Recapping 2008

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

What can I say? It's been a while. Although I've been meaning to update this for some time, finally being on another journey has moved this effort to the top of the priority chain. More on that journey later (well, okay, I'm doing 6 months in Central and South America). So here we are. When last we spoke, I had just landed after a year in Australia, two months in New Zealand, and six more in Southeast Asia and China. That was August 5, 2008. August is a busy time in Saskatoon, probably my favourite month of the year. The weather's hot and there's always plenty to do. First up was the Exhibition, a town fair full of rides that are a lot more fun when you're younger and food that's a lot more tasty when you're skinnier. I took Mariah, my youngest sister and spent the day with her wandering the grounds, trying to keep up with her frenetic ride pace and using food as an excuse to take a break from the next one. It was a long time ago, but I remember the day well, it was so nice to have Mariah to myself for a whole day, especially after such a long absence.

After the Ex and some rides along the riverbank alone and with friends to keep myself semi-fit, there comes Folkfest and specifically the Greek pavilion. This is a three day party with great food, Greek music, dancing, and of course Mythos/Ouzo. Larissa was dancing and was amazing as always (though everytime I watch it's like I've forgotten and am amazed anew) and I have to admit I was jealous not to be up there and dancing too. I made up for this by doing a bit of volunteering, keeping the food lines stocked, bartending, and clearing plates, but this didn't quite cut it. So on the last night, Saturday, I definitely got on the stage and danced like a man who, not-coincidentally, had too much ouzo.

There are other things going on in August, too many to mention really, but the other major ones I like to attend are the airshow (now discontinued) and the Fringe. I think between catching up with friends and exploring the city in the same way I had found myself doing countless other places across the globe (it's a hard habit to break), the month disappeared. The night after I got back I had drinks with some of my closest friends on the Athena deck (always a favourite summer activity), and ran across Megan, whom I hadn't seen since our accidental run-in in Byron Bay Australia. This was yet another chance encounter in a long long list of them. I suppose that's probably uninteresting unless you know the whole improbable list, and I won't unleash that upon you.

It does however, create a great segue into September. We did finally get to have a proper visit in September when we sat and I traded her some nice Greek salad and our new September special (the creation of which had recently fallen to me) for some of her mango chutney. I think I got the better end of that deal. Maybe she knew it, too, because I didn't see or hear from her for several months afterwards. Karma got me back when Dan asked me to help paint his house. Well, no, not really, that was actually quite a bit of fun. My birthday also falls in September and was the surprise "welcome back" party I never had, organized as always by my way too thoughtful sister Nicole. Friends, family, and well, I guess what else is there, all came out and I have to admit to being genuinely surprised. I opened the kitchen door and saw a table of friends so I went to say hello to them. As I did so, I heard everyone say surprise and I widened my focus and realized the whole bar was full of people I knew. A better birthday gift I couldn't have asked for.

I also started work in September, and of course the summer winding down puts a hamper on things, so there's little to say from here on out (lucky you!). Most significantly were the weddings of two of my good friends, Dan and Darren. At the former I wound up videographer (leave it to Dan to delegate everything!) and it was a great time at the Top of the Inn, complete with fireworks courtesy of the Saskatoon Fireworks Festival. At Darren's wedding, I was the loudmouth who, upon missing a close putt by a large distance (to get the bride and groom to kiss), walked briskly to the ball, and strode back well off the putting green to a place where nobody could've expected me to sink it. Darren loudly proclaimed that if I made the putt from there, I could kiss the bride. I tested the wind and putted it straight in to huge laughter and applause then strode directly to his new wife, Chrissy, as though to collect my winnings, and then shook his hand instead. I don't know if this or the Russian dancing was the highlight of the wedding for him, but given my involvement, it was definitely one of them.

October I attended Gene Hattori's farewell party. Gene is, though he would deny it, one of the best photographers in Canada and someone I feel privileged to have known and been friends with. He has moved to Ontario to live closer to Marcie and the grandkids but we still see him from time to time. And he always had time to look through my endless photos and offer insight into things I was doing well and things I could look for. My sister Larissa also took off to work at a resort in Puerto Vallarta. It was luckily only a six month term, so it wasn't too hard saying goodbye. I suppose I've also gotten better at the goodbyes after my ridiculously large part trips. Plus I knew I'd visit her soon, so at most it would be three or four months. Aside from that, I was one of the many who went as Joker for Halloween after finding a purple trenchcoat at Value Village. I did my own makeup and, if I do say so myself, I did a great job. I also practiced that lip-licking OCD thing he did in the movie to the point that I was genuinely freaking people out which is always fun.

I'm sure that there was at least one interesting event in November, but for the life of me I can't think of one. December, too. It was a lot more Christmasy with snow and friends and family around, though I won't say that I didn't love my boxing day party in Australia. On a boat in 40+ degree weather wearing a swimsuit and santa hat, drinking champagne and fine wines and eating incredible food. Nicole hosted Christmas this year though thankfully Grandma and Grandpa did the cooking. And then it was time to gear up for New Year's Eve, always a fun party to have. This year we did a red carpet theme complete with limo (well, it became Escalade but that's another story) pickup and paparazzi shooting everyone as they arrived and throughout the night. Yep, I was the paparazzi. It was a great night and I really think that everyone there, working or not, had a lot of fun. A fitting cap to a great year.

View Photos from The Return Home
View Folkfest Photos
View New Year's Eve Photos

The Return Home

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

After being abroad 20 months, the last eight of which were spent in Asia, coming into any western country is going to be a shock to the system. Coming home to Canada is perhaps the most surreal experience I have ever had. It started on the flight. The maple leaf on the tail of the plane. Announcements in English. And French. I think I must have fallen asleep, but I remember looking out the window and seeing the Queen Charlotte Islands and fjords below, green and pristine, and feeling an overwhelming sense of pride in our beautiful land. And then as we descended into Vancouver, a city I've always thought overrated and sprawling, it practically glistened in the sun and suddenly I realized I just hadn't understood it. Like Vancouver, I would never look at Canada the same way again.

Soon, I was in line for customs, with my beaten, bruised, and well-used passport in hand. This is still the same passport that I was issued in Dublin after my passport full of European stamps (which are now a thing of the past) was stolen there, and I am thankful that I have endured the miles better than this little booklet. I was expecting to spend all of my layover in Vancouver in customs given how long I was away (and that even after such an absence, the maximum allowed duty-free into the country is still $750). I was backpacking, and so the truth is that I didn't have anything to worry about, even with my mostly new wardrobe, since they were bought quite cheaply in Asia and I still had very little in my possession. Instead of a thorough tear-apart after a long flight, however, I was greeted by a very friendly customs guy who shook my hand and welcomed me home and after a few routine questions about my travels, sent me on my way to Canadian soil. First stop? An ATM where my hand was filled with green $20s. I walked outside and breathed in deeply as if I could somehow resolve my absence by sucking it all in.

If, in the You Can't Do That on Television (a Canadian show, by the way!) tradition, this episode has a code word, the word is definitely "overwhelming". It's not something I've really felt before, not in this way at least, so I don't know what was normal. Certainly, I loved having some Canadian change in one hand and a chai latte in the other as I sat waiting for my flight back to Saskatoon. I remember the monitors were all showing what I felt to be very American content, CNN news talking about just how putrid the air in Beijing was and the uproar of athletes using masks to practice for the upcoming Olympics. A bunch of people talking about something of which they know nothing, I felt defensive of China for all this posturing and rubbish pouring out of the tv. Interesting. Soon enough, I was back on a smaller plane bound for Saskatoon.

If I can describe how the next two hours or so went, there was a strange emptiness in me. I kept reminding myself that in a few hours I would be back at the small Saskatoon airport, I would see my family standing there, I would be at the restaurant or at home. None of this provoked even the remotest reaction in the most bizarre way. I would poke and prod but found only numbness. The rockies gave way to the prairies and soon Saskatchewan spread below looking very plain with the massive farms in all directions. We descended to Saskatoon and I noticed that I was finally feeling something, and it was anxiety. Of all the reaction to have, this was most puzzling to me. Excited to see everyone, I could understand. Sad the trip is over, sure. But nervous and anxious? At least it was only in the tracest amounts.

I looked out the window as we came up on the edge of the city and I couldn't tell where we were coming from. Bear in mind that as a pilot, I have spent over 100 hours flying around the city from every angle. Had so much really changed? I saw the big grain elevator (a major landmark coming in from the west) which I remember being on the outskirts but there were patches of urbanization all around it. Maybe that wasn't the same elevator? Maybe we weren't quite in Saskatoon yet? But the aircraft turned and there was downtown, the Bessborough, the core looking quite as I left it almost two years ago, and soon the wheels marked my return with two solemn black streaks on runway 33. One for each year, I suppose.

When the plane finally docked at the terminal, I was still feeling only that anxious emptiness. I stood up and waited my turn like everyone else and walked off the plane. I walked toward the escalator down to the arrivals area, and saw a few people waiting for their plane to board, realizing that I couldn't make out their faces clearly without my glasses. It could even have been my family sitting there, and I wouldn't have known it until I got closer. And then, out of nowhere, I just about collapsed,. Literally. I had to stop, catch my breath, and wipe my eyes and try to calm down my now very shaky body. I couldn't walk out there like this - I was a mess. I breathed slowly and preoccupied myself with fishing my glasses from my backpack and shook my head trying to make light of what felt like a pretty ridiculous reaction. Down the escalator, out the doors, and suddenly I was being hugged by a girl that was definitely too tall to be Mariah.

And then I looked up and there was my whole family standing right in front of me, after all this time, and my grandparents, and my Aunt Joeanne, Uncle Russ, and my cousins Cortland, and Catie. And the word of the day: overwhleming. After a lot of greetings and hugs and mini-stories my backpack came off the conveyor belt and though pretty much everyone offered to carry either it or my daypack for me, I did the last leg of the trip, from the airport to the car, with both backpacks on my shoulders. Jeans from Indonesia, shoes from Shanghai, a laptop stolen and recovered in Australia's Gold Coast, aviators from the markets in Phnom Phen, and all back home in Saskatoon. Our first stop was Athena. We walked in the kitchen door and I saw nobody I recognized. While the others were doing greeting in the kitchen I walked through the door and somebody was waiting at the till. "How was everything today?" I asked him. "Really good, thanks" I counted his change and said goodbye as my family walked through the doors of the kitchen. Yes it is, I thought, and we all sat down at the table..

Return Home Photos

Get Out (of) The Expansive China

It was the last city in the last country I was visiting on this so-called "last big trip". Beijing, the 2008 Olympic City was spread before me as I stepped from the train at 7:30 AM on August 1st. Accommodation this time was of a form I'd not used since leaving Australia, Couchsurfing. For those not in the know, a quick rundown is that it is a website full of travelers and people who like to meet travelers, perhaps showing them around, perhaps giving email tips, perhaps meeting for coffee, or, perhaps, offering up a couch or spare bed (or floor) to sleep on. I had vague directions for a guy named Aaron's home. Essentially, a subway ride to Ji Shui Tan station on the circle line, and then I was supposed to say the name of Aaron's apartment complex and a taxi driver would know it and bring me. From there, no idea. And, in fact, the more immediate problem was the same. I was standing outside the west train station with no idea how to get myself to a subway.

Oh, I knew where it was. Somewhere between 1-2km north of the train station if Lonely Planet was to be believed. And I had, I felt, a pretty good feeling of where north was. But I lacked energy or ambition to trek there with my loaded backpacks, so I did what anybody too tired to think clearly would do: I jumped on the first bus I saw and hoped it would head north and cross a subway line. It didn't. In fact, it headed south and, as near as I could tell, away from any and all civilization. No matter, aside from that Aaron was waiting for me to arrive to go to work, I hopped another bus in the opposite direction. It also did not go north - well, it backtracked north to the train station and then proceeded east for some time. East was still okay (I WAS at the West station) as it was generally correct, and soon, sure enough, we were headed north and I got off as soon as I saw a metro line.

For a city that has been pulling all the stops to be ready for Olympic visitors, I was really shocked at the lack of any indication of how to get to the city centre. Although the metro, once found, is really easy to use, the bus lines are another story. On the street, even pinyin (the english-letter version of Chinese) is absent, leaving you to ponder bus numbers and Chinese characters. Once on the bus, the route is marked in Chinese and pinyin, but that is a lot less helpful as you can probably guess. Regardless, I made it without resorting to taxi to the subway and then to the correct stop and was hoping to find Aaron there but no go. That had been the plan as of our last email, but I thought I'd try anyway and see if he was home so I grabbed a cab and sure enough, he knew exactly where we were going. I didn't. So when he dropped me off, I looked up to see rows and rows of apartments and no idea which one might house Aaron. Luckily, he saw me from his place and yelled out my name and soon I was in my Beijing home comfortable and set.

The location was truly excellent. It's only a 10-minute walk from the subway, past little restaurants and in a very local area that I never would've seen were I not staying with a local, of sorts. Aaron's actually an American who moved here partly on a whim and now works in R&D for P&G which is a lot of A&As (acronyms and ampersands). So he has some interesting insights on China, Chinese, and the way things work and don't work in this country, or at least he knows what someone from the west would find interesting about day-to-day life. After a bit of chat and some tips, maps, brochures, and discussion of my final days in Beijing, he was off to work and I was off, after a bit more rest and recuperation, for Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden Palace. The sky, contrary to reports, was blue, the sun was shining, and I had a whole lot of city to see. When I exited the metro I saw an area gated and fenced off that I assumed must be the Forbidden City. As I walked towards it I could discover no entrance though there seemed to be a few people mingling. It was, I'd later discover, an area built to look like it was from the turn of the century with trolleys and so on, and was completely off-limits to any tourist unlucky enough to be in Beijing before but not during the Olympics.

After a short time there I made my way to the real Forbidden City, but that meant walking through Tienanmen Square. That's great, I could go and visit Chairman Mao in his mausoleum; the old dictator's wishes had been ignored and instead of being cremated he was embalmed and is on public display. Or rather, he USUALLY is. Prior to the Olympics, the closest I was getting to Mao was his portrait hanging on the Gate of Heavenly Peace (for which the square is named). While wandering around I noticed I had someone following me and/or surreptitiously taking photos. Locals being fascinated by foreigners is pretty common, although not so much in larger centres, but with the Olympics Chinese are in from all over so it wasn't too surprising. What was surprising was how much he followed me - even after he asked me to have a photo with him I would still turn from a site and see him snapping photos of me looking at the gate or Olympic decorations or whatever. Beijing is crawling with spies and security, so maybe it was that but as I sat down to have a bit of water and ponder it I was approached by three more Chinese who each wanted photos with me. And once they'd worked up the courage a line formed. I later discovered that I had also been filmed by CCTV (Chinese news) looking around the city. Truly bizarre.

By the time I was finished with photos and made it to the Forbidden City, I was forbidden to enter. It was after 4:00 and there was no getting in, so I wandered east and found myself on a street lined with food stalls, pretty much exactly where I'd have gone had I planned it. On Wangfujing Street was everything: snake, starfish, silk worms, crickets, beef, pork, skewered fruits (with or without honey), you name it. So, I had some snacks, starfish included (crunchy but so-so) and went along to the main shopping street. This street is about as western as it gets - big shopping malls, McDonalds, you name it. I did a bit of looking around at the Oriental Pearl mall in particular and stumbled mainly on a movie theatre. So, a quick stop to watch Hancock as I was already exhausted and I was too tired to continue so I went home and slept like a superhero. Soundly.

The next day was likewise beautiful and blue. Aaron invited me to go to a pretty posh pool party but with the clock ticking and time running out on my stay in China and Beijing, I couldn't afford the time to sit around a pool. Instead, I hopped the bus out to the Summer Palace, a beautiful park which, aside from a pool party, is probably the best way to pass a hot summer day in Beijing. Pagodas on the distant hills, a lake named after my first stop in China (Kunming), beautiful bridges, women walking by with umbrellas and boats slipping along in the water, what more could a person want? The park was truly beautiful and a must for anyone visiting Beijing, though I would wait for a nice day to do so. I spent the better part of three hours wandering around and then decided that I would try to take in a few of the Olympic venues that evening. So I hopped the bus (960) from the Summer Palace and found myself across the highway from the Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium and the Water Cube in a sea of people.

Perhaps my timing was unfortunate, but even though I was there, I couldn't get anywhere near the places. Everything was fenced and guarded from a good distance back and I got yelled at trying to take a picture from the pedestrian overpass of the Bird's Nest (I took two anyway). But as I got to the gates I discovered it was a dress-rehearsal for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremonies (tm) and my timing was not so lucky. Even so, I'd been warned by Aaron that without tickets to the Olympics I wasn't going to get anywhere near the stadium or other Olympic venues. So I joined the growing number of people standing along the freeway waiting for dusk to fall and the show to begin. The crowd grew and I was surprised to see how disobedient they were. People jostled for position as close to the front as possible and soon my good spot was usurped by people waiting on the road and then those lining the grassy barrier between the onramp where we were and the highway itself. So I moved up and was the first to sit on the opposite side of the grass along the highway itself. A few people laughed and soon everyone was there and finally the police showed up and sent us all back to our previous line.

I was also the last to leave. I got off the highway but sat on a manhole cover in the middle of the grass that I thought should be perfectly acceptable. Not in traffic or even on the shoulder, not trampling flowers, a good compromise. I played dumb and/or refused to move back as politely as possible and somewhere, someone out there has a great photo of me being told to move back by two police officers losing their patience. Finally I gave in but soon they were gone and the edge not only resumed its original place but crossed to the barrier between either directions of the highway. If it's a dress-rehearsal for the Opening Ceremonies then I feel it's important to show the police what they have to watch out for, so I feel I did my part. The sun set beautifully and then we were treated to bursts of fireworks at unknown intervals which meant that I was never quite ready. If what they showed tonight was a small taste then those attending the actual opening ceremonies are in for a treat.

I tried to make my way back to meet up with Aaron for some Cantonese food at his favourite restaurant, but all the subway lines in the area were closed so I walked three kilometres to a different line and we had dinner. It was quite nice and the closest thing I've had to the Chinese food we get back home. The following morning, we had an interview with Singapore News about Couchsurfing. They chatted with Aaron first about hosting and living in Beijing and then with me about visiting and my couchsurfing experience. To round things off, they took me to my first stop for the day, the Temple of Heaven to do some shots of me touring the city and sights. Hopefully I don't look too much like a bumbling tourist; that little piece should be on the air in the week following the opening ceremonies. As for the Temple of Heaven, it is quite a pretty building set in park grounds that are less pretty but lined with lanterns concealing speakers playing traditional Chinese music which did a lot to compensate.

And finally, I made it to the Forbidden City and managed to enter after someone running the art scam tried to have a go at me. This was impressive but I don't think it was worth the money to enter, which Aaron had told me. That said, I felt I had to enter despite that - it IS the Forbidden City after all - and I didn't feel cheated after, so I won't advise anyone to give it a miss either. But it was some big gates and small buildings and to be honest, the most interesting thing for me - aside from the Hall of Clocks (admission extra) - was the massive copper cauldrons that served as the fire prevention system. They're just, well, massive copper cauldrons, filled with water near all the buildings in case a fire should break out. But it somehow gave a picture of a different time more than the gates and buildings really could. I had dinner at Megabite, a Chinese food court in the Oriental Pearl mall with lots of (expensive) options and pretty good food and then went home.

My final day in China and of this whole trip was reserved for something truly special. It is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it is a ribbon of human achievement, and it is something I have wanted to see since I was in third grade. The Great Wall of China awaited. But the wall itself is almost 6500 km long and near Beijing there are several spots regularly visited by tourists. A friend had been there recently and told me how crowded and horrible Badaling (closest and most accessible from Beijing) was. On the contrary, both Aaron and Charlotte were recommending I go to Simatai and look at the section of wall around that area. It is remote, beautiful, not restored (so in some places you are walking on the original wall and not newly replaced bricks) and as an added bonus, furthest from Beijing and the smog that had settled on the city that morning. I had been lucky with the weather up to this point but now things were a bit more back to normal. To their credit, the Chinese said if it was going to continue like this they were going to go from driving alternate days to once-per-month which is commendable. Can you imagine that happening in western society?

So down to the bus station where a woman dressed as an Olympics volunteer offered to help me get where I wanted to go. No busses that direction anymore (I'd missed the early ones) but I could get a mini-bus. That sort of agreed with what I'd read, so I let her lead me... and lead me... and lead me until my suspicion grew quite great. We turned a corner into a small road/alley and I knew I wasn't being brought to just any minibus to split with tourists. I've been in Asia long enough to know a scam when I see it. So I stopped, looked around affecting a tone of worry, and asked if she knew this driver and I would be safe with him? Oh, he's my husband, she assured me, and then I laughed and walked away. That didn't stop them from chasing me down. 400?? We'll give you very good price. Wait for you, bring you back! You tell price. I said 50 which I knew was low but I could take the bus for 15 yuan now that I knew she was lying so I walked away and got myself on bus 980 to Miyun.

The problem with going somewhere less touristed is the difficulty, especially in China. When I revealed my plans to the ticket lady on the bus, she made a big deal about the bus not going where I wanted, but I knew that I had to get off in Miyun and get a mini-bus from there so I wasn't too concerned. Aaron happened to call me in the middle of the exchange and I passed him to her and got everything sorted out and paid my 15 Yuan. 1.5 hours later I was dropped across from a gas station with some eager mini-bus drivers. The prices started high but I worked them down to 50 yuan and still decided I wanted to verify there wasn't a bus or someone to split the ride with in that direction. I hopped back on the next bus but discovered that no, there actually was no bus this time. I also discovered an American-Albanian couple going the same direction and that the prices here were higher. They had been looking around and negotiating for an hour so I took their word that there were no busses and whatsmore, they were being followed by a guy that yelled and screamed at anyone who offered a fair price, and aside from knocking him out there was nothing to be done for it. We even got in a van from someone who offered the three of us a ride for 100 and he jumped in too and started yelling. I was dangerously close to throttling the man, but soon we were underway for 50 yuan - each.

So I went through a lot of extra trouble for nothing but soon we arrived. Not as Simatai, I should've made clear earlier, but at Jinshanling from which Simatai was 10 km away along the Great Wall, though there was at least one part of the wall that was so ruined that the trail actually goes off the wall and comes back on at the next tower. The Great Wall was, well, great and everything I'd hoped for. It was hazy even out here, mostly due to heat and humidity though and not pollution, but still offered breathtaking views of the wall making its way along mountain tops far far along. The initial section near Jinshanling was maintained and an easy walk, but soon was the genuine article, making its way along the countryside in timeless glory, crumbling in parts, steadfast in others. As the trek was along a mountain pass, it was a lot of up and down, sometimes quite steeply, but I was still in good shape (and full of red blood cells) from my time in the Himalayas and I did the four hour walk in two and a half. Which isn't to say I wasn't stopping every 100 metres to gape at the scenery and sheer magnitude of the wall, but it was over before I knew it and I descended the mountain, crossed a river on a suspension bridge, and took a flying fox down to civilization again.

After paying another 50 Yuan to get back to Miyun and catching the last bus (6:00) for Beijing, I got home and Aaron had made dinner which was unexpected and very welcome since I'd not really eaten aside from breakfast. Then we went out with a friend of his for drinks and before I knew it, I was waking up to the day. The day when I go home, when I board the plane for that one final journey, and at the same time the day I get to see friends and family again. I said goodbye, thanked Aaron, and did some last minute shopping before getting on the train for Beijing's new airport. One last stamp in the passport, and suddenly I was on an Air Canada plane and they were talking English and French, though I was still saying 'thank-you' in Chinese. The journey home would be a long one that would doubtless continue well after my physical arrival in Vancouver four hours before I left Beijing and in Saskatoon an hour and a half after. But I was now on the plane, the doors were closed, and it was taxiing to our spot on the runway. The pilot opened the throttles and as I was pressed back in my seat, I watched China slip away as the skies opened above.

Beijing Photos

Xi'an Aura

Thursday, July 31, 2008

I arrived in Xi'an by plane from Shanghai. Or rather, I arrived 50 km from Xi'an by plane and into the city proper by bus. Not far from the central area where I was dropped off is the southern gate of the city walls beside which are two youth hostels. Ori, an Israeli I'd met in Kunming, happened to be in town already and so I went to the hostel he was staying at and checked myself in. In spite of being in a new city with some world-renowned sights, however, I felt myself more checked out than in. It was already July 29 and I was flying home August 5, and I think as time wound down I was starting to mentally prepare. As well, you may have noticed that since northern Vietnam, my pace of travel has been restless, relentless, and reckless. In any case, I arrived wanting to leave, ready to go home, and not at all in the mood for exploring a new place, finding my way around, and so on. But it was July 29, and I had only one week in China left, so regardless of how I felt, I hit the town.

The day's explorations brought me back through to the centre where I'd arrived and then north into the city's famed Muslim quarter. Despite what you may have heard, people in China do have religious freedom. That is to say, they have the right to believe or not believe what they want. What they don't have is the right to organization that in any way that the state feels threatens its total control over the lives and minds of its peoples. So while there are Catholics, for example, you won't be finding catholic schools. While there are Tibetans with their own language, schools in Tibet do not and cannot teach in that language. And so yes, there are practicing Muslims all over China and I was wandering around the streets where many of those living in Xi'an dwell and work. Aside from the mosque, the main sight here is one of my favourites: food. Fried flat bread, lettuce, and potato made into a sandwich with some sort of spread for the low low price of 2 kwai (30 cents). Mmm. Mutton soup with sesame, noodles, peanut, and more? Yum! Honey and sesame desserts mingling with a dry powdery sugar-almond concoction? I wandered the streets for quite a while sampling various fares until I could sample no more. On the walk home, I passed a bunch of people dancing in the streets while a band played and watched and listened for some time, realizing again that I was lucky to be here. Home would be coming soon enough.

The next morning I woke up early, which is to say too late, to check out the Terracotta warriors. They're outside the city and I was booked on a trip through the hostel leaving at 9:00. I grabbed a breakfast to go and was second-last on the bus and then we were off. I'll say here that I never realized how much there is to do around Xi'an, albeit all in different directions. There's a small panda sanctuary here, though it doesn't come close to being in the same league as the more famous one in Chengdu (which just celebrated two cubs, I hear). There's the warriors. There's a collection of impressive imperial tombs. The city itself. And enough more (that I can't recall right now) to make me consider a stop there on my return to China. For now, just the terracotta warriors. On the bus with me was an English expeditionary group that was combining travel with philanthropy and I thought it a great trip. They're doing a project near Lijiang soon and I gave them some tips for the area.

And then, at last, we were at the Terracotta warriors. It's amazing to think that this find was not made until a farmer stumbled on it 30 years ago digging a well, especially when you see the size of the endeavour. Old emperor Qin (China's first emperor, 230 BC) decided when he died he wanted enough soldiers to continue his rule into the afterlife. While my idea of heaven doesn't include a Chinese emperor or stone warriors, he certainly took enough with him to give someone a headache. Almost 8000 soldiers were hand-crafted, painted, and buried in a tomb he had made for himself. In the meantime, he went on to standardize the Chinese characters still in use today, gather the disparate pieces of China under one banner, and start the building of the Great Wall of China. To be fair, he had an early start as a 13-year old. What he left, the wall, the army, and the country, are in various states of disrepair but all remain to this day. The soldiers themselves fought and lost their first battle not long after his death and so many were found in pieces hacked apart by angry peasants but some remained intact. The main location of them, Pit 1, is a sprawling covered area with buildings and a healthy dose of soldiers some repaired, some intact, and some scattered on and in the ground.

The army had structure, and there was a general's tent, there were archers, chariots, infantry, cavalry, and different ranks. Every soldier had a unique and interesting face which itself is a marvel. There are two other pits open to visitors, both of which are neither as big or as populated, but which have their own charms as archaeological sites. After a visit to all three and a factory where souveneirs are made (I got to craft my own soldier but didn't recruit him) it was back to Xi'an for more muslim food and a bit of catchup with Ori. We were both pretty tired and were going to go see a movie but settled on a DVD of Stardust which is a fair adaption of a good book by a great author (Neil Gaiman). My final day in the city on the final day of July was spent visiting sites I'd been too lazy to investigate before. I went up to the bell tower and drum tower, witnessing an excellent performance at the latter, and then grabbed a bike and rode around the 14km of city walls in just under an hour. While it's not especially interesting visually, it is simply one of those things that must be done because it can, and despite the bad bike and cobblestoned thumping I received, it was well worth the effort.

As I returned my bike atop the walls, I heard some very ominous and powerful drums being played in the south gate and went to investigate. Although it was being played by smiley women in costume, it was an imposing sound and I could imagine it striking terror into people attempting to attack the city. It had been a busy day and was growing late, so I went back to the hostel and grabbed a pizza while I caught up on my internet. The pizza took an hour and I was worried about missing the train but I managed to get it finally and shared a cab to the station with two English girls that I'd met earlier. The three of us, after boarding our overnight train to Beijing, my final stop on this oh-so-long tour, played a Chinese dice game in the dining car as the countryside passed unheeded in the night. Of the many, many rounds we played, I did not win even once. It was good-old embarrassing fun and before long I was in my hard-sleeper bunk crying myself to sleep. I woke up and July had turned to August, the people in my cabin had stayed up talking the entire night, and I was in the Olympic city. Beijing awaited, and unlike my arrival into Xi'an, I was thrilled.

Xi'an Photos

Shanghais and Byes (and Buys)

Monday, July 28, 2008

From my remote station in Fei Lai Si I made the trek back to the relative civilization on Shangri-La (Shang-guh-li-La since the name itself is not Chinese) with a minivan full of Chinese. I, however, was beside a Malaysian-Japanese couple who were very friendly and indeed didn’t leave me alone until they were sure I was okay once we arrived. I was faced with a bit of a dilemma... on the one hand, I was behind schedule and discovered Chengdu would take an extra day of travel above what I’d expected as a result of my remote origin. On the other hand, with a pricey plane ticket I could be close to back-on-track though still rushed to make it to Beijing with time for sightseeing. Complicating matters, Charlotte and Gerri were back in Kunming the next day and it would be great to catch up with them. And finally, it should be noted, that to get to Chengdu without the pricey flight, I would need to backtrack to Dali or Kunming anyway. So it was that, at the bus station, I found myself on the last seat of the last bus out of Shangri-La, en route to Kunming and old friends.

I slept quite well compared to my last sleeper bus experience in China and, coincidentally, bound for the same city. This time, a seat to myself. This time, no Chinese spooning. This time, ridiculous amounts of traffic. The traffic was so bad coming in that our bus driver gave up attempting to reach the bus station, parked, and led us all on foot to the station about 1 km away. I went to have a look at bus and train tickets to Chengdu and couldn’t help but notice all the security in the place. I had been here before, but I didn’t remember seeing them. Hmm. Eventually, I gave up attempting to interpret the signboards and caught the number 3 bus to the Hump Hostel. This, by contrast to the bustling and jammed roads, was empty. Where last time I’d barely secured a seat, this time I had the bus almost entirely to myself. None of this really registered as especially suspect, rather, it was a small series of observations that accrued like snow on a mountain slope until enlightenment finally triggered the avalanche. There had been two busses bombed in Kunming only a few days prior.

It all made sense then, though it didn’t change anything. I still had places to go and in particular two people to see. I waited around at the Hump, getting caught up on photos, internet, and day-to-day life until I looked up to see Charlotte standing over me and shaking her head in quiet shock. It was a happy reunion with her and Gerri and we caught up over a customary bowl of popcorn, beer, and swapped travel stories. Xixuanbana and its black and white pagodas had been a disappointment to them, even if the weather was a lot more balmy than the Himalayas and they did come back with a funny story about rice whiskey and being obliged to drink with the locals. We went out that evening to a happening district and attempted to ‘club it’, but between loud/horrible music and being interrupted every five seconds so that some other Chinese person could come and campay us (bottoms up!) it was a pretty disappointing night too.

The next day, perhaps out of shock from the day prior or perhaps because we had all been rushing around China for the last three weeks straight, we did not leave the hostel. Not for breakfast, lunch, nor dinner. We spent the day lounging on the patio looking over the square, and snacking, discovering little by little that most of the food at The Hump is pretty poor indeed. Draught beer started around 4 PM and then we used up the rest of our supplies from the night prior – they sell beer in 12-packs at bars here, like it or not, and we hadn’t gone through much. It was a relaxing and quiet day and nice to just sit around, visit, and snack. All we needed was some knitting, but in its place I attempted to caption photos and create a Facebook account for Charlotte. And I attempted to decide where I was going next. Chengdu was no longer in the cards, or at least that decision appeared best. I had likewise heard from fellow travelers that going to the Three Gorges to see the world’s largest dam was not quite what you’d expect: you are actually not allowed anywhere near the dam itself so you have to settle instead for a binocular viewpoint. The three-day cruise was a relaxing break from traveling China, but given my day of relaxation and waning time, probably not the wisest decision either.

For these reasons and because I would not be reaching Hong Kong this trip, I decided to fly out to Shanghai. I booked my ticket on the internet but received no confirmation even after a few hours. I’d booked with my AMEX and had been asked for the CVN. On American Express, I thought, that was a four number code printed on the front of the card but the site had wanted only three so I entered the three on the reverse side. Maybe the payment hadn’t gone through? Another hour and I decided to try booking with my VISA, and again no confirmation. I attempted to call the booking site but no answer. Hmm. I sent an email and no answer. Uh-oh. I woke up the next morning to a reply stating that my booking could not be found and urging me to login and see if I had really booked. So I wasn’t going anywhere, apparently, but then logging in I had both tickets booked. I was even more afraid of this. Urgent response, please cancel the more expensive ticket. And then the three of us were off to the airport.

At the airport, scanning my passport revealed I had two tickets under my name – though you’d think this would flag some sort of security warning, I never had any problems. In the end, I chose the earlier flight and, after a scuffle with some Chinese line cutters (the line cutters part is redundant in this country, as the concept of a queue is mostly foreign – here, the sharpest elbows win) we passed through security. The girls’ flight, contrary to their opinion, was not for a few hours, so we walked to my gate, said farewells, and once again I was on my own, sitting on a jet, just as I would be in ten days bound for home. I captioned yet more photos on the flight, arousing the interest of the Chinese woman beside me. I had to explain where they were from to her as I went along and then suddenly she got up to – I presumed – use the facilities. She returned with her English-speaking daughter and had her sit beside me while she took photos and then disappeared. The daughter, about my age, also wanted to see the photos and then we talked a bit about life in China as the plane descended to Shanghai.

Or so I assumed. There was no real way to know there was anything below us as the sky was carpeted in brown cloud also known as smog, and the girl was quite embarrassed by this. Charlotte had warned me that I wouldn’t be able to see much of anything skyscraper-wise due to the heavy pollution and it appeared she was right. That we found an airport at all is largely thanks to computer guided ILS (instrument-landing system). Off the plane and onto bus 925, which drove 2 km and parked behind a mob of busses and everybody got off and boarded bus 941. Now I had no idea where I might end up but managed to discover from the ticket lady that we would be passing a metro stop where I could reach my hostel near Peoples’ Square. This lady became quite protective of me, which was kind of cute. A little later I offered my spot to a father so he could sit next to his wife and kid and when the lady came back she berated the poor man for taking the spot from me though I tried to defend him. They both eventually insisted I take the spot and there was nothing I could do about it but thank him, apologize, and sit.

When my stop was approaching – I had dozed off due to a lack of rest the past few days – it turned out that she had found someone else who spoke English and was getting off at the same stop. She organized that girl to walk me to the metro which, again, wasn’t necessary but just try to say no in this country. So I had a guide to the metro and then on it since she was heading the same direction as me and, it turned out, getting off at the same stop to meet some friends. But before she did that she insisted on walking me the 10 blocks to the doors of the Hiker Hostel I was hoping to stay at. Ah, China, so full of people happy to overcharge you exorbitant amounts and then turn around and bend over backwards to help out a visitor. It was lucky she left because I had no reservation and therefore no bed that night in the crowded hostel. I booked a bed for the next day and then went off in search of a reasonably priced hotel nearby.

I awoke the next morning surprised that I had no only fallen asleep again while taking a rest before hitting the town but also that the rest had lasted twelve hours. I was refreshed, showered, and had myself a bed in the Hiker Hostel before noon and finally did hit the town. It seemed I had been blessed. The brown skies were vanished without a trace leaving blue sky, sun, and scattered cloud that was perhaps bluer than anything I’d seen in Kunming. After munching on some giant but delicious wontons and treating myself to a blizzard, I walked to the Bund, the famous Shanghai riverfront, and admired the skyline stretching in all directions but definitely peaking straight ahead around the gaudy Pearl Tower. I stayed as long as I could bear the hear and seriously considered walking around like a Chinese man, with my shirt half-rolled up to unleash my belly upon the world. I decided that cooling the belly was a good idea, but opted for internal treatment instead and resorted to a DQ Blizzard liberally applied.

Then further down bustling Nanjing Rd, a pedestrianized and wall-to-wall strip of shops and neon signs with the towering Shiamo building capping the west, and guided me toward Peoples’ Square. Everywhere, the city feels like Disney’s Tomorrowland, trapped in a perpetually 1960’s view of what the year 2010 could look like, except that it has actually materialized here – and only here. Oh sure, the flying cars are missing, at least in the literal sense, and one can only be thankful for that in the hustle and bustle here, but here we have a city with one of the world’s first Maglev (magnetic levitation) trains whisking travelers across the city skyline at the mind-boggling speed of 430 km/h. Here we have a city with, it has been said, more skyscrapers than Manhattan. Here we have a city where, if a flying car were to buzz 30 metres above the freeway, nobody would look up from their bowl of noodles.

Yes, here, the home of the 2010 World Technology Expo, in a city that is pushing the boundaries of things that are still dreams in other parts of the world, is still a city where, beneath twinkling skyscrapers, 40-storey television screens, and an endless barrage of light and activity, you can still sit down in the streets on a dilapidated chair across from a shirtless man who is slurping up Shanghai noodles after a long day moving goods from factories to various stores on his bicycle. A positive side-effect of the indoctrinated Chinese mentality to not question the universe, the law, or the system is that when something like rising world gas prices become a reality, they accept and react rather than sitting around moaning about price-fixing, greedy oil companies, and OPEC. So bicycles, electric motorbikes, and increasingly green methods of transport are definitely on the rise here.

But, back to Peoples’ Square. There is not much here but a small urban park surrounded by tall buildings, a few museums and theatres (including the highly recommended Shanghai museum which I just couldn’t fit into my schedule). A wander a little further along Nanjing Road to the west yielded nothing but more megamalls and so a turn south was in order, bringing me smack into the fringe of the French Concession. On the periphery, it’s a motley collection of old European and modern Chinese buildings, but heading east eventually yields the untouched tourist-heart of the area, a collection of French buildings with stony courtyards, cafes, bakeries, and expensive wine. Walking along with a chocolate ├ęclair, the area started to grow on me though I think I prefer to be a few blocks away from this trim and lean heart where boutique shops and Chinese restaurants sit side by side.

It was nearing sunset and I found myself back at Peoples’ Square, so I hopped the metro across the river to the base of the Pearl and watched the sunset with camera in hand (or rather, on tripod). I’d actually contemplated paying the 150 yuan to ascend but wouldn’t have made it in time, missing the actual sunset to wait in line for an elevator. Afterwards, I did something that must surely have been on fellow travellers’ lists whilst here in China mid-2008: I went to the theatre and watched Kung-Fu Panda.

From the hiker hostel I’d been west and east. To the north was nothing of note, blocked as it was by a small river a few blocks up, and so the next morning found me heading south into the town’s oldest Chinese area. I just want to take a quick second here to say that the hostel is in the perfect location, walkable from all the major attractions, and though it is pricey at 60 yuan/bed/night and the warm water is more adequately described as “not freezing”, I recommend it. Anyway, the old town. More shopping, and for once I gave in. I was going to be home soon and not only did I want to pretty much eject all my clothes before boarding the plane, but I still wanted to get something at least small for friends and family back home. First stop, a tea house where you sit and sip various teas with a little Chinese lady who extols the relative virtues of hundreds of types of teas.

All the while, walking the streets of Shanghai, you are constantly assailed by people trying to sell “watches, DVDs, shoes, t-shirts”. I did actually want a pair of shoes to wear home as my hikers are destined for yard work and my sandals should’ve been fumigated and discarded ages ago. So it was that, after munching on some mangosteens I was approached by number 82 who asked me what I was looking for. “Somewhere to wash my hands,” I replied and she offered to let me wash them in her shop so we went up the stairs, dunked my hands in a faucet, and started browsing. It really felt like a black-market shop… narrow, ill-lit staircase leading up, a hallway-sized space filled with shoes, shirts, DVDs, everything promised and more. I looked at some ‘Diesel’ shoes which they swear are authentic and for which the asking price was 450 Yuan ($60). Ha! After a lot of work and them pretending to be grumpy taking my money, I got these rather flimsy but good-looking shoes for 80 yuan ($12) with a pair of socks thrown in and I still think I paid too much. Then it was time for shirts and DVDs, the latter of which I left alone, but a Beijing 2008 Olympics shirt couldn’t hurt, and again on the wheel from 80 down to 20. It should be fine until it’s washed. Plus they threw in the new Batman movie for free, which I definitely won’t watch (I hate cam jobs).

Back at the hostel, I met my new Swiss roommate and a Dutch girl and the three of us went for dinner somewhere good but really pricey (by which I mean it cost $5/each) before I went off to Shanghai’s famous acrobats. It was a bit of a rushed dinner, so rather than catching the metro and walking, I hopped on the back of a motorcycle and whizzed through the nighttime streets of Shanghai. This is NOT to be missed, it doesn’t matter if you have nowhere to go, zipping around the beautiful buildings and neon signage of Shanghai is a surreal experience that the metro robs visitors of. And from this surreal experience to yet another, a woman balancing six plates full of glasses while doing some extremely bendy work. The show had started when I arrived, but it was only the start of the first act. It is something special to be in a foreign country and, for a pretty reasonable price, behold the type of spectacle that maybe only 50 years ago, would be reserved for a dictator or emperor and his court. We sat as one and oohed, ahhed, and gasped as we witnessed everything from a man riding a unicycle upside-down on a tightrope to nine chairs stacked precariously on a table one by one as women climbed up to, well, you name it. It was a spectacle.

I joined in “the races” when I returned to the hostel and went out that night with three English guys and two Polish girls. Tired or not, Shanghai has a world-famous nightlife and I was determined to see some of it. Unfortunately, the place we ended up was just a crappy little bar called “Windows Too” about which there is nothing positive to be said except that drinks weren’t too expensive. And then, before I remember going to sleep, I was awake again, packing up for the trip to Xi’an. But there was one more thing left to do in Shanghai. I rode the Maglev train, finally, passing cars so quickly that they appeared to be driving backwards. Even planes coming in for a landing were no match for us. As I stepped off the magnetic train and turned to look at it in wonder, I was struck by how unassuming it looked. A white bullet sitting in a giant gun barrel about to be fired back into Shanghai’s heart like a shot of adrenaline. The magnets buzzed, a jet engine whined in the distance, and I departed the city of tomorrow for a city of a long-passed age. Xi’an awaited.

Shanghai Photos

I Trek, Yubeng

Monday, July 21, 2008

It was a hard slog in every way. Finally, my luck with the weather ran out and it rained almost the entire trek into the Tibetan village of Yubeng. Between trekkers and donkeys, the trail was often times a soup (with ingredients you don’t want to think about) and a largely uphill one at that. I’d gone with an Austrian couple but they weren’t acclimatized and were feeling pretty pressured to keep up with me so I wound up ahead and on my own. A hot bowl of soup helped restore my water supply and core temperature at the chilly peak and then downwards the rain finally began to abate. There was a big chain of donkeys carrying supplies that I had to endeavour to stay ahead of (it’s painful to pass them or be stuck at their pace even though only slightly slower than mine) but as I got below the cloud the village could be made out amidst the shadows of some imposing mountains.

I found a place to stay in a Tibetan guesthouse (this village really is Tibetan in everything but name) and went back to show the Austrians where I was staying. Our host asked if we were hungry and then brought us to his pantry and kitchen to point out ingredients we wanted. I wanted more than just vegetables and remembered that chow mein is fried noodles, so I managed to get that tacked on to our list of veggies as well as some meat (he couldn’t stop laughing once he figured out why I made a ‘moo-ing’ sound). The end result was a fatty soup of noodles, pork fat, and veggies that was edible but not my favourite dish. But, I suspect, we were eating the way they do.

It’s cold up here in the mountains (current elevation around 3700m) and the three of us sat around the hearth in their living room with the grandmother of the family. She could only speak Tibetan, not Chinese or English but we tried to initiate a conversation with her regardless. I pointed to myself and said, “Dean” and then pointed at her. It turns out that both “di” and “dean” are numbers in Tibetan (1 and 7 respectively) and so that initiated a counting lesson that the Austrians were more than happy to see me struggle with. I then tried to find out her background and found (I think) she’d been born in Lhasa, had moved to Shangri-La and Lijiang when she was younger and then had lived here the rest of her life. We didn’t want to overstay our welcome so we said goodnight, grabbed some tea, and then went to sleep ourselves, praying for better weather tomorrow.

I awoke at 6:30 in the morning to see the sun begin to light the tall mountain out my window. And then I realized that I could actually see that mountain. I hurriedly dressed, ran outside past the cows to the washroom, came back and packed, and bolted out the door. There was hardly a cloud in the sky though they seemed to be forming as the sun warmed things up. Aside from the locals (and let’s face it, there still are not a lot of tourists here anyway) I felt I was alone in the town to observe their morning rituals. A woman milked her yak, a man tended to his mules, and somewhere a small bell was ringing every five seconds or so. This turned out to be a woman turning a prayer wheel (you walk in a circle around a cylinder, pushing it) that hit the bell every revolution. Another woman joined her in an unlikely little temple and I watched quietly for a time before moving.

Knowing how the weather changes in the mountains and fearing rain and cloud, I resolved to make good time while the weather held. After admiring the views from above and then making my way down to the lower village (where I’d observed the prayer), I set out on the path towards the Secret Waterfall. The path ambles through a valley forest along a snow melt stream which is never too far away. On the way, I passed a tree covered in bracelets, cloths, earrings, and other trinkets. I have no idea what this indicates, but it was a departure from the streamer-like prayer flags. Further along and further uphill I went, admiring the mossy forest still wet with morning dew and catching glimpses through the canopy of the Himalayas that surround Yubeng and isolate it from the rest of Tibet. While cloud seemed to move here and there, offering glimpses and then taking them away, it soon became clear that weather was not going to be an issue. It was an absolutely perfect day, and the third of four in a season where one nice day every couple weeks is lucky. I think blessed is the word to describe the weather here this July.

At last, my journey neared its destination. The surrounding mountains, beautiful Miancimu and the Buddha’s Head framed the green foothills below with snowy peaks and wispy clouds, the two mingling only via a river of snow cascading down from the heights. On the right, two massive waterfalls. In the middle, a cloudy landscape of snow and low, jagged peaks with the higher mountains partially peeking through. On the left, green and white and blue. The funny thing is that these massive waterfalls are, when viewed from afar, an almost insignificant part of the mountain itself. I climbed up along a stream and accidentally washed my shoes to the top where, of all things, a pair of rainbows sat at the end of the waterfall illustrating that I had indeed found the pot of gold.

I’m sorry for the flowery prose (or whatever you might call it), but I’m not quite sure how to convey the feeling that goes along with a walk of this sort. And if you’re cringing at the pot of gold remark, well, I made my way off the path down the moraine on a very steep and foolhardy descent and was rewarded with two 100 yuan notes that must have been lost in the winter or were deemed irretrievable. So, that would pay quite nicely for my trip back to Shangri-La not to mention the guesthouse. I played around in the snow, the first time I’ve seen snow since leaving New Zealand almost two years ago and shoe-skied my way down to where the snow ends and the stream collects the run off. Back to Yubeng, a quick lunch that quite resembled last night’s dinner, but with yak meat instead. I was tired, hungry, and probably would’ve grabbed a horse back up but that nobody offered me one.

Just as well, once I had my Snickers (this is not a paid advertisement) I had a bit more energy and I doffed my shirt in the sun and virtually ran up the slope. People stopped me, no word of a lie, to give me thumbs up or say things like “strong”. One Chinese guy was so startled, I merited a heavily accented “Oh my god”. If you know me at all, you’re wondering the same thing as I am – what on earth are they talking about? I think they were surprised I hadn't opted for a horse. Still, I felt good and made the hike back in what I consider a speedy 2.5 hours. The view on the way was spectacular – all the mountains were out in all their resplendence. Back in Fei Lai Si, I thought about waiting a few hours for sunset and passed some time having beer with an English guy but got tired waiting and retreated to Tashi’s for dinner and a warm bed. It had been a big day, a big four days in fact, and I was looking forward to the morrow’s ride southeast to, well, wherever I could reach. But if I haven’t been convincing in my delivery, let me just spell out in plain words what a wonder this area is. If you are coming to Yunnan, I definitely recommend a stop here in Fei Lai Si, even if only for the drive up.

Yubeng Trek Photos