A Travellerspoint blog

In Berlin at Last

A long journey comes to an end.

-17 °C

Riding the U-Bahn in Berlin, a feeling of warm familiarity overcame me. I had arrived, not only to my destination on this three-month journey across Eurasia, but to a nation that has been my second home before and now will be again.

I marveled at being able to understand, once again, the voices and signs around me (I speak a bit of German), and at the German habit of instantly breaking into English when they see me struggling. They graciously see an English speaker as an opportunity to practice a language they recognize as the most prominent international tongue. They are not shy about it, as are the few Chinese who speak English. And they are not insulted by its use, as the proud and provincial Hungarians.

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It's been several months now, and there's really no good excuse for having left our blog readers in a total lurch as to our whereabouts. I think most readers have figured out we're still alive and not in some Central Asian jail cell. Actually, we've been quite enjoying a life of long weekend hikes, strolls around the ever-so-quaint pedestrian street scape in our new home of Bonn, and sampling the best Germany has to offer in meats, breads, and vegetables. Somehow, we got here and got busy setting up our life, and the more time that passed, the more embarrassing it got to finish the final post summarizing our trip.

Many apologies. Here goes.

Off the plane in Kiev, we wandered around the well-preserved baroque city avoiding any serious effort to visit tourist sites as we waited for Ben to arrive and inject new energy into the group.

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When he did, we took several trains to eastern Hungary where we sampled musky, sweet wines in the famed Tokay region. Then I spent the remainder of my days in the Spis region of central Slovakia, an area where ugly, Soviet style housing blocks clash with wonderful medieval towns and some bucolic and forested landscapes before taking an overnight train to Berlin.

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In Berlin I was reminded of how much the life around me had changed since Day One of the trip in Beijing and I thought about the transition points. Chopsticks, to chopsticks and spoons in Western China, to knives and forks from Kiev westward. Women covered in long robes and head scarves in Kashgar, to female frontal nudity on an advertisement for laser skin surgery on the Berlin metro. Tea, to instant coffee in Eastern Europe, to a pot of fresh brew in Germany. No dairy or bread, to Tibetan simple, sour yak milk cheeses and soda bread, to bagels in Western China, to mare and camel milk in Kazakhstan, and on to what has to be the most sophisticated and developed bread and cheese cultures in the world in Western Europe. China's disgust of body hair, to German women in summer tank tops exposing bushes from their armpits. Mobs at ticket windows in China, to a cashier's admonishment I received at a lunch counter in Slovakia when I tried to cut in front to quickly buy a chocolate bar.

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Germany and China do not actually occupy different continents, despite what geography teaches. But they are, metaphorically speaking, an ocean apart in culture and language. As we found out, the stark differences between the peoples on both ends of the Eurasia continent develop incrementally over the distance as one culture blends into the next.

Central Asia serves as the most significant connection point, a veritable blend of peoples who have long been exchanging cultural practices and ideas along ancient trade routes and more recently by way of Soviet hegemony. East and West meet in the cosmopolitan city of Almaty, a miniature Europe built on the Central Asian steppes, and in the bustling Kashgar market in Western China, one of the largest and most central centers of trade in the world.

It was almost easy to miss some of the differences as we traveled these many months, so incrementally were they sometimes introduced.

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A focus on differences misses the continuity we found across our journey. "The World is Smaller than You Think," a subplot of our trip, does, in fact, bear true. The Buddhist temples in China, where the devoted come to pray and leave fruit and flower offerings, are not, fundamentally, different from the Orthodox churches we saw in Kiev where the pious lit candles and dropped change in money bins.

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The forces of globalization and modernization have brought many of the same products across the globe, from Magnum ice cream bars to a near universal love of television. In terms of human nature, we found kind-hearted people everywhere who graciously offered us help with nothing expected in return. We also came across liars and cheats who sought to take advantage of the ignorance of outsiders. Everywhere, in varying degrees, we found both unwelcoming stares and genuine curiosity.

We would like to invite you to our new blog, "The Pragmatic Epicurean." Once again, you can subscribe using your email (see the link on the right hand side of the page) or via an rss feed (very top on the right). The blog will chronicle our adventures in food and travel, starting, of course, with our year in Germany. Our first post "Bonn Voyage" is already there (and we promise to be punctual).

Additional photos of the Beijing to Berlin trip are up on our flickr account.

Posted by ahawkes 13:34 Archived in Germany Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

On the Run

With trains booked solid and buses too time-consuming, we're flying the friendly skies to the Ukraine.

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We cheated. No other way to say it.

Traveling overland across Eurasia in the height of summer travel season is not possible without weeks to spare.

For several days we worked to book tain tickets to Russia, but all were sold out for the foreseable future. The bus? Possible if we were to travel days on end with no stops.

Given the choice of possibly not meeting our fourth traveler, Ben, or cheating, we chose the latter.

Early tomorrow morning we have a flight to Kiev, Ukraine. We will miss spending time in Kazakhstan's small towns, but skipping a second border crossing into Russia is a bit of a relief (though at the least would make a good story).

We've learned that travel is never a sure thing in this part of the world, and an ability to wait or pick up and go in an instant is essential.

Planning ahead, however, is not always possible, particularly if you are not in the country and aren't familiar with its systems.
It's funny because after two months in China we had learned its transportation system well. How to book trains, when to book trains, how long a trip would take, the different seating classes. Same with the buses. Need to get somewhere in China? No problem.

But cross an international border and all of a sudden we faced once again the unfamiliar, which takes time and effort to figure out.

Traveling on your own without a tour group means that a good part of your time is spent figuring out logistics: exchanging money, how to use the Internet, where to sleep and eat, fundamental phrases for communication, and more.

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Almaty is a slice of Europe in the Central Asian steppes.

Despite its trials, we rather enjoy diving into adaptation mode and learning to swim again, since we come to know some of the basic details of life and how it compares to other places.

We also run into more everyday characters, like the heavy-set woman at the train station this morning who runs the set of luggage lockers. Subtlety was not her forte. She screamed at us from across the room as we were loading a couple lockers with our bags, well aware we don't speak Russian. She was the sort we've seen elsewhere in Almaty. Our hotel floor attendant, for example, ran her space like a gulag. She alone had the key to the single shower on the floor and our level of cleanliness was determined by her decision to show up at night.

We call these sorts, "Graduates of the Soviet School of Service."

Creature Comforts
When you're traveling for months on end, you start to revel in creature comforts. Hotel rooms, the one space in the world at that moment where you can shut yourself away, become "home" and little things like shower soap and fresh towels are items of excitement.

An outdoor cafe and a glass of beer on a warm afternoon is the height of pleasure.

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A woman sells fermented horse and camel milk at the Almaty farmer's market.

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A woman sells honey at the Almaty farmer's market.

In Almaty, we discovered the baths.

Perhaps because of our restricted and unpredictable shower allowances, we were drawn to the city's bathhouse where for two hours we could lounge around naked (men and women seperated) in saunas and plunge pools or get beaten with myrtle leaves by a masseuse.

We came out of there yesterday with all the tension removed from our logistical days of hell. Knocking back a bottle of vodka finished the trick. As a matter of fact, we're headed there again before our 3 a.m. flight.

The Miracle Product

Speaking of vodka, we've come to see it as the Dr. Bronner's of Russia after the "miracle" natural soap that's touted for its many uses. Vodka here is one of the cheapest items on store shelves, cheaper even than bottled water.

So we discovered that besides a drink when needed, it can double as a cleaning agent, a disinfectant for fruits and vegetables, a gift, a mouthwash, a hand sanitizer, a degreaser, and more possibilities we are discovering every day.

As a matter of fact, we've taken to carrying around a bottle in our day pack.

Posted by ahawkes 15:58 Archived in Kazakhstan Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

The Order of Chaos

Two days in lines and we are finally "registered" to visit Kazkahstan.

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Our first two days in Kazakhstan were not spent drinking in the snow-capped peaks of the Altay Mountains, or imbibing liesurely in one of Almaty's shady sidewalk bars.

No, we were in for a real shocker entering this ex-Soviet republic, though come to think of it, we should have expected trouble.

Lines filled our days. Lines requiring us to get through the border, lines requiring us to register our passports at some ministry office, and to purchase train tickets. Even a 45-minute line to buy three doner kebabs at a "fast food" stand.

These were not some pansy single-file lines, either, where your placement is so assured that you could kick back and read a book. No, these lines were filled with expert line manipulators in places where nameless bureaucrats could care less what happens on the other side of the counter so long as the proper form is before them, or perferably money.

Perhaps the most startling example was the Khorgos border crossing from China. It took about a week to place ourselves in the right position, only to find that one of Central Asia's busiest border points closed on Sunday. No matter, we woke early Monday morning and walked to the border post 90 minutes ahead of opening time. We thought we were golden.

Military staff roamed about yawing, and staff arrived still in their street clothes as the clocked ticked past opening hour into 45 minutes later.

We started to sweat, thinking that at this pace, we might not get through in time for their two-hour lunch break. The growing crowd was getting restless, and our standing spots were quickly being usurped by late interlopers who were climbing over metal railings to plop themselves in front.

It was, quite literally, a stampede when the Chinese guards finally swung open the gate. Men and women of all ages and sizes threw the full weight of their bodies and bags forward and began running, in high heels and dress shoes, towards the next building. Meanwhile, the cargo trucks, which had lined up days in advance to procure their spots, began driving through a seperate gate and turning into the scrambling crowd.

I'm ashamed to admit that I ran too. But we were at the front of the first set of passport checks and sailed through the Kazakh side, too.

Our trials were not over, however. Apparently official stamps on a visa at the border are not enough to give a traveler legitimate status in Kazakhstan. We had to register yesterday at the "Office of Visas and Registration" in Alamaty, which involved more shapeless line battles. Think you're at the front and there's always someone who finds a way to squirrel around you, using the window ledging for leverage or ducking under you to appear in front. There's no shame involved.

A tactic we picked up in China has been particularly effective. We call it the "blockade," and it involves us forming a human barrier at ticket windows to shut out any cheats.

Of course, that definately doesn't mean that once you reach the window troubles are over. We found ourselves face to face yesterday with a pompous official who wouldn't take "tourism" as the simple answer to why we were in Kazakhstan.

"Why did you come here?" he demanded.

I thought but didn't say, "Because we want see home country of Borat, Great and Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan."

He then told us that Kazakhs know more about American history than Americans do, and directed us to another line to pay an $8 registration fee. It took another hour to finally reach him again, and he then asked for further copies of the registration forms and passports.

"Is there anything else you will be needing?" Jacob said diplomatically.

We had to go back again early evening to wait in line again for our freshly officialized passports, which the office was holding despite the fact that a traveler can't even book a hotel room without it.

We wonder what kind of hell we're into entering the Russian "Motherland" in a week.

Retirees

It's a hard fall when your standard of living drops. China was so good to us, in terms of our purchasing power. But lately we've felt like a bunch of retirees on shortened pensions.

Hotel prices exceed those of Western Europe while the quality has dropped well below Super 8. Our first night in Almaty -- Kazakhstan's former capitol before its meglomaniac president moved it to a nowhere outpost on the northwestern steppes -- was downright depressing.

At $65 for 12 hours rest, we got a room with two small twin beds, a lock that didn't work, no sink, and dried blood on the floor. Now we're in a $40 rat hole that charges an extra $1 for a lone shower on a crowded hallway.

I have no idea what's going on with the hotel prices here, except that there seems to be a mysterious shortage and nothing has been upgraded since the start of the Cold War.

City of Parks

All this is to say, we don't really hate Kazakhstan. In fact, Almaty is one of the most pleasant cities we have visited (once the hotel situation is sorted out).

It's so thick with foilage and parks that it's easy to miss the circle of snowy mountains surrounding the town of 3 million.

Out of registration offices, we have enjoyed the change from China to what is, in culture, a very Russified place.

The people seem a peaceful mix of Central Asian and very Western-looking types. Tall, muscular Russian men, with blond hair and blue eyes, stroll the streets with dark, heavy-set babushkas of Central Asian origin.

And for once, we feel a sense of space and openness, which comes from a country declining in numbers and not exploding at the seams, like China.

We have not quite arrived in Europe, but we are getting there.

Posted by ahawkes 19:07 Archived in Kazakhstan Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Wild West

In China's far West, the local Muslim community tries to stay cool from harsh desert rays in mid-summer.

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What's best to do on a mid-summer day on the edge of a desert so named in the local tongue, "Go in but don't come out"?

The town of Kashgar -- the last outpost on China's rail line near the bleak, waterless Taklimakan Desert -- shirks the heat with a bowl of shaved ice mixed with yoghurt.

Swirling their bowls to a heavy ethno-pop beat, women and men face the ice shaver in theater-style seating as if their happiness depends on his continued performance.

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But the hot, dry air does not deter Kashgarians from living out the creed of Islam. Women wrap their heads in scarves, some draping heavy brown knit cloth over their faces. Men top their heads with kofis or even winter fur hats.

We've arrived in far Western China, a Muslim-dominated area bordering Central Asia's 'Stans. The Chinese make a reasonable attempt at weilding a presence here, insisting, for example, that the area give up its local time zone and follow the two-hour later Beijing time. But locals mostly work to their own time and tune, connected to their Western neighbors in nearly every way but statehood.

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"You go in but you don't come out" is the local meaning of the Taklimakan Desert, in China's far West.

A seperatist movement in the area has been largely quashed as China, in post 9/11 fashion, seeks to designate the group as "terrorists."

Though China has put out a call for its eastern citizens to populate the West, those who do walk the streets of Kashgar are of the visor and camera-toting sort and stand out as foreigners as much as we do.

Faces here morph from Chinese to Turkic, Mongol and even Slavic, while the signs have three predominant scripts, none of which we can properly read: Chinese, Arabic, and Cyrillic.

"We're in trouble now," said Jacob as we arrived into Urumqi, the region's capitol last weekend.

The Uigher, the main Muslim ethnic group populating the area, have a love for the grill. Our two-thirds vegetable diet, easy to maintain in eastern China, was instantly displaced by lamb galore. We've had it on skewers, in pilaf, and wrapped in bread pockets called samsa's.

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Children cool off in a fountain on Kashgar's main square.

We were surprised to see piles of bagels sold on the street. If only we had some of that Tibetan sour yak cheese ...

The main reason for landing in Kashgar was to visit the Sunday market, where half of Central Asia, it seems, descends to shop. As one of the major Silk Road stops, Kashgar is used to the attention, designating a whole stretch of the city to weekend market vending.

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A donkey parking lot in back of the vendors at the busy Kashgar market.

Walking there early Sunday, we crossed a bridge where chopped donkey was being sold straight from the sidewalk with the head, hair-intact, as a piece on its own. But most of what was visible, at least to us, was pretty quotidian: vegetables and melons, cooking ware, lots of clothing and fabric, and street food.

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Grilled sheep heads are a Kashgar market specialty.

Of course, people watching and not shopping was our main sport (though Tony and Jacob outfit themselves as men with new knives).

Gaggles of women, hip-heavy and toting children, wandered around in sparkly bright dresses, particularly attracted to the fabric section where the patterns were decidedly 20-years old or more. Some of them colored in the space bewteen their eyebrows, creating a unibrow effect.

The men, about half the poundage of their wives, looked rather 19th Century in ill-fitted suits and fedora hats.

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Men gather around a melon seller. Melons were, perhaps, the most sold item at the Kashgar market.

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A boy stands guard over his chicks at the Kashgar market.

By its sheer size and activity, the Kashgar market was worth the trip. This evening we're off to Yining, a small town on the Kazakhstan border, where we plan to sleep like the nomads we are, but in yurts. Then, onto Kazakhstan.

Posted by ahawkes 20:15 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (8)

Censorship in the Age of Wan-ba's

Internet cafes abound, but news is on a "need to know" basis.

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I was curious to read the other day in an American news story that China is licensing no new Internet cafes, "amid official concern that online material is harming young people."

Judging by what I've seen in many a Chinese wan-ba, I can't imagine anything worse than dazed eyes, limpid limbs, and perhaps a latent desire to fence one's comrades in real life.

The cavernous wan-ba's are jammed with row after row of blank-faced young men fighting dragons and other mystical creatures while the young women webcam with love interests. The keyboards are often sprinkled with cigarette ash from the last user.

Wan-ba's are already proliferous and cheap, something like 10-cents for a half-hour use, making them affordable to most anyone here so long as they can read, read pinyin, and operate computer technology.

But with the Chinese government already blocking many online news and information sites like the BBC and, up until recently Wikipedia, it takes a bit of skill to get through to anything potentially "dangerous."

You'd also be stupid to try anything funny. You have to register to get into a particular computer, often giving your identification card or passport.

Links to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests repeatedly brings up "problem loading page" messages, though curiously, references to it as a tourist site clear quite fine. Tony's been having trouble getting onto some physics sites. Oddly enough, www.phdcomics, a geeky site featuring the lifestyle of geeky stick-figure graduate students, is also blocked. Wonder who's threatened there.

Chinese censorship seems particularly acute in the news. We've had occasion to watch CCTV9, the English language news channel. It seems the best way to create societal apathy is to bore viewers stiff with inconsequentials on segments about trade or cultural expos or footage of international meetings where officials blab at microphones.

CCTV9 covered one such trade meeting with the U.S. using footage of American government officials waxing thick about China. The New York Times the next day reported that the trade talks were a disaster.

In China, the press release is the news story.

The extent to which the government is forced to address an issue, such as a major algae outbreak in some lakes that recently shut down drinking water, the news is always presented in a proactive "here's-how-we're- going-to-fix-it" attitude.

Sometimes it seems less is better. "Flooding in Western China," a story of legitimate interest to any traveler, failed to mention where, exactly, the floods were. After some further research, we discovered it was in eastern Sichuan, though perhaps elsewhere too. A bridge collapse in Guangdong province was easily explained the same day as the sole fault of a passing boat, apparently no investigation necessary.

Then there's the story about a slave operation in central China where hundreds of people were stuck working in brick kilns without pay or ability to escape. My first question was, which local party officials were part of this racket? The new story in the China Daily the next day pointed out that several officials were part of the 168 arrested. No names, no accountability.

My favorite example, however, is the recent food poisoning scares. The only news I've read about anti-freeze in toothpaste and cough syrup for export, and babies dying with enlarged heads because of tainted formula is in Western sources.

The Chinese news sources report, without context, that the government, too, has found problems with Western imports: ants in some pistachio nuts.

I can't help but wonder why the Chinese people put up with such shoddy information and government heavy-handedness, even when their lives could be at risk. Information about the SARS outbreak, after all, was first distributed by text messaging, not by the government.

But judging by the screens at Internet cafes and the wispy-thin major newspapers, I'd say the Chinese people seem conditioned to tune out the news. Thirty years after this county swallowed the bitter pill of the Cultural Revolution, it accepted de-politicization as a way to move on.

Besides, who'd want to sit through segment after segment of Chinese expo news. A good game of mahjong is certainly more interesting, and group tai chi in a nearby park more invigorating.

Posted by ahawkes.

Here are some of our recent photos, which did not make it onto the last blog because of upload limits.

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Our pot of chicken stew comes to life.

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Yaks walk down the center of the street at a town in western Sichuan.

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The Tibetan men of Litang, a town in far western Sichuan, are a tough bunch with a love for cowboy hats and motorcycle riding.

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Western Sichuan and Yunnan are the supposed home of the first flowering plants. Many natives are garden varieties in the West.

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Tony turns down this man's generous offer to pick his ears on the street.

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A streetside noodle fryer in Xi'an demonstrates "breath of the wok."

Posted by ahawkes 07:48 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Little Tibet

A hardscrabble life in the Himalayan foothills is touched by the stunning scenery and colorful people.

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Wandering around the Zhongdian bus station one early morning we saw a well-adapted, if not modern Tibetan monk.

He was wearing traditional red robes overlaid with a bright yellow Columbia outdoor jacket and a cowboy hat.

Lama-boy? Or was he a Cow-ma?

His attire spoke to the spirit of eastern Tibet, the area of western Yunnan and Sichuan that's not officially part of China's most mountainous provence, but is in spirit and culture.

It's a hardscrabble life in the Himalaya foothills, where summer temperatures dip below 50-degrees and the altitude is higher than America's Sierras.

The Tibetans out there have a tough edge with their long hair and beards, practical garb and mannerisms, and free-spirited attitude. I know who I'd place my bets on in a wrestling match with a Han Chinese.

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Yaks drag wooden beams, that will be used for construction, up a hillside in Zhongdian pastureland.

In one town, Litang, the town scene was motorcycling. Men with their babe Tibetan women riding the back raced up and down Main Street with colorful mud guards covering their back wheels.

Other characters roamed Litang: ruffian children with snot dripping from their noses, monks begging at restaurant tables, old women turning prayer wheels, and businessmen turning a profit selling dead caterpillars for eating.

The Tibetan frontier towns are mostly a collection of low-slung shops selling needed wares, while hamlets nestled in valleys or alongside cliffs eek out a living off yak herds and wheat.

The food is basic. Soda bread, yak meat, sour-tasting cheese, and to drink, salty yak-butter tea. We drank it happily in a shack in yak pastureland where, on a hike one day, our Tibetan guide had taken us to eat and meet his family.

For the record, though, yak-butter tastes a lot better when spiked with hard-grain alcohol.

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We had trouble keeping the pace set by our chain-smoking Tibetan guide on a hike through Zhongdain pastureland.

We also encountered for the first time in China an awareness of the environment amoung certain people, though suspect that much of the American outdoor gear is worn out of necessity and comfort, when affordable.

Anyone familiar with lefty communities in America would feel at home here, too. Patterns and symbols on tablecloths, wall hangings, and doors are vintage Berkeley cafe, while the prevalence of wood is reminiscent of an aging hippy's backwoods cabin.

The Tibetans might not know it, but they have a bond with the American left in style and spirit. If you can imagine, think hippy-Texan.

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Old Tibetan women picnic on a hillside underneath a tangle of prayer flags.

We traveled the backroads in rickety buses for days, bumping along dirt roads over mountain passes that exceeded 15,000-feet (the highest mountain in the continental U.S. is Mt. Whitney at 14,000-feet).

It takes two full days to travel 100-miles. The views were spectacular with knife-sharp peaks covered in snow, hillsides dotted with yaks, and boxy Tibetan homes with roof shingles held down by rocks.

As the scenery changed, so did the housing construction and design. First wood, then plaster walls, then rocks. Each kind had a different highly-stylized window.

Sitting for days on end, I thought I would get bedsores and I was aching to walk the landscape. It was then I pronounced that I would bike those "foothills" one day, before gasping for air at the combined impact of high altitude and cigarette smoke clouding the bus. Guess something was going to my head.

The Village Connivers

If our heads were in the clouds from Tibet-philia, here was a grounding moment.

Mid-afternoon one day we reached Xiangcheng, a small town halfway between nowhere and nowhere.

The most ambitous people in town had banded together in a scam to strip Western tourists of their cash and travel plans. It involved the bus ticket office clerk, the nearby gold-toothed guest house operator, and possibly a taxi driver in a white minibus.

The ticket office clerk refused to sell us bus tickets to the next town, or even to say exactly when the bus departed. Meanwhile, the guest house operator was haggling us to take a room. And the taxi driver kept coming around offering to drive us to the next town for $60, no negotiating.

The confusion went round and round for an entire evening and into the next morning, when after being refused bus tickets yet again we finally took the taxi driver up on his offer with three fellow Westerners.

It was sobering to realize that the only way between nowhere, and the nowhere further down the road were paper tickets in the hands of village connivers.

The Spirit of China

The spirit of China is beginning to seep in me in subtle ways.

I noticed this the other day when it suddenly dawned on me how much it made sense to get rice at the end of a meal. I had been confused and somewhat annoyed by this practice for some time, and attributed it to China's perpetually bad service culture.

But here's the deal. When eating out, you want to consume the good stuff first and top off with rice. Rice is the tummy-filler in China, not a palate accompanyment.

Also, I now prefer the squat toilets, especially in public places. I will never, ever warm to the stench, or the abhorrent plumbing systems here, or doing my business in front of others, as is common at pit toilets in the countryside.

But I see now that squatting has its advantages in dirty, public places. "Western" toilets be gone!

Here's the kicker. Today at lunch, I spat my chicken bones on the table. Just like that. There was no personal plate, as we eat out of the same bowls in the middle of the table.

So I did what the Chinese do, no second thoughts about it. I dropped my head, and dropped my bones.

Posted by ahawkes 17:07 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Rapid Transit

By rail and road, China's trains and buses are long journeys to somewhere.

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I woke up the other morning in a half-dreamy state and turned my head towards the train window to see what I'd behold.

The countryside was lush and tropical, broken up by steeply terraced farm fields running up the edges of hills. In valleys peasants plowed using water buffalo. The scenery was visible only as glimpses through heavy mists. As the train barreled insistently into mountain tunnels, I would close my eyes momentarily and let sleep begin to overwhelm me again before I would reawaken at the other end.

This was Yunnan, China's farthest Southwest provence, a place known for its tremendous human, biological and geographical diversity. I didn't want to miss a second of it.

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Yunnan, so remote that the long ago Chinese dynasties barely maintained control, feels more connected, in some ways, to Southeast Asia and Tibet.

Bordering Tibet, Burma, Laos, and Vietnam, the region has tropical rainforests, extinct volcanoes, an active fault line (there was a 7.0 earthquake two days before we arrived), and high altitude plateaus rising to the Himalayas.

Many common Western garden plants are native to this area, including camilla, rhododendron, azaleas, vibernum, hibiscus, and others.

We decided to take a bit of time to explore the Western half of the province after a few days in the capital of Kunming, a modern, relaxed city at an altitude of 6,000-feet (higher than Denver) with few tourist sites (super!) and consistently excellent cuisine.

We would discover the city hours later when we arrived. But we enjoyed the journey from Guilin every bit as much.

Trains are the common way for common folk to get around China, since roads are often impassible because of traffic and connections between towns are poor.

Tickets are nearly impossible to get at last minute, though the train stations are full of people sleeping amidst their bags in the hopes they might be able to procure a spot.

Gaining entry, however, is worth the wait and trouble. Long-distance sleeper trains are clean, safe, and if not always speedy at 16-plus hours, reliably on time. Far better, in fact, than Amtrak.

Passengers line up well ahead of boarding time and when the gate opens surge forward, nearly climbing on top of one another in the typical Chinese fashion to get ahead. The rush perplexed me at first, since everyone has assigned bunks, but I later realized the value of obtaining space on the overhead luggage racks.

Once comfortably situated, passengers settle down in their cabins, usually using the bottom bunks as communal sitting areas. The bottom bunk is the most prized spot on trains, the first to sell out and the most expensive because of convenience and access to a small table.

But we found we like the middle and upper bunks, which are more private even as they require a bit of scrambling up narrow ladders.

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The middle bunk is situated for perfect bedside window gazing, and it is there that I've spent many an hour watching the countryside roll on by.

With full days spent on foot exporing new towns, the trains are a chance for us to relax and interact with the Chinese who sometimes need to be around us a bit before they are comfortable enough to attempt conversation. The young men seem particularly interested in us and most able to communicate a bit in English.

The trains serve full meals, but most Chinese delve into personal stashes of raman noodles. A constant supply of hot water provides for soup and tea.

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To while away the hours, people play cards, chat, doze, and stare out the window. But sometimes they are ready for anything. As I went to get beer from food car one early evening, Jacob pulled out his portable Chinese chess board to ready our game. I came back and my seat had been taken by a man who couldn't resist the temptation to play.

After beating Jacob, he was followed by a 9-year-old boy, who eagerly pressed forward with quick moves. Jacob was nearly beaten again except for the boy's few fatal errors. He was anxious to try again, and we realized he'd probably be happily at it all night. We had to kick him out so I would get a chance to play the next game.

On one ride, the indifferent stares of the older women in the next cabin changed to smiles when I pulled out my little sewing kit and began replacing the broken buttons on Tony's shirt. Needle and thread in hand, this independent Western woman had transformed, in their eyes, into a properly trained wife.

There are a few downsides. The toilets are indescribably disgusting and, to boot, get locked up for long periods of time when the train is stopped. The trains could travel a lot faster if not for unexpected stopping, sometimes not even at stations, for 30 minutes or longer. When that happens, the air conditioning shuts off, the cars heat up and the top bunk becomes a sweat lodge.

There's also little ability to plan one's own sleeping schedule. The lights go out at 9:30 p.m. and flick on at 6:30 a.m., along with music and the screech of the food cart vendors.

But we consider these rather small imperfections, easily offset by glimpses we get of Chinese life both inside and outside the train.

On the road

We've taken the bus, too. Let's just say the road to Shangri-la risks life and limb.

I was mesmerized, unable to take my eyes off the bus driver who adroitly maneuvers past slower vehicles on twisty mountain roads by using the oncoming lane with seconds to spare.

It's like watching a video game only the thrill is heightened by the fact that my life is on the line. Will the driver, unlit cigarette in mouth, be able to beat the odds, passing three vehicles around a blind corner and come out the other side unscathed?

How will he manage to zip past a herd of goats, a swarm of schoolkids on bicycles, clouds of burning trash, and a pile of hay raked purposefully into the middle of the road by peasants hoping to use the passing vehicles for crushing power?

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This was the ride we faced on a seven-hour bus trip along the old Tibet highway to Zhongdian, a town in Northwest Yunnan that's remaking itself as the supposed site of Shangri-la.

Nevermind that Shangri-la is a fictional place from James Hilton's Lost Horizon. So much for everlasting life. The old people seem to be getting older this town and there's plenty of ugliness to the modern buildings near the bus station.

I'm reminded of the Third World's olfactory trifecta: human/animal waste, burning trash, and vehicle exhaust.

We'll be spending a few days in this Tibet town, drinking yak butter tea, and then are headed north into Western Sichuan for more of the frontier life.

Posted by ahawkes 18:37 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Travel Karma

Finding serenity at world treasure sites amongst the crowds and loudspeakers.

overcast 29 °C

I've already mentioned the Chinese propensity to nickel and dime a visitor at every possible tourist site. But the practice reached new lows in and around Guilin, the major departure point for visitors to view one of China's most revered tourist desitnations: the oddly pointy limestone mountains, called karsts, along the Li River.

In the center of town, the city has taken steps to obstruct the view of one such formation called Elephant Hill so that interested viewers instead pay a $7 entrance fee. All for the priviledge of walking past the obscuring vegetation to a lower walkway, and then being harassed by souvenir vendors. No thanks.

Later we shelled out $32 per ticket for a four-hour boat ride down the Li River, jam packed with Chinese tourists competing for viewing and photography angles while a loudspeaker blasted nonstop commentary, ads, and music. The morning started with us being delivered to a kind of holding pen for 45-minutes, where we stood amidst a room full of souvenir sellers.

It ended in Yangshou, probably once a peaceful small town nestled amongst the karst and now a backpackers "paradise" with more Internet bars, tourist kitsch stands and travel agencies than seems possible.

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Ah, this is modern day tourism. Amidst the eye-popping beauty and wonder of these magical places a whole Disneyworld like experience has been constructed to squeeze out every last yuan from one's pockets.

Hardly ever does a traveler truely get away from the crowds; hardly ever does she feel a sense of discovery or serenity. In China, there is always some soundtrack playing. Even climbing a mountain path in Putuoshan, hidden speakers play traditional Chinese music.

The mythical world treasures that I've fantasized about seeing since childhood are actually more a mixed bag of awe and annoyances. Fighting the crowds for a good view, patiently ignorning dogged touts, shelling out money constantly: these are the realities of the modern travel experience.

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I ran into a similar situation years ago in Kenya, where a safari tour involved vans racing across the Sarengeti in a competition to see the animals before they were scared off.

We ran into a couple of grimy young backpackers off the night train in Taishan, Americans from Florida, who were heading later to Chengdu in the hopes of holding baby pandas. Apparently they had seen some photo of it being done by a tourist.

Tony later remarked, "You see, any idiot nowadays can get on a plane and arrive almost anywhere in the world."

The affects of tourism are most disturbing when it comes to interacting with locals. The relationships are often reduced to buying and selling, even as there are so many opportunities for greater cross-cultural understanding. For sure, a greater mastery of the local language would surely help. Jacob, for example, has many more non-commercial encounters with the Chinese than Tony and I do. Yesterday in Yangshou, for example, he found a quiet set of steps and ate a pomelo as a number of locals chatted with him. That has not happened to me.

We have had a number of genuine encounters -- the woman in the Beijing hutong who served us a dumpling lunch, the nuns in the Putuoshan temple who gave us apples. For those we are grateful.
But I am longing to be in a place long enough where relationships can develop naturally.

Sometimes this gets started merely by showing up to the same place multiple times for dinner.

We saw that scenario happening in Qingdao where we visited the same outdoor meat griller twice for dinner. The second time he gave us a beaming smile and emptied someone else's remainders from a beer pitcher into our glasses. He appreciated the fact that we had liked his food and came back.

It's also happened on 16-hour train rides when we've been practically breathing down the necks of our fellow passengers day and night.
In a way, it's remarkable how easy and natural relationships with other people form when given the chance to blossom.

The good and bad of traveling have raised some questions in me.

How do I appreciate the major tourist sites, which are indeed some of the most remarkable places on Earth, for what they are and not just for what they have become?

How do I minimize my own negative impact as a tourist while enhancing the value that I might bring?

And how do I get the most out of the pedestrian, daily observances and encounters with Chinese society?

As we were leaving Yangshou by bus to return to Guilin, the driver insisted we pay 14 yuan even as we countered that we'd been told the ticket price was supposedly 10. We acquiesced but later noticed all the locals indeed paying 10 yuan.

It was probably good that I didn't speak Chinese then. Or should I consider it an extra "tax" of being a tourist?

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Posted by ahawkes 22:34 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Horse Pudding

Eating dim sum in Guangzhou is delightful ... and confusing.

sunny 35 °C

It was 8:30 in the morning when Tony sat straight up in bed and proclaimed, "Is it too late for breakfast?"

We'd been planning our trip to Guangzhou pretty seriously. Or as seriously as one can get when the major decisions of a travel day are the "When are we going to eat lunch?" variety.

We'd come to Guangzhou for two days with one major purpose: to eat. Specifically, to eat dim sum, the eclectic smorgesbord of individually-ordered small dishes that is popular to China's southern coast.

Guangzhou is also our furthest point from our end destination -- Berlin. From here we start heading west, then north around the Himalayas and west again into Kazakhstan.

Guangzhou, known in English as "Canton," is a densely-populated and industrialized port city just inland from Hong Kong. The site of numerous Western trade ventures and the Opium Wars in the mid 19th Century, Guangzhou is now where Westerners come to adopt Chinese babies.

We stumbled upon the baby market at Shamian Island, the same spot where Western powers formerly set up shop and what is now a pleasant park boulevard of clustered shabby colonial buildings.

At the White Swan Hotel, newly created families sit sipping cocktails. Past a line of baby clothing stores, a Thai restaurant offers baby food on the menu served with baby spoons to boot.

The rest of downtown makes for relaxed wandering with a number of peaceful parks and busy local shops, even with temperatures in the sweltering 90's. One nice touch are the banyan trees, which canopy a number of the streets. Spindly roots hang from the branches and grow glued to the tree trunk like varicose veins.

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Inspired by Tony's call for breakfast, we bounded out of bed Saturday morning to make it to prime dim sum hour at a cavernous joint with great views of the Pearl River.

The restaurant had three floors dedicated to artful eating. We chose Floor 5, where a full elevator of the hungry spilled out.

Once there, we stared blank-faced at a single sheet paper menu with more than 100 dishes whose names were written in Chinese characters.

Now we've had this problem before. Many restaurants have English translations (though we suspect that the menus are often not equivalent to the Chinese as they are catered to Western tastes -- whatever they think that is). But many other menus are in Chinese only, which has led to numerous point and eat sessions, a risky endeavor that has brought both pleasant and unpleasant suprises (like the time we ended up with a bowl of chicken feet soup).

This menu was particularly troubling.

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Jacob, using his palm pilot with its Chinese-English dictionary, began stumbling over some translations, including a category he read labeled "Very Bad Dim Sum."

The next step was to turn to the chain-smoker beside him, who offered us his stewed pork dish and, once cajoled, eventually pointed us to some truly wonderful shrimp dumplings and egg rolls.

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Alas, he left and we were on own again. How about some "Time-honored horse pulled pudding," Jacob translated. Or is it "Time-honored horse seduced pudding?" Or "horse rip-off pudding?"

Between all the metaphors inherent in the Chinese language and all the homonyms, you never know what you're going to eat.

The "horse pudding" ended up being a spongy cake, which we greatly enjoyed and in the words of Jacob "hardly tastes like horse at all."

"It's a nice cake," he continued. "It needs a little more horse, though."

Posted by ahawkes 16:42 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Buddhist Beach

A vacation with friendly monks.

sunny 23 °C

Nearly a month on the road and we have been growing pooped.

Tony has been sick how many times? I've had my own health issues (not to be discussed here). We've been road-weary, longing for a couch and a movie, or perhaps a panini sandwich at an outdoor cafe. At the very least, a place to stay put where we could empty our backpacks into dresser drawers and live like civilized people.

As Jacob said one fine day, "Sometimes you wake up and you don't feel like China."

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Fish dried on an outdoor sidewalk. Maybe this explains why we keep getting ill.

So we decided to take a vacation from our vacation. This, of course, involved transporting ourselves somewhere else, which brought another dislocation and working out of details.

After much trampsing around Shanghai looking for ferry tickets, and a two hour boat ride, we arrived at the Buddhist enclave of Putuoshan Island in the East China Sea.

The first thing we did was hop a bus and were greeted by a friendly monk in ochre-colored robes, a fellow passenger.

Later that evening, Jacob and I met up with Tony on the front steps of our hotel where he was holding court to two other monks and a gathering crowd of Chinese onlookers.

"Saved" by Jacob and his rudimentary Chinese, Tony was let off the hook in communicating with the curious audience. The two monks, it turned out, came to Putuoshan from Llasa to study Buddhism at one of the many temples on the island.

We were to see them repeatedly over the course of our three day stay. One taught us a Buddhist prayer, and lacking much else to be able to say, we chanted together to the amusement of still more onlookers as the monk fingered his wooden prayer beads.

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A monk stands in quiet contemplation on the Putuoshan beach. The monks shunned photographs, so this was captured from a distance.

Putuoshan was as close to Chinese paradise as we've found. Its dense foreses, quiet beaches, and clean air was a much needed break from the bruskness of the mainland.

Temples, shroaded by mist and camphor forests, perch on the edge of steep hills and have a decidedly "lived in" feel. The monks are there and everywhere, talking on cell phones, strolling the beaches, licking popsicles, and the younger ones horsing around with each other as they keep watch over the numerous Goddess of Mercy statutes.

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The temples have a decidedly lived-in feel.

Putuoshan is a holy site for Guanyin Buddhism, which worships the Goddess of Mercy. There is a 33-meter high gold statue of her visible from around the island.

We don't know how seriously the throngs of Chinese tourists take the religion, but when faced with the Goddess they certainly seem to use the opportunity to ask for help, offering her incense sticks and kow-tows and flower and fruit baskets.

We thought it amusing to see some of the young monks picking off the candy offerings from the alter. "Hey, those are for the Goddess," we objected (to ourselves).

The nice thing about Putuoshan is that it has walking trails everywhere, and we spent several leisurely days roaming around and wearing off the calories for our next meal.

We were glad to see the island when we did because Putuoshan is undergoing a major building boom, probably for tourism development. We, however, liked it just the way it is.

As we were about to leave a temple one day, I smiled and made eye contact with a group of nuns, heads shaved like the men, who were eating apples next to me on a bench.

Next thing we knew, one approached us and handed us each a golden-colored apple. She smiled back, and bowed her head towards her hands perched in prayer then returned to her group, asking for nothing more.

Then we ate the Goddess's apples.

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Alison spends a quiet evening at rest reading.

Posted by ahawkes 20:19 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

East is West

Coffee guzzling and garden strolling in China's 'Paris of the East.'

semi-overcast 26 °C

East is West

There is one product that seems to measure how Western a place is in China: coffee.

At the moment, I am sipping my drink of choice, an Americano, at a hostel in Shanghai. This is the first coffee I've had since Beijing, and though I think I've finally broken the addiction (for now), I am reminded how much coffee is the drink of the West.

Across the countryside, in small towns and large, the Chinese, as everyone knows, are tea-totalers.

Hotel rooms come with hot water heaters and carefully doled out tea bags, and often the first service customers get at restaurants are filled cups of tea.

But Shanghai, the "Paris of the East," has a coffee house (including Starbucks galore) on nearly every corner in the downtown shopping area, known as the Bund. And it's not just the lao-wei (or "foreigners" as the Chinese like to say in passing, often to no one in particular), that partake in the consumption. The Shanghai-ers, beautifully donned, seem to love the Western-style sophistication that coffee-drinking connotes.

It's not a cheap drink either, by Chinese standards. One cup typically runs nearly $2, making the drink unaffordable to any middle-class worker.
But no matter in Shanghai -- a city of 18 million that flouts its glamour like the many women here in shorts and high heels -- whose purpose seems to be high-end shopping and hosting international business conferences.

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One easily noticeable difference to Beijing are the downtown squares. Beijing has Tian'anmen Square, a massive and monolithic expanse of concrete that creates a feeling of smallness under the weight of the state. The only things to buy are Mao's Little Red Book and Chinese flags.

Shanghai has People's Square -- a welcome shock of greenery in an otherwise garden of neon and shopping malls. The space is also given over to at least three museums and a theater. The square has its quieter spots but hawkers have intruded in many areas selling jewelry, "Rolex" watches, and whatever else sells.

This town has given itself wholly over to buying and selling. There are video screens playing advertisements on the sides of buildings and on boats traversing the river.

High-end international brands are sold everywhere, both real and fake.
Crazy-looking skyscrapers compete for skyline attention -- one that opens into a lotus flower and lights up at night and another that forms a diamond at its top.

We plunked down the $5 per ticket one day to see Shanghai's "20-year masterplan" model and wondered if the city is making a huge mistake in not planning for more green space.

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Tony and a small boy "play" one one of the many adult exercise playgrounds in China.

What it's aiming for, it seems, are more high rises and skyscrapers. More dazzle at a distance and more soulless streetscapes. Only 20 years ago, as the pictures in the city design museum attest, Shanghai was still very much a city of intimate, earthy spaces.

A Garden City

China's new aesthetic is curious because the culture knows much about how to create beauty in smallness.

We saw this in the traditional gardens in Suzhou, a town a couple hours to Shanghai's west. Suzhou, which has its own love affair with high-end shopping districts, has kept its dozen or so gardens intact as tourist attractions. They were built centuries ago by wealthy officials and businessmen and still provide a peaceful oasis from the noise and bustle of the streets.

The gardens have three major components: greenery, water, and buildings (usually a pagoda of some sort). And the main structure is the creation of numerous intimate, small spaces within the overall scheme.

Which means it's possible to wander around with hundreds of other people and take a seat in some corner and still feel like you have the place to yourself. That is, until a tour group with loudspeakers arrives in your formerly quiet neck of the garden!

We particularly loved the way the interior windows in buildings framed the exterior scenery, almost like pictures on a wall.

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The only downside was the expense. It seems rediculous to complain, until you know the local prices of things, but a ticket into the garden can run you the price of a fine meal. An oasis, maybe, but only for the deep-pocketed.

Actually, the price of tourist attractions is something we've been noticing for some time. Every place in the guide books cost money (even the tunnel under the Huangpo River in Shanghai). If the Chinese government can slap a high-priced ticket on a place of interest it will, affordability be damned. Even as the notion of privacy is so foreign to a country of 1.7 billion people, few spaces are purely public. And everything costs.

The Village Whore

Of course, sex sells too.

Every time I leave Jacob and Tony, they become the instant attraction of Chinese women and pimps. The pimps come up from behind and whisper in their ears "lady massage." The women are less direct, asking them if they would like to be "friends."

Apparently two lao-wei men walking unattended down the street is quite a catch. And indeed, we see examples every day of white men flirting with younger Chinese women on the streets, or as couples out on the town. Call it love, but it's hard to believe if that's all it were we'd seen examples of the reverse.

A man needn't even leave his room to obtain female companionship. At night in our hotel, the phone rings repeatedly with offers. I've taken to be the one who picks up and my voice on the line usually stops a repeat call. This, even though most Chinese women find white men, and all their hair, repulsive.

I've never garnered the same kind of attention, though all over China there are now photos of me posing with Chinese men. In one town, I became an instant hit. I came out of a shop to find Jacob the photo centerpiece for a group of young men, but when they saw me he quickly got pushed out of the way. One by one, each man would stand beside me, his arm around my shoulder, for the camera.
This went on for some time. I joked that I had become each of their "American girlfriend." Or perhaps the village whore?

Posted by ahawkes 08:59 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

Bavaria on the Beach

Dogmeat on a train and a roundabout route bring us to Qingdao, a German-built coastal town.

sunny 23 °C

Doggy Bag

As we left Beijing by train, the urban landscape blended into countryside but only partially.

Eastern China, it seems, is never fully rural. Warehouses and factories spot farm fields, where laborers still till the soil by hand and by horse and plow.

We took "hard seats" on the train, as opposed to the "soft seats," a communist-era distinction that mainly comes down to space and comfort.

Instead of being assigned to seating based on Communist Party ranking, the almighty yuan is the determinate these days as well as available seating.

A hard seat buys a passenger a brutally straight seat and closeness to fellow travellers, an arrangement that despite a modicum of discomfort allows for a degree of comaraderie that lends itself to easy introductions and sharing of food.

This is how, in fact, we came to eat dog.

The train had pulled up to Ji'nan, and one of our seat-mates, a young man with an incessant fidget, hopped off a moment to buy fresh steamed buns.

He came aboard and handed the bagged buns to his buddy, who smiled and held the bag open for us. We graciously popped the buns into our mouths, remarking on how sweet the meat tasted and must be pork.

It was only later that Jacob informed us off-handedly that he was told the meat was dog.

We were to see dog meat again, though I did not have the psychological stamina to overcome my aversion. It was in an outdoor night market in Qufu, where skinless dog heads, canines exposed, perched on meat stands.

I always thought that eating dog meat was a stereotype of the Chinese, something told to scare away the curious from ever trying unnamed meat on menus. But we learned that in northern China, dog is a specialty. We didn't get so far in learning the details: which breed, what they're fed, and if dog farms exist.

As pets, dogs seem to be treated as beloved family members in China. They're usually the small, yippy sort and have much better standing than the mangy stray cats that roam the streets.

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We've decided to make our way to Guangzhou in the coming weeks. This southern port, near Hong Kong, is a crowded industrial area, home to the country's first SEZ's (strategic economic zones). It's also where the food gets really interesting: snake, roaches, snails, and beetles. Not sure yet how far I'm going to push my palate.

Almost footloose

The trains bring a delimma.

Up until this week, we've always preferred to travel footloose, flitting from one place to the next as the mood struck. But the Chinese train system prohibits this lack of itinerary. Seats routinely sell out days in advance. We wonder if this is intentional or ill-planned on the part of the state-run system, since it bars any last minute movement (although buses are still available).

In any case, we ran into a bit of a jam in Qufu (a smallish town south of Beijing whose claim to fame is the home and 2500-year-old gravesite of Confucious).

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Seeking to get to the garden-city of Suzhou, just west of Shanghai, we were informed that the next train available would be in three days. No big deal. Lacking firm plans, we were flexible, and made our way on the (available) bullet train to Qingdao on the coast. We're scheduled for a 16-hour train ride to Suzhou today by sleeper car.

But the experience got us thinking. Two months in China is not so much time that we can afford to wait around for available train seats. We've started planning.

Bavaria on the Beach

Qingdao is not your ordinary Chinese city, though it does have the requisite soulless skyscrapers and one of the best night markets we've yet encountered.

Built by the Germans at the turn of the century, then occupied by Japan after World War I, Qingdao has an international flavor. Bavarian-style buildings with red roofs and half-timbered walls cluster in the hilly corner of town along with two churches which have become tourist attractions not because they are extraordinary in design but merely for being in China.

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Qingdao is home of the internationally famous Tsingdao beer, found in most American Chinese restaurants. We've had many bottles (and drafts) so far over lunches and dinners, and though it's a bit watery ranks superior to other local brews we've tasted.

Leave it to the Germans to come to China's shore and create the best beer in the region, if not all of China.

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The city cuddles around its coastline, though we don't believe the Chinese get beach culture (at least as we Westerners know it). Swimming is clearly for men only, and everyone else wades into the ocean with pant legs hiked up. Men sun themselves like beached seals, without towels.

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The other major beach activities are clamming and wedding photography. By early afternoon, brides and grooms are competing for rock space, draping their skirts and coattails in graceful poses as if their matrimony was sealed in sand and surf.

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Most pleasing (to us) was the active market. Qingdao, like many Chinese cities, really comes alive at dusk and with the lure of food and drink. Since Qingdao is on the ocean, seafood seemed to be the specialty, notably all manner of fried and spiced fish, clams, shrimp, and oysters.

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Now, Suzhou here we come.

Posted by ahawkes 03:03 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

Made in China

From Peking Duck to the 2008 Olympics, China asserts its identity.

sunny 26 °C

From streetside holes-in-the-wall to among the highest priced restaurants, Peking duck is a beloved dish in Beijing.

At the lowest prices, the mahogony-colored ducks, basked in plum sauce, hang from the necks in windows ready for eating. At more upscale joints, revellers must call ahead for a ready-made duck, then turn up and watch it be carved with great care on a wheeled cart in front of the table.

"Made in China," reputed to be one of Beijing's finest duck houses, costs a mere $25 for a meal with multiple side dishes and drinks. Located in the Grand Hyatt, in anywhere-international waters, the restaurant manages to create an intimate space where diners can watch the cooks through glass windows while enjoying the heavenly crispness of duck skin and meat wrapped in thin pancakes, tortilla style.

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The dish, traditional and straightforward, is, in some ways, a stamp of the old Beijing, which has survived a century of political, cultural, and economic upheaval.

As the city races toward some newly-created identity, it's interesting to see that the food, in some ways, very much remains the same. Besides the spruced up (and more hygenic) nicities at upscale restaurants like Made in China, the food retains a strong link to what's sold at street level.

The last few days we've spent tasting much of what Beijing has to offer. We didn't need to wander far as the streets are teeming with fruit-sellers and subsistence level cooks grilling, baking, and frying for their customers' immediate gratification.

In the mornings we've picked up "Beijing Breakfast," a crepe smeared with eggs and sauces and folded over crispy-fried dough and sold at a street stand. Also in front of our hotel, we ate bread baked in some kind of portable tandoor oven, filled with a spicy anise-spice mixture. And we can't forget the egg woman, who appears under the subway station overpass frying little quail eggs into balls, pasted sauces, on a stick.

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Much has been written about Beijing's Olympic fever, the storyline of which is often how the city is modernizing rapidly to put on a good show for the international audience.

The Olympics are a way to showcase the nation's standing in the world, as is true for most hosting countries. But China seems to have something added to prove. This nation, the Chinese seem to be saying, has moved beyond the age of cheap knock-offs to an economic and political player of equal standing on the globe.

Everywhere, there are prideful reminders of the coming "One world, One Dream" games. At nearly every tourist destination, t-shirts and Olpmic kitch is sold. "Friendlies," the cutsy five-figure mascot, appear on subway ads to snuggly stuffed replicas sold in the austere People's Congress. An entire glass building has been constructed on the outskirts of downtown for the Olympic organizing committee.

We wonder how Beijing will hold itself together next year. Fifteen years ago, at a previous international gathering, students used the opportunity to press for greater political freedoms. Will the Olympics spark a new effort?

Despite all the dazzling new buildings (which pay no attention to the streetscape, or even to each other), an older Beijing persists, which both tempts and tests us.

The bathrooms (on a star-rating system) are mostly flushable pit toilets without toilet paper. The traffic, as we found out yesterday on a ride to a section of the Great Wall, is trecherous, with cars and heavily-loaded trucks passing eachother, sometimes two abreast.

When the subway doors open, the waiting crowd rushes forward trying to beat one another for coveted seats (sometimes people forgo the train to wait for the next one so they can be first in line for seats).

The air has been relatively clear, but people tell us that the skies turn yellow and choking during the winter.

Soldiers march in long lines along Tian'anmen Square and police and military are stationed everywhere, their uniforms disguising very youthful face fuzz even as they cut an impressively straight pose. Mao's portrait above the gate to the Forbidden City is the most distinctive (and imposing?) element to the massively unadorned square.

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Today we leave the city on a six-hour train ride south to Taishan, one of China's holy mountains. From there we will make our way through silk-production territory on our way to Shanghai.

We're curious how the landscape, food, and people change with the passing miles.

Posted by abak 19:39 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Good Luck in Beijing

Kindness from strangers in a dumpling lunch

semi-overcast 27 °C
View Beijing to Berlin on ahawkes's travel map.

On our way to the Temple of Heaven mid-morning yesterday, we were wandering along the narrow back alleyways of a centuries-old hutong when a cheerful woman stopped us.

She spoke broken English, which was more than that of most Chinese we've met in Beijing, so we felt compelled to soak up whatever interaction we could with a local.

Hutongs are the Chinese version of the labrynth of narrow alleys -- much like mideval towns in Europe or Arabia -- that make up the old parts of town. Pleasant because of the intimacy of space of life within, they afford a glimpse at an older, more established Beijing away from the polluted roar of traffic outside.

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After a few questions, the woman invited us into her home, only a few steps away through a narrow doorway. We had been wondering what life is like hidden behind the hutong walls and she was offering us a chance to see.

Inside, she made no apologies for her cramped and shabby quarters: one room and an outside, covered kitchen. Her husband was at the stove, and she urged us to sit on the edge of their double bed while she immediately commenced making us lunch to the tune of an opera performance on the television.

"America goorrd," she crooned, explaining that she sells tourist souveniers at a nearby hotel.

She took out a ball of dough from a covered bowl and with a rolling pin began skillfully rolling perfectly round pieces, which she then filled with some sort of minced green vegetable, folded, and pinched at the top to make dumplings. Two whole trays of them, it turned out.

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We talked of many things: how Bejing's rapidly-changing landscape and culture are good changes, but the poor farmers coming into the city are bad. How life is expensive in the city, but we paid too much for our hotel. She was bright-eyed and warm, repeatedly impressed by our prospective careers and pointing to her head to show her husband that we had "knowledge."

We began to wonder two things. Would we get sick off lunch? And were we being set up for some scam that would be presented after we were well-fed and appreciative.

The scam didn't happen, though we did walk away with two "Beijing 2008" t-shirts for a commendable price of $3 a piece. Tony was the lone casualty on the first front (which is why no photos have been uploaded -- still! -- to this blog).

A warning not to take up a lunch offer again? Hardly. The experience was by the best yet in the first few days of our three month trip across Eurasia.

Beijing is massive, sprawling city. Though it has some pleasant corners, in ticketed parks, it is quickly-modernizing metropolis of scary highways and soaring skyscrapers and dusty sidewalks teeming with people.

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The Beijing subway (indeed "convenient" as the intercom says) has three lines: Line 1, Line 2, and Line 13. The 10 in-between lines have not been built yet, but are in the city's ambitious plans.

The youth have, it seems, abandoned any pretense of communist ideals in favor of blatant, apolitical materialism. They are matching the latest New York fads in dress and style, with heavy bangs and shag, permed haircuts (because if you have straight hair, clearly wavy is better).

One clear distinction between West and East is the presence of skin-whitening cream here. As Americans head into sunbathing weather to achieve that healthy glow, Chinese women are carrying umbrellas and covering their faces with whitening masks in order to become perfectly pale.

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The hutongs are a remaining vestage of the old days, exploited as a tourist attraction even as they are quickly becoming rubble to make room for the new Beijing. Our tour guidebooks are nearly useless on the subject of hutongs, since they are being razed faster than the books are updated.

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Before we left, the woman gifted us these red paper cut-outs for our windows. "Good luck," she explained. Indeed, we felt lucky, from her gesture of friendship and in the reminder that there are good, caring people everywhere.

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Please see photo gallery for more pictures. Click on Author "ahawkes" in the right column.

Posted by ahawkes 19:19 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (4)

Farewell Philadelphia

Every Journey Begins with a Goodbye

semi-overcast 20 °C

Our Philadelphia apartment has the looks of people about to uproot. Our items of furniture have dwindled down to an old mattress beaten to death by an inadequate boxspring, a table filled with a pile of loose change (mostly pennies) and an assortment of other items that are remnants of our past life and upcoming journey.

We are drinking out of canning jars and cooking on the gas stove from an old bread baking pan we no longer want.

Food consists of canned beans, only opening the cans has become a lesson in patience since the can opener disappeared with the rest of our stuff to a storage unit in North Carolina.

This is what the end looks like in physical form. Socially, it is a time of hearty good-byes and final words, and feelings that maybe we should have delayed the trip one week longer to visit family and friends one last time.

We are ending our five-year life here in Philadelphia, trying in our wistfulness not to think too much about how wonderfully intimate are the web of tiny cobblestone streets in Old City and how hard it will be to find another city park in the world as lovely as Rittenhouse Square.

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We are leaving May 4 on a three month journey overland from Beijing to Berlin, at minimum 4,600-miles (as the crow flies), or about one-sixth the circumference of the globe.

Our rough travel route is: China -> Kazakhstan -> Russia -> Ukraine -> Slovakia -> Czech Republic-> Germany.

As you can see, these are not as many countries as one might think, mainly because we are spanning among the largest nations in the world.

The cast of characters includes three (and later a fourth) college friends in our early 30's whose wanderlust is still going strong even as many people we know our age are settling into careers and homes and families.

We have planned many trips together over drinks at sidewalk cafes, many of which have not panned out. But this one miraculously has, mainly because we all found ourselves at breaking points in our lives.

Why Beijing to Berlin? The idea for this trip began with a desire to experience China, which is rapidly changing for many reasons, among them the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

This emerging superpower is becoming an increasingly dominant force in the world's economy and in international politics. We wanted to develop an impression of this force, good and bad.

When we learned that we (Tony and Alison) would be moving to Bonn, Germany in the fall, it hit us that a pan-Eurasia journey would be a fascinating way to see how the continent drastically changes in culture and geography even as it shares a traversable land mass.

We will be following portions of the paths of Ghengis Khan and the ancient Silk Route, though we, of course, will be forging our own way by rail and bus to some of the farthest outposts in Asia as well as some of the most densely populated cities on Earth.

Posted by ahawkes 14:45 Archived in USA Tagged backpacking Comments (3)

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