Tuesday, December 28, 2010


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


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."


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


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


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.