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).