Sunday, December 30, 2007

Final thoughts on China

Jasmine tea is everywhere - many Chinese walk around with a few tea leaves in small Thermoses. When they finish the tea, they refill the bottle from hot water dispensers are in almost any room and drink another cup.

Waiting in line is practically unheard of - its a cultural thing. The idea of waiting behind someone else for anything when you could just walk around to the front is completely foreign to many Chinese. This results in a lot of chaos and elbows at train stations, tourist attractions and anywhere else a line might form. It's a bit strange at first but eventually you get used to being practically bowled over by little old ladies in the grocery store.

Despite efforts to crack down on spitting in the wake of the SARS outbreak and in the run up to the Olympics, its still happens all the time and everywhere. One of my bunkmates on a train ride casually spit on the floor of our common area without looking - I took my shoes to bed with me that night.

Chinese babies rarely wear diapers. Most baby pants have a slit down the back side and mothers simply open this up when their children need to go to the bathroom. This happens everywhere, in the streets, on the sidewalk, or even in a bus. Its a disgusting practice but the Chinese, for the most, part accept or ignore it.

Far from being a taboo conversation topic, diarrhea is openly discussed even with complete strangers. I've found using it as an excuse is a great way to get rid of unwanted salesmen even when I'm feeling fine.

Finally, not many people in China speak English - since I can't speak Chinese I played a lot of impromptu games of charades. I only mention this to note that most of the Chinese people I encountered were very friendly, helpful, and willing to work to get through the language barrier.

Hong Kong

Our time in Hong Kong was divided into two distinct sections, a few leisurely days up to and including Christmas and a few hurried days afterwards trying to see everything. This was, no doubt, not the correct way to see Hong Kong but how could you expect us to leave an apartment with a view like this. (Thank you John and Carol!)

Our first day, though it didn't start until almost the evening, we took a Star Line ferry across the harbour from Central Hong Kong to Kowloon where we saw Nathan Road, Temple Street Night Market, and a stunning view of the city skyline. Nathan Road is ba famous shopping street like almost any other in big cities, it is filled with neon lights, high end stores, and shoppers. The road was closed, however, as it was Christmas eve so festive locals, people buying last minute Christmas gifts, and more tourists than you could count packed the street. A few blocks away we found the less crowded but far more interesting Temple Street Night Market. This monument to intellectual property piracy stretches on for nearly a kilometer through back alleys with vendors selling anything you could imagine except food and weapons. We picked up a cheap binoculars that we hope will survive until Africa.

Before heading home we stopped by the Avenue of the Stars which is, in short, a sidewalk built into Victoria Harbour. The view of the Hong Kong skyline from here is legendary at any time of the year but even more spectacular around Christmas. Many buildings leave their interior lights on at night and some even decorate the outside with festive lights and messages. The result is an astounding cityscape.

We spent Christmas day lounging around the apartment, talking to family and loved ones, and enjoying a few very welcome care packages from home. We spent the evening wandering around Old Town and Lan Kwai Fong (pictured below). Despite its name, Old Town didn't seem very old - there was no interesting architecture, cultural relics or religious sites as you might expect. We did, however, find a few bustling back alleys and shops selling dried food notably lizard, octopus, and squid. Lan Kwai Fong is a small, one block area known for its nightlife - on Christmas day though it is teeming with expats who were unable to get home for the holidays. We spent a few hours making friends and celebrating with festive wassailers.

The next day we visited Victoria Peak and took a ferry out to Lamma Island for dinner. In colonial times important British families lived on top of Victoria peak and rode sedan chairs to and from work down in the city. Today wealthy people still live on Victoria peak but thousands of visitors are carried up every day in the ultratouristy Peak Tram. The view from Victoria Peak:

Later that day we took a 20 minute ferry ride out to Lamma Island located south west of Hong Kong Island. Buildings higher than three storeys and automobiles are prohibited on the island and the laid back atmosphere belies it's proximity to the city.

The myriad seaside restaurants will let you literally pick your meal of choice out of a tank. I was not brave enough to try the Geoduck, a shellfish that looks like a bloated clam with a tail. If you click on the following picture you can see the geoducks in the centre of the middle row.

We took a quick trip to Macau and caught tea at The Peninsula hotel on our last day in Hong Kong. By the time we bought ferry tickets, travelled to Macau and cleared customs, we only had about an hour and a half to explore the former Portuguese colony. Our first stop, on the run, was the iconic ruins of the Cathedral of Saint Paul. The cathedral was built in the early 1600s by Jesuits and Japanese Christians in exile, today all that remains is the facade.

From the cathedral we ran to the old town center Largo do Senado. The town square, which is actually shaped like a triangle, is notable for its black and white mosaic street and brightly colored, stucco buildings. The area has a European / Mediterranean feel and if it weren't for all the Chinese writing and people, you might forget you were in Asia.

As it is the only spot in China that allows gambling, no stop in Macau would be complete without stopping by a Casino. Since we didn't have a lot of time, we decided to skip the modern, western styled Venetian, MGM Grand and Wynn casinos in favor of the homegrown, Casino Lisboa. Although it's been recently remodeled to keep up with the competition, Casnio Lisboa with its small rooms and charmingly garish lights looks nothing like a Vegas casino. Although you may have never heard of it, in 2006 gambling revenues from Macau's casinos surpassed those from casinos on the Vegas strip - watch out!

After our whirlwind tour through Macau we had to rush back to Kowloon for tea at the Peninsula Hotel. A proper English tea service was a welcome break from not truly knowing what I've been eating for the past two months.

Please excuse, again, a hastily written post.

Thursday, December 27, 2007


Our first stop in Shanghai was Nanjing Road, a very famous shopping street. Often called the Fifth Avenue of Asia, Nanjing Road is divided into two sections, East and West. The East section, pictured above and below, is covered in neon lights and filled with mid to high end stores (and street salesmen selling low quality Chinese toys). The West end is closer to the financial district, has more open space, and is filled, almost exclusively, with luxury brand and high end stores.

We also visited the Bund, another very famous section of Shanghai, located on the western bank of the Hangpu river. This area quickly became the main banking and trade hub in Asia following the opium wars in the mid 1800s.

The bankers built large stone office buildings to rival their counterparts in Europe. Of particurlar note are the mosaic ceilings in the old HSBC building , once called the most luxurious building between the Suez Canal and Bering Strait. Unfortunately pictures were not allowed inside so you'll have to check out the link to Wikipedia.

Today the Bund is still home to banks but also fancy restaurants and high end retail stores. This is still one of the most sought after and prized addresses in Shanghai.

Later in the week we visited Old Town and Yuyuan Gardens (pictured below). The pagoda style buildings were a nice nod to tradition but unfortunately everything had the shiny new feel of an area remodeled for tourists. Even in Old Town there was a Starbucks and a McDonalds. Fortunately Yuyuan gardens was a relaxing break from the hustle and bustle of the city. We had a great afternoon exploring passageways and finding different serene ponds, temples, and rock formations every time we turned around.

According to everyone we talked to, a stop in the Shanghai Museum was necessary. We found great permanent exhibits of ancient ceramics, bronzes, and currency. The pot pictured below is more than 6,000 years old.

No visit to Shanghai would be complete without a stop in the French Concession and Xingtiandi. This area is filled mostly with trendy, new bars and restaurants but punctuated with buildings leftover from the Open Door era. Its a great place to wander around in the day time or go out to at night.

Finally, it was great to run into some old friends (Howie and Haimu) and make some new ones when in Shanghai. Thank you to Sharon and Steve for including Ellie and I in your Christmas dinner!

Please excuse the hastily written post - I'm about 2 weeks behind on the blog and need to catch up.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Xian, China - Terra Cotta Warriors

We arrived in Xi'an and, like many other people there, had one thing on our mind - the Terra Cotta warriors. We visited the army on the first day and unfortunately, after that, nothing else in Xi'an could compare.

The story, in short, is that when Emperor Qin died in 209 BC he was buried in an extremely elaborate mausoleum (as of yet unearthed because it contains Indiana Jones like defences) and accompanied 8,099 life sized soldier and horse statues.

At present only about 1,000 of the are uncovered, the rest remain buried until they can be excavated and reconstructed.

Each terra cotta warrior is unique in height, weight and facial features. Some of the original color lacquer finish is just barely visible in the previous and next photo. They are arranged in order of height and rank.

Five years after Emperor Qin's death General Xiang Yu, worried that the Emperor would return commanding a formidable terra cotta army, ordered the statues be destroyed and their weapons removed. Xiang Yu was particularly concerned about the highest ranking terra cotta warriors and his men, set on destruction, acted accordingly. Note that after multiple attempts at restoration and reconstruction, all of the Generals in the terra cotta command post (separate pit, following picture) are still missing their heads.

These horses and accompanying carriage were found separately from the other terra cotta warriors, closer to Emperor Qin's mausoleum.

Of course, we did see a few other sites in Xi'an, notably the city wall. Constructed in the 1300s AD, this 12km long wall is one of the best preserved city walls in China. We saw parts of two sides, one corner and got about 1/4 of the way around before deciding that we had a pretty good idea what the rest of the wall looked like. The haze in the following picture is smog, not fog.

We also visited the Big Goose Pagoda - Xi'an's other iconic landmark. This seven tired structure (bottom two tiers are obscured by the temple) was built more than 1,300 years ago to hold Buddhist sutras.

The Bell Tower is located in the center of town is used as the starting point for all directions. Like many of the other buildings in town, its well lit at night. Its counterpart, the Drum Tower, is also a local landmark but the surroundings are not as interesting. Both towers are used, surprise, for drum and bell performances.

Finally: Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Chengdu: Giant Pandas Giant Buddhas

We left Kathmandu and were very excited to be heading back to China. On the plane ride, we somehow managed to meet John, a friend of our friend Tom in Beijing - small world. His help with translation and knowledge of the area were indispensable to our experience in Chengdu.

Chengdu, with a metropolitan population of more than 14 million people, is like a number of other mega cities in China - completely unknown to most people in the west. As the capital of the Sichuan province however it holds a claim on all of the area's Pandas and the eponymous variety of spicy food. Chengdu is a contradiction though, there is a dichotomy between old and new. In the public parks, people sit around in tea houses playing Mah Jong, chatting, singing and, most importantly, drinking tea for hours. In other parts of the park, people play instruments, sing and exercise . In the city center though, there are colorful fountains and shining, new luxury brand stores like Ferragamo, Dior, and Louis Vuitton. The people run the gamut between young, affluent trend setters and sociable elderly. The city is definitely more relaxed and running at a slower pace than Beijing.

Our first night in Chengdu we went out for a local specialty, a hot pot dinner. This dish is somewhat like a Chinese take on oil fondue - you order a broth, meats, and vegetables then dump all the food in the broth, let it cook and enjoy. Featured prominently in our dish, like many Sichuanese dishes, were Xanthoxylon peppers. These caper sized fireballs come on a vine, in clumps like grapes and are so strong they make your mouth go numb. The sensation is somewhat like a mild anesthetic with a dash of Tabasco sauce. I was sweating and my whole mouth was tingling after dinner.

We spent our first full day in Chengdu outside the city - about 140km away in the small town (population > 300,000) of Leshan. Our first stop in the city was the local market. We walked past lurching bags of frogs, noisy crates full of chickens, ducks, and rabbits, bowls of fish and snakes, and at one point a pot of turtles. In no short time, the local vendors would sell all these creatures to people for dinner. (see the photo of Ellie holding a rabbit) The main attraction in the town, however, is the worlds largest Buddha. At 71m tall, seated, the Buddha's large toe is said to be large enough to hold a picnic. The Buddha was originally built in the 700s AD  - besides that there is not much to say, other than that it is a very large Buddha. We spent the rest of our time in, or nearby Chengdu.

We briefly visited a street market in Chengdu, it was refreshing to see turtles being sold as pets, not food. Vendors sold all the elements you would need for a traditional Chinese garden plants, rocks, fish, pond equipment, and turtles of many different shapes and sizes. Some were smaller than a palm, fully grown, and some were easily more than 30lbs with spikes. A few vendors rode by on bicycles covered in bird cages.

My favorite part of our visit to Chengdu was, perhaps, the Giant Panda Breeding and Research Base. We spent the majority of our time there watching baby giant pandas eating in the nursery. Unfortunately the guards were quite militant about enforcing the no picture policy and I was unable to sneak off any good shots. The adult pandas spend most of their time eating, sleeping and playing - fortunately we timed our visit with the morning feeding and were able to see lots of pandas awake and eating. The panda base was also home to a large number of red pandas. These are much smaller than giant pandas and look suspiciously like a cross between a red fox and a giant panda. There's a funny thing about China - you can do an awful lot with about $6. (see picture of me with the red panda)

Our final stop in Chengdu, before boarding the train to Xi'an, was a local opera. We couldn't understand much but got around that issue with the help of a local named Tray Lee who translated surprisingly well. I'm certainly extrapolating but the opera seemed to be a triumphal moral comedy. It followed a down on his luck gambler's antics as he tried to sell his wife as a prostitute for gambling money and her eventual revenge. Most of the theater-goers were the relaxed elderly we'd seen in parks earlier and sat around drinking tea during the performance.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Final thoughts on Nepal

Namaste, the all purpose word Nepalis use for hello, goodbye, thank you, and how are you is my favorite greeting thus far. When translated directly into English it means "I salute the god in you." The Nepalis say Namaste with grasped hands, as if praying, and big smiles - it is a pleasure to greet and be greeted in this country!

Men walk down the street holding hands with each other all the time but I never saw a man showing his affection for a woman. Its not sexual, just a sign of friendship and it looks quite odd at first.

It is said that Nepalis carry more on their backs than any other culture and I'd certainly believe it! From bricks to laundry to chickens, I've seen Nepalis carry mind boggling loads - once a Nepali man walked by carrying an American sized, family style refrigerator on his back!

Its much better to joke with the pushy tiger balm salesmen than be bothered by them.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Royal Chitwan National Park

We set out on the morning of the seventh for Royal Chitwan National Park, a nearly 1,000 sq km nature preserve in south central Nepal. Our bus ride from Pokhara to Sauraha took about five hours and was much like our other experiences on Nepali roads: paved but extremely bumpy, a few buses had fallen off cliffs on the side of the road, and occasionally we had to squeeze down to one lane because landslides had blocked the rest of the road. When we got off the bus, representatives from all the local hotels swarmed us and all the other people who had arrived on the foreigner only bus and quite obviously needed a hotel. Fortunately we had booked our hotel in advance and made our way to the Jungle Wildlife Camp quite easily. Our accommodations were right outside the park and thus on the cheaper end of lodging in the area but had an excellent view of a river and some grasslands. We could see elephants from our front porch!

We ran into two Dutch guys, Vincent and Robert, who we had met before in Pokhara and two Brits, Guy and Will joined us later. After a few hours of downtime and a short car ride, we arrived at the government run Elephant Breeding Center - the four elephants playing soccer completely made up for missing out on Elephant Polo a few weeks earlier.

We walked around the center and fed a number of baby elephants - their trunks are surprisingly dexterous!

On the ride home we stopped to pick up some firewood and were swarmed by Nepalese children who wanted nothing more than to say hello and shake our hands. They didn't ask for money or candy, just greeted us and then seemed to completely lose interest and run off. For someone who is not used to crowds of adoring fans, it was quite pleasant to have some!

The next morning we woke up early to go for a bird and crocodile watching canoe ride then jungle walk, which is exactly what you might expect. A quick ride in a canoe, followed by a walk through the jungle. The canoe was quite similar to those made by Native Americans, a large tree carved into the shape of a canoe with dug out seating.

We arrived at the canoe center and waited... and waited... and waited for two hours but our boat man didn't show up.I got bored and decided to borrow a canoe for a few moments and paddle around in the stream. Our guide must have taken the hint because we left shortly thereafter. We saw a number of crocodiles and storks. More interesting than either of these, however, was the local Tharu families washing themselves and their clothes in the river while fishing for their dinner in close proximity to the crocodiles. Our guide ensured us that those particular crocodiles ate only fish, but I was quite happy to stay away from them.

We saw wild monkeys and deer and some tiger tracks on our jungle walk but sadly no actual tigers.

The government run elephant safari center was a surprisingly commercial outfit. When we arrived we found a flock of tourists and easily a dozen elephants. At four tourists per elephant, there were a lot of people in the jungle. We even caught one Nepali man talking on his cell phone DURING the safari!

We saw some more deer and even the rare, one horned, Indian Rhinoceros a mother and child!

The tour was quite thrilling - and an experience that I was quite glad to have had but also one that I would not repeat. Some of the elephant prodding tools looked quite barbaric and I'm quite sure the elephant did not enjoy getting kicked behind the ears. Although people make analogies about the thickness of an elephant's hide for a reason, such a majestic creature certainly deserves much better treatment!

Had to do it:

We visited in the middle of the winter, but you couldn't tell unless you knew better since the weather was actually quite pleasant. Although you would be cold without a light fleece and pants at night, the days were warm, almost hot and anything other than shorts and a t-shirt at noon was far too much. The summers are, without doubt, oppressively hot. The local buildings we saw were a reflection of both these conditions and the available materials. The walls were very thin, nothing more than reeds woven together and covered in mud. The roofs were, for the most part, thatched but when possible people upgraded to wooden shingles or tin.

Between the well stocked rivers and lush vegetation all around, the people and animals were well fed, although not without difficulties. Three years ago Maoists bombed the area quite frequently but most of the violence seems to have subsided these days. Today the Maoists have been integrated into the political process and form a small but vocal part of the government. Still though they have been known to hassle trekkers and there has been at least one bombing in the past year. The most anyone would have to worry about is perhaps paying a small, "voluntary" donation (no more than Rs100 or about $1.60 per day) and the Maoists will even issue a receipt! It is a bit morally objectionable but far safer and easier than the alternative. That being said, the big cities and major tourist areas are completely safe from such attacks as the Maoists don't target tourists and most of the locals don't support them anyway. The Nepalis that we've run into have all been very friendly and many of them speak an impressive amount of English.

Tomorrow morning we are heading back to China for a few weeks and plan on visiting Chengdu, Xi'an, Shanghai, and Hong Kong in that order.

Fortunately we will not be flying Royal Nepali Airlines who, earlier this year, sacrificed two goats because one of their planes was having technical problems.

Finally, ChasingGoats in Bhaktapur, Nepal: