Saturday, February 28, 2009

MIA

Yes, I have been missing. Sorry!!! I'm fine, everything is fine. Internet cafes have been scarce/nonexistent/really far from our hotel. I have had limited access via Sunny's (our intrepid tour leader-guide) computer, but I can't monopolize it and spend hours as I generally do when I write these notes. And, I've just been lazy, enjoying spending time with my new bunch of friends- (MORE rice wine!).

Onwards! Back to the blog! (The security guard at the hostel where I'm staying was nice enough to walk with me to this net bar- I never would have found it otherwise. But now I know, and I'll be able to come back and update regularly, at least until I leave for Japan on Friday.)

Let's see... The last I wrote was in Wulishan, sitting in a dark and smoky "net bar" with a bunch of Chinese gamers as they whiled away the hours as it rained outside.
That night we ate at a restaurant where they had various cut up animal pieces inside a giant display cooler- there was poultry and pig, beef and some other interesting pieces- one was a bear, it's claw and fur still on. There were live frogs and other squirmy fishy food.

The next day we went on another hike through more scenic and rainy mountains of which China has a plethora. I've seen so many scenic mountains- and rightly so- these rainy mountains were the very ones that inspired the Chinese landscape paintings that inspired this very trip to China for me!

Anyways, Shanghai was a blur- but one of the highlights was visiting Instrutor Gueirrero's (Cordao de Ouro) capoeira class, and coming with him the next day to help out with a performance at a kidnergarten! 150 little Chinese kids- they loved it! Oh, and the BEST FOOD EVER- the night after the class we ate Chinese Muslim food and ordered so much food 13 hungry capoeiristas couldn't finish it- kebabs, cucumber salad, and so many other dishes it was all a blur... And after the performance, the best Brazilian barbecue I've ever had- and I spent 7 months in Brasil- and it wasn't a result of not having any other type of food except for Chinese for a month previous. THE FOOD WAS DELICIOUS!!! Rodizio-style- the meat kept coming out of the kitchen! Guarana, feijao e arroz, batata frita, pao de queijo fresh out of the oven, doce de aborbora e doce de leite... The all-you-can-eat salad bar was splendid- and so was the service, amazingly enough, an anomaly in China. And the price? 88 yuan- divide that by 6.8. About 13 USD. Damn straight, one of the best meals ever.

Then what... Xi'an and the terracotta warriors.

Speaking of service- Sunny had told us that Xi'an was not generally known for customer service. Against his advice we ate at DeFang's house of Delicious Superior Dumplings in Xi'an- how could you go wrong with a title like that? Well, the dumplings weren't bad, per se. They were ok. Just ok. It was the service that made it worse- asking for us to pay a couple of seconds after we received our warm beers, then clearing our plates before we were finished eating. That on top of the sound of meowing cats coming from the kitchen. I suppose that indicated that were no rats. Hopefully. We saw lots of rats in Wulishan.

Anyways! The terracotta warriers were everything they said they would be. Interesting, and worth the trip, but not as awe-inspiring as the Taj Mahal. Not much can top the Taj Mahal. There was an introductory video shown on a very old surround-screen style theater. Innovative, I'm sure, for a film made in 70's or 80's China. I'm sure it was very informative, but it was all in Chinese. We had fun turning around to see the events unfold in front of as well as behind us. We had a local guide who waved a flag around that we had to follow. She was very enthusiastic with her explanations about the history- we just weren't used to following a flag.
Other than that, Xi'an didn't have much. It was cold. The Muslim quarters had some pretty good street food- fried balls of persimmon dough stuffed with sweet sesame seeds, pancakes stuffed with an egg and fried, other pancakes stuffed with spicy noodles and meat with onion, and roasted chestnuts. Mostly very greasy and dripping with oil. I'm actually almost used to the oil by now. Doesn't really phase me. I just eat it. There's not much of an option as far as healthy food out here. The Swedish girls had started to opt out of many of the group dinners that we had in Chinese restaurants. They just didn't like the food, the heads on the fishes, the random live animals swimming about in tanks in the front, the bear claws or the dead rats on the floor- most of the time they ended up at McDonalds or KFC. Yeah, China is a world away...

Next stop- Beijing. Wow- I've caught up! Almost. It's cold here! We were so excited to see snow on the ground in front of the hotel, throwing snowballs at each other! Frozen fingers, leg warmers and wool socks and hat are par for the day.
Day one: Summer Palace. Quite nice- a summer resort for the emperors. The lake was frozen over and there was snow everywhere. Lots of bridges to islands with pagodas on them. We walked around for 4 hours. On the way home we went to the Olympic Center, and saw the Birdsnest and the Water Cube up close and personal. The Birdsnest was quite imposing, in a shockingly uninspiring way. It looked quite... UGLY! I guess on TV, with lighting and swooping angles, the imagination fills in the details and doesn't acknowlege how a building of such stature could fail to be at least- nice looking?! In person it looks unfinished, as if someone forgot to file down the edges, or give it a nice polish. The lines are not clean, and don't seem to make sense. I suppose it's a feat of architecture that it can remain standing, and it will certainly maintain a name for itself in history. But wow! The other buildings are really nice, actually. The water cube is also incredibly tacky, but with the blue luminescent glow at sunset, becomes a sort of larger than life amusement-park style kind of building. I became quite emotional actually, staring at it from behind the fence, imagining the Olympic athletes entering the building for the first time, all nervous excitement and anticipation. I remember that feeling from my old days of competition. I savor those moments and wish I could experience them all over again, knowing what I know now. I love competition! I didn't acknowlege that part of myself fully back then- now, I'm ready for it. Bring it!
So we bought tickets and went inside- 30 yuan just to go inside. Worth it! Got to stare at the competition pool, the dive pool, the warmup pool. All empty, shimmering glasslike surface of blue water. With an exciting echo that one hears in a swimming hall or gymnasium. It's a shame actually. I would have wished to see it full of clamouring little kids and old ladies taking swimming lessons and water aerobics. It seemed like a crystalline monument to unattainable perfection, a place to revere the athletes that passed through during the Olympics and all they worked for- which is great! But these athletes had to start somewhere, and these buildings have the potential to inable society a step up towards health and vitality. Physical activity should be accessible to everyone... Actually, I really don't know what China plans to do with these facilities. For all I know there are swimming lessons on Fridays only, or every other Monday... There's still a lot about China that really confuses me.

So let's see- the next day we went off to climb the Great Wall! One of the best highlights of the tour- 10 kilometers over a remote section of the wall, over rugged stretches of broken bricks, across snowy side-paths, trailed by incessant souvenier-sellers... Beautiful! We finished by taking a "flying fox", hooked up to a wire and sailing out over a resevoir of clear green water. What a great day. Pictures will speak for me when I get a chance to add them.

Of course we had a tour of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden city. We saw General Mao's picture hanging up in front of the square, with the eyes painted to look like they are following you. The Forbidden City came out great in the photographs, but walking through it took forever. Endless courtyards upon courtyards. Our guide regaled us with stories of emperors, conquests, concubines and eunuchs.

Following that, we paid a visit to one of the social projects that Intrepid supports. It's a school for mentally disabled adults. They fed us lunch, then put on a performance. It was one of the best things I've seen or done this entire trip- India and Dubai included. They sang Jingle Bells, and made us all stand up and join in. They had so much enthusiasm! Fully putting their hearts into their performance, singing off key and clapping off beat, all with the utmost conviction. There was the dance with the masks, a girl and a boy huge painted face masks, doing a very strange modern sort of interpretive dance to music box music. Excellent. There were other singing performances. There was the dance of the cute girl and the silly donkey. But above all, I liked the bullfight- OMG it was the BEST! I wish I had it on film, I would watch it over and over, any time I had any doubts. About anything. It uplifted my spirits and made me cry at the same time.
Then we went inside and they gave us a calligraphy lesson. It was great. We learned how to write the Chinese characters for happiness, and I love you.
And we finished up by playing a round of kick the flying feathered hackey sack-type thing. Excellent all around! The best time ever!

For our last dinner together, we went out for Beijing Duck. The funny thing was, it was probably the best Chinese dinner we had so far, and yet the duck wasn't even that great. It was everything else. Fried pork, the eggplant/potato/pepper dish, the egg and tomato dish, um, I don't remember what else- oh, the fried banana fritters dipped in melted candy coating... The duck was ok. The beer was warm. The wine was quite good- Chinese wine, Great Wall label!

There was quite a terrible moment of awfulness a couple of days ago, when I thought I lost my camera. We had gone out to a club- (Banana Babyface) where I was taking photos and getting told not to take pictures- and that was the last I saw of the camera for the next two days. Sunny took me to the police station to file a report, (thank you Sunny) it took two hours and we were dead tired- and we tried calling the club to see if they found it- they couldn't help us. I was retracing my steps over and over in my mind, wishing I hadn't brought the camera out to the club, I was ruing the fact that I hadn't backed up any of my photos- and I was feeling SO STUPID! 8 gigs of photos from the entire trip. Well, THANK GOD! luck was with me. As Sunny was wrapping up business with the hotel staff, they simply handed him the camera. A security guard had found it and turned it it. Wow. I was overjoyed and grateful- life was right again- and I found a caribiner and have pinned that camera to me and will never let it go. And I will be backing it up later today. Ah... so happy.

And with that, so ends the story of Sunny's Intrepid Tour group. Nobody hurt, sick (majorly ;-)) or otherwise put out. We made lifelong friends and shared unforgettable moments. I was unsure at first about the wiseness of my decision to take a tour together with a bunch of strangers through a country I wasn't sure I wanted to be in anymore, at the end of a trip I was tired of taking, but in the end it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. This is one of the wonderful things about traveling. (I reiterate, I know!) Meeting other people and learning new ways to look at life. Changing and growing, adapting, learning and becoming different people. This is the life I want to lead. I am so thankful that I am able to DO and BE all these things.

I leave for Japan on Friday- still have 5 more days in Beijing. I can't believe it's March already! It seems like I looked away for just a moment, and all these things happened and time passed- I'll be home in less than a month! And I still have another country to experience- Life just keeps getting better, I swear.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Back to the mainland

So, I have joined up with the Intrepid group and I am back on the mainland, and back in Yangshuo.

Here are a few thoughts, as I quickly jot them down in the lobby of a hotel.

BTW, I was drooling over those new little small computers they have now, the Fujitsu M1010, the HP mini, the Acer something... I would love to have a) constant internet access, as there are many places with free wifi but not so many places with a free computer, much less a computer that has Skype! b) a place to store my files and bookmarks, c) a place to write whenever I want- I type so much faster than I write, I'm just spoiled I guess. I could just carry the old analog journal with me :-P

Introspection-
Hong Kong was great. It was so nice to have a place where I could recoup and recover from the culture shock of mainland China- which I didn't believe would affect me as much as it did. Even now, back in mainland, I feel it. I'm glad I've had the experience already, so that I can take a theoretical step back and talk myself out of the sort of dejection and weariness I feel at not being understood, nor being able to understand, either my language or theirs... Including being taken for a whimiscal trustee of tons of money that I just don't mind spending at the slightest provocation or accident. Perhaps some of that comes from being in Yangshuo, which has been so overrun by foreign tourists that reality is a little twisted. Since the Chinese people don't understand (nor how could they be expected to) much of the random mix of foreign culture that ends up here, they interpret foreign behavior to their advantage. So unscrupulous vendors end up with this smiling, confident attitude- have you heard of the adage "Act as if"? For example- act as if you will win this race, act as if you already have the job, etc, when you are entering a stressful situation. So these shop vendors act as if you will be buying their product, as if you will be buying loads of their product, and at ridiculously high prices, and not even noticing that there is a rip in the seam, and the pieces are not all intact. The fruit may be bruised, and how did he manage to weigh the laundry without putting it on the scale? Anyways, I am not complaining. I just told him to put it on the scale! This has happened to me everywhere there are buyers and sellers. Fortunately, every so often there is someone who understands the value of their work, who does not try to rip you off, and shopping becomes a very pleasant exchange of money for an object of worth.
In those other situations however, I have found myself a bit buggered. (I learned a new word from my Australian roomie.) Tensions may run a little high, and I notice that I am mounting a defense between myself and an unfamiliar "other". It's happened when I was traveling alone, and with friends, and even now. It's happened when I'm with all Chinese people, and also when I'm the only American amongst a bunch of westerners of other types. It's even happened when I'm with a bunch of Americans. The issue is not always buying and selling. I've developed the following way to deal with it- it's to notice the defense, then intentionally drop it. I use my words and actions to demonstrate that I do not mean a defense, that I intend to extend my humanity towards understanding the "other". And usually, it works. This, folks, must be what they call civilization! Being civil towards one another during moments of misunderstanding.

Anyways, what helped was the glittering glitz and glamour on the streets of Hong Kong. The familiar hustle and bustle of many people of many cultures walking about under neon lights, dodging cabs, in front of glamorous storefront displays. Tiffany's, Louis Vitton, Giorgio Armani. It reminded me of New York. There was still quite a Chinese presence in Hong Kong, there were still many Chinese stores and Chinese babies, old men on bicycles and storefronts filled with hanging meats and roots and herbs. But this all seemed quite normal to me, and I felt very at home. I could speak English to just about anybody, including bus drivers and servers at restaurants. The best part was staying with a friend of a friend, who became a friend. She had a lot of insight into many areas of life and the world in general that I am interested in, and we talked nonstop for the entire time. One of the best parts of traveling are the people you meet along the way.

I also had a nice time visiting the Capoeira Brasil Hong Kong group. Professor Chumbinho and his students welcomed me- we had a roda in his beautiful new studio in Kowloon.

I could have stayed longer, however, I was due to meet with the Intrepid Travels group on Sunday evening. The hotel was very nice, much nicer than any hotels I had chosen for myself along the way. I was really getting used to roughing it. This hotel, in Hong Kong, had toothbrushes and cups in the bathroom, a TV and disposable slippers. And hence began the trip...

With the change in travel arrangements- that is, I don't make any travel arrangements because they are all taken care of by our fearless leader Sunny- I finally can feel that the trip is coming to an end, there is a light at the end of the tunnel! I have about 5 weeks left of the entire trip! 2 1/2 weeks left of this tour, 1 more week in Beijing, and 13 days in Japan. The only caveat is if I like Japan so much I decide to stay a week or so longer. And provided I find lodging that is affordable... We will see, we will see. I would like to see the Cherry Blossom Festival- it all depends on the weather. And if global warming continues as it has been, I may be able to see it with no change to the itinerary. But since I'm all the way out here already... I'm really looking forward to Japan. But that's a side note.

What makes the mainland so different from Hong Kong? There is a subtle change- maybe not so subtle at the same time- I can't quite put my finger on it. Maybe it's the they look at you when you enter a store, when you walk down the street. You feel slightly off, like you are not doing something quite right, even though you are doing it the same way you always do. Things look normal, but on closer examination, things are quite different. Supermarkets look similar, with rows of items for sale, etc, but once you are in line, people cut to the front of the line, and nobody blinks an eye. Sometimes there are store monitors in place to keep the order, but not always. This happens in bathrooms, on airplanes, anywhere people queue up. Mothers squat their children on the sidewalk to do their business, in broad daylight and in front of passing traffic. People burp, spit, cough, and hack up a lung, right out in front of everyone. Then they stare at YOU! But the staring here is really nothing compared to India. I should feel used to it now, right? But no... Motor scooters motor by with two to three, sometimes four passengers- they could be families, or two businessmen in suits. There was even a guy out working the fields in his suit. Talk about another day at the office. A guy on a bike rode by with a dog strapped to the back. Not a live dog. Yeah so, it's different here...! And that's what traveling is all about!

Yangshuo is still a really fun place to rock climb. I did the same routes I did the first time, and this time got some better pics! And definitely felt stronger. Met a girl who climbs in Beijing, we made plans to meet up and climb in a few weeks.
We did a bike ride around the surrounding countryside today, into some backwoodsy trails and bumpy roads. Very picturesque and a fun workout as well.
We hiked 800 steps up Moon Hill, with some great views. Love to sweat it out and beat everyone else to the top!
Dinner tonight was uninspiring. It can be hard to order food when trying to satisfy several different appetites. Chinese food can really be delicious when you get over the fear factor theme...

The town has several night clubs, and they all blast their music out the front doors, I suppose in advertisement of good times to be had inside. Walking by, you can see black lights and disco balls, illumnating... empty dance floors, save for one or two Chinese dudes with spiky hairdos, bopping their heads. Sometimes they bop their heads outside in front and try to get you to go inside. Each club is so loud that walking down the street is a cacophony. It's usually either Chinese pop or Snoop from a few years back. This town is dead though- a dearth of travelers due to poor economy, I suppose, in combination with winter season here. It doesn't stop foreign tourists from drinking heavily in some bars though- a few members of our group were up 'til 4am last night...

So our crew is made up of some English folk, a couple of Australians, two Swedish girls, Sunny, our tour leader who is Chinese from Harbin (north of Beijing), and me, the sole American representative. So far so good. We all get along, and it's nice not having to do all the planning.

Language- getting easier. It felt impossible to remember at the beginning, but now I find that I actually do know some stuff... I feel that I am getting into the swing of the country, understanding it more. It's a big place, and I felt a little lost at first. I still miss India, but I appreciate being here- being here for so long is forcing me to face the many different facets of China. What a great experience. I am looking forward to going north. Tomorrow we fly to the east coast, to a city called Xiamen in the Fujian province.
Looking forward to writing more, looking forward to Japan, looking forward to LIFE!

Zai jian - Bye bye!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Hong Kong...









Hong Kong has been great!
What a nice place to come to after the trials and tribulations of southern China. Not to say that it had been anything less than a wonderful addition to the large collection of adventures I've been having, but daily travel, a new language barrier, crazy food experiences and bone-chilling cold had wrapped themselves up into a many layered case of culture shock.
Hong Kong- warm weather and sun, delicious food on every corner (actually, it's still quite different here, but I've been accustomed now...) and meeting new friends.
I've been staying here with a friend of a friend, a fellow female-Asian (Shanghainese) capoeirista- she relocated to Hong Kong last year from New York, and will be getting her yoga teacher certification in Thailand next month before moving back to the states. It's been so nice to be here- she has demonstrated what I'm learning is a very Chinese or perhaps just Asian- wonderfully warm and generous hospitality.



I sleep on the futon in the living room which overlooks the ocean, we're on the 23rd floor.
Last night I spent some time with the Capoeira Brasil Hong Kong group, led by Professor Chumbinho of Australia. He lives at the studio with his girlfriend Bale, who incidently, also teaches ballet! I led the warm-up, then Chumbinho took over, then there was a roda. Good times! Everyone was very welcoming.





This morning Jessica made pancakes before we went to Lantau to see the world's largest outdoor seated Buddha. It's 85 feet high.
We met up with Peter, another Chinese-American-now-living-and-working-in-Hong-Kong, and Mona, his friend from New Jersey who is going on a backpacking tour of southeast Asia next week.


We took a swinging cable car up over the mountains to visit this little man-made village- I say man-made because it is not really home to any indigenous minority groups. It was built solely to sell tchokes and trinkets to the hordes of tourists that flood Hong Kong and are looking for some culture amidst all the high-end shopping. Not to mention the outlet stores that hit you right before you get there. There is a monastery there, which is still functioning.



We went on the Wisdom Walk, which winds it's way around a figure eight path under towering wood panels upon which is written the heart sutra. Then we ate fish ball siu mai and sweet tofu soup before going back down in the cable car.
Then we all got massages...
And then we went for sushi...
Ah, this is the life man, now I am ready for bed!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Guiyang, translation: "Precious Sun"

In front of Tanque's apartment


Street scenes in Guiyang






So now I'm chillin' in weather that compares to Nepal, only here it doesn't even get warm during the day, and it drizzles. Hence the name Precious Sun. It gets down below 10C at night, and luckily there are heaters in Tanque's apartment. It's very nice here. I have my own room, and my own heater! I got to wash clothes. (Yes, laundry is KEY sometimes!!! Especially because I sent back the majority of my clothes because I wanted to lighten up my pack. I left my clothes to wash in Xishuangbanna at the hostel, and they just threw everything in the washer, sprinkled some soap on top and turned it on- half the clothes stayed dry, the other half turned pink! I do a much better job with a bucket and some body wash soap!)

So I've been staying inside on the computer all day, hibernating until I go to HK and start my tour. The cold slows down every process and makes me completely content to just sit in one spot, huddled up in all my jackets.

I did get out a little bit though. We met up with some other expats over dinner the other night. They made Mexican food, using tortillas brought fresh from Orange County, USA by another visitor- let me tell you, after weeks of just Chinese food, the different flavors really make a world of difference! And there were brownies for dessert- so good! The flavors in food here in China are really different, for lack of a better word. Starkly different. Shockingly different. My mouth has been numbed like at the dentist by a little berry that shows up quite often in sauces unexpectedly. I have spent minutes at a time chewing on awkwardly textured "meat". I have eaten stomach lining and intestine, tendons and cartilage. I have not eaten chicken feet! The Chinese believe that whatever parts of the animal you eat will be beneficial to those parts of your body. There was a restaurant in a little village in Xishuangbanna... we ordered a meat dish, a fish dish, and a vegetable. The meat was some kind of intestine- I had a couple of pieces but didn't really fill up on it. The fish was all right, I didn't really like the sauce though. The vegetable was really good though, and we ordered more. Anyways, I go to the restroom after eating, and the outhouse is just a little hut built over a pond with a hole in the floor! Yeah, you go right in the water! No smell- amazing. Well anyways, upon closer inspection you may notice all the fish in the water... Uh, the fish?! Yeah, we ordered fish. Anyways...! Oh, and Guiyang is known for it's dog meat dishes. No, I haven't eaten dog. And somehow there are lots of oysters available here at the night food stands- even though we are miles and miles from the nearest ocean!

There is a plethora of delicious baked goods though. Papparoti's is a little storefront chain that just produces fresh hot baked buns with a crusty coffee-flavored crust, filled inside with melted butter. We bought buns that were filled with a beef mixture, with a salty crispy crunchy coating. The supermarket sells lots of baked goods, and I bought a bunch to try- some were better than others...

Los Angeles is amazing for the variety of foods that are available at the most fickle whim. Except for dog...

Here is a picture of the expat crew and the apple pie that we made- quite a feat here in Guiyang!


I went with Tanque to do a demo capoeira class at this break-dance studio...

It was a beautiful studio, with wood floors and floor to ceiling mirrors- there were classes for popping, and locking, breaking and now, maybe, capoeira!!! About 5 people actually participated in the class, the rest were giggling. It was really fun, and the kids loved it.
Of course we went to eat afterwards- Guiyang style hot pot!


I just also wanted to mention the supermarkets here- I don't usually love them in the US, or even in India. But here I can spend hours wandering the aisles, of even the smallest liquor store. The goods are all cleanly aligned on the shelves, sparkling and well-lit. They look familiar, brand names and colors with only a couple letters off. I fantasize about the houses within which they eventually end up. Is this what they call retail therapy? I have found bins of flour, raisins and green tea. Shampoo and face lotion. Buckets of squirming eels and hanging dried animal carcasses. Rows and rows of toothpaste. Apples, oranges, loquats, dragonfruit and asian pears. Nescafe. Toilet paper. Cookies. Slippers, socks and underwear. I just don't understand what bringing the AM back means for China though.






K, I'm going to try to attach some photos to this blog now. Peace.
It's nice to just rest a bit without traveling frenetically every single day!


Addendum:
This is the coffeeshop run by Susu- the modest rock climber...
She took us to the little tiny rock climbing studio, recently built, with funds pooled by this little rock climbing crew, in a room barely bigger than my bedroom at home. It's geared for bouldering- tough bouldering- all walls were vertically inclined or less!

Notice my hiking boots- they weren't equipped with rentals, so I borrowed some shoes for a minute, but they were really too small.

All those little particles in the air are the reflection of the flash off the chalk particles...