grew longer when, with a cracking blast and a cloud of smoke at the back, one of the tires blew out on the highway. Fortunately a mere half hour away (driving at about 20 mph) we stopped at a little tire shop and switched out the old for a new. By 4 pm we had arrived in Chongqing and soon made the trip over to the harbor to catch our boat. Chongqing was a beehive of construction activity; comparatively the projects in Beijing looked like a tiny restoration job. Our local guide Harry said that Chongqing was preparing for a conference of Asian mayors in October, but I suspect that the Chinese just love development. After a quick trip to a fabulous supermarket, we boarded boat 12 and set off along the Yangtze.

Our first real day on the boat was unremarkable and consisted chiefly of an excursion to see the "City of Ghosts" at Fengdu (the town itself turned out to be much the tourist attrac more of a ghost town thantion, as it will be underwater when the Yangtze next rises in 2006) and playing many hours of mah-jong on a travel set Carwyn bought in Xi'an. The Westerners playing mah-jong seemed to be an endless source of fascination for many of the Chinese sharing the lounge with us, and we never played without at least one observer - whether in admiration or, more likely, scorn, I don't know.

The next day was our day through the Three Gorges - more accurately, actually, the nine gorges. After sailing past the first (big) gorge at 5:15 am, we left our big boat at 7 to board a smaller craft that would take us through the Three Little Gorges. At the end of the Little Gorges we again switched over to yet a smaller boat to take us through the Mini Gorges. The minis I could have skipped, but the Little Gorges were stunning, as were their bigger siblings on the Yangtze. We saw the Second Gorge that afternoon and passed through the Third in the evening, just before docking at Yichang. Yichang is the location of the enormous dam the Chinese have been building on the Yangtze for approximately the last decade; the boat continued on through the locks, which I thought would have been great, but instead we disembarked and proceeded to our hotel by bus.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

China Trip: Emei Shan

Days 10-12: Emei Shan

After the hustle and bustle of three huge Chinese cities, we were ready for some peaceful time in a more natural environment. And so from Chengdu our group hopped in a bus and headed out to Emei Shan, one of China's three holy mountains. There we would hike the mountain and spend three wonderful nights in Buddhist monasteries along the way.

Before reaching Emei Shan, however, we made a stop in Leshan to visit the famous "Dafo", an enormous buddah carved into the cliff at the meeting point of three rivers. Dafo is supposedly the largest outdoor seated buddah carved from stone - enough description there to hint that many other buddahs in the world could claim to be "the largest." No question that Dafo is huge, though. From head to toe he is 71 meters high. Marvelous to see, but with the huge crowds and long lines, I was glad when we continued on our way to the mountain.

Our first night was spent at the lovely Baoguo monastery at the foot of Emei Shan. The monasteries were definitely as "rustic" as we got on this trip, but the accomodations were by no means rough. It was just a brief stay at Baoguo, however, as we took off the next morning at 6 am to catch a bus up the mountain. From the parking lot at the top we hiked up to a cable car that took us straight to the Golden Summit. It had been raining all morning, and although it had stopped by the time we reached the summit, we were surrounded by a dense and unforgiving fog that allowed us only a hint of the magestic vistas that must be visible on a clear day. Returning to the car park, our group split into two factions: the "short walk" people, who would bus down the mountain and walk two hours to the monastery, and the "long walk" people, who would walk from where we were all the way down to the monastery, a distance of 23 km (14 miles). Now, anyone who knows me can probably already guess that I was the very first to volunteer for the long walk - I always prefer a challenge. However, with the awesome hindsight I have now, I think it was probably the wrong decision. The walk had some really stunning scenery and was fun in so many ways, but I wasn't prepared to be going down steep stairs for mile after mile after mile...and so, with 10 km still to go, my right knee gave out and I had to walk the rest of the way on one leg, using two "monkey sticks" (normally used to scare off the monkeys that are all over the place, but also functional as walking sticks) as makeshift crutches. Well, I wasn't too pleased, but I did finally make it to the monastery just in time to join the rest of the crew for dinner at the Hard Wok Cafe - the only "restaurant" near the monastery (which itself was fairly tucked away on Emei Shan). So we spent our second night right on the mountain, in the most beautiful, green leafy peace we had known since our arrival in China. The beds at this place even had mosquito netting, which made the bed look positively royal. A great experience, despite the bruises and the knee (oh, I forgot to mention that I had also fallen on the slippery, steep steps early in the hike, so I had massive bruises on my arms and my tailbone).

After our night on the mountain, some people walked the rest of the way down the mountain, and others, including a very gimpy me, walked down two hours to a car park and caught a bus to the bottom. I spent the rest of the day reading at the Baoguo monastery and stretching out my aching muscles. It was hysterical to watch all the other "long walkers" wince and whine any time they moved; I definitely wasn't the only one suffering from the walk the day before!

Monday, July 18, 2005

China Trip: Chengdu

Days 8 & 9: Chengdu

Chengdu is the capital of the Sichuan province and has over 11 million inhabitants (China: the land of enormous cities). Our hotel, while not as central as the one in Xi'an, was right in the Tibetan quarter. It was also very close to a cute tourist shopping street - and by "tourist" I don't mean "Western tourist". Georgina and I explored it as soon as we arrived (screw showers) and enjoyed the faux-antique architecture, the artistic lollipop seller, and of course the finger-food vendors. At one place the cook would bounce rolled balls of rice paste off a taunt piece of vellum with mini cymbals attached into a vat of hot oil. The drum would crash merrily, and then for only 1 quai you could have three of the fried balls smothered in molasses. Delicious. Georgina and I also went on a very long exploratory walk into the center of the city, where in Renmin Park we found an amazing tea house. There's a saying that China has the best tea in the world, and Chengdu has the best tea in China. Thus the tea house tradition is a big one there. At our tea house in Renmin Park, I ordered the most wonderful jasmin tea that has ever existed, and paid an exorbiant $3 for it. Along with the tea came a big thermos of boiling water that lasted us through many, many cups. Sitting by the side of the lake and listening to the deafening waves of sound from the surrounding cicadas, we spent a very pleasant afternoon, only driven away eventually by our pressing need to find a toilet. In the evening our group gathered for an equally famous Sichuan tradition: hot pot. Think of it as a sort of (though not exactly) Chinese fondue, but with enough spices to render your entire face numb. I personally had to blend the hot and mild pots we ordered to reach my "Goldilocks" edible level of spice. Yes, I am a wuss, and I hang my head in shame to acknowledge it.

Despite the delicious tea and hot pot, the primary reason for coming to Chengdu was to visit the panda preserve there. We arrived around 8 am, feeding time and apparently the only time they are active all day. We strolled along the paths and admired at least ten from a very close distance. We were, at most, 30 feet away from them. Utterly adorable, and so on nature's chopping block. Sorry, guys, if you can't mate your species gets axed. That's reality for you.

Our last great taste of Sichuan came in the evening of the last day, when most of our group went out to catch a performance of Sichuan opera. The performance we saw featured short snippets of various types of opera, like a medley of styles, but it did, of course, include the most famous of them: face-changing. With a flick of a fan or cape, or perhaps just by turning away from the audience, the actors would change their elaborate masks in a flash. They did it so many times, and so quickly, I just can't imagine how they do it.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

China Trip: Xi'an

Days 5-7: Xi'an

We arrived in Xi'an at 7 am (having been woken by much shouting from the train attendants at about 5:30). After dropping our bags at the hotel, which was very conveniently located on the central square, we immediatly took off for a walk around. The most interesting part of Xi'an is the Muslim Quarter, home to a large population of Chinese Muslims. The area around the mosque was full of all sorts of souvenir shops, so I shopped around for a bit with Murray and Georgina. Bargaining there was tough as all get-out, and so after haggling for 20 minutes with a woman who wanted 1,500 quai ($180!) for three "jade" glass bracelets - I eventually got her down to 80 for the three, and she was pissed - I gave up on the shopping and visited the mosque instead. A beautiful, serene spot with a really interesting pagoda-style minaret. On the way back to the hotel I acted on Dylan's recommendation to try out whatever street vendor food looked interesting, and ended up with an absolutely delicious round philo-dough thing with beef and spring onion inside. Even better, only two quai (about a quarter). Later that afternoon I visited the Bell Tower in the center of the city, where the views were great and I caught a traditional Chinese-instrument performance (including a "sleeve dancer" like in House of Flying Daggers), and then went to get a hair wash at a local salon. I got a shampoo with scalp massage followed by a shoulder, neck, and arm massage for less than $2. Naturally I got one again the next day - too good to pass up!

We spent the morning of the following day at the famous Terracotta Warriors, I think the primary reason why Xi'an is on anyone's itinerary. We didn't have a great guide, which probably affected my impression, but overall I wasn't as impressed with the warriors as I expected to be. The problem with having expectations, no doubt. Honestly, though, the Muslim Quarter was much more interesting and fun than the warriors. Nevertheless, I do recognize their value and importance and was grateful we got to see them. Their age is astounding. For those of you who don't know, the emperor for whom the warriors were made was the same emperor who started the construction of the Great Wall, Qin Shihuang. His tomb, as yet unopened, is said to be the largest tomb in the world (yes, surpassing even the pyramids). Ah, to have been an emperor back in the good old days!

Our feasting highlight for Xi'an was a kebab place Dylan took us to in the Muslim Quarter. Very, very basic, loud, and cheap. Dylan, Murray, Craig, Jennifer, and I actually went back the second night, too, while the rest of the group was out having a fancy dumpling banquet elsewhere. One of our orders, "Crispy Fried Chicken" on the menu, came with the chicken's head on the plate, so I dug out and ate the brains. It was perfectly delicious.

On Saturday, July 16 - some of you probably already have this date memorized - the sixth Harry Potter book came out. I was blown away to hear from the Scots that they had found a place on Friday that was taking deposits and selling the book. English copies, even! In Xi'an! All together our group ended up with four copies. Crazy. It was also our last day in Xi'an and Murray's birthday, so we celebrated the latter with cake (a very Western cake, actually, which we ate with forks!) in one of our soft sleeper compartments on the train. Since the train journey (to Chengdu) was pretty long and we had boarded early in the day, Dylan brought out a game he had invented for us to pass the time. The game worked as follows: a team of two sat across from each other at one of the little tables in the compartments. Dylan then put five regular and five peanut M&M's on a tray on the table. Within the five-minute time limit, one of the team members had to pick up the M&M's with chopsticks and pass it to the other teammate, who would then eat it. Each team got one chance. At first no one could get all ten M&M's within the time limit, but eventually the team of Georgina and Jennifer got all of them in 4 minutes and 25 seconds. The pressure was on! The position I had drawn with my teammate Cliodna was second to last, a perfect place to be. We started up and quickly fell into the pattern of me picking up the M&M and passing it to Cliodna. In a whirlwind of chopsticks and M&Ms, we thus polished off the plate in a record-setting 2 minutes and 5 seconds. Champions!

Seems like enough excitement for one train journey, I know, but actually there was more. Around midnight, when we were all in bed, our compartment was awoken by a scream from Eileen. A rat had just run across her hair! We turned on the light and looked around, but no rat. Eileen traded bunks with Britta, who was in the upper bunk above her, and we tried to go back to sleep. Five minutes later I felt the rat scurrying along my pillow and shouted to scare it off, whereupon the whole process of turning on the lights and looking around commenced all over again. Finally Britta and I, being the two on the bottom bunks, turned around so that our heads were on the opposite ends of the bed and went back to sleep. Yet another one of those stories that just make your trip more memorable.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

China Trip: Beijing

Days 1-4: Beijing

Left on the morning of the 9th at 5:30 am and landed in Beijing at 2:50 pm on the 10th. The great thing about the international date line is it turns a simple 10-hour flight into an impressive 26-hour expedition. Fortunately made it through customs and immigration and baggage claim with no problem, and easily caught a taxi from the airport to the hotel. At 6 pm I went down to the lobby for our first group meeting. Our leader was revealed to be Dylan, a blond Australian who's been living for the past four years in Taiwan - I'm so relieved to hear he does speak Mandarin (it's not a requirement for Intrepid leaders, but as you might imagine it is incredibly helpful). The other members of the group seemed interesting enough: a Scottish couple, Craig and Jennifer; Murray, an Australian; my roommate Georgina, a Kiwi; Eileen, from Ireland; Britta, from Germany; and a family of husband, wife, two girls and a boy from England. Once again I'm the only American! In fact the only North American. What luck. After listening to Dylan's welcoming spiel and receiving his gift of chopsticks (from now on we will be fined if we use disposables), we proceeded to dinner at a place not far from the hotel. I was concerned when the food seemed to be quite Western, but Dylan assured me that it's only because he wants to be gentle on the first night. How considerate, I'm sure, but I want my snake-blood drink, dammit.

Woke up the next morning at 6:10 am rather reluctantly, so I must have gotten over the jetlag early. Our group made an excursion to the "Long Wall" (as it's known in Chinese) leaving Beijing at 7 and arriving at the Jinshanling entrance at 10. We hiked roughly 10 km (6 miles) to the Simatai entrance. It took us four hours of some of the most painful step-climbing I've ever experienced in brutally intense heat, but it was absolutely magnificent and a highlight of the entire trip. The Wall is one of those rare instances when seeing all the pictures and hearing all the stories beforehand somehow does not do it justice. The views are breathtaking. Several friendly farmers and farmer's wives accompanied us for abut half the way, hoping to sell us touristy goods in turn for assisting us with the climb. The man who had attached himself to me kept grabbing my hand to stabilize me as we navigated the steep and crumbling steps, and while I certainly didn't need it I assure you there was little alternative than to go along without protest. Finally we reached Simatai and descended from the Wall with much relief. As a reward I and a few others decided to opt for the "flying fox" (zip line) path from the Wall to the parking lot. Arriving back at the hotel in Beijing at about 6:15, I organized a group of us to go out for Beijing (not Peking!) duck at a restaurant near the hotel. I wolfed it down - my appetite having finally returned after all the hiking. It was amazing. And the best part was that our group of 11 got its own private room on the second floor of the restaurant.

The next day was a free day, so Murray, Georgina, and I decided to spend it at the Summer Palace. We felt adventurous, so we decided to take a public bus (the 808) that stopped around the corner from our hotel and arrived right outside the North Palace Gate an hour and a half later. We arrived around 9:15, got a special "through pass" with admission to all areas of the palace grounds, and promptly began our exploration. Unfortunately the whole hill that included the Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha - a visual focal point for the palace grounds - was fenced off for repairs. Damn Olympics ruined everything in Beijing. The pollution was also pretty horrible; most of the lake was obscured by a really unattractive murky brown haze. Otherwise, however, the palace grounds were lovely. The best part was when the three of us descended onto the cute little Suzhou Street, a nice array of touristy shops lined up along a canal with only a narrow walkway between the storefront and the water. We stopped at the first place we found and had tea (with fresh green leaves at the bottoms of the cups) overlooking the canal. Later that evening some of us went to see the acrobat performance, which was just jaw-dropping.

Our last day in Beijing was made up of the "Beijing highlights": Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City followed by a ride in a rickshaw past Beijing's famous hutongs (ancient neighborhoods with crooked narrow streets in the process of being bulldozed in the name of modernization - thank the Olympics again). Our guide naturally did not mention the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, which Dylan told me is one of the four forbidden "TTTF" topics in China: Tiananmen, Tibet, Taiwan, and Falun Gong. I heard later that Eileen actually had brought up the shootings in private with the guide, but that her (the guide's) response was simply that the media had made it into a bigger deal than it actually was. Good job, guide, for providing a fake-response to the meddlesome foreign tourist. Anyway, the Forbidden City was magnificent, although my chief impression was one of massive, annoying crowds. Thank goodness I had seen The Last Emperor before I came, so that I could better envision the grand plazas without the thousands of schoolchildren wearing identical shirts. After the Forbidden City tour we were treated to a delicious dumpling lunch at an Intrepid-sponsored charity for people with mental disabilities, where we also listened to a short performance by four young men there and got to try our hands (if only briefly) at Chinese calligraphy.

That's it for Beijing! That afternoon we boarded our first Chinese train for our overnight trip to Xi'an. This first trip was in a hard sleeper, which meant the train carriage was composed of bunks stacked three high. No doors. My train trips in Vietnam were all soft sleeper (four to a compartment with a door), so this was new to me. Dylan said he preferred the hard sleepers because they're more open and spacious, and I agree. They're also more social, so we had a great time chatting together until lights went out at 10 pm.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Adieu to AEI

As I type this, I have a mere hour and a half before taking leave of the sweet entity that has put food on my table for a year and a half now: AEI. Ah, AEI, how I will miss your nuturing embrace. The gourmet meals, the intellectual stimulation, the confusing health care, the cubicle with a view of the Washington Monument, the right-wing nutjobs obsessed with can never be replaced.

I am truly sorry to be leaving AEI, which has been a fun place to work. But I really have to admit that this farwell process is a colossal pain in the ass. I've already been stuck in three drawn-out conversations that go on an on with things like "We'll miss you" and "Visit in September" and "Have a great summer." Ugh. Here's my idea of a good goodbye:

"Bye, Alice!"
"So long, Betty!"
*Alice and Betty wave to each other from across the room*

Wham, bam, thank you ma'am. Why does it need to be more complicated?

That said, though, I was quite flattered to get a surprise party yesterday afternoon right after my last public event let out. April, my coworker, asked me to look over something in the kitchen, and when I turned the corner there was veritable crowd gathered in the dining room. We had wine and brownies too (which, I might add, although taste delicious separately, are not all that great in combination). How sweet! Sniff, sniff.

Adieu, AEI...

Friday, June 17, 2005

Shomei Tomatsu at the Corcoran

Went to the Corcoran today (it's free on Thursdays). Saw a number of interesting things - including a strangely creepy/fascinating video art project by some guy...I'll have to figure out his name - but really the most noteworthy was the Shomei Tomatsu exhibit called "Skin of the Nation." Everyone I was with agreed it was a fabulous show. Tomatsu was a young child at the time of the second World War, and grew up in occupied Japan. His photographs cover the consequences of the defeat, the American occupation, the prosperous 60's, and more. Of course it's much easier to say that than to actually describe the images themselves, which I won't undertake to do. Suffice for now to say that the exhibit was incredibly interesting, and I recommend that you check out Tomatsu's work if you ever get a chance.

Shomei Tomatsu - I think called "Looking for work"

Monday, June 13, 2005

M.I.A, will you marry me?

Just got back from the bitchin'est show at the 9:30 Club. Maya Arulpragasam, aka M.I.A, tore the house down. Not literally, of course, but seriously - almost. The crowd was totally into it, jumping around with arms waving, and M.I.A thrashed around the stage like a madwoman. Props to her and her singalong girl for a damn energetic set. "Bucky Done Gone" was amazing, as were others. I have videos to prove it.

The picture below sucks ass, but it's the best I could do with the lighting and whatnot being what it was. You'll notice that M.I.A, on the right, is standing on top of the speakers on the stage. Cool. Her backup singer is on the left, and the (cute) dude at the table was spinning the beats. Interesting set-up; the first time I've been to the 9:30 Club and seen something other than the traditional "band" arrangement.

Those of you unfamiliar with M.I.A should be ashamed of yourselves. And after you're finished being ashamed, go out and buy Arular.

MIA gettin' down

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Buh-bye, Brookings!

For those of you who didn't know it, I am a proud member of my office softball team, the AEI Nationalists. Today we whupped Brookings ass in a 6-2 game. Not, perhaps, as satisfactory as a win against our arch-rival Heritage, but still worthy of a tiny victory dance. {dance, dance} I wish I could say I made a meaningful contribution - or any contribution, for that matter - but my role was limited to one at-bat and a couple innings hanging out in the knee-high grass in left field. I scored a single but ended up out at third. I do manage to hit pretty well (consistent line-drives), but even I admit that usually the only reason I manage to get to first is because of the other team's incompetence. Yeah, we're not exactly MLB material, here. It's more about the beer. Oh, and I guess the camaraderie. Or whatever.

The victorious Nationalists

Sunday, June 05, 2005

A great weekend

Had a really wonderful weekend despite absurdly escalating temperatures. Saturday morning found me at Hillwood with my friend Jeffrey and others from MEETin. Formerly the estate of Marjorie Merriweather Post (and still owned privately by the family), Hillwood is made up of the main house, now a lovely museum of (mostly) Russian antiques, various outlying buildings with artistic displays, and gorgeous landscaped gardens. I guess Margie liked her flowers. The scent of roses in the air was almost enough to make one dizzy. The best part, though, I have to say, was my visit with the "Bug Lady" who had, among other things, a giant millipede, huge grasshoppers, silk moths, and enormous cockroaches. Thank goodness I didn't see any spiders in the collection, else I would have had to beat a hasty and doubtlessly ungraceful retreat from the entire neighborhood. As it was, well, you see the smile on my face.

AB and the freaky millipede from Africa

That night, despite running myself ragged trying to score tickets beforehand and ultimately collapsing in despair, some kind soul (thank you, Jada) offered me an extra ticket to the free Shakespeare performance at the Carter Barron ampitheater. They were putting on "A Midsummer Night's Dream." I'm not sure exactly what I expected - I just liked the idea of the words "free" and "Shakespeare" in the same sentence - but wow, what a great evening. It was amazingly funny and the costumes and sets were terrific for a show with only 10 performances. Best of all, the director had to play Puck - something I was aprehensive about (replace Puck with an amateur actor?), but I was delighted with his performance. Actually the experience was probably enhanced knowing that he was just thrown into the role at the last minute. I appreciated it more.

Sunday was the AEI annual picnic, and one of the hottest days of all time. Man, DC is getting too hot. Where did spring go? Oh, by the by I managed to worm my way onto the dessert-judging panel (mostly by telling Ruth I wanted to be on it), but the dessert I chose ended up coming in second. The chocophiles beat out the strawberry-rhubarb pie I liked with their silly votes for some brownie concoction (which was actually good, I admit, but still). I think chocolate-lovers are nuts. I mean, I like chocolate, but to let it rule your every decision in such a make-or-break fashion? It just seems far too controlling.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

May I introduce to you...AB