Friday, November 13, 2009

Topping Out

I was only two thirds of the way up to Gokyo Ri’s summit of 17,500 ft, and I was dead tired. It had taken us ten days to trek to Gokyo, the mountain village at the base of Gokyo Ri. We had hiked approximately 30 miles and had climbed over 8,000 feet one way. I was contemplating turning back. I felt like I was not getting enough air to fill my lungs and each step on the grinding uphill was getting more difficult. I thought “really, the view can’t be so spectacular to be worth this”. Going down would be so much easier … and warmer. And I would make it before the sun passed below the mountain range next to me, so I would not have to descend in the dark. (That was what was going to happen if we stayed on the top late enough to see sunset on Everest.) I thought: “I have seen sunsets before. Do I really need to see the mountain light up like a Christmas tree just to say that I’d seen it?” Clearly I did.

We had arrived in Kathmandu from Bangkok 12 days earlier and had a day to get our gear together and get ready for the trek. We still needed sleeping bags, misc cold weather gear, Nepalese Rupees, trekking poles and some smaller backpacks. My travel backpack weighs 6 pounds empty, and I didn’t want to haul any more weight up the mountain than I had to. The next day started early with a hair raising flight from Kathmandu to the small mountain town of Lukla. The views during the flight of the never ending snow capped mountain ranges were unforgettable, as was the fact that the plane dodged in and out of the valleys so close to the mountain sides that I could make out the individual trees.

Lukla has become the de-facto starting point for all trekking trips heading to the Himalayan mountain range that contains the highest place on earth: Everest. The runway there was never intended to ferry so many tourists to the area. Sir Edmund Hillary and Penba Sherpa’s Himalayan Trust Foundation built it as a way to convey supplies into the region from Kathmandu. It’s evilly short: 300 ft. It begins with a sheer drop off at one side and ends it solid rock wall on the other. The only planes that can take off and land there are small twin propeller jobbies that hold only 10 to 20 passengers and their gear. The planes have the decrepit look and feel of being very well used. The seats are small and not securely attached to the floor and you look right into the cockpit from the aisle. My only thought was that the pilots didn’t want to die any more than I did, so I hoped that the planes were well maintained. Hoping helped as I made it through 2 flights alive.

The lodges we stayed at along the way were simple affairs. They were sometimes made of wood and sometimes made of stone. The sleeping rooms were tiny with a window on one side and generally only contained two small wooden bed frames with a piece of foam on top of them to serve as a mattress. If we were lucky there were a few hooks in the room to hang our coats on. There was no insulation in the walls and only a piece of thin plywood separated you from the next room. Oddly, because the beds were usually pushed against the side walls with a narrow space in between, I was typically sleeping closer to the person snoring a few inches over on the other side of the wall than I was to Cindy. Halfway through the trip we finally got smart and started to push the beds together for warmth. Toilets were outside at the end of the halls. Because of the lack of insulation, any noise made in any of the other rooms echoed into your room. Often I could count how many times our nearest cellmates got up to use the loo (having to pee often being an unfortunate side effect of being at high altitude). There was also always a common room that varied in degrees of comfort. It was there that we spent our time eating, playing games to pass the time and just trying to stay warm.

The 13 day trek was spectacular. Each day the views of the surrounding mountains changed as I gained more altitude and more of the range was viewable. Our main concern with the altitude was Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). It occurs only above 2400 meters (8000 feet). The percentage of oxygen in the air remains essentially constant with altitude (at 21%) up until 70,000 feet (21,330 m), but the air pressure (and therefore the number of oxygen molecules) drops as altitude increases — consequently, the available amount of oxygen to sustain mental and physical alertness decreases above 10,000 feet (3,050 m). There are many non life threatening symptoms such as headache, dizziness, fatigue and lack of appetite. In extreme cases it can kill by causing fluid in the lungs and swelling of the brain. Trekking is nothing to mess around with, and we were advised not to climb higher than 300 to 500 meters (1000 to 1600 feet) per day. The only reliable cure for AMS is to descend as quickly as possible. We heard half-a-dozen helicopter runs daily ferrying dying trekkers out of the valley for $1000 USD a pop. The weird thing about AMS is that just because you’ve climbed at altitude before and not had any symptoms does not mean that you won’t have them now. Physical ability also has nothing to do with whether you will get it or not. Basically it can strike anyone at any time and you can go from feeling fine to barfing in as little as 15 minutes. Needless to say, we were very watchful of each other and spent a few extra days at different elevations in an effort to make sure we were acclimatizing properly.

It was an interesting experience to see how my body handled the altitude, and I am now convinced that choosing not to be a mountaineer for a living was a correct decision. I was constantly cold, often on the verge of dehydration, my sinuses were always blocked, my throat was continuously sore because of the dry air. I had a persistent cough, I tired easily, I slept 11 hours a night, and I found the whole experience generally uncomfortable.

I mentally spanked myself and pushed through the last 800 feet or so and reached the summit. The reward was one of the most spectacular mountain views I have ever seen or experienced. I had a 360 degree view of the Himalaya mountain range and Mt Everest looked like I could reach out and touch it. We stayed until after sunset snapping pictures that will never come close to the astounding beauty of the real view.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Top Two

November 8, 2009

The food on this trip has been amazing, but the Thai food has been the best. North to south it’s sweet, spicy, sour and bitter; usually all in one bit. In Nepal, I’ve been reminiscing about some of the great food I’ve had. These are my two favorite recipes so far. Well, recipe might me too strong a word. This is my best guess at how these dishes are made.

Tropicana Rice Salad

2 egg yolks – hard boiled
2 tbps cooking oil
2 tbps white vinegar
¼ tsp sugar
½ tsp soy sauce
1 garlic clove - minced
½ tsp yellow curry
1 cup rice – cooked and cooled
¼ white onion – chopped into large pieces
¼ cup raisons
1 carrot – cut into matchsticks
1 tomato – cut into 1/8ths
¼ cup pineapple – cut into ¼” cubes
2 green onion – cut into 1” lengths
¼ chicken breast – cooked and cubed

1. Place egg yolks, vinegar, sugar, and oil into a bowl. Blend thoroughly
2. Add soy sauce, garlic, and yellow curry powder
3. Add all other ingredients and blend thoroughly
4. Serve

Monday, October 12, 2009

Falling Short

This is what happens when you aren't going fast enough on a zip line.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Caution: Heavy Posting Ahead

October 6, 2009
We left Cambodia 4 days ago, and I can't reconcile the disparity between the different things that happened to me. Was Cambodia good? Sure. The people were lovely: friendly, soft spoken, and "hello" or "thanks" got me a beaming smile every time. The Angkor ruins are grand. I felt like I was in a jungle-adventure movie when I was staring at the gigantic stone faces of Angkor Thom. And I had the best time cycling from temple to temple with Geoff on our rickety rented bikes. But Cambodia was also devastating. The proximity to brutality. The civil war ended just 10 years ago. The evidence is still fresh. I got so close to terror, so close to barbarism. Ya. I just can't get my head around it. I walked into a big room, empty except for the rusty wire frame of a bed and one photo on the wall. The picture was of a person found dead, on a bed, after having been tortured. Then I realized that I was standing 6 inches away from the very bed in the photo. Then there were rooms filled with hundreds upon hundreds of photos. The Khmer Rouge had the bureaucratic habit of taking a photo of every person they put in prison before they were tortured and executed by bludgeoning. At first when I was looking at the photos the feeling was familiar: the sadness and remorse of looking at yet another scene of human tragedy. Then I noticed one woman was smiling, defiant. What? Could I be that brave? So then I started to look at the pictures individually, and it got very personal, very close, very fast. Each and every single one of these people was murdered, brutally. Each with a different emotion frozen on their face. Despair was noticeably the most common. And it's all just so recent. Photos of Auschwitz are grainy and tattered. It puts space in the form of time between me and the violence, but these pictures are of the same quality as the ones of me as a little girl. The t-shits, golf shirts, and collared shirt aren't very different from what people wear today. When we were at a mass grave Geoff mindlessly kicked over a small white rock which turned out to be the tooth of one of the approximately 20,000 people murdered and left to rot.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Monday, September 21, 2009


Cindy and I both realized that it's been quite a while since we posted anything other than pictures to this blog.  I got to thinking about why.  When we first started out over 6 weeks ago we were super excited to write about everything we did.  Recently, not so much.  I think it's because my perception of my current life changes the more time I spend on the road.  At the beginning I was excited because it was more like a vacation with all the fun and excitement that comes with being in a new and interesting place.  Over time travel becomes less vacation and more just my everyday normal life.  With this change, the thrill mind-set has dimmed and feelings of day to day contentment have taken its place. 
I've tried to come up with an interesting way to describe the feeling, but the only word that comes to mind is "full".  You know that feeling that you get when you've just had a great meal, become satiated, but not too much and kind of kick back away from the table blissfully happy and not needing anything else from the world.  For me travel after a while has that effect…… but it's more sustainable.
So when I get full, I get lazy.  And right now I'm full, so writing has not been at the top of my priority list.  But I am compelled to at least list what we have been doing for the last bit of time just so I can reread it some other time and stir up these great memories.
Heading down to Laos and then starting to wander through parts of Southeast Asia instead of going to Lhasa in China was a wise decision in retrospect.  We missed this part of the world on our first big trip a few years back and I'm so glad I get to explore it now. 

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Elephant Washing

Sept 10

Just outside Louang Phabang, it's possible to go elephant riding, so Geoff and I picked up a cheap tour and headed out this morning. After a comfortable hour in an air conditioned minivan, we arrived at a small rattan shack that was home the two elephant handlers (Mahouts) and three Asian elephants. The elephant ride through the jungle was kind of cheesy, but it was interesting to see the jungle from so high up. The real fun started in the afternoon. After a quick lunch, we changed into our swimming gear: it was time to wash the elephants. My elephant was going to be Bao, which means young one. He was 25 years old. I got on his bare neck by climbing up a rickety bamboo platform. What a feeling!! I was so small in size compared to the elephant that it's skin and muscles didn't even give against my weight. I was just a gnat on its back.

We set out down a steep track to the edge of the Mekong. It was obvious that the relationship between an elephant and its Mahout is not really one of master /slave. It's more a tacit agreement between an animal of superior intelligence and an animal of superior strength. The Mahout would say "Bai" (go), and the elephant would stand still. The Mahout would say "BAI!" and the elephant would flap its big old ears against my legs. The Mahout would say "BAI!!!!!!!!!", and the elephant would reach its truck over and grab some bamboo to eat. The Mahout would walk over and punch the elephant on the leg, and the elephant would swing its tail. After a bit, for no particular reason, the elephant began to make for the river. I admired it for it sense of self; no need to get flustered or bothered by the little man making a fuss. The universe was unfolding as it should, and it would move when it was ready.

Once we got under way, it was a slow, steady swaying back and forth until we got to the river, and, without a pause, Bao walked into the water until it was totally submerged, rolled over, and I fell off laughing. I scrambled back on and was handed a brush. I scrubbed away at the grit and dirt on Bao's skin along with the Mahout and two of the village kids. Bao loved having his head rubbed. I'd climb up on his back, swish some water on his head and rub away which always made his eye close in contentment. As I got more comfortable, I started climbing across his hug back, scrubbing here and there. He liked to roll over in the water, and I liked to go for the ride, so over and over again I'd climb on to his back and hold on as he slowly flopped over or dove down. Then the heavy current from the Mekong would wush me away, and I'd fight to swim back the ten feet until one of the Mahouts would grab my hand and pull me over so I could grab Bao's ear and start to fun all over again. I'd stand on Bao with the kids, jumping into the water, or striking a pose for the camera. It was a great time. Bao was a patient, powerful and calm. I was sorry to say good bye. I wonder if Geoff would go for a pet elephant.? No, seriously.

- Cindy

Friday, September 4, 2009

Curious gorge

Three hours north of Lijiang by bus is one of the deepest gorges in the world.  It's called Tiger Leaping Gorge.   Legend says that in order to escape from a hunter, a tiger jumped across the river at the narrowest point (still 25 meters wide), hence the name.  The tallest peak, Shanzidou, rises 3900 meters above the river floor to a height of 5596 meters.  The length of the entire gorge is just 16 kilometers long but is arguably one of the most spectacular natural sites I have ever seen.  It is considered "unraftable," and, as far as I can tell, there have only ever been 3 attempts to run the rapids.  In the early 1980's 4 men tried to float a large raft down it, but they were never seen again.  In the late 1980's 2 Chinese teams in a race with an American team attempted to navigate it using "capsule" rafts that looked like 2 airline rafts tied on top of each other with car inner tubes tied around the rim.  I'm not sure how many people started the trip but 9 people were killed by the time they exited the canyon.  From what I understand, the American racers days behind had already decided to abandon the race. 
Our drop off point was a few hundred yards from the start of the hike up the "high road".  As I had been warned the night before by an aloof Australian couple, we were immediately descended upon by Margo,  a wild eyed, slightly crazy Australian expat who owns a cafe at the start of the hike.  Excitedly scolding those who were not listening to her, she extolled upon us the evils of anyone we were to meet on the hike. "They all will try to rip you off". About Tina's Hostel (a hostel in the middle of the gorge), "You have already been ripped off by her!".  About the weather, "it is much too hot to wear long pants today".  More about the obviously demonic Tina, "don't stay at her hostel, she will rip you off. You want to continue on to Sean's 40 minutes walk up the road".  And finally, the cost of a ride back to her café, "all of the cabs along the road will all try to rip you off, especially if other drivers are around to make them fee, guilty.  It shouldn't cost more than 10 RMB".  Her diatribe finished, she quickly scurried away to parts unknown mumbling to herself.  Quite trippy.

Hiking to WenHai

August 26
So it was time to get off the beaten path. Geoff and I hit a traveler's online forum and found that it's possible to hike to a village at the edge of an Alpine lake near Lijiang. According to a two year old posting, the village has a defunct eco-lodge that visitors can stay in if they make appropriate arrangements in advance. Geoff hopped on the phone and, through fits and sputters, managed to make it over the language barrier to some sort of arrangement with one Mr. Chu via his cousin, Mrs. Somethingorother, who knew a little English.
Mr. Chu picked us up in his Jeep at 10am the next day and 40 minutes later we were meeting our guide, Mr. He, at the trail head.  I liked Mr. He right away. He was youthful and had the dark skin and chiseled features of someone who was most at home outside. Forgetting myself I reached out to shake his hand. Shaking hands isn't the custom here, but he mimicked my motion and looked at me awkwardly as I took his hand and gave it a mild bounce. Mr. Chu looked at us and pointed the Mr. He: "No English," then he took off.  I had no idea where we were going, but I could see a pass up a pretty steep slope. The first 300 feet were paved, but then we made for a dirt trail and a 20% grade. The hike starts at about 8,000 feet, so Geoff and I were huffing and puffing from the start.

It's hard to say how old Mr. He was, but I'd put him at somewhere between 17 and 19.   Damned if he didn't trot ahead of us like we were taking a stroll in the park. Geoff and I were laughable. Our packs had us off balance. We were thumping along making a racket huffing and puffing. Mr. He was so light footed he barely made a sound. I'd huff, Mr. He'd hum. Geoff would hack, Mr. He would whistle away.  At one point I stopped, all stooped over, to catch my breath, so Mr. He stopped too and started belting out a song. Show off!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Greetings from Jijiang.  We have spent the better part of the last 4 days just trying to figure out if we really want to cut out the southern part of China or if we can somehow finagle our way south.  Many plans were considered and then thrown out the window. We decided to cut bait and buy a plane ticket south because of the impossibility of getting space on a train southward.  So our plans have changed again and we will continue our downward journey to Laos and then backtrack up to China in about a month's time.
I was talking with Cindy this morning about being on the road.  We both agreed that the most magical part of the journey is the stuff in between and not the tourist sights like the terra cotta warriors.  Don't get me wrong, seeing things like that are great, but the real interesting experiences are mainly the things you don't expect.  Stumbling into a true Chinese neighborhood, trying new foods, experiencing with awe the sheer numbers of Chinese people on the streets and in the subway systems, meeting other travelers and swapping stories, etc. 

One of these experiences happened on the train ride down from Xi'an to Chengdu.  We were in a hard sleeper train this time.  I was a little wary of the idea because I was not sure how uncomfortable the bunks would be.  I was surprised to find out that "hard" sleeper meant no such thing.  The bunks were lightly padded and linen was supplied.  About the only difference between it and the soft sleeper were the addition of 2 more bunks in the compartment and that there was no door.  The world was passing by my feet most of the night. We ended up on the bottom bunks and if it was not time for sleeping (the train shut off the lights at 10:00 PM), practically any one could and would be sitting on your bunk.
The sound of English being spoken brought 4 college students from the next compartment into our little world.  They were in their early 20's and were studying things like engineering, food science and aid work.  They had already been on the train for 24 hours or so and were coming from the far north east of China and were heading to the university in Chengdu. On and off for the next 16 hours they co-occupied our compartment. We were thoroughly entertained with questions about the west, how we liked China, what we thought of their government, card games and a myriad of other dialogs.  It was such an enjoyable time that the train ride just flew by.  Before we knew it we had arrived in Chengdu.
We stayed in Chengdu just one night and took a flight to the old Naxi (a nomad Tibetan tribe that settled in the area) town of Jijiang.  Currently we are just holed up.  I have developed a nasty cold.  Im sure it was brought about by the horrifically polluted skies of Beijing, Xi'an and Chengdu.  Here the mountain air is clean and crisp and I hope to recover soon.
Today we leave for 4 days of hiking.  Finally on the move again.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Feasting on Street Food

August 16, 2009

I am having a serious love affair with street food in China. It all started with my breakfast dim sum; now Geoff and I search out street food whenever we can. While we were in Chengde, we discovered jianbing. It starts out as a paper thin crepe on a big griddle. When it's half cooked, it's flipped over and two eggs are spread over the crepe. It's flipped one more time to cook the egg. Will the egg is cooking the crepe is brushed with a mildly spicy dark sauce, seasoned, and sprinkled with coriander and scallions. Then a big rice crisp is placed on top. The whole thing is folded over into a nifty eat-and-carry size. Great flavor in every bite!

 In Xi'an we are treated to street after street of stalls in the Muslim Quarter. Fantastic! An experience to encompass all the senses.  Vendors overflow from their shops onto the sidewalks. Everywhere there is food.  Sometimes there are wafts of bread frying to a crisp. Then it's the spicy, meaty smell of barbequing kabobs or some yummy smell I can't quite place.  You can get all the food to go, but most vendors have a little whole-in-the-wall seating area.  Cooking is generally done on the sidewalk using coal or an open flame.  Geoff and I will spend an hour poking our heads into random restaurants deciding where we want to experiment. On the first night we settled on dish of hand-pulled noodles, beef and potatoes in a spicy broth. The meat was so tender and juicy; it couldn't have been better. The noodles were made by the shop owner's eldest son. He makes them as a sort of performance at the entrance of the restaurant. Geoff and I plowed in with our chops sticks and had it gone in 5 minutes. We spent another hour walking the streets trying this and that. Geoff spent $0.45 on "Chinese pizza": layers of paper thin fried flat bread filled with a seasoned cabbage mixture. Tonight we treated the whole Quarter  like an all you can eat buffet. We snacked on the best little beef kabobs, crisp fried flat bread stuffed with seasoned ground beef, mutton gyoza, a bun made out of bread that was like a big German pretzel, and some kid of desert on a stick with a name I don't know.  The whole night cost $4.25, and we were stuffed.  The only miss was a red fried patty, sweet rice paste maybe, with an indescribably bad filling.  That one went straight to the trash. At the end of the evening we found a vendor who sells jianbing. The first we've seen in Xi'an. You can bet that that will be our first stop in the morning.

- Cindy

Random musings

Boy my dogs are tired.
One of the few things that my aging memory gets right about the last big trip we took was that we walked ourselves silly most days while we were out and about.
I assumed that there would be a similar amount of walking involved in this trip but was I ever wrong.  The Chinese build things big.  With over a billion people in the country they understand crowd control.  One way they accomplish this is with the enormous scale of their tourist sites.  Whoppers they are.  With no easy way to get from point A to point B.  So we are forced to hoof it for miles every day. Unless it's a travel or planning day, we realized that we are walking a minimum of 5 and up to 10 hours every day.  Woof.

Random observations:
Guy with roles of tissue stuffed up his nose while he was working because he had a cold.  The ubiquitous male belly proudly  displayed to all ,,regardless of its girth because its hot out.  Entire outfits made from the same name brand manufacturer, shoes, socks, shorts, shirt and I assume undies.  The male or female counterpart to this fashion bonanza will be wearing the same ensemble from another manufacturer.  Spitting.  Everywhere , anytime.  I think it means hello or something.  Couples wearing the same outfit.  Same undies assumption?  Hmmmm.   All the women wear pantyhose socks regardless of what else they are wearing.  Taxi drivers don't like to open the trunk of their cabs.  McDonalds and Starbucks are always packed.  Shirts worn generally by the tragically hip and young with nonsense English phrases on them.  Some weird spa treatment that involves sticking a candle in your ear.  That I don't look in the mirror very often anymore.  That it's possible to layer blisters on top of each other.  There are as many older than 30 travelers in hostels these days than younger travelers.  Beer comes in 600 ml bottles.  Love that one.  Play slapping is a large form of flirting.   Netbooks are an essential accessory of all travelers.  Americans are still really loud, sound really stupid and like to proselytize about all sorts of shit they know nothing about to anyone they can trap into listening. 

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Fluidity of travel

Today we are finally out of Beijing.  We are finding it a little difficult moving around the country because it's the local tourist season and all of China is on the move right now.  All the trains are booked out a week or so in advance.  We had expected to leave for Xi'an a few days earlier but the only tickets available were for last night and with a more expensive "soft sleeper" bed on the train.  Not a bad way to travel except it did put a dent in our travel budget. 
The trains have up to four classes of travel depending on how far they go and if the route runs overnight.  They are as follows:  Hard seat - basically just a non padded bench that 3 people squeeze onto and sit upright at alarmingly straight angles for the duration of the passage. (I could maybe have managed that when I was younger but now I wont even entertain the idea). Soft Seat - basically the same seat but with a little padding on them and they only have 2 people to a seat (We took this on a four hour run to Chende and it was quite nice).  Hard bed – 6 bunks in an open compartment, three on each side with minimal padding on the bunk.  Soft sleeper – 4 bunks in a closed compartment two on each side.  They are firm but nicely padded and come with linen.

Our bunks were the top and our bunkmates below were the cutest elderly Chinese couple and their grandchild.  With an 11 hour trip to Xi'an, it was a very enjoyable way to travel.  There were flat screen tv's on the wall at the end of the bunk, ample storage for our packs, hot water for tea, both Western and Asian toilets, and very clean.  Quite nice actually. 
Conversely, now that we are savvy to the fact that the trains are so booked up, we spent the day today planning the rest of our route in china instead of just winging it like we had originally thought to do.  The old plan was to head south to Kunming in about 4 days and then continue on to Laos because Cindy's Chinese visa is only good for 30 days at a time.  We were going to pop into that country and tramp for a few weeks and then come back to China and head to Chengdu and then Tibet. Unfortunately we found out that the trains heading south were full for the next 9 days.  Crazy.
So new plans.  We were able to get a train from here to Chengdu (hard sleeper) 5 days from now.  We are cutting out our southern China plans and heading east after exploreing Xi'an. All in all, we will probably only spend 4 weeks in China instead of the 6 we had planned. Such is the folly of long term travel.  You have to flow with the river instead of fighting it.   We are not giving up the idea of going to Laos but that may have to happen after Nepal and India.  Stay tuned......

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Around City

August 8, 2009 Beijing -

So today is our first full day in Beijing. Our hostel is in a fascinating, traditional "Hutong" neighborhood full of street vendors, tea houses, and people walking their dogs.  Our room is off of an inner court yard, which is typical of the neighborhood.  A canopy of Zucchini vines hangs over a café area were we can relax and have a tea or beer.

 Walking down the street we see shop after shop of Dim Sum vendors. Outside of each is a big water-filled wok over white hot coals.  Stacked on a plate over the wok are 3 or 4 feet of bamboo steamers filled with sticky, fluffy stuffed buns and tender gyoza. So yummy!!! We eat until we can't any more for $2.25. Then it is off to the clean, user-friendly subway for a day at Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

The Chinese are very proud of their country, and parents are eager to travel with their children during the July/August break. That means we are smack in the middle of high season for domestic tourism, and that couldn't be more real than the second Tiananmen Square comes into view. It's packed. I have never seen so many people, not at Disney World during Christmas, not in a Manhattan rush hour.  In a way it's helpful because the 100 acre square is so big that the throng is necessary to lend a sense of scale to the place. We briefly consider visiting Mao's mausoleum. We skip the four hour wait, but thousands of Chinese line-up reverently for the 1 minute glimpse of the waxy Chairman. As we get to the end of the square the crowd thins a little, but picks up with double the intensity as we cross the street into the Forbidden City. The architecture is magnificent; vast palaces in gold, red and vivid blue.  Every inch is covered in detailed carving and colorful vignettes.  Figurines of Confucius, dragons, griffins and other good luck charms line each corner of the roof of the 980 buildings, but the real show is the crowd.  I know there are a billion people in China, but today I got to feel the meaning of that number.

-          Cindy

Great wall goodness

Just an aside about being in China.  The government has blocked access to both Facebook and Blogger (the home of this blog).  We have found a way to post to blog via email but cannot see the blog ourselves.  If something looks screwy to anyone, please let us know.  As for keeping track of our friends via Facebook, I'm afraid that we are out of luck for now, although there are rumors on the internet that the ban might be lifted soon.


We wanted to see the great wall but were loath to visit the "oh so touristy" section about an hour outside of Beijing.  You know the one; it's in all the pictures.  Wide, clean, newly refurbished and utterly devoid of its original character.  It's my understanding that they just built over the top of the crumbling old wall with complete disregard of its original look. 

Just down the street from our hostel was a quaint little tea shop that also advertised itself as a tourist agency.  Run by a sweet women with a great command of English, we were lulled into her establishment by her friendly demeanor with the promise of free tea. The walls were lined with teapots of all shapes and designs and large open mouthed jars with orange cloth covered tops filled with an array of teas for you to choose from.  With a flourish she would open each of the jars and let you smell the tea before picking the one you wanted.  We walked out with tickets to an Acrobatic show that night (Cirque de sole has nothing on these guys) and a tour package that included a ride to the town of Jinsangling the next day as a launching point to walk the Great Wall.  From there we would walk 10 Kilometers on the top of the wall to the town of Simatai.  We would be fed at the end and then begin the 3 hour long bus trip back to Beijing. 

Our pick up for the wall hike was set for 6:00 AM.  We had forgotten that with tours like this, they will often work their way to different hotels around the city picking up passengers along the route.  Two hours later, a bus change, and the addition of many Germans, French, Scottish, the only other  American I have met here, we were full up and ready to leave the city for our destination.

Along the way the countryside quickly turned from city to grungy manufacturing and then to rural landscape and the bus ride was over soon enough.  It quickly became evident that the English speaking guide we were promised was not really a part of the package, so  tickets in hand (one was needed at each end of the route) we were turned loose to wander along the wall at our own pace.  You can't get lost we were told.  "Just walk up the hill to the wall and turn left".

The wall was built over the period of thousands years by many different dynasties.   The Chinese always built walls around their cities but the first emperor to unify China in around 220BC extended its framework to create a northern border to the country and to keep out the barbarian invaders and raiding parties from the north. It averages 7 meters high and 7 meters tall and has some 25,000 battlements along its entire length.  As a means of defense, it served its purpose poorly.  It is not one continuous wall and raiders often just rode along the length until a suitable opening was found.  More often they would just bribe a high ranking official or guard to be allowed passage.  What it did do well was define the borders of the northern states and provide a vantage point to see approaching raiding armies.  Messages were sent using canon, flags and fires as a means of communicating over great distances down the curving line of the wall.

Starting at around 600 AD the Tang dynasty started expanding their hold on the territories to the north and the wall was largely forgotten and fell into disrepair.  In the 1200's the Ming dynasty came to power and being extremely insular, set about consolidating their borders and repairing the wall.  The wall that we see today is largely from this time period.  Over time the wall became a relic of the past, especially after the Mongols from the north came to power.  Unused, weathered and crumbling, its walls were breached and its stones were often taken by villagers and used to build housing in the local Hutongs (neighborhoods).  Today it is only intact in small sections of its former glory.

Contrary to popular myth, the wall cannot be seen from outer space, but I was still not prepared for the shear enormity of it as I ascended the steep hill at Jinshanling, finally emerging onto its backbone.  Its length stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions; its sections broken up by watch towers in various states of disrepair.  To me, the route between the towers always seemed to take most difficult route between.  The initial section we were on had been repaired in the last few years.   Its towers rebuilt, its steps straight and true, and the flagstones under foot flat and easy to walk on.  That changed after the next few towers as we got away from the more touristy sections.  We where then on the old wall.  The thousands year old wall. The crumbly, patchwork, weather worn, sometimes overgrown wall. 

Exhausted, calves quivering from the intense up and downs, we finished the hike after paying the bridge keeper 5 Yuan each (about $1.5) to cross a rickety, swaying cable bridge.  I briefly wondered what he would do if I refused to pay.  Send me back?  I was too tired to find out and dutifully forked over the money. The path was often steep, sometimes dangerous and always engaging.  It has been the highlight of my trip so far.

Three hours later we were back in Beijing with our driver hopelessly lost.  I spied a subway station and Cindy asked the "guide" if we could just hop off the bus.  Half of our fellow trekkers followed us.  We were all tired and ready to be home.  

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Arriving in Beijing

After 11 butt crushing hours with Air Canada we got to Beijing safe and sound. It's funny to post about the airport, but it was very impressive. With a minimum number of walls and pillars, it is modern, grand, and imposing.  I felt immediately like I had arrived at the world's up and coming Super Power. Two sets of health stations manned by nurses in 1950's uniforms and surgical masked scanned us for signs of the flu. English signage was everywhere and the subway was a snap to use. We were tired, but we were even more excited, so as soon as we got to the hotel we headed out for some food. We randomly entered a restaurant and made the universal hand signal for opening a book. That got us a look at the menu. It had pictures, prices and limited English descriptions, so we nodded and were taken to a table. There was a big hole in the table with a propane element. Geoff said "Cool. The food gets cooked here." We flipped through the 12 page menu. I point to the picture of thin slices of lamb. The waitress nods and says, "Soup. What-ah soup?" I said "Oh, no soup thank you." Then I point to the Hong Kong *urinates* meat balls." I think it was supposed to read "marinated", but the typo cracks me up, so I point to the picture because I have to have them. The waitress nods and adds "Soup. What-ah soup?" I said "Oh, no soup thank you" and point to the picture of the spinach leaves. The waitress nods and says "Soup. What-ah soup?" I had no idea why the soup kept coming up, but what the heck. I point to a picture of one of the soups, add morel mushrooms to complete my order.  Minutes later a busboy shows up with a huge tub of "soup" and sets it in the hole in the table and lights the propane burner. Now I really have no idea what to do. I motion to her that I have no idea what's going on, and she shows me how to cook the raw ingredients that are placed on the table, fondue style. She even found an egg timer to set on the table, so I would know when the longer cooking items would be done.  She takes the time to do this despite the fact that the restaurant is packed. What a nice person! It turns out that we had wondered into a Hotpot restaurant. A dish from Sichuan that I'm told is available all over Asia. It was absolutely delicious and fun to cook. I'll be looking for it again.

Dont Panic!!!

Don't panic was the overriding thought yesterday morning as we boarded the shuttle bus to the airport.  Cindy's wallet was missing containing her credit cards and we needed to board a plane to Vancouver in an hour and a half.  Cindy was convinced that she had left it at the restaurant that we had eaten dinner the night before.  They would not open again until later that night and we would be winging it over the pole by then on our way to Beijing by then.

At the airport it was impossible to find a helpful airline employee and after a brief call with Orbitz we decided to continue on and deal with the fall out later.  People lose their credit cards all the time while travelling. …. RIGHT?   Not an auspicious start to our trip but hopefully we were getting the bad luck out of the way early.

11 ½ hours later, we arrived, bleary eyed and feeling gob smacked.  We are used to a great deal more difficulty working our way around the labyrinth of a new airport in city we have never been to before but the Beijing airport was surprisingly easy.  We jumped on the subway found our stop started walking and somehow found the way to our Hostel.  It was amazing how quickly the old travel reflexes kicked in.  We had been waiting for this day for over a year and I believe that it's going to be another great adventure.

We received confirmation from the restaurant this morning via email that they indeed had the wallet.  Whew!  Let the games begin.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Washing away the desert

Portland has been a breath of fresh air after spending 2 and a half years lving in the litter box. Funny but we we couldnt wait to leave here when we left for Kenya a few years ago and now that Im back, I am in full appreciation mode of what this city has to offer. Its such a vibrant friendly place where everyone smiles and asks how you are when you meet them. Cars stop and let you cross the street. You can walk anywhere or easily hop onto a network of trolleys or busses. Bikes, skateboards and dogs are ubiquitus. Green growth is everywhere. I know that for the locals the sunshine and warmth will last only a few months before the rain sets in again but its been a great launching pad for our next adventure allowing us to wash off the dust and dreariness of Phoenix and feel whole again.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Leaving Phoenix

Today we are off. I took one last look at our empty apartment on my way out the door; enjoying the thought that another chapter is over and a new one is beginning. We’ve enjoyed the casual comradery of our neighbors over the last year. There was always time to mix chit chat in with walking a dog or going out to the car. I’ll remember the yummy smell of my Saudi neighbor’s Double Apple hookah smoke, and how the hookah brought our vertical neighborhood together. I have complained about living in Phoenix … and complained … then I’d complain some more, but there was good mixed in with bad. He is my list of the things I will miss and the things I am glad to leave behind.
Things I Liked About Living in Phoenix
Seeing the sun every single day
Celebrating the New Year in mild weather (Tempe throws a great party!)
Strolling the edge of Tempe Town Lake
Flowering Saguaros
The Tempe Art Festival
The Cactus League
Laughing my butt off at Brice and Lisa’s
Things I am Glad to Leave Behind
Drivers with a blatant disregard for human life
Guns allowed in bars
Conservatives, but only the mean ones
Brown, everything is brown
Fake adobe
The air conditioning bill
Having to drive to the library to recycle
Burning myself on my seatbelt buckle

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Bolivian Memories

Thoughts of long term travel have got me thinking of trips past so I sat down and penned this post about an adventure that we had in Bolivia.


Alarmed, I felt a stabbing pain on the top of my sandal clad foot. “Tame la mano!” Dominga said, the fuzz on the back of his neck bristling. “Tame la mano!’, he demanded again, shifting his weight so that another talon could find purchase and inflict more pain to my already suffering appendage. I was not sure what to do about this. There was a large blue and yellow Macaw standing on my foot squawking demands at me in Spanish. I looked around the compound confused as Dominga's owner reassured me “He’s just begging. He wants you to give him your hand so that he can crawl up onto your shoulder... He wants treats.” I extended my hand down to him and Dominga scurried up my arm, claws leaving track marks on my skin. He settled in near the nape of my neck and started to nibble greedily on my ear.

We had arrived in Florida. A speck on the map a few hours drive from our final destination. My body was still vibrating from the 9 hour bone jarring ride from Carmen Ruiz. I was tired, dirty and most of all pissed off. The icing on the cake was that my foot was now being impaled by the claws of an overgrown parakeet, demanding that I become his new found feeding perch. I was not in my happy place. Thankfully, Cindy would hand me a beer few minutes later. I wasn't sure where it came from, but frankly I didn't care. She knew that she needed to somehow calm my savage beast. Days earlier she had made me swear to her that I would try to enjoy the trip. It was something she really wanted to do and my current foul mood was not part of the bargain. It would not be the last time that I would be reminded of our pact while on this journey. I broodingly drank my beer, hoped Dominga claws didn't hit an artery and watched Marco, our guide, dig the mass of dead and dying butterflies out of the Jeep's grill. They were everywhere on the road and had impaled themselves with reckless abandon on the front of the jeep. He needed to clear them off so that we would not overheat on the next days drive.

Our journey had started 3 days ago in La Paz, Bolivia. We had been using the city as our base to see the country for the past 3 weeks. I was ready to move on south to Argentina and the promise of a beach side bungalow, but Cindy was up for another adventure into the wilds of Bolivia. She had read about a seldom visited national park Called Noell Kempff Mercado. The park, located in northeastern Bolivia, spans over 3.7 million acres and is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world. Established in 1979, and originally called “Parque National Huanchacha”, its name was later changed in honor of the late professor Noell Kempff Mercado for the extensive research and discoveries he made while working there. It is home to more than 130 species of mammals, including a population of black jaguars, 620 species of birds, and 70 species of reptiles including the Black Cayman. For Cindy it was an opportunity that could not be missed and she was willing to put up with my impending foul disposition in order to see it.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


We leave for China on August 5th. The one way tickets have been bought.

Im eager to get back to travelling. The bare wires, the smells, the strange surrroundings, the often amazing and sometimes inedible food. The sounds of the motorbikes in the street. Following the smell down a side street to something amazing. Never knowing where you are going to sleep. Never knowing where you are going to eat. Being lost. The overly lived in feel on the street. The grime on the walls, the light switch, the tile that pervades everyday life. Sweating because there is no air conditioning....anywhere. A smile that that you weren't expecting. That special moment when you make a connection, any connection with someone who does not speak your language .The foul smells. Not knowing a lick of what they are saying around you. The gracious people, the children following you because you are something different in their lives. The adults doing the same thing. Meeting new people and forging a bond just because you are sharing the moment of where you are. The bare light bulbs. The fun of finding a little bit of home in a far away place. Being scared to death of being in an accident while traveling in any one of hundreds of different types of transportation. The quiet. The fear. The myriad of street vendors. The stares. The begging. The touts. The awe of it all. I'm ready.