Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Books!


Vietnam had the worst selection of books ever. The official bookshops were packed with checkout counter trash, not even up to the level of Danielle Steele. It was all romance and teen serials, and if you were lucky, a classic a la the Bronte sisters or Dickens or someone equally unsuited for travel reading.

Even the hawkers on the street selling photocopied and pirated books weren't much of a step up. They had some interesting books - On The Road, The Sorrow of War, Life of Pi, and so on, but they all had the same exact stuff, and not much of it.

I was dying to read some Haruki Murakami by the time I arrived in Vietnam. It was not to be found anywhere. I felt lucky when I stumbled across one hawker in a backpacker alley that had a Paul Theroux book, a real version, too.

By the time I got to Saigon I still hadn't learned my lesson and kept checking bookshops. Same romance and serialized teen shit. I nearly bought a graphic novel adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.

Phnom Penh was a godsend. After our first dinner of street noodles, we wandered up a random street and found a bookstore that blew my mind. It had books, actual books someone would want to read.

I hunted out Neuromancer, a book I had heard of but knew almost nothing about other than it has a badass name and won a bunch of sci-fi prizes. Judging from the sentence-long blurb on the back (Case was the best computer cowboy in the Earth's matrix. That is, until he double-crossed the wrong people) it's another work that The Matrix stole heavily from.

I found Murder on the Orient Express. I started reading this in the American Corner library in Khabarovsk before Adam and I went to a charity auction in a derelict kids center with Marjana. I now had the chance to finish it.

Adam picked up A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. It's by Mark Twain so it must be good. Here's something I owe to Paul: Across the whole world a yankee means an American; in America a yankee means a northerner; in the north a yankee means a New Englander; in New England a yankee means someone from Maine; in Maine a yankee means a lobsterman that eats clam chowder for breakfast.

We found another shop with an even better selection of books, and multiple works by some good authors - photocopied - including Haruki Murakami. I was unnecessarily excited. I'd been wanting to read some more of his stuff for months maybe, his writing is just so calm and relaxing. I picked up Underground and After Dark.

Adam got Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs and Factotum by Charles Bukowski, neither of which I'd read before, and both of which I wanted to. Moral of the story? Don't think you can buy books in Vietnam, that country has the worst selection ever.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Saigon


There was something different about Saigon from the start. It just didn't have the evident character that Hanoi had. It was a faster paced city. There are no hostels, only cheap hotels, and the French architecture that's so nicely clustered in Hanoi is more dispersed in Saigon.

We went to the War Remnants Museum, we went to Post Office. We could've done more sightseeing, but I wasn't motivated. The museum was highly propagandized but not even that can mask the terrible things that happened. The Post Office was beautiful and ornate and much more impressive than the Notre Dame Cathedral next to it. We sent some postcards and I browsed the gift store: wooden tanks and other engines of war, flip flops, hats, bags, and picture books of overburdened scooters, and a bit unexpectedly, breast-feeding.

We ate good Indian food, drank maybe too much beer, and met an American named Scott, a Russian from London named Nadya, and some other transient friends. We walked a lot and consequently had to avoid innumerable where you going?s, where you from?s, long time no sees, what you looking for?s, and a couple good morning Vietnams.

It was the 23rd and I was ready to leave the city and Vietnam. I wasn't particularly excited to make it to Cambodia - it wasn't what I had in mind as part of my itinerary months ago, and it represented another step on the well-trodden southeast Asian backpacker circuit, consequently full of backpackers. But it was moving on regardless.

We got a message from a friend we met in Ha Long Bay that evening. Her brother was marrying a Vietnamese girl on Christmas Eve and he was in need of some more groomsmen, and were we interested in coming to the wedding and subsequent party on Christmas day?

We went out and bought some appropriate-ish outfits. For me, black flat-fronted slacks, a white long-sleeve dress shirt, and a new pair of shoes. The cost was $33 and I still think I was overcharged. I had to beg a little bit to get the shoes for $12.50 instead of $15, because that was all I had left in my wallet.

The wedding was strange for sure, but very nice. Derek was nice enough to let me and Adam show up and tag along for his big day, and we got a peek into traditional customs. Starting with a ceremony at the groom's house, his parents arrange the ceremonial offerings which are then carted off in a procession to the bride's house. I was one of the eight groomsmen that carried one of the eight offerings. It was something in a mounded tin under a red cover. Someone else got the roasted pig.

We actually took a van to her place, otherwise we might not've made it by Christmas. We lined up on the street, and gave the eight offerings to eight bridesmaids, all dressed in beautiful pink ao dai. Then it was up through the first floor travel agent to the top floor where the bride Duyen lived with her parents.

We waited out in the hallway while the main family members crammed into the room for the ceremony, and then it was back outside, in the van, back to Derek's place for a final ceremony that smelled of incense and oranges, and was the last symbolic ritual of the day. He had brought her and her family gifts, taken the vows, and now brought her back to his place to become part of the family.



We had lunch, Adam, Randy, and myself getting significantly drunk by 1:30PM thanks to our novelty as foreigners and the men's - family members, friends; I don't know - tendency to toast us and "100%" us with the never-ending supply of Heinekens and columns of ice refilled in our mugs. Courtney was off at her family's table, being the sister of the groom, and was thus not gang-pressured into getting drunk underneath the massive open-air cone roof of straw.

Christmas was spent sleeping late, trying to recover from the previous day and evening when the party didn't stop after we came back to town, and then going to the big wedding party. Adam and I arrived just in time to grab some places with Randy and Courtney in the gymnasium-sized party hall. It was fully packed with people too, at least 400. There was a bizarre ballet interpretive of marriage, song and dance, streamers, confetti, toasts, and pyrotechnics.

There was a lot more 100%'ing in between the courses which included fried frog legs. It's true, they really do taste like chicken. After a few hours of that, the crowd dispersed and the four of us took the longest cab ride in the worst traffic back into Saigon and realized our dream of doing Vietnamese karaoke with some other new friends we met at the bar beforehand.

I got maybe an hour of sleep before it was morning and by a Christmas miracle I found a hotel with computers and Skype that was just rolling open its steel curtain for the morning, and managed to get to see and talk with my family. I'm not very impressed with Christmas for the holiday itself, but I can't deny how nice it is to be with family for good times of simply being together, and it was a true treat to see and talk with everyone.

Three hours later, Adam and I got on a bus to Phnom Penh, contriving ways we could convince ourselves to lay off the booze. I'm going to claim I'm Mormon, with the slacks and shirt I bought for the wedding, I'll only need a black tie and name tag to look the part.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Night Train to Saigon


Nobody calls Ho Chi Minh City Ho Chi Minh City. I'm sure there's a better reason than the one I've figured out, but for me Saigon just sounds better.

While waiting on the platform for the train in Hue, a young Vietnamese man walked up to me and pointed to my camera, slung across my shoulder.

"Camera. Canon. Cheap."

"Really?" The camera cost about $500 less than two years ago. Even being old and worn, it was worth at least $150, not cheap by any Vietnamese standards.

"Yeah. Fifty dollar. This old, maybe forty dollar."

I grunted in amusement.

"Yeah, forty dollar." And he walked away. I couldn't for the life of me figure what his motivation could have been for so unexpectedly making such an obviously wrong statement. Could he want me to sell him my camera for a low price? Did he have some shitty knock-offs he wanted to sell me? I had no idea.

On the train, Adam and I busted out our respective instruments and began playing - terribly, as we always do. We had the cabin to ourselves for the time being, soft class this time. A curious Vietnamese wandered in and watched me play guitar and then took it from me to play.

He spoke no English, had terrible brown and yellow teeth and an easy smile, greasy hair and fingers thick and rough from a life of hard work. His left ring finger nail was black and thick and horrible looking, but he played a bit, and wasn't bad. He made eating and drinking motions but we declined. He seemed quite drunk already, even before he showed up with a beer at noon.

The landscape was amazing. We rolled past the coast, high above and caught breathtaking sights through open spaces in the wall of greenery: waves crashing below us on hidden beaches, the front of the train bending around curves and into tunnels 200 feet above the water.

We ate a pretty wretched meal in the dining car. It looked like it hadn't been remodeled since the orangeish-brown wood panels were last in style. The 70s maybe? The view through the big windows and the adorable little girl across from us made up for the bony chicken and tepid cabbage.

She may have been the cutest kid I've seen in all of Asia, and Asian kids are far and away the cutest kids I've ever seen. I made faces at her and stuck chopsticks up my nose, which she really seemed to enjoy. She dug a camera out of her mom's bag and sorta knew how to use it enough to photograph me with my mouth open mid-bite.

Our drunk greasy friend wandered in now and again. He was definitely drunk now, and reeked of incense and dank smoke as he'd lean in just a little too close to me as I was playing, and later trying out some Vietnamese phrases from the back of the guidebook. He was unforgiving with pronunciation: sigh-GONE? sai-GAHN!

I napped and listened to Lady Gaga. I've become smitten; I guess I never paid attention to her music the last billion times its been on the radio and sound system at clubs. Weird. When I awoke the air was still crisp and clear above the ocean to our left, and hazy and golden with the sun trying to fight through the mist-wrapped mountains to our right.

In the evening, our cabinmates finally showed up. They were a couple escorted on by their older family, a cluster of smiling wrinkled faces who grinned and shook our hands when they heard we were American.

"Me too," the guy said, settling in. "We're from St. Louis." He spoke with the high nasally voice of a Vietnamese, so he wasn't born there. "This is my hometown," referring to the village he and his diminutive wife had boarded at.

She said they'd been married for ten years, so when I said they looked so young to be married so long, they volunteered their ages as I'd hoped. She was 32 and he was 38. That meant he was born in 1972, during the war, which would explain why he was much darker than most Vietnamese, with curly hair. His dad was a G.I.

The couple liked to talk, usually at the same time, which made it harder to understand them than just their accents alone, but they were enthusiastic. They were going to spend a month and a half with her family in Saigon before going back home to St. Louis.

"You can eat twenty-four hours," was his reply to my question about what he most liked about Saigon. He offered to give us his cell number so he could take us out to his favorite places, which would've been great, but we eventually all got to bed without exchanging numbers - or names - and the next morning at 5:30AM, we arrived in Saigon and they were gone with their boxes before Adam and I packed up and disembarked. I foolishly thought the train was going to arrive at 5PM and Adam foolishly trusted me, so we were caught a bit off guard.

The best thing about Saigon manifested itself almost instantly. Honest cab drivers. We got in, told him where to go, and the meter came on automatically, and it counted up at the right pace, and we arrived at the backpacker ghetto of Pham Ngu Lao happy as clams, a first after getting out of a cab in Vietnam.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Night Train to Hue




Because we bought our tickets a bit later than we should've, we were stuck on the top level sleeper in hard class. This was the first time on the trip that the term "hard class" has truly been appropriate.

There were six beds per cabin, and they were actually hard. A thin mattress quite inadequately covered the metal and wood plank I was on. Furthermore, there was about two feet of head space. I couldn't come close to sitting upright.

I threw my bag up top and spotted a big cockroach twiddling its antennae at me from the light fixture next to my face. I smashed it with a shoe and brushed it under the bottom bunk.

There was one other tourist in our car. I saw her on the top bunk of her room when I was moving my bags past, so when she was later standing in the corridor looking out the window I struck up a conversation.

"Stuck on the top bunk too? It's pretty tight up there."

"Mmm."

That was as interesting as it got. She was French, traveling before starting a shiatsu massage course in Hanoi, had terrible English, and was exceeding dull and difficult to talk with. I gave up.

As the train began to roll south through the outskirts of the city where people were still on the sidewalks selling shoes and food for blocks and blocks, Adam and I stumbled our way through the jammed soft- and hard-class seats to the dining car.

Pho noodles, while delicious and cheap and everywhere in Vietnam, are a terrible choice of cuisine to serve on a train. I soon found out why the dining car tables were greasy as the rocking of the carriage sloshed the broth over the edge, nearly ruining the game of cribbage Adam and I were playing while we drank beer.

The night was now fallen and at the next stop, our cabin filled up with the other passengers. Besides Adam and I, a woman got on at Hanoi and slept on the middle bunk until three adults with three children piled in. There were nine humans in a cabin the size of a modest walk-in closet.

I made faces at the little kids before reading, finding myself the only one awake after awhile, so I turned out the lights and put my ear plugs in, and spent the night rolling around on the bunk.

I woke a little before we arrived in Hue. It was early enough in the morning for the sun to still be merciful, and I watched the peaceful countryside roll by. The greens were still damp and sleepy and the air was still hazy. There was a solitary farmer under a conical hat hoeing a rice paddy, here and there were stained above-ground tombs, clusters of cement houses flecked with the colors of laundry and sporadic paint, and lines of cyclists waiting on dirt roads for the train to pass.

Hue station was aptly described by Paul Theroux as like a forgotten birthday cake, a French confection left to sit. When we arrived, we fought through a crowd of taxi touts and walked towards a cafe for breakfast. Upon seeing us, two women leapt up and ran towards us, screaming for us to eat at their respective restaurants.

The taxi driver overcharged us as usual. He wanted 60, Adam said our guest house's site had said it would be around 30. I asked for the meter.

"Same same," he said, a phrase that irritates the hell out of me, a horrid catchphrase I first encountered in Thailand.

"Okay, same same. Meter then."

"Same same."

"I know, let's use the meter if its same same."

"For 50."

We agreed, and while we were driving the piece of paper covering the meter fell off. The ride would've been about 25.

"I thought it was same same," pointing to the meter at our guesthouse. He gave me a look that was asking for a punch in the face but we paid him and forgot about it, one more crooked driver willing to lie to your face.

The Hue I found was different than Paul Theroux's Hue, both of them. I didn't expect the chaos and war of his first visit, but I did expect something of the sleepy city with open kitchens and locals with memories of bad times that he wrote about five years ago.

I shouldnt've though. After all, I was a backpacker staying in the insulated world of hostels and Lonely Planets. Adam and I spent the day by hiring a couple of motorcyclists to drive us around to the Citadel, pagodas, and tombs, looking at slick cobblestones and decaying decadence. It got old quick, but the riding was fun.

Interestingly, our main driver Duc called his little tour operation Hue Easyriders, and even had a vest with the name embroidered. I asked him if he saw the movie which came out about the time he was born, in 1969. He didn't even know it was a movie.

We spent the evening drinking free beer at our hostel, then I won trivia with an Aussie named Lisa (what European country is Chisinau the capitol of? Cape York is the northern most point of what country? what color is 0 on a roulette wheel?). Actually we tied a solo player, all of us with 15 of 30 questions right.

Then a whole group of us went to dinner in an open kitchen family restaurant, the one part of my time in Hue that could've been in Theroux's book. The family kept cash hidden in a washing machine outside their bathroom, and in the bathroom was a bucket full of water for flushing, a sink full of a wet sweater and jeans, and their toothbrushes and combs.

Back at the hostel, happy hour was still in full swing, two for one drinks, and at $1 a drink, that meant trouble. I drank Leg Openers, a sweet tangy cocktail with passion fruit pulp with a Belgian I had seen in Hanoi. Adam had another patch shaved into his head by his Canadian trivia partner, punishment for a wrong answer earlier in the night.

It was a crazy night that I won't describe in detail for the sake of those poor souls involved, and for some reason I wound up with this phrase written in my notebook, in someone else's hand: Fruitshakes & Cigarettes.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

How to Pass a Weekend in Hanoi



Friday night we met up with Courtney, Randy, Yannis, and Carlos from soloing and Cat Ba. After all of us finding our separate ways back to Hanoi, we met in the same hostel and had a little reunion night out; just heartwarming, I know.

We started by playing Asshole and drinking free beer in our hostel, then went out in search of bia hoi which took way longer than it should. Twelve beers on the street put us back a total $3.50. Then it was off to karaoke. At least that was the plan.

Google Maps led us astray, down a little alley by our hostel to where there was most certainly no karaoke. We went to a bar instead and a bartender was spinning and tossing flaming bottles of booze. Then the mouthy friendly woman behind the bar gave us directions to a karaoke place, and the cab driver brought us there to find no karaoke. We demanded karaoke and the driver asked someone where he could drop us because we had agreed to pay way too much for the ride and the least he could do was just get us to a karaoke place.

We got to one, but they wanted to charge like $20 an hour per person. We walked back to eat and drink on the street in our neighborhood.

That was Friday. On Saturday everyone had left except for Adam and I, and we were feeling lazy so we went to the movies. After accusing the cabbie of bringing us in the wrong direction, I was humbled when he brought us straight to the theater.

The map I had looked at showed it way north of us; it turns out that the Internet is occasionally not to be trusted. Who knew? It's hard to give the benefit of the doubt sometimes when you're constantly getting hosed - my bad.

We went to see Faster, but Adam talked me into seeing Due Date instead. It fucking sucked. Don't see it unless you like flat rehashed jokes that just aren't that funny, and films that are broadly uninspired in every way. The best part was when Robert Downey Jr. punched an obnoxious little kid in the gut.

Fortunately, we got there early and the movie was finished by 8PM and Faster started at 9PM.

Double feature!

Faster was infinitely better. The Rock was pissed off the whole time and had about eight lines of dialog, like a juiced up inked up Frank Morris. Here's an example of dialog:

After the warden's lengthy monologue -upon The Rocks release from prison - about darkness, life on the outside, and turning a new leaf,

Warden: Do you have any questions?
The Rock: Yeah. Where's the exit?

Truly awesome stuff. Billy Bob Thornton is a junkie cop, and there's some sissy British guy who's a prima donna hitman. There were no boobs, despite a quick scene in a strip club, and after taking so many steroids to get so jacked, The Rock strangely didn't even take his shirt off.

Here's one more example of how awesome the movie was:

The Rock is about to execute a pastor who had severely wronged him in the past, before the pastor "found God" and turned his life around. The pastor, invoking his unwavering faith, beseeches The Rock for mercy in God's name:

The Rock: God can't save you from me.
Pure class, pure entertainment. It's a train to Hue tonight, then Saigon, then god-knows-what.

Friday, December 17, 2010

More Photos




It's always a fucking debacle with public computers and shady interfacing, but I got more photos up. I finished off my album of China, and made one of Vietnam. The links will always be on the right side bar.

Ha Long Bay


Ha Long Bay is what Yangshuo would look like if it was flooded. It's stunning. There are thousands of islands rising out of the sea of pale green water, many of them ripe for climbing.

I was indifferent at first, but that was apparently the draw for us: deep water soloing. We booked a tour that had us shuttled around like cattle onto this bus and this boat, eat now, sleep here, let's go to a cave. It was nice enough, but I was in a foul mood to start with. The bed bugs that ravaged me after karaoke on the boat the first night didn't lighten my mood either.

We stayed for a night on Monkey Island after that, at a quiet little beach resort from where we hiked to see the eponymous monkeys frolicking. After that night, instead of getting shuttled back to boat to bus to boat to bus, we ditched the group on Cat Ba Island.

Cat Ba is the biggest island in Ha Long Bay, and home to the only thing resembling a city: a strip of tall cement hotels along the waterfront with villages and national park behind it. We booked a soloing trip for the next day.

We wound up soloing two days. We made some friends the first day, had a blast, and went back for more the second day, though it was grayer and colder than the first day, which was a tad gray and cold to begin with.

Didn't matter. The soloing was great. Putter up to a vertical island on a basket boat, grab onto the wall and hold on while the boat backs away. Climb up until you fall or until you're so high that you don't want to jump, and then you jump anyway. I found one of the joys of this was taking photos at high speed as people were falling and then zooming in on the faces they made. Sorry Randy, but this one is one of my favorites:



Evenings were pretty quiet in town. After coming back from the bar or a friend's room, the hotels had steel curtains down and we had to bang on them to get in or out. Hotels were also, as I said, tall, and Adam and I were on the 7th floor of a place with no elevator. Just exercise though, I didn't really mind.

After four nights on the island, relaxing, climbing, jumping off boats, cruising on scooters, Adam and I tagged onto the latest batch of tourists coming from Monkey Island, where we had ditched our tour days before, and got back on the bus to Hanoi.

First Impressions: Vietnam


Well my first impression was that there are a shitload of scooters on the roads. I don't understand how it works. But soon after that, we got off on the wrong foot.

First a taxi tout tried getting us to pay an exorbitant amount off the meter from the "bus station" (side of a scooter-choked boulevard). We demanded a metered ride so he put us in his buddy's car, a bit too cheerfully. We wound up paying almost double the initially quoted price on a circuitous route. It was obvious what he was doing and it pissed me off. I wrote down his car number, like I could ever do anything with it.

The the hostel said they had to keep my passport, which I wouldn't have really minded if I hadn't just gotten hosed by the taxi driver. It bothered me, though I knew it would be safe. I eventually left it.

Then I wanted to find a good book. I couldn't manage to pick up a Haruki Murakami book for the life of me in China, blowing the chances I had because I thought I could just do it later. I walked to one pile of books in an alley. There was a Paul Theroux book retracing his Great Railway Bazaar. I held out for Murakami, walking 20 minutes to a street of bookshops.

All the shops had the worst imaginable selection, if any at all, of books in English. The stores on the street had photocopied Lonely Planet guides. I nearly paid six dollars for one until I opened it up and saw it was fake and its maps were unreadable. The whole little excursion was a waste of time. I settled for the Theroux at the first place.

And then Adam insisted on leaving for Ha Long Bay the next morning. We'd been in Hanoi about four hours and he wasn't impressed though I thought it was a cool city. We booked a tour and the next morning was shuttled onto a bus and then, after a couple hours dropped at a "rest stop". It was really an overpriced souvenir purgatory, with insubstantial food and everyone stood outside under the roof and out of the rain.

Then we arrived at the port to head into the bay. It was a zoo of tourists and I know where I stand as just another tourist, but the sight was depressing nonetheless.

Fortunately, that's about where Vietnam stopped sucking, or I should say, I stopped being so testy.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Buses Buses Buses

It was time to get out of China. I was in the south and Vietnam was the next logical step. We left Yangshuo at 11:30AM on a bus and got into Nanning, the provincial capitol around 6PM. You wouldn't think it's too hard to find a taxi at a long-distance bus station after a bus gets in - and it wasn't - but it was difficult to get someone to let us into one for some reason.

After collaborating with a British couple we were on the bus with, we got some guy to get some other guy to let us in his van. We all spent the night at an apartment hostel, quite similar to the one I stayed at in Busan on what was technically the first night of this trip. It was run by a talkative Texan named Weston who had questionable but entertaining parenting impulses.

The next morning we had another problem getting a taxi because the massive boulevards were jam-packed with such a torrent of vehicles that it was uncertain whether one would actually be able to stop to pick us up. We did make it though, and boarded a bus to Hanoi, again with the British couple.

Two days on a bus is not my idea of fun. You stop at piss-rank gang bathrooms and can buy only imitation Pringles and shrink-wrapped meat and flat Red Bull to sustain yourself. I guess it could've been worse though.

When we got to the Chinese-Vietnamese border, we were shuttled off the bus to the first processing building on the Chinese side by long covered golf carts. The Chinese official had a hard time believing that the handsome, bearded, long-haired man in my passport was the same handsome, clean-cut, short-haired guy standing in front of him. Just like the offical when entering China. Fortunately his superior came over and waved me through.

We were shuttled to the Vietnamese processing building, breezed through, and were shuttled onto another bus on the Vietnamese side. All in all the border process was like a casual drive through a leafy mountain park, a world away from the penitentiary-like marches on the Mongol/Russian and Mongol/Chinese borders.

The "bus stop" in Hanoi was a wide street even more choked with scooters and traffic than any street I'd seen in China. It was borderline inconceivable how a coach bus like ours could navigate the beat-up alleys full of scooters coming towards us, and even pull U-turns across roads that seem too dense to walk across. I guess if you're big enough, anything will stop for you.

As if two days on a bus weren't enough, Adam insisted on getting the hell out of Hanoi ASAP. He claimed it was just another city, but I thought it was possibly the most interesting city I've ever been to based on the few hours and one night we spent there. I can visit more on the way back.

We took a bus, part of a three-day tour, the next day to Halong Bay, a world-famous climbing destination of thousands of gumdrop karst pinacles towering above turquoise waters. Judging by the tour buses and hordes of tourists, it's also a world-famous tourist trap. Understandably so, as beautiful as it is, but that's another story.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Yangshuo


Adam and I wound up spending about a week in Yangshuo. We arrived in the company of a Spanish woman named Sandra that we ran into after a full day's hike through the rice terraces outside of Longsheng. She was also staying in the same hostel as us in Guilin, and she sort of attached herself to us after the boat trip down to Yangshuo.

We left the town after spending time hanging out with possibly the cheapest person I've ever met, a Polish pianist, and our old Dutch friend Paul from our two-week tour in Mongolia. It's a small world among travelers.

Yangshuo was pretty nice, but even so, I had a more idyllic image of the place in my mind before I arrived. Downtown there are some really pleasant cafes and restaurants lining some good-looking canal ways, and that's next to a gaudy tourist ghetto, which in turn is surrounded by forgettable cement buildings in all directions until you get out of the little city and into the green rounded karst peaks that shoot up from the landscape everywhere.

It's this surrounding landscape, with slow rivers cutting their way through and around that is the only reason Yangshuo has become so well-known, especially among climbers. I was too lazy to climb though. Adam made it out one day.

Apart from the attempted theft, it was a relaxing stay. We had a quiet clean room with high ceilings a short walk away from the center of action in town. We got free meals - amazing dinners - at our guesthouse, and days were generally spent bicycling or hiking through the countryside and along the rivers.

Evenings we spent drinking beer in town, at random restaurants at ground level, or up on a roof-top bar that had amazing views of the peaks encircling the city, which were lit up at night for a ghostly beautiful backdrop.

A highlight for sure was jumping off Dragon Bridge, a 600 year-old steep arching bridge that crosses a small turquoise river north and west of Yangshuo. We got there after a meandering bike ride with Sandra and met some other travelers that we shared lunch on a raft with.

In fact, I think that very raft can be seen on the left side of the above photo, and the background in that photo is what we would have seen jumping off the 25-foot bridge had we not been looking down at the fast-approaching water and wondering why the hell we jumped. Twice.

It would've been easy to stay longer, but I'm sure there will even be nicer places somewhere down the road.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Stop! Thief!


Recently, a lovely afternoon of bike-riding through the idyllic countryside surrounding Yangshuo was marred by a heinous act of crime.

Adam and I were peacefully navigating the tiny cement pathways that wind around farms and fields to the southwest of the city. We had just spent the day cycling out towards Moon Hill, a striking natural stone arch cut out of one of the numerous karst peaks rising out of the greenery.

I was riding in front on rickety one-speeds we rented from our guesthouse. My bike had a sluggish bell on front a makeshift basket on the back. I had my day bag stuffed in the little basket with my camera and journal tucked inside.

Suddenly, in the blink of an eye that seemed too short to contain all that it did, I heard a zooming approach me from behind and shake my bike and produce a sharp ripping sound as a scooter screamed past me and jerked my bike a bit off balance.

Not 'til the two teenage boys on the scooter were about 15 feet past me did I realize what had just happened. The little punk on the back had snatched my bag as his buddy gunned it past me, but had failed to actually steal it thanks to the fact that I had the foresight to wrap the strap around my bicycle seat.

The strap catching produced the ripping sound I heard and the jerking off the bike. I didn't fall over, but stopped when I realized what happened and put my bag back in the basket and screamed threats and obscenities at the kid as he smirked at me as he was fading into the distance.

What really got at me, beyond the fact that a little fucker on a scooter nearly took off with my camera with hundreds of pictures on it and my journal with months worth of thoughts and observations and activies was that look on his face.

It was the look that said it was just a game to him. What would've been a near catastrophic loss to me would've been something fun for him, something funny he did to a stupid foreigner he could laugh about with his pimple-ridden buddies, and the fact that he didn't get away with the bag meant nothing to him and that smirk told me he'd probably just get the next one.

I was irate, I wanted to hunt him down and pulverize his skull with my bare hands. I didn't even realize which way he and his friend went off at the next fork in the road because I was too busy getting my bearings back, but the rest of the ride I thought only of violent fantasies that involved me running into him further down the trail, or me re-working the moments of the actually attempted robbery.

Here are some highlights of my fantasies of vengeance, which quite fortunately for him - and me, as I would've surely wound up in a Chinese prison cell had I gone through with any - didn't come true:

1. My reflexes were like a cat's and I recognized the threat of theft as soon as I heard the buzz of the scooter approaching and before the pair on the scooter can zoom by me I throw my left elbow out and knock the passenger off to the ground. As he is stumbling to his feet with a bloody face I knock his teeth out with a punch and then turn to his buddy, the driver, who by now has turned around to try to help his friend. I pull him off the bike and kick him off the cement path down to the farmland a few feet below.

2. The little punk grabs my bag, but I leap off my bike and grab a nearby rock (or my folding pocket knife) and pelt him square in the back of the skull so he falls off and drops my bag. I retrieve my bag, and then continue to the violence described above.

3. The little punk grabs my bag, but I leap off my bike and snatch the scooter of a local farmer and run them down. The kid sees that I'm crazy enough to be scared of, and throws my bag away hoping it will distract me. I scoop up my bag, and continue chasing them until I can knock the passenger off. Proceed with violence described above.

4. Recognizing the kid in town, on a crowded street where I couldn't just start pounding him, but where I could order a dish with the most peppers I could find, I walk over towards him and "accidently" trip and smash the fiery dish into his eyes, curtly "apologize" and walk away while he is writhing in pain on the cobbled stone sidewalk.
All above instances except for the last one, with other variations that involve me hitting the driver's hand with a rock so he fucks up the steering and crashes, and so on and so on, would naturally end with me ghost-riding his scooter into a ditch or throwing a match into his tank or otherwise wrecking his ride, and spitting in their beaten faces and then taking the money out of their pockets and ripping it to shreds and smothering it into their bloody faces along with the spit.

Of course, the best part of the story is that the little fuckers didn't get away with my shit and none of the above had to happen. I guess I'm lucky I had the foresight to wrap the strap around my seat, though I never really thought anyone would try to steal it.

A lesson learned indeed, almost the hard way.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Song-Riddle Haikus




I have put up some song-riddle haikus. Not that anyone ever seems to be interested, but you can check them out by clicking here, or just clicking on the appropriate tab up top.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Circuituity


Is that even a word? I don't know. If it is, I probably didn't spell it right.

I'm quite enjoying my travels, but lately a thought has been starting to nag me: what happened to my plan?

I intended to skip southeast Asia and head straight across China, and here I am a week away from going to Vietnam, and then Cambodia and Laos. I meant to travel a generally direct route but it's not going that way.

Not that I'm complaining. I get to drink seventy-five cent beers in sub-tropical weather and eat food you can't even find in America (flattened rat on a stick anyone?) while on my way to even warmer countries with even cheaper beer where you can float down a lazy river in an inner-tube sipping cocktails and eating funny brownies.

Hell, you can even shoot a cow with a grenade launcher in Cambodia.

But the fact remains that I envisioned this trip as equal parts transit and pleasure, and so far it's been quite disproportionate in terms of pleasure. Just look at my actual route - at Qingdao, I had made a near loop back to Korea.

Here's what I'm telling myself: after a six week loop down through Vietnam and Cambodia, then back up through Laos, I'm going to reenter China and make a decent pace towards Tibet, Nepal and India.

Then I'm going to get my ass back into China - having to retrace my steps thanks to the shitty relationship between India and China that leaves travelers such as myself without a border crossing between the two countries - and get on to Kazakhstan and what I intended to do in the first place.

Will it happen? At this rate, no. But who knows?

Pictures of China!

I have finally uploaded a bunch of pictures from China! It took some work getting around the country's firewall, but I did it nonetheless.

You can click the link on the right sidebar, or just follow this link.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

I Went To China And All I Got Was This Lousy Wife

Adam and I were wandering around People's Park in downtown Shanghai when we came across something I had not expected to see in Asia. And I've come to expect some strange shit.
 
Hundreds of people were gathered in several walkways in the park, browsing notices hung under awnings or just held by senior citizens.
 
Something clicked in the depths of my mind and I remembered hearing something, godknowswhere, about a spouse market in China. Sure enough, a closer look at the notices confirmed this. There was the symbol for man and woman, numbers that looked to be height and weight, and a bunch more stuff I couldn't recognize.
 
An amused middle-aged guy started speaking to Adam and I. He told us they were in fact spouse advertisements (for a lack of a better word on my part, not his). They listed job, salary, birthyear, and where they lived and grew up in addition to what I identified.
 
As often happens when white people are present in China, a small crowd of people gathered. They were listening to this guy explain the market to Adam and I.
 
He told us one woman wanted me to marry his daughter. She showed me a picture - she was pretty - but I said I spoke no Chinese. He translated: "She speaks perfect English!" I carried on a humorous conversation through my new found interpreter who was getting a kick out of the whole situation.
 
"It's okay," he said, "she's only 50% serious!" He then said he would grill the woman on what it means to be a mother-in-law, and she proceeded to demonstrate her English skills to me by counting to five.
 
On top of a card from this woman with her daughter's email and phone number, another woman slipped me a piece of paper with hand-written details for her daughter too.
 
A wife would surely be a nice souvenir, but I think I have enough baggage as it is. Sorry ladies.

Onward From Cities


As pleasantly surprised as I've been by the Chinese cities I've visited - Beijing, Qingdao, and Shanghai, to be exact - I've had quite enough of them. They're big, expensive by Chinese terms, and full of people as you would naturally expect.

There's always a shitload of things to do, but little opportunity for peace and quiet.

I'm now in the south of China in the small city of Guilin, gateway to Yangshou.

When we make it to Yanghshou in a day or so, I expect to be wandering rounded limestone mountains covered in tropical flora and floating down meandering rivers for the next ten days or so before I work my way towards Vietnam.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving!

Apparently there was a recent American holiday that passed. I recalled that Thanksgiving existed as I was on a 10 hour train to Shanghai from the seaside home of Tsingtao Beer, Qingdao.
 
Fortunately I was prepared to feast with some bananas and sweet bread rolls, and on top of that, I bought a microwaved rice, veggie, and mystery meat and dumpling dinner from the dining car. I washed it all down with a Yanjing beer.
 
I thought of what Amy said about shopping after Thanksgiving. Amy was a bubbly Chinese girl who was staying at the same hostel as I was in Qingdao. She heard that people all go shopping on Thanksgiving and thought it sounded like a lot of fun.
 
As much as I hated to do it, I had to break her the news about Black Friday. Firstly, that it's Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, and secondly, that it's a disgusting ritual fuelled by materialism of biblical proportions.
 
I told her that people were trampled to death waiting for a Wal-Mart to open a few years back. What an undignified way to go, getting stomped on the floor of a Wal-Mart by people looking to save $3.00 on DVDs.
 
I hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving and had the good sense to sleep in on Friday and avoid all the purgatory of Black Friday.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

China's Firewall Bested!

There may be hope! A kind girl from Hong Kong has given me a tiny little program that I can carry around on my USB sticks. The purpose? To get around China's stupid firewalls.

Rejoice! Now I can waste too much time on Facebook and update my blog from the actual site rather than emailing in stories.

Also I can access my photo albums online and hopefully upload some photos from China. The problem is, the Internet where I am now is exceedingly slow, so the photos may still take a while to get online.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Beijing


My week in Beijing is over.

I must admit that I enjoyed the city much more than I thought I would. Coming from the beat-up cement cities in Russia and Mongolia, Beijing seems like it's straight out of the future. Roads are spacious and clean, buildings are often attractive and public spaces are well-kept by hordes of sweepers and trash-emptiers and traffic wardens.

In fact, it's tempting to say it's a clean city but for one thing: the smog. It's plain fucking gross.

Today was relatively clear, so I guess clear days do exist (and I was told by a friend here that summer is much more clear and that the central heating was just turned on by the government which produced the thick blanket I experienced), but Adam and I saw some pretty hideous days.

It go so bad, friends, that while bicycling through some alleys, I had to stop and buy a face mask. It's a black mask with purple designs. Hello Kitty designs. It was a desperate move, but if you saw the yellow haze that obscured the next block, you'd be wearing a Hello Kitty mask too.

Strangely enough though, almost no
Beijingers wear masks. Maybe they're just too fashionable.

Anyway, Beijing is a nice city. There is a lot of history, a lot of modern architecture, a lot of cheap knock-off goods to haggle for, a lot of scams to avoid, and a lot of food to eat.

Our first dinner of Peking duck was mediocre. Not that we knew what to expect, but I wasn't exactly blown away. Our second dinner of Peking duck was much better - and more expensive - and even came with a duck ID number so we can trace it's history via the Internet.


There are a lot of tourists here too, and us
honkeys aren't the only ones. Most of the tourists are Chinese, and they take the opportunity to get a photo with us foreign folk whether we like it or not. Some are friendly and ask you, others just film you like you're an animal in a zoo.

Beijing is good, and I certainly don't expect the rest of China to be as accommodating or organized, but if Beijing is supposed to be China's face to the world, I think they're doing pretty well.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Haggling In China

I've never been very good at haggling when I travel. Most of the places I would haggle, things are cheap enough at the asking price, and the people are so poor that I don't bother. But recently I've been trying to hone my haggling skills. I bought a shirt, belt, scarf, and a new pair of underwear at the Black Market in Ulaanbaatar and saved about $4 bucks on the whole package which cost me about $22 in the end.

Not amazing, but pretty good for a haggling novice. When we arrived in Beijing I was way overdue for some new jeans. Mine were grimy and filthy and caked with mud and dirt and beer and grease and wax from weeks of traveling without washing them since I travel with only one pair of pants to keep my bag small and light. I'd have to walk around for a day without pants while waiting for my jeans to dry.

Anyway, I needed new jeans and after Adam and I walked around the Temple of Heaven Park, we stopped by Pearl Market on the Monday evening that we arrived. My first stop was actually in the camera department while we were wandering around looking for clothes. I needed a new eyepiece for my camera since the rubber fell off mine a few weeks ago. I asked about it, and it was too expensive. The guy tried to sell me some UV filters and polarized filters which I didn't need but kinda wanted. He was asking like 80 yuan for the eyepiece, 120 for the UV filter and 180 for the polarized filter. Or something like that.

Haggling ensued and after going back and forth I told him I didn't even really need or want the stuff besides the eyepiece and I was doing him a favor buying something extra. I said 100 for the eyepiece and UV filter which he reluctantly agreed to. My favorite part after a good haggle is the feigned resignation and disappointment from the salesperson. 100 yuan is about 15 bucks, which Adam told me is a good price for a UV filter, but I really have no idea. I may have got hosed, but I felt good. Haggling XP gain.

Then we went upstairs and found the "designer" jeans section. I tried on a pair of Diesels and wasn't particularly smitten with them but I know I needed them and didn't feel like shopping around and was taken in by the salesgirl, like an amateur. She said usually they were 850 but she'd give me a good price of 550. I said that's too high and she asked what the max I would pay was. I figured I usually got jeans for around $30 back home, that's 200 yuan, but I threw out 300 for some foolish reason.

She "reluctantly" agreed and I was in for a pair of jeans for about $45. Not bad if I was in America, or if they were a genuine product, or if I didn't haggle my way into a hole. Later that night one of the rivets popped off a belt loop and my belt barely fit through the loops and the pockets were too shallow. Today, the main button above the fly, which zips like a rusty relic, popped off.

I was hosed, haggling XP loss. But I learned a lesson: when haggling, things go best when you aren't committed to buying in the first place.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Welcome to China!

Adam and I got into China Sunday afternoon.

The border guards gave us the special American treatment: they searched all our stuff while all the Mongolians and Russians on our bus zoomed through.


When we got into the bus terminal in the Chinese border city of Erleen, we almost instantly saw a pushing and screaming match between two women, one a worker at the station, and another with too much luggage, apparently, as the worker started kicking one parcel.


When we got on our sleeper bus to Beijing later in the afternoon, we settled into our bunks comfortably. Picture a bunch of bunks on a Greyhound. It wasn't too bad, but the next morning, after I woke up to find us sitting in a miles long traffic jam of trucks and buses, there was a guy sitting the edge of my bunk, as I was sleeping. I was in the middle aisle and he was playing cards with his friend on the side bunk across from me. He started laying the cards on me. ON ME as I was laying there watching him. Now I know personal space doesn't mean much in China, but for chrissakes, playing cards on another human?

To be fair to China, I think he was Mongolian. He nodded and smiled at me, and I just gave him a dirty look and put his cards on the floor.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Leaving UB


I woke up this morning surprised that it was past nine AM. I had an eye mask on and the light hit me when I took it off. I usually wake up earlier and snooze for awhile, but I guess I earned a solid night's sleep.

The day before Adam and I got to the train station at quarter past seven in the morning to try and get at the front of the line for new ticket openings. The office opened at eight, and there were already at least 200 people waiting in the bitter cold.

We'd been hoping to just get on a train Thursday sometime, but it turned out that you can't just leave Ulaanbaatar anytime you damn well please. Wednesday evening we found out that there were no trains to Beijing, Zamin Uud, or Erleen until Sunday. We got our hopes up when Bob at the hostel said he could get us tickets to the Erleen, the Chinese side of the border for Friday evening, but the tickets got snatched up before we could buy them.

Adam and I waited in the line while police let people in every few minutes once the ticket office actually opened. There we waited for another hour or so to get near the front. At the front, the smashed lines that existed farther back devolved into a mass of 7 or 8 people nearest to the window shoving their hands full of cash and passports through the window and yelling.

It was a fucking zoo.

We were hoping to get tickets for the afternoon train to the Mongolian side of the border, Zamin Uud, from where we could get a bus to Beijing. We were out of luck, but we did get tickets for Saturday night. All in all, it was almost a three-hour affair, split between waiting outside in a cloud of frozen exhaust fumes, and inside squished in lines like folds in an accordion.

If that wasn't productive enough to last the rest of the day, after a much deserved rest and breakfast, I spent a few hours online trying to figure out what graduate school program I wanted to apply to in Norway. I settled on a master's of philosophy of English language in Oslo.

Then I realized I would have to get notarized copies of my passport. I hurried to the American embassy. When I finally got there, I didn't even get past the Mongolian guard. "Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. 1 to 3 o'clock."

My own country couldn't even make a fucking copy for me outside of six designated hours per week. I'm glad I didn't pay any taxes the last two years. Fuckers.

I ran around the city, looking in banks and random doors marked "Notary" in Cyrillic, of which there were many. None actually had a notary though. Every place told me to go to another place which in turn pointed me back to the last place.

At the central post office I asked at the help desk. Counter 2, they said. Counter 2 had no idea what I was talking about, even with notary written on a piece of paper in Cyrillic to help them out. She pointed me to another woman, and a guy who overheard me said I could do it at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

I got there 10 minutes before closing time. The lady said I had to get it notarized in Mongolian, then she could do it in English for me. She said to come back Monday, I said I couldn't. I was leaving for China the next day, Saturday, and they wouldn't be open.

I sprinted across the street and up to the 4th floor of a building where she told me I could find a notary. It was closed. I went to the 3rd floor where I saw a sign for a notary on the way up, but it was just pointing up to the place I had just come from.

I went back for the hell of it, and it was open. I got the notarizations, sprinted back across the street, got a guard to unlock the closed door, and had the woman give me the English notariazations.

And if that wasn't enough, I spent most of the evening making phone calls on Skype to various concerned parties: my mom, transcript offices, etc. Arranging shit for bureaucratic hoops is not easy from across the world.

And though you may not believe it, it's not even easy to send a fax in Mongolia at half past midnight. I spent the wee hours of the morning risking my health and safety on the dark streets of UB trying to find a fax machine. Hotels, 24-hour banks, Internet cafes, all worthless.

I finally scanned the papers, found online fax sites and sent them. A great way to spend my last night in a country when everyone else at the hostel was drinking vodka and going out to clubs. I think I earned my sleep that night.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

China

e

So it seems that China blocks Facebook and Blogger and about a million other sites.

In regards to Facebook, you won't hear me complain. That site sucked up so much free time of mine before I started traveling, and too much even now that I'm on the road, that I'll be glad not to have the option to use it.

In regards to Blogger, I also couldn't care if it weren't for one thing: my adoring public who would just die if I couldn't put up something every few days. That's right, I care about you all, and so I've gone and done something amazing: I've set up a secret email address on Blogger so that I can post directly from my email.

In fact I'm doing it right now! Didn't expect that did you? I'm still in Mongolia, but I just wanted to see how it works and what it looks like. If it looks terrible, get used to it I guess. It'll be my only option unless proxy sites work well.

More Song-Riddle Haikus

I'm back from my second tour and put up some more song-riddle haikus here. Or you can just click on the page link on the menu above.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Mongolian Rap

So Ethan is off trekking in Terelj National Park, and my explosive diarrhea has been downgraded to Scant (the unofficial hierarchy is Nuclear, Explosive, Violent, Aggravated, Uncomfortable, and Scant) . Being confined to a 5 meter radius from my porcelain throne for so many days, I've had plenty of time to read and do some creative writing. It started as a joking suggestion from Ethan in Russia, but I'm continuing my goal of writing a rap for each country I visit. The one below is for Mongolia, to the beat of Warren G's "Regulate" (original lyrics for comparison or follow along with the music video).

But first, some background vocabulary specific to Mongolia and gangstas (for those blog followers not traveling in those circles).
Ger: A circular tent like structure that nomadic Mongolians live in
A-Bomb: My most recognizable gangsta alias
E-Do(gg), E-Child: A few examples of Ethan's many gangsta aliases.

__________________________________

{spoken}
Mongoliators.
We travel all around Mongolia,
Its damn beautiful too.
But you can't be any geek off the street,
Gotta be handy with the horses,
If you know what I mean, herd some sheep.
Mongoliators! Mount up!

{A-Bomb}
A dark green van; a white one too;
A-Bomb was on the steppes, checking out the views
Through an SLR, so I can get some shots
Up on Facebook, chillin' at those spots.

{E-Do}
In the southside breathing Gobi's fresh air,
On a mission trying to find a suitable ger.
I think I saw one; ain't no need for a flare.
Yeah, its confirmed; we'll head over there.

{A-Bomb}
So I unhooks my fish I caught in the river.
The sun was going down, so I said "Here's dinner."
I jumped on my ride and said "Giddy-up",
But the horse didn't budge, so I said "I'm stuck"

{E-Do}
Since these horses are feeding, I'ma glide off this mare.
Some goats are looking so hard, I'd call it a stare.
I think of better things than shaking my fist.
I see my homey screaming and yaks drinking his piss {actually happened}

{A-Bomb}
I'm getting h'rassed, I'm breaking down
Those yaks snuck up on me without making a sound.
They took my dignity, I stopped mid pee.
I looked at the yaks, said "Damn, why me?"

{E-Do}
They got my homey hemmed up and they all around.
Original lyrics make no sense here "pound for pound."
I gotta sneak up real quick before they start to clown.
I best pull out my whip and beat some yak ass down.

{A-Bomb}
I got pants at my knees
Think I'm going insane.
I can't believe this is happenin' in the vast plains.
If I had wings that would rock.
But I'm a practical man.
I glance in the field and I see my homey E-than.

{E-Do}
Sixteen inch whip and guitar on his back,
E-Do is about to start attacking a yak.
Now they mooing and running, it's a tad bit late.
E-Do and A-Bomb had to Mongoliate!

I let all those yakters flee, running down a dirt road.
Now I'm switching my mind back into guitar mode
If you want tunes sit back and listen
Cuz playing guitar is my primary mission.

{A-Bomb}
Now E-Do's got the rhythm with his traveling axe
Before I got attacked, I was on the same track.
Back up, back up, cuz its on,
A.D.A.M and he, the Than to the E.

{E-Do}
Just like we planned we came back to the city,
Ulaanbaatar, or just UBC.
The A-Bomb and the E-Child were in need of somewhere else
The Lonely Planet gave us a clue
I said to my friend "Yeah, that'll do."
At the ticket office we paid in cash,
The lady said back "You'll have a blast."
Soon we'll be on a train and it can't be finer.
The next stop is Beijing, China.

{A-Bomb}
I'm racing, into a whole new level.
M-Funk step on this soil, to travel.
Its fun, on the great wide plains.
{E-Do} The cars are the horses, and the horses have thick manes.

{A-Bomb}
Yaks,
Goats.
We rides,
Horses,
Camels.
Where riding is life
And life is riding.

{E-Do}
If you herd like I herd,
You don't wanna get chased by this.
It the G-Khan era,
Funked out with a Mongol twist.
If you trek like I trek,
Then you're trekking for about 15 days.
And if you're in East/Central Asia
603 will Mongoliate.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Song-Riddle Haikus

As I mentioned in my last post, I have come up with the brilliant idea of making song-riddle haikus. In fact, I even created a new page on this blog. Look up, click on the Song-Riddle Haiku page, and put your brain to work.

I have many more that what I have posted there. I'll add more periodically. And to be nice, I'll give you a free one. This is the first one I made, after listening to Leonard Cohen sing Hallelujah while watching Adam compose haikus in his head and count syllables on his fingers in a Russian van bumping its way across the countryside.

Maybe God's above
But love has taught me one thing
Outshoot when you lose

Don't worry, they aren't all that dramatic. Free beer goes to anyone who can figure them all out.

Tour Part Two


After almost a week of puttering around Ulaanbaatar, I'm going out on a tour again. I kinda want to moving onto China, but I figure I may never be in Mongolia again, so why not get the most out of it? And it's certainly cheap enough.

I'm going to be doing a ger-to-ger trip around Terelj National Park, just outside of UB, and the surrounding area. This means I get on a bus, get picked up by a nomadic family, hang with them for the evening and part of the next day, and then ride a horse or camel to the next family, and repeat for four nights and days.

Adam's got rotgut, so I'm going alone. The price is the same regardless of how many people go on this little trip, unlike out last tour. I think having a few days of (near-) solitude in the hills will be nice.

Plus it snowed a teeny bit in UB last night, and if this city can look almost attractive like it did under the thin white blanket this morning, I bet the countryside will be even better.

What to do with all the free time I'll have? Besides obviously pondering man's eternal questions, I'll be able to work on some new songs to play on my axe, catch up on my epic travel ballad, and compose more song-riddle haikus.

Song-riddle what?

Haikus. I said haikus. With all the time we had in the van on our last trip, I came up with the brilliant idea of working song lyrics or references into a haiku form (thanks to Adam's interest in coming up with travel haikus).

Soon we even agreed upon a standard set of constraints: the first two lines must reference the song title or lyrics, and the final line must reference the artist or group.

For example:

It's oragami
And it's aerodynamic
Soldier gone from war

Or, one for those not so well-versed in recent pop music, here's one with a bit more of a classic answer (but note this one doesn't strictly follow the form restraints) :

Call him Anthony
Spring, summer, fall, and winter
But he's Italian

Got the answers? No? Well, I'm not telling, so tough luck.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Trekking Mongolia

True or False: What should you do in Mongolia?
Answer: How much time do you have and what time of year will you be going?

While the Lonely Planet will ultimately be your first stop for details on visiting Mongolia, here are some things you should consider.

Time of Year
There is a balancing act between visiting a place to experience the best weather or its most famous cultural events versus a time of year when tourism is low, prices are lower, and your sense of a unique experience is greater. For Mongolia, the Naadam Festival occurs in mid-Summer (July to early August), where the three manly skill of Mongolia are on display: wrestling, horse racing, and archery.

(Interesting aside: Mongolian wrestlers wear an open "mini" jacket called a Jodog that exposes their pecks. Legend goes that back in the day when wrestlers could wear closed Jodogs, a wrester handedly defeating all opponents and then ripped open the Jodog to reveal her breasts. Consequently, all Jodogs going forward had to expose the chest, giving way to the flamboyant jacket worn today -- way more logical then removing the shirt altogether).

Unfortunately, the Naadam festival is when tourism explodes in the country for a few weeks, so visit another time. In late September into early October, there is the Golden Eagle Festival where you can watch eagles hunt for food on command in the beautiful Altai Mountains. Eagles. Hunting. On. Command. (You probably just booked your ticket for September 2011).

Arrival and Ulaanbaatar
If you are coming from Russia, I suggest the bus from Ulan-Ude. The bus took around 11 hours plus about 2 hours to get through Russian and Mongolian customs (i.e. 1hr 55min for Russia, 5 min for Mongolia), while the train can take as long as 6 to 11 hours just to get through customs.

If you are coming from China, the train track widths are different between the two countries, and changing the under-carriages can take a long time -- adding up to half a day to your ride to Beijing. Secondly, you'll most likely be going against the flow of travelers that primarily start their trips in Moscow, which means your English speaking company may be slim to none. Perhaps, don't come to Mongolia from China, unless you want that unique, solitary, outsider experience.

Arriving by plane will be the preferred choice for anyone coming to explore Mongolia on a short time schedule. When you arrive, you can make a convenient stop at the Office of Immigration just outside the entrance. At the Office of Immigration, tourists staying longer than 1 month are recommended to register in their first 7 days, and logically, required to do so before the month is up. Be patient, bring a pen along (you won't find one anywhere) and if you get frustrated, know that even if you find yourself filling a form out in your own blood in place of ink, it is far better than the bureaucracy of Russia.

Tours
Don't book tours in advance unless you have a group of 4 to 6 people ready to book. Otherwise, you should take your chances by staying at a local hostel/tour agency in Ulaanbaatar and coordinate with some travelers looking to do the same thing. Depending on where you go, a private tour could be $120+/day. But get 4 to 6 people, and you'll probably be around $40-$50/day.

Package tours can be anywhere from 1 day to 1 month, and a good tour operator will be willing to tailor a tour for any thing you want to see. Your tour should include three meals a day, 1.5L of water per day, a sleeping bag, a camping mat, transportation vehicle, driver, a poor to mediocre English-speaking tour guide, decent company, park entrance fees, a warm place to sleep at the end of the day, and a small taste of Mongolian nomadic life. For all the beauty Mongolia has to offer, you'll find the countryside uninhibited by red-tape and tourist crowds, and that means you'll be able to have an authentic experience beyond most tourist locales.

If you are thinking of traveling in Asia, Mongolia should be a long stop.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Gobi and Mountains


Adam and I spent 15 days in the Mongolian countryside, the desert and steppes and hills and mountains. We lucked out when looking for a tour. We were at a guesthouse looking into tours when a couple of Dutch guys we met briefly on Olkhon Island strolled in, about to book a trip with a group of their own.

We piggybacked on their group tour, and after cake and tea and supposedly homemade jam by Mamma, we were scheduled to leave in two days.

This is how it went for 15 days: pack into a badass Russian van and bounce across some seriously rugged roads at high speeds with your driver singing along with Mongolian music; stop to piss occasionally in the endless landscape; arrive at some sort of attraction and look around, climb around, fool around, and take photos; bounce across the land to a small ger camp and move your stuff into the round felt tent and relax by playing cards, bad music, or drinking booze when you had it.

Since there were 8 of us, we had two vans, each with a driver and guide. There were two Americans: Adam and myself; two French: Julie and Jeremie, a couple; two Dutch: Peter and Paul, both young and talkative, they only stayed 9 days due to visa issues; and two English: Tom and Alice, both 20 or 21, and Tom being a giant of a man.

Our two guides were both women, 28 and maybe early 30s and their English was good enough, though one had an unfortunate habit of talking way too fast and using "like" enough to annoy a valley girl. Our other guide wasn't as proficient in English and had a habit of giggling away questions she didn't understand, but both were super nice and kept us fed and generally informed.

Our drivers were fast and liked to sing. I never got their names, but one spoke a good amount of English. He was the one that drove us around after the Dutch split.

The drivers were always tinkering with their vans when we were parked for the night. A driver is much more than a driver here, he is a mechanic and navigator as well, and one of the more foolish things I heard the Dutch boys say was that they thought they could do a self-drive tour if they had more time to organize a jeep. It is not easy driving around, and even navigating with a GPS in an endless land devoid of landmarks doesn't sound like fun to me.

We stayed in gers every night. A family generally has two or three, and we stayed with families who were used to dealing with our tour company, so we usually had beds to sleep on. The gers were heated with stoves that burned yak and cow shit, which really isn't as nasty as it sounds. The gers in the wooded parts of the country burn wood, and doing that for a few days was nice.

Sometimes we wouldn't interact with the family much, sometimes we would. A few families toward the second half of the trip had little boys and girls we played with and gave pencils and notebooks and watercolors to. I blew a little girl's mind by pulling coins out from behind her ears.

We stayed for 2 nights in the 8 Lakes region, and some of us helped with daily chores like carrying water or chopping wood. One old weather-beaten guy compared tattoos with me and really enjoyed drinking our vodka.

All our meals were cooked and served to us, and the food got repetitive quick, but it was always hot and tasty and plentiful so it's hard to really complain. On a couple special occasions, we got freshly slaughtered goat. The first, we ate heart, liver, blood-filled intestines, lungs, kidney, etc. after watching the goat feebly die. The guy cut a circular hole in its belly, and then cut an artery inside somehow. He skinned and butchered it in his ger like he had been doing since he was 16, and there was surprisingly little blood.

The second fresh goat experience we had involved goat cooked by steaming coals and rocks. We were served an enormous bowl of barbecued body parts that were indescribably delicious. I, for one, very much enjoyed tearing the seared flesh off a goat leg with my bare hands and teeth. I felt like the worlds happiest caveman, covered in grease and full of meat.

The bathrooms were something else as well. Pissing required you just walking off wherever you liked, and usually shitting did too. The exception was when you were at a ger camp with a squat pit toilet. These weren't always pleasant, and sometimes were without doors, but it was more than compensated for with the most breathtaking views one could reasonably expect while shitting: rolling hillsides of gold grass, craggy rocks splitting the land, and horses and yaks grazing at will.

As for the activities, we did quite a lot. We rode horses and camels, climbed sand dunes and mountains, hiked past lakes and through canyons dotted with ice, saw temple ruins and desert cities, explored around a 20 meter waterfall and were treated to pure, clean air and clear starry nights and sunsets and sunrises unimpeded by nothing but the distant horizon. We even got to shower twice, though Adam inexplicably turned down both opportunities. What's up with that, man?

Late fall isn't generally the time to do such a tour around Mongolia, but I'm glad we did it when we did. It would probably be more expensive, and it would certainly be crowded with other tourists. We passed permanent tourist ger camps that were desolate when we saw them, but it was easy enough to see a shitload of whiteys scurrying around the place like ants in the summer time. We were tailed by another group from the same guesthouse, and I saw only 3 other tourists besides them: an American couple who stayed in the families ger when we were in a ger of our own for one night, and an older guy from LA who said hi briefly at a monastery market in Kharakhorin.

We had the countryside to ourselves for the most part, and I wouldn't want it any other way. Adam and I may go out on another tour, shorter, but to a different part of the country. Probably east or north. And why not? At $40 or $50 bucks a day for everything, it's certainly cheap enough, and who knows when we'll ever come back to Mongolia, as nice as it is?

Word Play; Horse Play

Perhaps it was coincidence, perhaps the crisp and clean Mongolian air getting to me after seeing so many cities, but I started to notice that there are a horse load of "horse" related idioms. Here is a list that Ethan and I thought of during our trek through the Gobi Desert and Hangai Mountains (but I didn't beat a horse to death in trying to make it all inclusive):
  1. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth
  2. Horse around; Horse play
  3. Eat a horse (we actually did eat some horse and camel meat along the way)
  4. On a high horse
  5. Putting the cart before the horse
  6. You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink
  7. Beat a horse to death
  8. From the horse's mouth
  9. Hold your horses
  10. Dark horse
There are definitely more, so feel free to comment and add.

Mongolia: The Tour


We spent 15 days outside of Ulaanbaatar, which means 15 days in absolute nowhere, and it was spectacular. We had two opportunities to shower, and Adam turned down both. Not your hygienic hero narrator though, I was smelling like roses the entire time. Just ask anyone.

We had electric lights about half of our evenings and Internet for absolutely none of it. It was nice to get back to the city and clean up and relax and smell some smog again.

I've uploaded photos which can be found either on the link to the right, or by clicking here.

I'll get some real posts up soon.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Way More Photos!

Ulaanbaatar fortunately has a decent Internet connection. I uploaded a lot more photos, some of Korea, most of Russia. The links on the right-hand sidebar will always bring you to these albums, or you can check them out here:

Korea

Russia

That should do for now. I'll have a whole lot from Mongolia after my 15-day tour through the desert and mountains. Until then, enjoy.

Ulaanbaatar


Here's a joke: Why did the chicken cross the road in Mongolia? Answer: It didn't; what do you think it is, stupid?

Ulaanbaatar has it all compared to the Russian cities I visited: fast Internet on decent computers, signs in English, people that speak English, international food, backpacker/budget traveler-friendly guesthouses and shops, cheerful looking people, and democracy.

Unfortunately, it also has about a million cars. Crossing the road is an adventurous undertaking. You just walk into traffic and weave your way through, just like Frogger. Except in Frogger, you get multiple lives.

The Border By Bus

Old Korean buses go to Russia to become new Russian buses. City buses running through the cities I stopped in had partially scraped off Korean lettering, and I even saw a bus from Gyeong-sang Buk-do, the province I used to live in. It really warmed my heart.

Long distance buses in Korea are extremely comfortable. They usually have spacious reclining chairs, three to a row. Sadly, it wasn't one of those buses that Adam and I took across the border to Mongolia and Ulaanbaatar.

I got into Ulan-Ude at 6AM and took a taxi to the opera house to meet Adam and get on our bus. It was an old Korean bus, sure enough, but it was four seats to a row with about a foot of leg space between the edge of your seat and the back of the next.

I didn't really notice the problem until the guy ahead of me reclined all the way. Whatever else can be said about this bus we were on, the seat really reclined a lot. Bad news for my legs. I couldn't get comfortable enough to really get a good nap, which is a shame, because the roads were actually smooth enough to sleep on. Theoretically.

I sat next a Russian Buryat girl on her way to finish her final year at the university in Ulaanbaatar. She was a strange case. She had light eyes, bleach-blond hair, and what looked like bleached skin. I guess she wasn't a big fan of the appearance her race bestowed upon her.

Adam was three seats up since I wasn't sure if I was going to get the last couple days out of my Russian visa and wound up buying our tickets separately.

It was a twelve-hour trip. It doesn't seem bad compared to three days on a train, but twelve hours is still a long time. About two of those hours were eaten up by customs procedures. Twice, Russian officials got on our bus to check our passports and visas, then we went through the customs building, and were checked once again.

The Mongolian side was a lot quicker. We went through the customs building and then an official checked our documents once we were on the bus again. It was at least half as long. Communism - 0, democracy - 1.

We immediately saw horses roaming the plains and hills on the Mongolian side, and cruised through run-down shack towns occasionally before stopping at a heavily Westernized Mongolian restaurant for a long overdue lunch. It was the first thing we had eaten since we left about 9 hours previously. My eyes were almost bigger than my stomach, but I finished my beer, fried chicken-layered-on-beef-and-cheese, salad and rosemary potatoes.

By the time we got to Ulaanbaatar, we still had a long ride ahead of us. The traffic in the city is a complete fucking mess. It was like we were on an overcrowded and really slow conveyor belt, but we finally got in and were met by the woman who ran the guesthouse we booked for our first couple nights.

The Road Not Taken


Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

-Robert Frost

Monday, October 11, 2010

Olkhon Island


Adam apparently did some research in what there was to do in Irkutsk, and it turned out the thing to do was leave Irkutsk and go to an island in the middle of Lake Baikal. I didn't really know any better, but went along with it.

After a couple of nights in mostly vacant new hostel in a mostly sketchy neighborhood in a mostly under-construction building, we got picked up in a minibus for the 6-hour ride to Olkhon Island. We picked up a few other passengers - a doughy Asian matriach, a young couple of exceptional ugliness, and a couple of otherwise unremarkable passengers.

We left the grimy urban sprawl of Irkutsk and drove at very high speeds north. We had lunch at a yurt-esque lunchhouse before we ran out of pavement and bumped and bounced like crazy to the ferry to Olkhon.

Once over the frigid water, it was more bumping for another half-hour until we got to Khuzir, the largest settlement on the island, and a place reminiscent of what I imagine a Dark Ages hamlet to look like.

It was all roughly-hewn wood shacks and stockade fences, with dirt roads under the jurisdiction of packs of ragged dogs. Smoke rose from chimneys to add a nice touch to the town. The island had been on the power grid only since 2005. The one place to use the Internet on the island was in a tent. It was like a massive log cabin summer camp.

We stayed at Nikita's Homestead at the end of town closest to the Shaman Rocks. The compound had an even more distinct summer camp feel. Three hot meals a day were included in the price, and we showed up at the canteen regularly to get served up delicous hearty meals.

The rooms were in rustic buildings placed here and there within the Homestead's walls. We had a three-bed room to ourselves. Two massive ceiling beams of solid wood ran along our ceiling and there was a single outlet in our room which we plugged the heater into. In the bathroom stalls there were two plugs each. Didn't make sense, but it must've had something to do with the eco-friendly nature of the place. All wastewater was reclaimed, toilets didn't flush, and every building was highly insulated.

Nikita turned out to be a former Russian ping-pong champion. Adam and I saw him playing with his little son, maybe 8 or 9 years old. His son was wailing the ball like a pro and Nikita simply stood around casually and returned everything. His son was alternating sessions with another young girl who was even better, yet still failed to make Nikita try, or even move, to make a return.

We spent one day on a minibus excursion to the northern cape of the island, stopping along the way for picturesque cliff and seaside photos. We met a French-Canadian couple who turned out to be really nice, despite Francois' affinity for the Montreal Canadiens.

That evening some Austrians and a pair of French-Canadian guys built a fire in the fire pit after an accordianist played music while two Russian women sang folk songs. James, the young Kiwi, drank a shit-load of vodka and entirely disproved his vigorous claim that, "Students know how to drink!" by nearly falling into the fire and stepping on a sleeping dog on the way out. He'll learn, he is a student after all.

The next day Adam and I rented mountain bikes for a 16 kilometer ride to the only lake on the island. Wrap your head around that: a lake on an island in a lake; god, that's so metaphysical.

Adam almost made it to the lake but was forced to backtrack when he realized he lost his point-and-shoot camera. At one point on the ride there, the track we were following headed downhill for a good distance after we had just spent a good amount of effort ascending. Adam decided to go off-road and blaze his own train in an attempt to maintain elevation to get to the cross-trail we would have to wind up climbing anway. I said fuck it and decided to stay on the trail and cruise down the hill.

It turns out that humans can generally be trusted to build roads where it makes sense to build roads. Adam had to go up and down hills that the track I rode on passed in front of. And he lost his camera somewhere along the way when he failed to close his bag the whole way. Hard luck.

I went on to the lake alone while he retraced his tracks in a futile attempt to hunt it down. I wasn't sure I had made it to the right lake when I got there because it was hardly more than a mud-ringed puddle with a bunch of cows milling about.

Anyway, it made for a great place for a picnic of the food the canteen had packed for us, and I relaxed after all the riding, the first exercise I've really done for maybe two months, thanks partly to the surgery I had in Korea.

Making my way along an alternate route back, I finally came to the ridge from which it was all down hill. I lowered my bike seat and cruised down for maybe 20 minutes straight, first through the woods along a rugged trail, and then out into the open and sunlight as the trees gave way to rolling hills. After a short traverse with patches of Lake Baikal visible, I crested the last hill and had an open downhill shot to the coast. Horses grazed freely to my right, and ahead the horizon was dominated by the glittering deep blue lake with white mountains on the far shore. To the north was Khuzir, with the Shaman Rocks clearly visible 4 or 5 kilometers off.

It was a truly breathtaking ride. I burned down the hill towards the lake, nearly skidding out and going over my handle bars here and there, and chapping the shit out of my nose and lips, but it was an absolutely unforgettable ride down, and made the trip to the underwhelming lake more than worth it. I felt that if I returned home to the States the next day I could do so fully satisfied.

Olkhon Island is worth a trip to Siberia. It's quiet, peaceful, and in the middle of some amazing nature. I guess it gets pretty hectic in the high season of the summer, but we had just missed it. Nikita's was a great place to stay despite the bistro running out of beer. The food was great and the banya's were invigorating after a long day of hiking or riding or whatever. The air was clean and fresh, the water of the world's deepest lake clear and clean, but way too cold to swim in in early October.

I wished we were staying longer, but we got back on a minibus to Irkutsk with James to find the same hideously ugly couple were accompanying us back to Irkutsk. At least they had each other I guess.