Wednesday, March 11, 2009

ain't no mountain high enough

today I took advantage of the brilliantly sunny weather and went on a solo hike up one of the many mountains that surround Seoul. the original intention was to get up early and head out to Bukhansan, one of the highest peaks and most popular hikes near Seoul, but a nasty bout of insomnia last night made me change my mind when I finally woke up at 10 am this morning after only 4.5 hours of sleep. I headed instead to Yongamsan, a much shorter hike that was closer to the city. here's one of the most fantastic things about Seoul -- their public transportation is incredible. you can literally get anywhere on their subway system and a refillable T-Money card can be used as payment for subways, taxis, buses and even at some convenience stores.

after breakfast and a cup of extra-strong coffee I made my way to the subway station near my aunt's apartment for the easy 45-minute trek to the Yongamsan stop. once I was out of the subway station I had some trouble finding the trailhead but after asking around a bit I started making my ascent up the mountain. I pretty much had the trails to myself for the majority of the way up, with the exception of two 60-something gentlemen I encountered as I was trying to figure out which of the many trails would lead to the top. when I stopped them with an "excuse me" in my best polite Korean, one of the gentlemen shouted "yes!" with such eagerness you would have thought he was waiting for me to stop them. they were heading toward the top, so I fell in lock step with them for a few minutes, satisfying their polite curiosity about where I was from (America), was I a student (no), how come I spoke such good Korean (it's just all right but thanks anyway), did I know the half-Korean football player Heinz Ward (not personally, no), etc. eventually I overtook them and they wished me a good hike and encouraged me to "sweat a lot" in my ascent to the top.

I encountered a lot more hikers at the top of the mountain, which I reached after about an hour up a pretty steep incline. the funny thing about Korean people and hiking is that, just like everything else, it's a social activity and they truly enjoy themselves, but they also take it really seriously. the top of the mountain was crowded with 40-, 50-, 60-, and 70-something Korean men and women decked out in fancy North Face trail runners, the latest in insulating and moisture-wicking clothing, expensive-looking daypacks filled with water bottles and extra layers, polar fleece jackets, visors or baseball caps to keep their skin nice and pale, lightweight gloves, collapsible walking sticks, the whole nine yards. some people even had portable transistor radios stuck in their pockets to play encouraging traditional Korean folk songs during their journey (personally I prefer the Rocky theme, but hey, to each their own). you'd think they were preparing for a trek up Mt. Everest, not a two-hour hike on a sunny day up a mountain that is a less-than-one-hour subway ride from downtown Seoul. it was freaking hilarious.

once at the top I took a much-needed rest and sat down on a smooth rock ledge with the sun on my face and a 360-degree view of Seoul and its surrounding mountains. I unpacked the sandwich my aunt had made for me that morning complete with sandwich, fruit, dessert, and hot tea in a thermos (yum), took out the book I'm currently reading and had a thoroughly enjoyable lunch by myself on the mountain peak. right below the peak I encountered one of those rock piles where people carefully make an altar by placing one stone on top of the other. I saw these all over SE Asia and someone explained that people add a stone to the altar when they want to make a wish, so I took a moment to reflect on everything I've gone through over the past nine-ish weeks, said a few thanks, and made a few wishes of my own before carefully placing my small stone on top of the hundreds of other stones gathered there.

eventually I made my way back down the mountain via a different route which was much harder partially because of the more rocky terrain (I felt like I was rock climbing in Thailand again) and also because my muscles were starting to get tired. I got a little turned around at the bottom of the mountain and had to ask a few people how to find the nearest subway station, including two ADORABLE little girls who must have been six or seven years old. both bespectacled and clutching backpacks, they gave me very detailed directions to the subway station ("it's between the bakery and the eyeglass shop, make sure you go straight, not left or right"). one of them bravely asked me where I was from and when I told her that I lived in America, she jumped up and down with excitement over meeting someone from so far away. I seriously wanted to put them in my backpack and take them home with me, but I had a train to catch, so they bowed and said good-bye to me in perfect unison and I went on my merry way, perfectly content with the way my day had unfolded.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

life in korea

for me, visiting korea is an experience that is difficult to classify. i speak the language well enough to get around and i understand the culture well enough not to make any horrible gaffes, yet i am somehow neither tourist nor local. obviously, being a korean person, i look the part, unlike most of the americans who visit korea. i know to remove my shoes when i go into a restaurant or, oddly enough, the dentist's office (don't worry, i didn't have some kind of orthodontic emergency, i was taking my little cousin to get FIVE cavities filled... girlfriend needs to chill out on the candy). i know how to ask for directions and to bow when i meet new people. i always receive and pour drinks with two hands. i try my best to use the formal kind of korean when i speak with elders and the casual kind of korean when i speak with people my age. i am completely comfortable wandering around seoul on my own using the super-easy subway system.

yet i'm still a visitor. the way i think, the way i see things, the way i relate to people -- all american. when i spend a lot of time with older, more traditional relatives, i have to shift my personality a bit to fit in. i force a smile when my grandmother worries about the fact that i'm not married, i eat rice and soup for breakfast when what i'd rather have is a coffee and a bagel, i make my body sleep on the floor with a small bean-filled pillow under my head, i don't stay out too late, i call often when i'm out on my own. it's definitely an effort and sometimes i feel like i'm playing a part... yet i don't mind because i'm visiting their home, their place and i have to respect their ways.

when you look at the history of korea, they come off like the little brother who has always been bullied by his bigger, more powerful neighbors. a long history of being invaded, pillaged, controlled, annexed and taken advantage of has created an intense nationalistic pride and a generally obsessive population and a desperate need to succeed. koreans are hard core about everything. they study hard core, they play hard core, they work hard core, nothing is subtle. you see 70-year-old grandmas decked out in hiking gear on the subway and 13 year olds studying until 2 am. to say that education is important is a ridiculous understatement as everyone, EVERYONE obsesses over whether they will be admitted into a prestigious university. the pressure is intense and it seems like they have few outlets to blow off steam.

in my continued effort to try and be a tourist in korea, next week i think i might make the trek up to the north korean border. it's a place of obvious historic significance, yet i've never been there. i'll try and blog about the experience.

Monday, February 23, 2009

a knock in the night

(alternate title: F U bangkok)

setting: khao san road, aka backpacker ghetto, bangkok, thailand. 2:50 am.

characters: me and my roommate, an australian girl i met on the ferry from phuket

and... action!

it's a typical night on thailand's famed khao san road. the thickly polluted, humid night is the perfect setting for the seedy late-night khao san scene. older white men walk arm-in-arm with one, two, sometimes three young girls/ladyboys who are getting paid to keep them company. heavily made-up girls in plastic minidresses stand in front of bars with signs that promise "strong cocktails" and the reassurance that "we do not check ID." drunken westerners of all ages flow down the street in herds, sweating through t-shirts that advertise singha beer or lao beer as they sip from thailand's ubiquitous buckets (local vodka + red bull or local whiskey + coke, packaged neatly in a plastic pail that might be more innocently used to build sand castles on a beach). silent, grim-faced thai women stand in front of piping hot woks, making plate after plate of $0.75 pad thai for the carousing crowd. cripples vie for the attention of the drunken masses, contorting themselves into painful positions on the filthy sidewalk, shaking their plastic cups in silent desperation.

in a cheap cold-shower-and-fan-only room off a dark alley on khao san road, the two main characters snooze away peacefully despite the chaos that reigns outside. they're happy to have scored a cheap-but-not-so-cheap-it-feels-sketchy room for the night and even more happy to have company for the evening, since that makes the room even more affordable. each girl is on her own twin bed, dead asleep and dreaming happy dreams.

around 2:50 am, i jolt awake to a loud rapping on the door. disoriented and confused, i wonder if i'm dreaming the sound but the knocking is persistent. "helloooo..." whines a voice outside the door. the knocks continue, loud, sharp, repetitive. my roommate wakes up too and in her sleepy state makes the instinctual move to answer the door, but i am fully awake at this point and stop her before she leaves her bed. we consult each other in low whispers and decide to remain completely silent since we have no idea what waits for us on the other side of the door and aren't particularly interested in finding out.

the knocking continues for about fifteen minutes straight, interrupted only by the occasional "helllooooo" by a voice that is neither definitely female nor definitely male. we notice that despite being on a hallway of other rooms, we are the only one receiving a 3 am wake-up call and start to silently freak the fuck out, wondering what the hell is going on and what could be waiting outside our door. we start imagining the worst -- a thief trying to trick us into opening the door so he can force his way inside and rob us (or worse) at knifepoint. a super-sketchy prostitute looking for a potential customer. the possibilities get worse and worse, and we have no phone in our room to call down to reception, no peephole to look out the door.

eventually the knocking fades and the feet shuffle away, but not after we hear a distinct sound of someone writing something on our door, which freaks us out even more. have they marked us for a later visit? are they passing on a message to an accomplice? we're both wide awake and far too scared to go back to sleep. we say over and over again how glad we are that we decided to share a room so we didn't have to deal with this alone. we start telling each other horrible stories of things that have happened to us or friends of ours in the past; in retrospect, this was probably not a good idea. my roommate remembers that she bought a ninja-style throwing star as a gift for a friend and pulls it out of her backpack, reasoning that it probably won't do anything but it makes her feel better. we program the phone number for the bangkok police into her cell phone and try, in vain, to go back to sleep, which we finally do about an hour later.

* * * *

the end of the story is ridiculously harmless in comparison to the 3 am certainty we felt that OMG WE ARE GOING TO DIE. what had happened was the brainless, idiotic, hapless, retarded, stupid, horrible night manager who checked us in and took our payment realized as she was balancing her books at 3 am that she was short 950 baht. she was convinced it was either us or another room who had neglected to pay up, so she decided to knock on our door at 3 am to resolve the issue. you know, because that's a TOTALLY LOGICAL WAY TO DEAL WITH THE PROBLEM, WTF. we realized this in the morning because the scraping sound on our door that had scared us so badly had been the night manager leaving us a note, telling us that we hadn't paid for our room yet (which was totally not true). we went to the reception desk at 9 am the next morning, tempers blazing but trying to respect the asian mentality by keeping our cool and proceeded to firmly but politely resolve the problem with the new manager on duty. i was really, really, really tempted to go uber-american on them and cuss them the fuck out but decided that wouldn't help matters at all and besides, all's well that ends well aside from the complete and utter freak-out at 3 a.m.

* * * *

just because i wasn't having enough fun already, later that day i encountered an impressively smooth-talking con artist by wat pho temple. i was having trouble finding the entrance to the temple and was sort of wandering around the block. now, i've traveled enough and am savvy enough to know that as a solo female traveler, i should really try and NOT look lost in a heavily touristed area, since this is basically a wide-open invitation for every hustler to jump on me and try to offer their expert help... so i was keeping my face neutral as my eyes scanned the street beneath my huge sunglasses and i discreetly consulted the map in my lonely planet.

but someone started talking to me. i tried to ignore him but he was persistent, first trying to direct me toward wat phra krew (temple of the emerald buddha, which i already seen) and then deciding to help me with wat pho. he asked where i was from and upon finding out that i am american, told me joyfully he was a fan of barack obama (why bring an innocent president into this scheme? i mean really, that's just bad manners). we commiserated about the heat and humidity of the day and he told me that wat pho was actually closed for the next few hours for a private ceremony and that i should come back at 4 pm when it would re-open to tourists. he borrowed my map and showed me a few other temples i should check out and advised me to find a tuk-tuk driver who would take me around for 30 baht, mind you, if he says 60 baht, make sure you bargain hard and get a price of 30 baht because some of these drivers, ha ha, they drive a tough bargain.

at this point i was hot, sweaty, exhausted, irritated and paused momentarily in our conversation to consider the idea. noting my hesitation, he promptly waved over a tuk-tuk driver and "bargained" for me. in retrospect, it was a pretty elaborate and impressive ruse. the tuk-tuk driver asked for 60 baht and my man "fought" him to get him down to 30 baht for me... how nice huh? at this point i realized what was going on and said thank you politely but firmly, took my map back and walked away in the opposite direction. he started yelling at me as i walked away but i kept walking, not looking back, eyes straight ahead and hands on my bag.

needless to say, i found the entrance to wat pho a few minutes later. it was indeed open to tourists, teeming with them, actually, and i was in a foul mood for the rest of the afternoon (it may also have had something to do with my interrupted sleep the night before).

so, then, you understand why i almost titled this post "F U bangkok." what a note to end my amazing trip on huh? i put it past me though with a scoop of ice cold berry sorbet and a few restorative conversations in an air-conditioned internet cafe and then a fantastic and cheap dinner of seafood green curry and papaya salad. i left bangkok late last night on a red-eye flight and am now coming to you live from my aunt's apartment in beijing, where the weather is a frosty 20-something degrees and i am feeling completely disoriented. the backpacker part of my journey is officially over and it is now time to hang out with the extended fam back in the motherland. i doubt i'll be blogging much from here on out (maybe i'll post a few pics), so if i don't write again soon, i'll sign off here with a thank-you for coming along with me on my travels. hope you enjoyed my stories!

Friday, February 20, 2009

winding down

in retrospect, i made a wise decision to end the backpacking portion of my travel in the thai islands. i started off the thai portion with an adventurous stop in northern thailand, where i rode elephants, went white water rafting and learned how to make pad thai, but then i ventured southward to the famed thai beaches... and now that i'm here, my brain has sort of switched into beach mode and i can't really imagine strapping on my backpack, putting on sneakers and heading off in search of adventure.

instead, my days are filled with simpler questions. am i wearing enough sunscreen? should i have a pineapple shake, or a mango shake? do i want a thai massage or a regular massage? how did i get this many mosquito bites? do i want noodles or rice? should i buy yet another $8 sundress? eh, why not? i'm still somewhat active (i've gone rock climbing, snorkeling and kayaking), but i've also gotten a heavenly beachfront massage, watched the sunset over the sea, spent an entire afternoon floating in a pool on an inflatable raft, lost in my own thoughts, ordered a pineapple daiquiri at a swim-up bar and drank bottles and bottles of cold grape gatorade from the 7-eleven.

suffice it to say that my brain is slowly winding down from the non-stop adventures of the past month. i'm trying to prepare my mind to switch gears as i look ahead to the final leg of my trip, a quick pit stop in beijing and then a few weeks in wintry korea with my relatives. the solo backpacker part of my trip is almost over, and while i'm looking forward to not having to live out of a backpack, i'm also a little sad to see the adventure come to an end. the down time here in ko phi phi has helped me start to process the many profound ways in which this trip has influenced me, humbled me, inspired me, changed me. my mind is starting to wander ahead to what lies ahead, what decisions i'll need to make, what questions i'll need to answer. i don't have many answers yet, but i'm having fun trying.

Monday, February 16, 2009

just to reassure you that i'm not dead

i'm in thailand now, sitting in an outdoor internet cafe on the southern coast. reggae music is playing in the background and the accents i'm listening to are everything but thai... french, american, aussie, english. the air is humid and thick with mosquitoes, but there's a nice breeze in the air and the sunset tonight was out of this world. tomorrow i'm going rock climbing, and the next day i'm going to take a boat to the famous place where the film "the beach" was made.

i haven't written in a while b/c i was faced with the dilemma of doing justice to my angkor wat experience. words cannot express, as they say, and in this case, a picture is not worth a thousand words. how do you explain what it's like to watch the sun rise over an ancient khmer temple while the moon is still high in the sky on the opposite end of the park? how do you capture what it's like to channel your inner indiana jones / lara croft as you climb temples all day, clambering over crumbling rocks and staring at the serene faces of buddhas? how do you explain the strange combination of exhaustion and exhiliration that comes with watching the sun set over the horizon while sitting on top of an ancient temple, cracking open an ice-cold beer after a 12-hour day of hiking and climbing with new friends? how do you describe the sensation of placing banana after banana in the trunk of an apparently ravenous cambodian elephant?

it's nearly impossible. and that's why i haven't written. because i can't capture angkor wat in words or pictures. i can't explain what it's like to play with the local cambodian kids for hours... kids who were irritating the hell out of me a few hours before as they hassled me to buy their little trinkets, but as soon as we got past that, you realize they're kids and they're happy and they just want to play. they wrote me notes, taught me khmer, asked if i had a boyfriend, put flowers in my hair, gave me free bracelets, and completely absconded with my heart.

but, i'll try. here are a few shots...

playing with elephant trunks (that sounds sort of wrong):

the cheeks!!

hungry elephant trunk:

dawn breaking:

the view when i first walked in at 6 am:

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

the real adventure begins

so you know all that stuff I said about China being totally exotic? Vietnam being an epic adventure?

forget all of it. you want to come to another world, come to Cambodia. as much as I resisted the American temptation, the phrase that kept coming to mind as I gazed out the window during my 13-hour bus ride from Saigon was "third world." because, as snobbish or pretentious as it may sound, that's what it is here. I saw minibuses crammed fulled with people -- and when I say crammed, I don't mean every seat was taken, I mean every possible free space was occupied with some human limb or another -- barreling down the dusty highway with eight or so people sitting on top of the roof. grandmothers held onto babies and children held onto the sides of the roof as the hot sun turned their brown skin even browner. I even saw several buses with motorbikes tied to the back of the roof behind all the roof-riders.

when we stopped for breaks during the ride, kids would swarm the bus, selling plastic bags of chopped pineapple or mango (served with a spiced salt that somehow intensifies the fruity taste -- I kept trying to figure out but eventually gave up and just enjoyed the flavor). women squatted behind baskets of fried spiders (big, fat, shiny black ones) or crunchy cockroaches, mindlessly tending to a half-naked toddler playing near them. there was more than one occasion on which our bus driver had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting a herd of water buffalo (I think?) that had wandered into the road, much to the dismay of the stick-wielding 11-year-old who had been charged with herding them.

here in Siem Reap, I spent the day wandering around the town, getting my bearings, buying a few small things in the market, exchanging smiles with the friendly locals, drinking 75-cent Angkor beer, tasting the local Khmer cuisine, shaking my head no to the constant calls of "hello lady! you want tuk-tuk?" and trying to avoid the pleading gaze of the many many amputees who roam the market area, begging for spare change or selling photocopied versions of Lonely Planet guidebooks. like the locals do, I shelled out a dollar and bought a traditional Khmer "krama," a small, hand-woven cotton scarf good for keeping the sun of one's neck or the dust out of one's mouth during roaming walks or rides on a moto taxi.

tomorrow I will get up before sunrise to get to Angkor Wat before dawn and watch the sunrise over an incredible horizon before spending the day roaming through temple ruins, doing my best Indiana Jones / Lara Croft impression. wish me luck!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

pics! finally!

Lest you think that my trip is one happily epic adventure after another, I was going to write an expletive-filled post last night to reflect my pissed-off mood. I was tired, I was hungry, I was sick of feeling like everyone viewed me as a walking ATM, I was mad at myself for not planning a few things better, I wanted some good old Western DAMN PRICE TAGS ON ITEMS so every single stupid transaction didn't have to involve haggling, I was filled with rage at the Hoi An post office, etc etc etc etc. Grr, I tell you!!! I even contemplated playing the playlist on my iPod titled "pissed off" which almost never gets played. I barely know what's on it. I think it has a lot of Eminem.

When I finally landed in Saigon around 11 pm last night, exhausted, dirty, hungry, and hotel-less, I was in no laughing mood. But then I got to chatting with a nice German wife /Australian husband couple (who met while backpacking... hmm!), who let me share a cab with me from the airport. And then I tailed them into their hotel in the off chance it would be decent, affordable, and have vacancy. And then it was -- $25/night for a clean and air-conditioned room with hot water that spewed out instantly (my first since.... well, since Rockville) and American cable channels on the flat-screen TV and an actually shower stall with a door (hard to imagine). And then I went to a cafe on the corner and got a cheap beer and some chicken curry and chatted about German castles with the train engineer sitting next to me. And then I had a good night's sleep and woke up to a brilliantly sunny day in Saigon.

And then I felt better.

So yes, long-term travel can be filled with once-in-a-lifetime experiences a la hiking the Great Wall practically solo or kayaking through the endless rocks of Halong Bay, but it can also make you feel completely broken and inexplicably hateful toward whatever country you happen to be in for the night. The good thing is that the bad feelings usually disappear as soon as you have a hot shower, a place to stash your stuff and some food in your belly, whereas the once-in-a-lifetime experiences are branded in your memory forever.

Anyway, the post is entitled pics, so why am I still prattling on? You probably skipped this and went straight to the pics anyway, it's okay, I'm not offended. So, then:


cyclo or bike lady, who will win?

sunset on hoan kiem lake:

early morning, taken from the top of the boat:

fellow kayakers going underneath a huge rock formation:

jumping off the top of the boat:

motorbike on cat ba island:

local girls, cat ba island


local beach in hoi an:

ladies at market (right lady's lips are stained red with betel nut):

my spring rolls with fresh rice paper!

hoi an streets:

silk lantern vendor:

Thursday, February 5, 2009

i left my heart in hoi an

it's hard to explain the charm of Hoi An until you've seen it in contrast to the rest of the country. not that other parts of Vietnam aren't charming, too, it's just that life seems to move a little bit differently here. people nod and smile at you as you bicycle or stroll by, shopkeepers bargain with you when it's time to purchase but otherwise leave you alone, and you only hear "hello! motorbike?" about five times a day as opposed to five times in ten minutes. the sun is warm, the food is fantastic, there are silk lanterns everywhere, the river sparkles in the sun, there are kids everywhere, the beach is a 20-minute bike ride away and you can somehow lose hours just wandering around the tiny old town.

the other important realization I've had in Hoi An is that I'm apparently quite a racial conundrum. everyone wants to claim me. in China they all spoke to me in Mandarin first until I explained to them that I was actually Korean. here in Vietnam, they are quick enough to realize the telltale signs of a foreign backpacker (Reef flip flops, mosquito-bitten ankles, backpack and an open copy of Lonely Planet), so the exchange is a little different, but it almost always goes something like this:

Them: "Where you from?"
Me: "I'm Korean, but I live in America."
Them: "Korea! I thought you Chinese, maybe Vietnamese. You look Vietnamese."
Me: "No, I'm Korean."
Them: "I love Korean film. You know [insert name of Korean movie star here]?"
Me: "No, sorry, but I hear Vietnamese people love Korean movies."
Them: "Yes! So romantic! Sentimental!"

[a pause in which I feel bad that I'm not more familiar with Korean movie stars]

Them: "You so pretty/beautiful. You have boyfriend?"
Me, laughing: "Thank you, but no. It's just me."
Them, in shock: "What? How old are you?"
Me: "How old do you think I am?"
[This is where their answers have varied somewhat, but it's usually at this point in the conversation that we realize that the inquiring woman is usually younger with me and has at least one child. The exception to this was my waitress at dinner last night, who was my same age and said she had no boyfriend, so we high-fived each other. apparently the high-five is a universal gesture of celebration.]

I'm not exaggerating when I say I've had some version of this conversation at least ten times in the last few days (the first of which I was pretty much locked away in my hotel room, sick). the consistency of the exchange is nothing short of hilarious. at first I thought it was a bit intrusive but then I got used to it and tried to see it as a compliment.

so yesterday I took an amazing half-day cooking course. we started the course with a welcome drink in the tree-shaded cafe and then ventured to the outdoor food market to begin our tutorial. our guide, Su Su, pointed out all the fresh fruits and vegetables and had the various stall owners crack open a few things so we could try them. I sampled all kinds of bizarre fruit, including fresh tamarind pods right out of the shell and an apple-looking fruit that they call "women's tit" because it's round-shaped and milky inside (I'm so not kidding). our guide was hilarious, making jokes in her accented English that old ladies in Vietnam who chew betel nuts are rich because they don't have to buy lipstick (pointing to one red-lipped old woman as evidence) and that green tea was responsible for half of the babies in Vietnam because people drink it and can't fall asleep at night.

after the market tour, we took a leisurely boat ride down the river to the cooking school and began our lesson with a frosty drink in a thatched hut. our instructor would demonstrate each course in front of us while we sat in chairs, taking notes on the clipboards provided, and then have us try our hand at that course at a row of gas-powered camping stoves. we made fresh spring rolls with homemade rice paper (I know how to do this now!), skillet-fried Hoi An pancakes, and eggplant in clay pot. we even tried to make food decorations like tomato-skin flowers and cucumber-slice hand fans but most of us failed pretty miserably at that. after the class, they took us to their cafe and fed us even more, including papaya salad with seafood in a pineapple half-boat and grilled fish covered with glass noodles. I was full to the point of bursting, but we ate every delectable mouthful.

I keep getting requests for more pictures, and I promise I'll post some soon -- it's hard to get USB access for long periods of time, and sorting through my million pics takes some time. but I will! soon!

I fly to Ho Chi Minh City tonight, so until then...

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

halong bay

i've been away from the blog for a few days because i was on a two-night trip to vietnam's famous halong bay, an otherworldly place that is well-deserving of its UNESCO world heritage site status. it's hard to capture what the experience was like, and it's times like this that i wish i was a talented enough writer or photographer to adequately convey the sights, sounds, smells and emotions that accompanied this once-in-a-lifetime experience...

...but my words will have to suffice.

sunday morning, i boarded a bus with about 25 other folks (mostly aussies) for a three-hour ride to the coast. we drove through the vietnamese countryside, whizzing past families of three crammed onto one motorcycle, endless rice paddies in multiple shades of vivid green, women hunched over in pointy hats with tools in hand, water buffaloes plowing the fields, graveyards constructed at the highest point of the fields to avoid taking in water, chickens crossing the road (to get to the other side, naturally)... i practically had my nose glued to the window, taking it all in.

we arrived at the harbor around lunchtime and boarded our boat to cruise out on the bay. the day was warm and sunny without being hot and the view as we sailed out from the harbour was nothing short of stunning. of course i've seen water before, of course i've seen cliffs before... but something about halong bay is different. there are craggy cliffs and rocks everywhere, and the distant ones are always shrouded in a sort of mist that added to their mystique. kayaking was the perfect way to explore the bay, wandering around cliffs and getting up close to see the vegetation (and a few monkeys).

i spent the rest of the night hanging out with my fellow travelers on the boat. i was definitely one of the oldest people there -- most of the other passengers were university students on break between semesters. i asked them about their majors and they asked me about working life, something that i seem to have forgotten all about. it's funny how things like account assignments and ad agency drama seems to be a world apart from the world i'm living in now, one in which my days are consumed with finding places to eat, doing laundry on the cheap, debating which sites to visit and figuring out how to get from A to B.

anyway, back to halong bay. monday morning we arrived at cat ba island, the only island in halong bay that is inhabited by people. the group went on a morning hike to a pretty high peak, where i also climbed this insanely rickety rusty tower (that would DEFINITELY have been closed off in the united states) and feared for my life as i looked out over the green hills. we checked into our island hotel and then were free to do as we pleased for the afternoon. i ended up renting motorbikes with three other travelers from our group and we spent the afternoon zooming around cat ba island, exploring caves (including one that housed a secret hospital during the vietnam war... simultaneously fascinating and eerie), talking to local kids, trying not to run over the million stray dogs/goats/chickens and taking endless pictures of the incredible views. it was one of my favorite afternoons that i've had in a long time and i TOTALLY want to buy a motorbike (mine was more of a scooter-type deal since i can't drive manual).

i'm now in hoi an, about an hour's flight south from hanoi. it's a small town with a charming old quarter and a much more laid-back attitude than hanoi, which can start to grate on you if you're not careful. you're constantly haggled (you hear the two phrases "hello, motorbike!" and "hello, buy something!" at least 50 times a day), the roads are a total death trap and the constant honking of ten million motorbikes creates an incredible cacophony of sound that can totally drag you down. getting to hoi an was a bit of a headache since all the trains were sold out for tet (vietnam's lunar new year) but i'm proud to say that i managed to make it happen, using the now-very-familiar combination of plane/motorbike/airport shuttle/walking. it's strange to be on my own again after so much constant company during the halong bay trip, but it's also nice to be staying in a room by myself. hoi an doesn't have much of a hostel scene but the hotels are really reasonable... i have a double bed with private bath, window and A/C for $10/night (compared to the $7.50/night hostel in hanoi and $10/night hostel in shanghai).

unfortunately, i was feeling a bit under the weather today so the day was a bit of a waste (it was a transport/rest day) but i'm excited to dig into the city tomorrow and will report back as soon as i can.

Friday, January 30, 2009

how to spend your first day in vietnam -- a step-by-step tutorial

  1. wake up with a start at the rapping on your cabin door. stumble off the train into the pitch-black hanoi morning, confused and disoriented. get some vietnamese dong from a nice woman at the train station and hop on the back of a motorcycle-taxi for a ride to your hostel.
  2. hold on for dear life during the ride and laugh a little at how you must look in the pink helmet that was given to you by the driver. try and take in the sights of early-dawn hanoi but struggle to process everything.
  3. once the moto taxi has dropped you off into a dark alley, realize that the hotel you chose is still closed. shake your first at the travel gods, and then thank them a moment later when a kind man from a separate hotel takes pity on you and lets you kill time using his internet for free.
  4. end up checking into a different hostel altogether with a hefty price tag of $7.50/night.
  5. enjoy a hot shower and a free continental breakfast and feel slightly human again.
  6. have an early morning stroll around hoan kiem lake and watch the mist lift. watch various locals perform their early-morning calisthenics on the waterfront, including vigorous punchings and stretchings and another move that looks like something beyonce would do in concert in true sasha fierce mode.
  7. soak it all in... the incessant honking of motorcycles, the smell of hot pho on every corner, the ubiquitous cafes with french baguettes and strong vietnamese coffee, the old ladies squatting on every corner with a small spread of fresh vegetables around their ankles.
  8. stumble upon a food market. gawk at the coop of live chickens and look on with horror as a man twists one chicken's neck and ever so carefully collects the fresh blood into a bowl and then carries it off to do God-knows-what with it.
  9. feel like a stupid American when you make comments to yourself such as "dude, they really wear pointy hats!" resolve to learn a few Vietnamese phrases and memorize the words for thank you, how much, hello.
  10. start eating your way through hanoi. this is accomplished with all-day walking interspersed with incessant snacking. highlights include piping hot pho ($2) consumed while squatting on a street corner, a perfect pain au chocolat, deep-fried spring rolls served with nuoc mam, local beer, the list goes on and on and on...
  11. decide to brave death and rent a bicycle to ride around on the sunny day. decide later that this is a bad idea when you realize that hanoi roads are even crazier than chinese roads (a concept that was previously unthinkable). feel the hot exhaust of way too many motorcycles on your ankles.
  12. have dinner at a little local cafe next to a german family, who invites you to join in their game of gin rummy.
  13. decide that the first day in vietnam is everything you hoped for -- completely foreign, completely different, the true foodie experience you were dreaming about, and a country you can't wait to explore.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

the many faces of Hong Kong

Tonight is my last night in Hong Kong. Early tomorrow morning I will begin the epic trip from here to Hanoi. I say "epic" because I of course could have flown directly from Hong Kong to Hanoi with minimal hassle but at maximum expense... to the tune of $400. Being the thrifty backpacker I am, I decided to opt for another route in which I will make a 24-hour journey that will incorporate the use of Hong Kong's fabulous MTR system, an airport minibus, a flight closer to the China/Hanoi border and another one of my beloved overnight trains.

I'm a little nervous because I feel like I've sort of eased into the whole backpacker thing so far, staying first with relatives in Beijing who know the city and speak the language, then sticking with touristy areas like Shanghai/Xi'An/Hangzhou and then the ridiculously-easy-to-navigate Hong Kong, where everyone speaks English and I feel like I'm in a cleaner version of New York or Toronto (albeit one that has more dumplings and noodles)... but starting tomorrow, the Southeastern portion of my adventure begins. Vietnam! Cambodia! Thailand! Countries where everything is cheaper but nothing is quite as reliable! Scams and danger lurk around every corner! (did you guys ever watch Duck Tales growing up? d-d-d-danger lurks behind you... there's a stranger out to find you!! ok random sorry)

Before we get there, however, a few last thoughts on Hong Kong. In my 2.5 days here I've had mixed feelings about Hong Kong. Part of me misses the adventure of traveling in mainland China, but another part (a larger part, if I'm being truly honest) is relieved to find the more familiar comforts of a large, cosmopolitan and well-established city. There were even several points at which I listed all the reasons why I could see myself being very happy living here -- to start with, you have a diverse and international population, all the excitement that comes with living in a major city, super easy and realiable public transportation, amazing food of all kinds, and free internet everywhere you look.

... did you read that last sentence? Because when I said free, I meant free. Here is a picture of people checking their email for free in the Central MTR station:

It has the famous-with-good-reason skyline (best seen at night), the longest escalator in the world (which I rode, and then got to the top and realized... crap... it doesn't go down), fabulous shopping bargains, and constant reminders of of the 100-year-long British presence... things I already knew about and expected of Hong Kong.

But what I didn't know is that Hong Kong is mostly made up of green spaces... hills, mountains, beaches, gardens, trees, long hiking trails, parks and gardens galore. Today was my indoctrination into that side of Hong Kong. I took the MTR out to Lantau Island and took a winding bus ride through the mountains, flying around hairpin turns and scaling steep roads to reach the famous Tian Tan Buddha near the Lin Po Monastery. I climbed up the 268 steps with hundreds of other visitors and meandered around the platform for quite some time, staring up at his serene face, looking out at the spectacular view and soaking in the sunshine. After a quick lunch of fish balls and chow mein (delicious), I went back to Hong Kong Island and took the bus over to Stanley (getting a glimpse of the beautiful Repulse Bay en route) to browse the market and stare out at the boats.

Whatever you want, this place has it. Seriously. If you don't believe me, check out the photos:

Boats near Blake Pier at Stanley:

View from top of Tian Tan Buddha platform:

Tian Tan Buddha, viewed from midpoint:

Hong Kong Island skyline at night, viewed from Avenue of the Stars:

One of many such signs:

Monday, January 26, 2009

a note on banality

my friend Amy wrote in an email that travel is often romanticized in hindsight, and while there have definitely been moments worth romanticizing, it's true that a lot of the more mundane details get glossed over in the re-telling. because who really wants to hear about the fact that you need to BYO napkins when you go out in most chinese restaurants, or that a lot of your time gets spent figuring out where you are and where you're trying to go, or that you sometimes find yourself getting excited over the smallest things (confession: i ate mcdonald's for lunch today. and i enjoyed every bite)...?

when i told people i was quitting my job to backpack through asia for two months, nearly everyone expressed envy. they (i was guilty of this too) pictured exotic adventures, bizarre tales of unusual foods, cozy evenings in the hostel bar with fellow backpackers from around the world and funny stories of miscommunication while using the universal language of travelers, i.e. hand gestures and apologetic smiles. and while i have indeed been lucky enough to experience some of these things, there have been plenty of small things that have been just as memorable, and just so you don't think my trip has been one great wall-esque epic adventure after another, i hereby present you with a list of a few of those more mundane memories:
  • i can now pee in a chinese squat toilet in a moving train. if that's not skill, i don't know what is.
  • using a combination of one city bus (15 minutes), one airport shuttle (40 minutes), one airplane (two hours), one minibus (45 minutes) and one subway (30 minutes), i single-handedly navigated the trip from hangzhou to hong kong today. i felt very proud.
  • i am craving an expensive sandwich on seeduction bread from the austin whole foods like nobody's business.
  • when i was perusing a market in beijing, i got all flustered because this lady kept pointing at my face and yelling something in chinese (i think there's something in their dna that makes them yell everything in an angry-sounding voice. they could be mourning the loss of their favorite pet yet it always comes out sounding angry. that's probably not a very nice thing to say but i had that same reaction every single day in china). i kept wondering what i'd done wrong, maybe the 2 yuan hairpins i had just purchased were actually 5 yuan, maybe she hated my guts, maybe she was offended i didn't speak mandarin. later i realized she was telling me i was pretty. oops.
  • in a similar vein, there is little differentiation of "outdoor voice" and "indoor voice" in china. if somene's cell phone goes off in a crowded subway train, the owner always answers it and always proceeds to have an extremely loud phone conversation for the entire train to hear. this is when i REALLY wish i knew mandarin so i could know whether the person was having an intensely private conversation at ten billion decibels surrounded by 400 complete strangers. also, on the train from shanghai to hangzhou, multiple people around me were watching DVDs on their laptops. with no headphones on.

i'll add more to the list someday but that should be enough for now.

btw, i'm in hong kong now. i arrived this evening and checked into my hotel room -- i am splurging in hong kong and spending $45/night on my room. since it's such a big city, there aren't many cozy backpacker hostels like there were in xi'an and hangzhou, and i can't afford one of the nicer ones, so i got a single room in a very budget hotel which is basically comprised of 55 rooms spread throughout a very old high-rise building. my room is impossibly small (the bathroom has a shower head but no shower stall... you just kind of let the water spray everywhere, including over the toilet, and make sure you keep the bathroom door and toilet lid shut) and rather dreary but somehow it all works. i felt very bizarre as i unpacked my bag today... you mean i don't have to lock up my stuff when i head out for the day? i don't have to schlep to the shower carrying everything in a shower kit?

after i checked in i headed out into the city to get my bearings and ran straight into the city's chinese new year celebrations. i watched the parade with throngs of fellow celebrators and one of the first things i noticed was how diverse hong kong is. after two weeks in china where everyone has black hair and brown eyes, it's weird to see all these people who aren't... well, chinese. there are plenty of white folk, brown folk, black folk, etc., and although hong kong is technically back under chinese rule it definitely feels like a completely different world.

that and the fact that they have toilet paper and soap and hot water in public bathrooms and even offer (gasp!) napkins in restaurants...

Sunday, January 25, 2009

beautiful hangzhou

Hangzhou is beautiful. I caught an amazing sunset last night and then spent the day today riding around West Lake on a rented bike (only $2!) with frequent stops. Seeing the carved rock statues @ Linying Temple was definitely the highlight.

Here are some pics from the day. I head to Hong Kong tomorrow and am DYING with excitement re: the warmer temps. I'm sick of freezing every day and schlepping to/from the communal shower room in my down jacket (there's no central heating here).

Happy Lunar New Year!

pimp my ride!

hands... touching hands... reaching out...

elephant in profile

laughing buddha

day one sunset on west lake

Friday, January 23, 2009

got USB access sooner than i thought - a few beijing snapshots

jogging on the great wall:

view from one of the tower windows:

anyone for some delicious seahorses??

i will PAY you if you can decipher the meaning of this sign (from xi'an):

shanghai, aka the city in which I ate the same thing every day

I arrived in Shanghai at 7:20 am on a gray and foggy Thursday morning. My hostel was relatively easy to find from the train station via subway, and I was grateful for the hot shower and free breakfast. Thus fortified, I wandered out for a day of exploring.

Shanghai is... different from Beijing. My guidebook had warned me that this would be a different experience from my other travels in China. I mean, it's still CHINA - you have to carry your own t.p. and people still hawk loogies right by your feet every 3.2 seconds - but it has an entirely different vibe. It's a strange blend of the normal Chinese daily life of laundry-strewn alleys and tiny stores that sell a lot of one thing (lace, size negative three skinny jeans, packing supplies) with a much more cosmopolitan, ambitious attitude. The Chinglish signs that cracked me up in Beijing and Xi'An are few and far between, and the people are generally much more well-groomed and immensely coiffed.

Speaking of which, if I may, a brief note on vanity. Although my travels will eventually take me to the jungles of Thailand and the temples of wild Cambodia, thus far I've mostly been in large cities... and if I was visiting, say, New York back home, I would have come armed with the requisite riding boots and skinny jeans and cute winter coat. But here? I'm a hard core backpacker, man. My pants were puchased because they can hold multiple things and they dry fast when laundered, not because they make my butt look good. I've been wearing the same REI polar fleece nearly every day (with different layers underneath, of course... hygiene still matters... sort of). My hair is usually pinned back or pulled into a ponytail. My hostel costs $10/night!

In other words, I'm a total bum. And it is so messing with my head here, particularly in Shanghai, where so many of the women my age look like they stepped out of Vogue (albeit the Asian version). I almost feel like I need to wear a sign that says "hey, I don't always look like this!" The funny thing is, though, I'm finding that I really don't care all that much. The good thing about solo travel is that I'm completely anonymous. I don't know these people. I'm not going to any fancy restaurants or club-hopping. I'm just happy with the fact that I'm comfortable, since I'm walking miles and miles every day.

(still, I miss my riding boots.)

A quick comment on another totally random topic, since this post isn't really following any form. Related to the image issue, it's funny because since I (obviously) look Asian, I find that I'm treated differently from the other tourists here. We may both be wearing REI performance gear and toting a backpack, but since I'm Asian, everyone calls out to me in Mandarin instead of "hello! lady! you want to buy purse? nice purse!" When I look confused and reply apologetically that I'm sorry, I don't understand, they look all offended. WTF, dude? I'm not even Chinese! Can't you see my open copy of Lonely Planet and digital camera that screams "tourist?" And then I find that it's often a blessing in disguise... since they assume I'm Chinese, the asking price for souvenirs starts lower and I'm generally left alone when I'm walking through a crowded market.

It also helps that I've learned a few Mandarin phrases. I'm proud to report that I can now count, say hello and thank you and I'm sorry, summon the waiter, ask for the check, ask for a price and say "that's too expensive!" (so crucial), request the location of the nearest toilet, and, mostly importantly, order multiple steamer baskets of soup dumplings (the food that I ate twice yesterday and once today - the day is still young though) and rice. I also know the words for bus, train station and Korean (to explain why I can't speak Chinese).

Anyway, back to Shanghai. So far I've spent several awesome hours in the Shanghai Museum (during which I coveted nearly every single piece in their ceramic collection, but this is where being unemployed and homeless presents a slight problem), wandered along the Bund whilst contemplating the ambition that compels someone to build such riDICulously tall skyscrapers, watched local Shanghainese going about their lives, window-shopped along East Nanjing Road, perfected my xiaolongbai (soup dumpling) eating technique, had a drink with a Frenchman named Philippe on the 87th floor of the Jinmao Tower (China's tallest building and the fourth tallest in the world, I think) in Pudong, purchased the requisite jade necklace, gotten lost hunting for Internet cafes, purchased a $2 hat at Shanghai's H&M, and logged countless miles on my PUMA sneakers.

I owe you guys some more pictures but that will have to wait until I have a USB connection. My Great Wall experience was... hard to put into words. We went to a less-touristy section called Simatai, and were rewarded with a wall experience that went above and beyond my already-high expectations. We pretty much had the wall to ourselves and spent three or four hours hiking along the wall, climbing endless steps, soaking in the once-in-a-lifetime view, counting how many watch towers we could see, enjoying the rare day of sunshine and imagining the sheer number of people it must have taken to build the wall. I even went for a jog along the wall, just to say that I had.

I leave tomorrow morning for Hangzhou on my fourth Chinese train... more to come soon!

Oh, and I just heard from the English guy sitting next to me that apparently the Chinese government censored out part of Barack Obama's inauguration speech on Chinese TV channels and Internet connections, so now I'm dying to know what I may have missed out on. Time to go find the text!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

backpacking lite no more!

i have been inducted into the real china, and here is a smattering of what i've been witnessing over the past few days:
- major fights at train stations (i never used to understand it when i read newspaper articles about people getting trampled in crowded temples and things like that but now i TOTALLY see how that is possible)
- constant hawking of phlegm and spitting in the street
- people carrying their own tea thermos everywhere
- hard-core bargaining
- lots and lots of weird street food (apparently i have a stomach of steel!! go me)
- people who choose not to use the bathroom stall door even though it is RIGHT THERE
- snoring in overnight trains
- lots of pushing and shoving on trains and buses
- public signs with super-awesome chinglish... think i might need to start a photo set exclusively devoted to phrases such as "no striding" (in a public square), "no asembling a crawd" and "don't be moved by the hand" (in a public restroom, still not quite sure what that one means)
- kids with holes cut into their pants so they can squat and... relieve themselves (i've never seen so many butt cracks in my life. how do their butts not get ridiculously chapped in the INSANE COLD? it's a fascinating mystery)

i am also happy to report that i am no longer a wussy tourist clinging desperately to the hem of my mandarin-speaking cousins. this past thursday i wandered out on my own to see the forbidden city and tianenmen square. i took the subway out there (along with three million of my fellow black-haired friends), and i think my (very eloquent) response when i came out at the tianenmen west subway stop was "whoa." it's hard to describe the immense SCALE of the place... pictures don't quite do it justice. i spent the entire morning wending my way through the forbidden city, looking at temple after temple and imagining what life must have been like its inhabitants (lame but true = i kept thinking of the disney movie mulan! i need to get out more). afterward i went to tianenmen square, which is actually quite serious and not touristy at all. you have to go through security to even get into the square and then once you're in there are uniformed policemen EVERYwhere and signs telling you not to disturb the public order.

later that day after my first solo meal of noodles and dumplings, i ended up in the temple of heaven park. i was a bit nervous at first because it was almost dusk and i didn't want to wander around such a tree-filled place by myself but it turns out i was in the company of a bunch of local people just doing their thing. there were tons of people of all ages in the park doing everything from playing cards, kicking around a hackysack (it was like 1996 up in there, i half-expected to hear nirvana or pearl jam over the speakers), ballroom dancing, singing karaoke (they had their own amp and everything, it was hard core), practicing gymnastics, flirting... there was even one gentleman who was strolling around the manicured sidewalks with his hands clasped contentedly behind his back, singing opera at the top of his lungs. i felt like i had been invited into a scene from the play "daily life in beijing," and felt immensely privileged to have been part of the whole experience.

fast-forward to friday, when i went to lama temple. the smell of incense was palpable even in the subway station below ground, and once you got into the temple the scent was incredibly overpowering. there was a handful of tourists looking around but we were outnumbered by the local chinese people who had come to the temple to pray. i had expected it to be mostly white-haired older folk, but the worshippers were mostly young 20- and 30-somethings who held their smoking sticks of incense in the air with a look of intense concentration on their faces before prostrating themselves before the shining buddha statues.

later that day i went to the train station and boarded my overnight train to xi'an... my first chinese train experience! i had a lower bed in a four-bed berth, and i was pretty much spoiled by the whole experience. my cabin mates were a 50-something woman, a 40-something businessman who looked like he had eaten a LOT of extra dumplings during his life (even his hands sort of resembled pale and doughy dumplings) and a 30-something real estate developer named jiang. the ride to xi'an was blissfully uneventful aside from the insane crowds (crawds? heh) at the train station, and with the aid of my friends Advil PM and Awesome Earplugs From REI, i was able to get a good night's sleep before arriving in xi'an at 6:20 the next morning.

the main attraction in xi'an is of course the terra cotta soldiers but i actually found the city itself to be a lot more fascinating. we spent two days in the city and although day one was mostly devoted to the warriors, we actually spent a lot of time in the city's muslim quarter, exploring the mosque and eating weird food from street vendors and then perusing the "antiques" in the various stalls (anyone want a north face jacket for cheap? if so, i'm your girl). of course the warriors were impressive but the whole experience was kind of dampened by the fact that my entire body was frozen despite my three layers and down jacket on top and two pairs of pants on the bottom. for me, the most fascinating aspect of the whole terra cotta warriors experience is the fact that one man commissioned the whole thing... furthermore, he didn't just say "hey peasants, build me some warriors to protect me during the afterlife," he decided to go all out and create a ginormous army with a ridiculous amount of detail, like hairstyles and facial expressions and cavalry types and battle formations. i was rather impressed by the sheer selfishness of it all, you know?

...which brings me to today, if you're still reading. today is a catch-up day (you know, catching up on important details like booking flights and eating peking duck), but tomorrow we will be hiking the great wall. i can't wait! cross your fingers that i don't die of frostbite!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

backpacking lite

I feel it's my duty to inform you that I'm... sort of a faker. you know this crazy solo backpacking adventure that I've been talking about? the one where I get sick of my own company and rough it in backpacker hostels and hunt for super-cheap food?

this morning, I woke up in a cozy bed in my aunt's apartment. she made me breakfast. I had a blissfully hot shower and then sat on the couch with my cousin's laptop, taking advantage of the free wi-fi while I tried to figure out some train tickets. we went out to a fancy lunch where we ordered no less than ten dishes and I practiced my Mandarin phrases (I now feel pretty solid on the basics - hello, thank you, excuse me, can I have the bill, where is the bathroom, how much is this, that's too expensive).

the afternoon was a bit more touristy -- we headed out to the Summer Palace, playground of the rich and famous, and took tons of pics while we wandered around the frozen lake and hiked to the top of the hill. but afterward? I came back to my aunt's apartment, completely frozen. I put on sweats. I sat on the couch with my cousin's laptop. she made me dinner, and now we're watching a DVD while I fight the (ridiculously strong) urge to go to sleep.

so that's my confession. I'll get to the wild and crazy backpacking adventures soon, I promise... I'm just easing into it for now. actually, I'm incredibly lucky to have relatives here, and I solemnly swear that I will never again laugh at a group of Asian tourists who are clinging to their flag-toting group leader while touring some famous American attraction. there's something incredibly humbling about being in a country where you can't even recognize the letters of the language. it's actually kind of fun to wander around a city where you have absolutely no idea what's going on.

couple of unrelated thoughts on my first day in China:
the image you have of everyone riding bikes in China? it's true. bikers weave confidently through traffic, ignoring traffic lights and drivers alike. people often have a friend riding on the back of their back, and that person is usually riding side-saddle... it's sort of the 21st-century Chinese version of ladylike horse-riding. I even saw a girl who was casually steering her bike with her left hand while rolling a carry-on suitcase beside the bike with her right hand. I was very impressed.

also, whenever you have to stand in line for anything you're reminded that there are a billion people in this country and you better throw some elbows if you want to keep your place in line.

finally (and this one is pretty random), one of the things that always amuses me about visiting Asia is the fact that EVERYONE HAS THE SAME HAIR COLOR. think about that for a second. same skin color is one thing but it's hilarious when everyone has the same hair color. I guess that would also be true in other places in the world, but I haven't been to those places yet.
I'll leave you with some snapshots from the Summer Palace...

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

a haiku of love, on layover

advil PM, you
seductress you, making a
long flight bearable.

13 hours fly
nary a movie consumed
ipod still charged up

and oh! narita
you fantastic airport you
with your super perks

FREE yahoo cafe
noodles everywhere i look
fancy hand dryers

beijing, you have your
work cut out for you, is all
that i am saying.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

the inaugural post

it's the day before I leave for Asia, and I'm sitting on my bed in my parents' house, surrounded by visual evidence that I am obviously preparing to go on a long trip. copies of my passport, sensible pants, tank tops for layering, extra passport photos, dog-eared copies of Lonely Planet guidebooks, ziploc bags of socks and cheap shower flip-flops lay in somewhat-organized piles around me, waiting to be placed into packing cubes and organized into my freshly-purchased backpack.

apparently I leave tomorrow. my brain knows this to be true, but the rest of me has yet to absorb what this really means. eight weeks of adventure and all-you-can-eat asian food await me... or, to spin it another way, eight weeks of navel-gazing and endless pondering... or, to spin it another way, eight weeks of living out of of one bag with only one lip product (whatever will I do?? well, maybe I'll bring two) and sharing bathrooms with strangers in backpacker hostels.

you know how when you spend a long time preparing for one big event, talking to everyone you know about the big event, making major decisions about the big event, spending considerable money on the big event, writing endless lists about the big event, and then finally that big event is HERE! and you're so overwhelmed by it all that you almost want to back out? that's sort of how I feel right now. my friend likened it to wedding planning, but having never been married, I only have my own life experience to work with and the build-up to this trip is like nothing else I've ever experienced. in preparation for this trip, I quit my job, sold my car, moved out of my apartment, drove halfway across the country and am temporarily living with my parents. to say that expectations are high for this trip is the understatement of the year (but it's only January, so I am fairly certain I will make at least one other understatement in the eleven months that remain)... I am hopeful, though, that the trip will be better than I could have imagined.

so, then, welcome to the blog. pull up a seat, pour yourself a drink, put your feet up and stay for awhile. for those of you who were readers of my previous Austin blog, you'll get a giggle out of the title. I'm going to do my best to keep this updated while I'm on the road so you guys can keep up with my adventures. I also promise to limit the heavy-duty navel-gazing to my personal journal so that the blog is more about travel stories. one request: please leave me comments! my phone has been disabled for the trip (although you can text me), and although I think I can be pretty freaking fantastic I'm sure I'll tire of my own company after, oh, about day two, so consider this a desperate plea for comments from the peanut gallery!

see you on the flip side (aka China).