Monday, July 26, 2010

Okay, I suck at posting...

but this trip is too fun to be always sitting behind a computer, and seemingly everytime I go to upload photos, the power goes it, and takes my internet with it, or my adobe plug-ins crash.. so photos are being uploaded very slowly and very painfully.

I am alive, and I am currently in Hoi' An, which is a city on the South China Sea. The sea is gorgeous, it's the first time I've ever seen any non-Atlantic saltwater, and I got to go swimming in it with Tom yesterday. It was very hard, you see, the water is freezing.. only 75-80 degrees (Just kidding about it being freezing, obviously)!!! We are here with John, Tom's friend from the war and now lives in Thailand, who is all sorts of awesome and full of stories. We met up in John in Hue, where we stopped a few days to see the Citadel, or, alternatively, the Purple Forbidden City.

Before that.. I'm going backwards now, because I sort of lost track of the days... we road the train 11 hours on hard seats to get back to Hanoi, which is like sitting on a wooden bench for 11 hours, but with awesome company. Tom met some Vietnamese War veterans, and watching them talk and genuinely get along was nothing short of incredible. There was also a young entertainer on the train, who had the whole car in stitches with his singing, although he'd been put up to it by some dubious older men who were then sternly lectured by one of the Vietnamese War veterans.

Before that we were in Sapa, which is this really gorgeous town in the mountains, high up in the clouds, and full of Black Hmong (Tribal) people. The woman are pushy and try to sell you stuff; they get you by asking your name, asking if you have any brothers or sisters, and then trying to get you to buy stuff for said siblings. While we were there, Tom decided we should go on a hike down a mountain to the tribal villages of the Black Hmong and Red Zui (Sp?) people.

It was raining that day, but I was excited to go. It was a 12 km (8 mi) hike. Tom thought it was all down pavement.. but it turned out we would be hiking through streams and down the mountain in slippery red clay. It was really awesome, but one of the most straining hikes I have ever encountered, my legs were SORE the next few days. I took a few falls, despite having a Black Hmong woman who helped me in hopes that I would buy something from her at the arrival of the village 3 hours later.. I didn't buy her something, but I gave her 100,000 VND ($5), which is a ton of money to them. She was really grateful and seemed genuinely surprised, and she gave me a woven bracelet in return, which I really treasure since it was given freely.

We also went, the day before the hike in SaPa, to the market in Lao Cai. In the market, they were mostly selling tourist junk.. it used to be all the stuff that the Flower Hmong and other tribes would buy from one another, but as they started bringing more tourist buses to the market, this changed. In my opinion, there were two things of note here: 1) They have this gross soup Tom pointed out that was every part of a horse but a meat. If you ever encounter this, proceed with caution! 2) I saw puppies and got very upset by the way they were being handled.. lifted by the leash and things like that. Tom noted that they were still used for food in the tribal villages, and this became evident when we went to the villages outside of Sapa. It was the first time I was shocked, since I was under the impression that this practice only really still existed in North Korea and small pockets of Asia. Well, I guess we found one of those small pockets.

But it was a really nice little town, the air was very fresh and the hike was really cool.

The power keeps cutting out here, so I will keep this short, but I am alive and well, and Tom and John are also great. I will keep trying to post pictures, but I promise no success; I only have 20 out of about 900 that need to be posted uploaded, and I can't seem to manage to get an entire album up at once, so I'm going to keep trying.

I hope you are all well!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Away from the blog

I will be unable to post pictures and post to Facebook for a period time, as I am unable to use my computer here and VPN in for Facebook, or upload pictures. As such, I will post updates tomorrow when I can of the past few days: I will retropost pictures to the appropriate days when I am able to. I am currently in Hanoi, Vietnam, and thus far, it exceeds my expectations. Please check back tomorrow for updates.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Day 9: Trip to the hospital and Train from Xian to Beijing

No photos as today was a sick day.

It happened. I got food poisoning from KFC.

I woke up this morning feeling like hell after numerous trips to the bathroom overnight in addition to extreme stomach pain. Last night, before I went to bed, I noticed my hands were yellow.

Josh and Tom came by this morning, and asked if I wanted to go to a clinic. I initially said no, and took some medicine Tom had, but an hour later, it hadn’t helped. I then remembered the yellowing. I showed them, and it had gotten darker over night- at that point, I agreed to go to the hospital.

We got a cab there and we were directed to the VIP area- an area for government officials and foreigners. I was immediately- no wait whatsoever- shown to a doctor. A sweet, beautiful young nurse then took me around to get my blood tested, pay the fees, speak to the doctor again, and get medicine. I was given two types of medication. I am not sure how much it cost, but I think it cost well under $100 US. I was in an out in less than an hour.

I went back to my hotel room to rest and sleep. Josh and Tom went out on their own, and arrived back just before 6 PM. We tried to hail a cab for over 30 minutes, at which point a porter got a friend of his to come pick us up, for a much higher fee than typical- but he DID get us to the train on time.

We rushed to the train, and climbed into the car. The d├ęcor is beautiful- private compartments that sleep 4 people to each, with little vases and fakes roses; mirrors on the backs of the doors that seal off each compartment; controls for the lights and music, as well as reading lights; soft padding by the bottom bunks for sitting, and thick mattress pads; and a choice between a sit down or squatting toilet, WITH TOILET PAPER, a total luxury in this country.

And now I’m sitting on this luxurious train, which moves at over 100 miles an hour, typing this and getting ready to sleep. I’ll post more from Beijing, but even though I feel much better, it’s been a long day, so I’m calling it!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Day 8: Xian, Terracotta Army, Pagoda

Pictures of today at:

Today I overslept, I didn't wake up until almost 8 o'clock. Whoops. I climbed out of bed just before Tom rang, and threw on clothes. Tom called and said that we'd be leaving the hotel at around 9:30, so I goofed around a bit and then joined him and Josh downstairs.

We got a cab- Tom said the cab driver reminded him of John Belushi- and headed to the Terracotta Army museum. It was supposed to be an hour and a half drive, but it was actually much shorter than that- maybe 40 minutes or so. We pulled up and Tom checked his bag since they didn't allow luggage in, and then we proceeded up to the museum.

The walk to the museum was a long gauntlet of shops and restaurants. I saw a KFC there, and practically started drooling at the thought of potato wedges, so it was resolved we would go there after for lunch.

Tom stopped at an antiques stall and got a VERY cool pair of steampunky 19th or 18th century brass sunglasses, with the original case. The guy wanted him to buy more, but that was all Tom wanted- I don't blame him, it was a very neat purchase that many of my SciFi/Fantasy convention friends would drool over. He also got me a really cool bottle opener for my occasional beer cravings.

We proceeded through two security checkpoints and went into the museum. Tom told me that they built the museums on top of where the found the Terracotta Army- so you go in and there are these massive pits filled with Terracotta soldiers and horses, as well as remnants or wells. I'd try to explain it better, but the pictures really do it a justice I cannot with words. And Beccy, I took a TON of pics for you. :)

We went to the museum housed with the terracotta army, which held urns and vases and uniforms of the historical times of the emperors and the army, and also looked at a very expensive jade store- some of the offerings were over 800,000 yuan, over $100,000 USD.

We then wandered back through the shops, where Tom and Josh got baked sweet potatoes, and went to get the KFC. I was disappointed, no potato wedges or biscuits, but decent fries. Tom and I also also split a popcorn chicken, which was problematic from the start.

First of all, they were spicy, at least some of them. Tom and I CANNOT do hot foods. So I pulled them apart to see which ones were spicy, and realized that they were little slimy chunks of chicken cubes inside. I ended up eating some anyway, because I was very hungry.

We left and went back to the hotel for a while, and rested there until evening. My stomach started to feel very unsettled, and I lay down for a while. I was also a little sad as I got news about the passing of someone I knew, so it was an off afternoon for sure. I kept running to the bathroom, but took some immodium, and felt better.

We went at around 9:00 to the Pagoda in Xian. It was very beautiful, with a lights show and the largest fountain in China, which shot up and sprayed everyone. I took pictures of that and many of the Pagoda. Tom and Josh spotted a place where one could dress up like a concubine and be photographed, and they asked me to do it. I said sure, the price was reasonable. As they took pictures along with the girl who worked there, a crowd gathered around, staring and giggling. Eep. But I got two nice- while very amusing- pictures from the shop, in addition to what Tom and Josh took.

We wandered up to the Pagoda, and Josh and I illegally *gasp* walked on the grass to stand by a carved wall and get pictures. We were laughing with Tom about breaking laws in China. I realized, while we were by the pagoda, that I would probably be very happy living in a city like Xian- It's clean, it's beautiful, the people are friendly, it's not very expensive, and there are a lot of things to see and do within the city.

We got in a cab and tailed it back to the hotel, where I uploaded pictures and got very sick again. I also realized that my skin was jaundiced- turning yellow. More on that tomorrow, but a word to my readers: I went to the hospital, I was treated EXTREMELY well, I was in and out in about an hour, and it's just food poisoning from the KFC. I'm feeling better now, I have medicine, and I am resting today, but it's nothing to be worried about or that I hadn't anticipated.

End of story? Don't eat foreign food in China.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Day 7: Train Ride Continued, Xi'an

Pictures of today:

I awoke on the train at 8:30 today after sleeping soundly for almost 10 hours. It was very relaxing- I got up, talked with Tom, played the DS, stretched my legs, and generally hung out. Definitely a decent ride. Before I knew it, it was noon, and the train was pulling into the station.

We got out, and a kind Chinese man who shared the compartment with us, in addition to a Russian who boarded in the middle of the night, assisted Tom with our luggage out to the front of the station. We then got tickets back to Beijing for the 7th- they only had soft sleepers, the first class cars, so we ended up with those instead of the hard sleeper tickets.

We tried to get a cab, but the first cabbie said we had too much luggage. Blah, they are always saying that. Josh convinced another one to take him, and Tom and I demonstrated our mad awesome American packing skills. We can always make the luggage fit, even with 6 bags and 3 people!

Today was an easy day. We went to the fruit market and got some really good rice noodles, then procured cookies, a sugar baby melon, bread, and a cucumber from the stalls in the market. After that, we went to the supermarket, and bought random stuff- I got a bottle opener/peeler/knife (all in one!) and a spoon for my melon, in addition to some detergent for my shorts and underthings; Tom got a wastebasket to fit his emperor hat into, as well as some other miscellaneous stuff. Oh, and beer, let's not forget the beer.

We are staying at Home Inn, the same chain we stayed in before. It's very nice, the rooms are bigger here and there is a lovely Chinese girl who works at the desk who speaks very good English.

The original plan for tonight was for me to go to Karaoke since there's a KTV here in the building, and for Tom and Josh to go out. Well, the three of us went down to the karaoke place, and they were all like "It's 200 yuan (like $33 bucks) just for the cover because you get a private room, and another 29 yuan to sing a song.. and then you gotta pay for drinks, food, yadda yadda. Tom remarked that it was the type of place that businessmen took prostitutes, and after some googling, I found out that he was right- mostly. What happens is, there are two types of KTV in China- one for young people who want to have some good clean fun, and one for the businessmen. At the one for the businessmen, you get a private room, and hire girls to spend time with you- and yes, sometimes for a price, they will go home with you. So I was NOT about to even give a second thought to going there.

I went up to my room and drank my beer and ate some melon, and then decided to go for a walk alone. I went and walked across the street to an eyeglass place, and was able to quickly communicate the fact that I needed saline. I was so relieved to finally find it, it's very difficult to find here since they don't sell it in pharmacies or supermarkets, and the price was right on par with US cost, which is expected for something like that. I then walked down the street past the little shops to see if anyplace was open where I could get my eyebrows down, but alas, I was out of luck as they were all closed.

If Tom and I get looks and stared at here, I got even more stared at walking alone. However, there are policemen on every corner, so I feel safe walking down the streets by myself, so long as they are the major streets.

As I went back to the hotel room some of the KTV people were downstaies. They were trying to talk me into going up, and said for me, it'd only be a 30 yuan cover. But this is how I see it:

1) I get ripped off by the club in some way.
2) I don't get ripped off, and have great fun in the club with the businessmen and hookers. Yeah. Real viable.
3) I go to the club, don't get ripped off, and it's still a disaster. Either I'm the entertainment or it's uncomfortable or something else happens.. way too much that could go wrong here.

So yes, I passed on that.

Now I'm kicking back now again and finishing my beer and watermelon. Today is a welcome "down" day, but tomorrow we see the Terracotta army, so I can't wait!

BTW- It's nice to not have terribad internet too. This post, unlike the last 3, is not backlogged.

Day 6: Train ride from Huhhot to Xi’an

(Retroposted in Xian as this was written on the train.)

Photos of today are at:

This morning I woke up at 6 AM, but crawled back into bed at 9 after unsuccessfully attempting to get the internet to work on any decent level. I slept until around 9:45, then got up again and got dressed. Tom rang me and asked me if I wanted to go for a walk, and we picked a direction and started walking in it.

Tom and I rounded a corner and ended up in a wedding clothes shop. It was very beautiful, full of what we would think of as traditional Chinese dresses and elaborate fabrics. Tom took pictures of the shop, and we thanked the woman and walked down a while farther, realizing that we were in a district entirely for wedding clothes. Tom and I went into a small shop with wedding favours and purchased an invitation to use as a card for 1 yuan, and then we walked back to the hotel to get ready for our 23 hour train ride to Xi’an.

We got packed up and Josh came, and we grabbed a cab to the station. I have become an expert at hailing cabs at this point. We got down there, waited in line for a while, got food at the station for the trip, and the boarded the train. We were back on a hard sleeper.

We ended up all bunking together this time; Tom and I took the bottom bunks, while Josh took one in the middle. We all sat on the bottom bunks, talking together and joking around, and I read the entire book Twilight before the sun set. The terrain we passed by was gorgeous mountains but also large factories, cities, wind farms and small towns, so I occasionally looked out the window for a time. It’s very comfortable here, being able to move around at whim and lay down when you please. The time has passed very quickly so far, but it’s lights out at 10, so this is a short entry compared to my others as nothing too notable has happened today.

I will take a moment here to talk about the cleanliness of the Chinese cities. People, particularly children, urinate everywhere outside, and Tom and Josh even saw a little girl peeing on a subway platform. On our walk, I observed a toddler going #2 onto a piece of paper on the street. It was on paper, but still- the cultural differences in acts regarded as intimate acts in America is very notable. The smell is also very distinct; it’s not everywhere, but it’s not uncommon to catch whiffs of human stench all over the city. In public, they have toilets that you squat over- pretty much metal or porcelain holes in the ground- don’t help matters much (although hotels and homes have the same toilets we have in America). I’m used to the smell from other life encounters, but it’s certainly something you don’t encounter much in the states.

Also, people spit everywhere- and smoke. It’s just the way of life. Not many women smoke here, I’ve only seen one, but most of the men seem to. It also seems that in the major cities, like Beijing, people are used to tourists, and try to get a higher price from them. Outside of the major tourist cities, in the smaller cities like Xian and Huhhot, people are more honest about things and are also generally friendlier. But they stare a lot more at white people outside of the major tourist cities as well, something I’m quite used to now.

The hotels we have stayed in have all been powered by the keys. You have to insert your room key to get power, and take it with you when you leave, so as not to waste power. They also have wind farms and solar lights all over the place.

It’s also very cheap here, about 40 cents for a coke. My sun parasol was 5 dollars, beer is about 60 cents. Food ranges from very cheap- 50 cents for a large meal- to very expensive, very expensive being about 10 dollars a head.

So those are my basic observations. If you have any questions, ask away, but I’m done for the night!

Day 5: Mausoleum of Ghenghis Khan

(written in Huhhot and posted from Xian, courtesy of crappy internets and China blockage. Gotta stay one step ahead of the censors here!)

Pictures of today at:

Today was a very long day. We woke up at 6 AM, as we had to be out the door by 7 AM to go to the Mausoleum of Ghenghis Khan, which was approximately a 4 hour drive. We rented a taxi cab and driver for the day to take up there; it cost 160 USD for his services for the day. A young man about my age pulled up in front of the hotel in a cab, and Josh and I were off.

We drove for a very long time past vast mountains and places where the Earth had eroded into deep turrets into the earth, revealing many different layers of sediment. It was very beautiful. Traffic going up was on the lighter end; when needed, the driver switched lanes to go into the breakdown way (as well as oncoming traffic at some points!) to get around the large trucks that travelled the roads. We also saw an accident where the front edge of one of their trucks was very badly smashed, but it seemed that there were no injuries from it.

About 3 ½ hours into the ride, we stopped at a fancy restaurant for food that was nothing short of decadent. They had delicious potatoes and pork with a sweet sauce, the potatoes sliced up like chips; there was diced beef with peanuts and vinegar cucumber, pasta florets that were heavy and coated with a thin but excellent sauce, and a massive bowl of noodles and pork and eggs. We fed the driver, and he acted almost as a servant throughout the day, pouring our tea, holding the car doors for us- he was a very courteous young man, and was very happy to pull off to the side of the road so we could take pictures.

After we departed from lunch, we arrived about 30 minutes later at the Mausoleum of Ghengis Khan. It was on perfectly maintained grounds covering many acres. It is worth noting that this attraction was formerly located in Tibet, but moved to Mongolia. We went up several flights of stairs towards the central museum building. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed inside the museum, although I did manage to sneak one of the massive statue of Ghengis Khan in the front hall from outside. Inside the building, the walls were covered in murals celebrating the life and acts of Ghengis Khan; the ceiling was painted gorgeously with colors of red, gold, blue, and yellow, with large dragons on the domes above us, and pillars emblazoned with gold. They had display cases with artifacts belonging to Ghengis Khan as well as those members of his clan; horse bridles, milk jugs, jewelry, golden saddles and weaponry. They also had places where one could kneel down and light incense and worship.

Outside, they had an altar where one could pray to Ghengis Khan’s horse, which was thought to be supernatural, as well as several other areas for praying. Ponies grazed on the grass, and little buildings with souvenir shops were scattered about. A young boy was very entertained by the sprinklers, playing in them, and we seemed to be a bit of an attraction ourself; a Chinese couple came up and asked Josh if they could take pictures with us and Tom, and we happily agreed. The people in Mongolia, once again, are very friendly people; earlier when we had stopped for drinks on the way, a young man was tickled to practice his English with Tom, saying “Good morning, teacher”, which I found very amusing as Tom is actually a teacher back in the states.

We went back to the cab after seeing the sights and headed back to Huhhot. On the way, the driver pointed out the desert to me while I was engrossed in the DS for what was sure to be a long trip back; the dunes were the heavy tan of stand and just unimaginably beautiful. It was my first time seeing the desert, and while it was there and gone before I could snap a picture, I am sure it is a sight I will remember forever.

The driver took us through a city, and pulled off where there were more monuments to both Ghenghis Khan and the people of the grasslands. I snapped some pictures of Josh and the monuments while Tom did the same, and as I was photographing the monuments, a man came up and gestured for me to give him my camera. At first I hesitated, but then I noticed the expensive Nikon around his neck- I couldn’t see him hauling off with my camera when he had one so nice himself. I handed him mine, and he took many pictures of me, gesturing for me to make different positions and turn different ways. Both he and I were entertained, and eventually he handed back my camera and I thanked him.

We got back in the cab and headed back to Huhhot. It was a very long and mostly unnotable ride; it took 7 hours to get back, and we passed through towns that were very poor coal towns; the dust coated the roads and the land around. The cab driver, once we hit Huhhot, was getting very anxious to watch the World Cup, so we got out a little before the hotel, Tom paid him, and we walked back. We got beers and went to our room to drink and sleep, and that was the end of our long journey to the Mausoleum.