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...