Monday, December 31, 2007

Erik Trinidad's Latest Travels

One of our favorite FOSTs (Friend of Sand and Tsunamis), Erik Trinidad, is back out there on what has been dubbed the "Central American Eviction Tour." The lease on his apartment expired, and the landlords have decided not to renew in order to transform it into some ultra-luxurious development. Not one to take life's curveballs without taking a swing, he decided to turn homelessness into an opportunity for more travel.

So, he's making his way through Central America. Having started in Belize, he moved on to Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and now is in Columbia.

As you follow along, note that in the comments in the "Going Eco" post. He apparently got shot...not sure what that means, because, with Erik it could be anything. Still, he was away from the blog for a while, and is working on getting it updated.

Head back to the start when you have some time, and travel along. If this is your first time with Erik, be sure to check out his Global Trip 2004 blog, where he spent 503 days on the road, and blogged about each day. It's well worth whatever time it takes you to get through.

Sumo Video

One of the bouts we watched at the Sumo tournament last September. Not sure who it is, but it was pretty quick.

Akemashite Omedeto Gozaimasu! (Happy New Year)

Well, out with 07 and in with 08. Every year seems to get shorter and shorter, and it seems like barely 12 months ago that we began 2007.

We had a relatively quiet evening last night, spending time with our friends Ginny and David, and Mark and Margie. We went to our favorite Indian Restaurant, T-Side, and then back to Mark and Margie's place for a few hours. We played Cranium, and were having such a fun time, that we almost missed the New Year. We caught it just in time, toasted with Champagne, and went up on the roof to listen to the New Year's bells at the different Buddhist temples nearby. We finally got home at about 4 AM.

2007 was a mixed year for us. We had a variety of good and not so good things happen to us, but overall, 2007 worked.

Going into 2008, the pace will pick up. David will be going on business trips totalling about a month away between January and February, here in Japan, and to Korea and the US. Once he's back, it will be pretty much non stop getting ready to go back to the USA in late March/early April. While our families are understandably excited for us to be back home, and not have a 15 hour time zone difference to contend with, we're torn. We've loved living overseas, and Japan in particular has been the experience of a lifetime. We'll actually be quite sad to leave.

But, leave we must, and it's just part of the nomadic lifestyle we've chosen. We'll head to Texas next, and it will be good to be closer to Melody's folks, and a Southwest flight away from David's. We'll finally get to see our stuff that got stashed away in storage over four years ago, and will be able to enjoy our wedding gifts (finally). I fear we'll have a lot to cull and get rid of, but that too will be a good and cathartic experience. We hope to find a nice home to buy, and over the next few years, decide what we want to be when we grow up. Potentially, we could retire after our next tour. Not sure what we'll do, but we'll make some general plans, adjust them as necessary, and tackle it as it comes.

Here's hoping that 2008 is a blessed year for you all.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

strange name. found @ 100 yen store.

I'm pretty sure they wouldn't allow this on any airplanes.

Security Screener: "What's this?"
Passenger: "What does it look like? It's My Bombe!"

It's basically propane for a table top burner (used for making yakiniku or shabushabu). Not having one of those, we didn't buy any.

Posted from my mobile phone...

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Funny Japanese TV

One of the things we do enjoy about Japan is the television. First of all, they are incredibly accurate when it comes to predicting the weather. If the weather report says that it will rain at 3 PM, bring your umbrella.

One of the coolest game shows was a Ninja Warrior Challenge that was incredible to watch. Check it out on Youtube here.

There's also a trend toward funny game shows, that usually involve the contestants engaging in feats of strength or agility. One show, Takeshi's Castle, has been redubbed into English and is shown on Spike TV as Most Extreme Elimination Challenge, or MXC. The contestants are divided into teams and compete against one another in a variety of hilariously funny and painful events, such as seen on the below Youtube clip.

There are other game shows I've seen, that require contestants to answer questions or see their grandson bunji catapulted over an abyss, one where contestants have to get through a tounge twister or get swatted in a particularly sensitive part of their anatomy, and others which test contestants ability to sit in 50 degree Celsius water for time they later use to pitch a product. Much fun is had at other people's expense, it seems.

Candid camera type shows are also popular, such as one that has 100 people ambush one unsuspecting businessman. Such as below...

Not all of Japanese TV is silly game shows, but the best parts seem to be. To see what you're missing, check out some of these links...and be sure to go to Youtube and search for others.

The Japanese are Crazy
Psycho Japanese TV

Friday, December 28, 2007


Merry belated Christmas to those of you who celebrated it. December has been a very busy month for us both, with business travel around Japan, strange schedules, and the usual year end festivities and stress.

David took a short trip up to Sendai to participate in the annual Yama Sakura exercise going on there. We celebrated our anniversary in the first week of the month, spending the weekend up at the New Sanno Hotel in Tokyo. When going there recently, we've begun to treat it like our own personal cruise ship. Once we check in, we spend the entire time there, enjoying the surroundings, eating at the exclusive Wellington's restaurant (usually the 5 course meal...the best deal in town for a nice restaurant), and relaxing with a good book over cups of good coffee.

A few days after our anniversary, Melody had her first trip to Okinawa for a few days, while David went back up to Sendai.

The week after we all got back home, David was promoted to lieutenant colonel. The list was released last summer, and his number finally came up. The ceremony was nice and brief, the way he wanted it to be, and they held the promotion party at the New Sanno the next weekend. It was a good reunion with old friends like Toshi and Harumi, as well as the new boss, Colonel Whitworth and friends from work.

On into the Christmas holidays then...As usual, we stressed about sending out Christmas gifts to friends and family, and relied heavily on on-line shopping to get everything done. While it will be nice to be back in the US next year, we won't have the excuse of being in Japan any more, and will have more impetus to be on time.

The holiday schedule continues for another week or so, and we're enjoying the relaxed schedule while getting ready for the big push that awaits us in the next few months. We depart in April, and will both be busy with additional trips for work, packout, and the myriad tasks to get closed out here and ready to go back to the US. Neither of us want to leave Japan, and it will be a terribly sad time when it comes. But, that's the life we've chosen...the semi-nomadic life of the military. We'll adapt to our new life when it comes. We'll just start the new chapter in Texas.

In the meantime, though, we're still here...Sand, Tsunamis, and will try to get through a few more adventures before we leave.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

War Eagle and Happy Thanksgiving!

Today, my alma mater, Auburn University, beat our arch rivals, University of Alabama for the 6th straight time. This one was at home in Auburn, and I'm sure that Toomer's Corner is draped in the white finery of victory: Toilet Paper. For those not acquainted with the tradition, following Auburn victories, the students go and "TP" Toomer's Corner, throwing thousands of rolls of paper into the branches. The stuff hangs there until the next big rain, when it drifts into the gutters or gets ground into the asphalt. All in all, mildly destructive, probably contributes to global warming, and is a grand tradition that has lasted for ages, and will for ages to come (or until Al Gore says nobody should do that anymore).

It's been a busy weekend. We had Thanksgiving dinner with our friends Ginny and David, and we just got back this afternoon from visiting Melody's cousin in Kobe. She and her husband have 16 month old twins who are just adorable, and as one can quite imagine, a handful. We took the Shinkansen the day after Thanksgiving to get there, and spent about a day and a half total with them. We really had a great time, and got to indulge in a bunch of Filipino food as well, something that's a real treat for us.

I just have to take a moment here to say how proud I am of Melody. When we first met, she took a short trip to New Orleans and brought a HUGE bag full of clothes she would wear, clothes she might wear, clothes that she knew she probably wouldn't wear, but looked cute, shoes, shoes, shoes, and more shoes, and an umbrella. Of course, I gave her a hard time about her packing for months. However, over the past 7 years, she's improved tremendously. We've done a lot of travel on holiday and work, and she's refined her skills to the point where, this time, she took one 25L backpack for three days. Half of it is still her applications and "girl" stuff, and I have no idea (nor the courage) to tackle that.

We also recently began and ended the process of buying a house. We'll be moving to Texas in the spring, and are trying to get a head start on getting a place to live. We found a great house that, as they say, looks great from afar, but was really far from great. We knew there were a few issues from the sellers documents, relating to storm damage to the roof that hadn't been repaired. What we were not encouraged to see after completion of the inspection, were the myriad other problems with the place. Foundation problems, insulation, termite damage, the aforementioned roof, leaks, electrical went on for 11 pages. After consulting with the experts (Mom and Dad), we decided not to continue the option, and backed out of it. So, the quest continues, and we're sure we'll find something eventually, and before we need to move in. It was a bit of a disappointment, though...we really did like the place. We just don't want to spend the next 3-4 years totally renovating it, as we most likely wouldn't be able to get what we put into it later on).

Anyhow, on into December we go...we have our Holiday Ball on Tuesday, a bit early due to an exercise going on, and I'll be doing some traveling up north of Tokyo for a few days. I'll be back in time for our anniversary though. At least I'd better be!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Breakin' The Law, Breakin' The Law

I like to think of myself as a fairly law abiding citizen. My last speeding ticket was when I was in college, nearly 20 years ago (and yes, I am knocking on the proverbial wood). That said, I had a brush with the law this week...

We had a group of folks over from the US this week, working with us on a future exercise we're trying to get together. While here, we went out to the depot for a visit, but before we left, I realized that I left my ID card in my computer. Rather than make us late, I decided that, since I'd done it before, I would just sign in after we got there.

We drove up to the gate and everyone showed their IDs to the security guard. I explained that I had forgotten mine, and would need to sign in, and then pulled over to the side. We waited for several minutes for the guard to come over with the clipboard. When he didn't, I craned my head out the window and looked back at them. They were standing in a gaggle, so I waved at them. They waved back at me like I could go on, so I shrugged my shoulders, and went on in.

After making a quick trip to the bathroom, we joined the rest of the group for a briefing. To save time, I parked on the grass, and we cut across to the warehouse. After our briefing, we went out to look at some static displays, and while standing there, a military policeman came up. I figured that perhaps he was looking for me since I'd parked on the grass. Sure enough, he was.

I went over and asked, "Is there a problem?"

The MP asked, "Is that your van over there?"

"Yes, it is," I replied. "Am I getting arrested?" I said that last with what I thought was a wry grin...

"It is an apprehendable offense. I've been sent to escort you off base," he replied, without a wry grin.

"You're going to arrest me for parking on the grass?"

"No," he replied, still not grinning, "You ran the gate."

Now, to me, running the gate causes visions of Al Qaeda type terrorists bashing through the entrance, and driving into the middle of the base to blow themselves up. This is not me. I work here. Hell, I live here.

"I did not run the gate. I pulled over and waited for the guards to come let me sign in. When I waved at them to get their attention, they waved as if I could go," I explained.

"I'm sorry, sir. Could you come with me to my truck?"

"Of course." I followed him, getting my wallet out as we went.

Once at his truck, we went through the information drill. Name. Rank. Social. Date of birth. Place of birth...all the while, thinking through the possible ramifications of having a criminal record. The reputation as a scofflaw...the bad boy persona, which would contrast nicely with my naturally geeky nature. If I were a Democrat, this would be a resume enhancer! Too bad I'm a right wing nut job.

After I gave him all my information, we headed back to the gate. He by this time realized that it was a miscommunication, and decided that he would not give me a leg up if I ever decided to run for Democrat office, and to let me off with a warning. I wouldn't even have to be escorted back on the base by my boss.

As we got to the gate, I turned around, parked, got out and went up to the shack so I could sign in. And proceeded to stand there. Then one of the security guards came out and went to talk to the MP. Then he came back. Then he called someone on the phone. I looked over at the MP, and realized that it was him. Then he hung up and went back to talk to the MP. I went over as well, and he just looked at me and said, "Don't worry about it."

"So I'm not going to make the blotter?" I asked.

"No. You're good."

So, I went on.

When I rejoined the group, one of the guys started singing, "Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do when they come for you." The only thing I would have needed to do to make it like a "COPS" episode would have been to take off my shirt and say, "It ain't mine, man! I was just holding it for someone!!"

I have a big sign on my door, right above the doorknob, reminding me not to forget my ID card. It doesn't work very well, obviously. I can guarantee you that I didn't forget it for the rest of the week, though.

Otherwise, it was a good week. We're in the process of perhaps buying a house in San Antonio (where we're headed next), so that kept us busy as well. Gotta love the can do almost anything these days virtually.

We also spent last Saturday with our friends Ginny and David brewing beer and playing Clue. I don't know the last time that I played has to be over 25 years ago. It turns out that it was "Mr. Green in the Dining Room with the Candlestick" though. Just now, they actually have little people figurines rather than colored pegs. We had a great time, made some great beer (hopefully...we'll go back in a few weeks for the bottling, and again a few weeks later for the drinking), and then went out for Indian food afterward.

We'll be celebrating Thanksgiving with them this week. For all of you back home celebrating, have a great Turkey Day.

Monday, November 05, 2007

A Map for Saturday

A few posts ago, I mentioned a film called "A Map for Saturday." We ordered it from the website, and just got finished watching it.

What a great movie. If you've never lived the backpacker life, or spent extended time on the road, this gives you some insight as to what it is like. It left us both with an appreciation for the places we've been, and a longing to get back on the road.

In a way, our experience living overseas has been a bit like an extended trip...every day, even though things have assumed a sort of routine, we are still in Japan, and adventure is always a possibility, though it usually just means we got lost. Again.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Relatives and Baby Roulette

We just wrapped up a short visit with my cousin Paul, who has been traveling Asia for the past 2 months. He spend 5 weeks in China on business, before heading to Vietnam to link up with his brother Mark, a tour organizer there. Now, on his way back to the US, he spent a couple of days in Tokyo, and we were able to link up with him last night.

We met him in north Tokyo, where we had supper (soba and beer) at a traditional Japanese izakaya restaurant. We enjoyed watching the businessmen around us drinking heavily, and gauging their drunkenness by the redness of their faces.

After a while, we headed back to Roppongi, and Hardy Barracks where we stayed the night. We ran into some friends there as well, my buddy Steve from the China trip in May. We hung out in the hall outside our rooms (ironically, right next to each other) for a while before turning in.

This morning, after checking out, we headed down the street to the New Sanno and had breakfast together. While waiting, Paul, Steve and I played "baby roulette" with Steve's daughter. There's one particular rug in the lobby that is round, and we would place bets on which direction she would go.

Here are the rules:

1. Pick an edge of the rug.
2. Place your money on your "spot." ($1 or 100 yen ante).
3. Dealer picks up the baby and spins around while one the other players close their eyes.
4. After a few seconds, the other players say "Stop."
5. Place baby in center of circle.
6. Baby crawls to the edge of the rug.
7. Whomever put their money closest to where baby exits the rug, wins the pot.

There's now about 3 dollars more in Kiely's college fund.

We're at Narita now...just left Paul at the security gate, and Melody's getting her nails done. We'll head back to Tokyo for dinner with some friends later on. It was a short, but fun visit, and we're really glad he had the chance to come by.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Ten Commandments of Travel (with a mate)

According to Jim Klima, on the "Travels with a Spousal Unit" site, there are some rules when traveling with your mate. For your edification, they are listed below...

Ten Commandments of Travel (with a Mate)
  1. GOOD, BAD AND UGLY. The best experiences, the worst debacles and the most unforgettable moments happen serendipitously and cannot be planned, anticipated or avoided. Spurn thy mate's desire for hotel reservations, a fixed itinerary or an automatic transmission.

  2. VAUABLES. Safeguard thy most precious possessions (flyswatter, ear plugs and universal sink stopper) even from thy mate. Store photocopies of important documents such as passport, airline ticket and credit cards on thy mate's body. Also memorize, repeat memorize, thy mate's PIN numbers.

  3. MATESHIP. Thou shall not abandon thy traveling companion in spite of loud snoring, racist or sexist remarks or contagious disease. Should thee become separated from one another by a rampaging mob, insane vehicular and animal traffic or a frantic toilet search, return to the point of last eye contact.

  4. TRANSPORT. When traveling by air, spend the night before sleeping in the airport lounge. When traveling by sea, always purchase tickets for deck passage. When traveling by bus or train, try to get a seat. Chain up thy luggage and drape thy mate over it.

  5. EATING AND SLEEPING. Rotate food and lodging power (where to sleep and where to eat) on a daily basis. Decision-making (or getting even for thy mate's stinginess, eccentricity or poor choices) works best if applied unilaterally without regard for thy traveling companion.

  6. HEALTH. The "healthy" one makes the decisions for the "sickie" who must obey even if it means abandoning the dream of a lifetime (crawling toward Everest Base Camp while spewing all over the track). Offer no sympathy for diarrhea--happens to all travelers. Tell thy mate to go with the flow and remind him or her that a proper loo is in the mind (and hamstring muscles) of the beholder.

  7. SANITATION AND HYGIENE. Losing thy sense of clean is inevitable if thou are traveling right. Overlook thy mate's aroma du jour and wear only black skivvies. If thy mate's standards for sanitation and hygiene are not flexible (and comparable to thy own), thy trip is doomed.

  8. SEX. If thou want sex on thy trip, bring it with thee. Life does not imitate the movies, romance novels or thou's horny dreams, especially for Americans, well men at any rate…ok, me. Keep close watch on thy mate around Italian men.

  9. FUN. "You're young, you're free, you're on the other side of the world. For f**k's sake, have some fun!!!! Travel mantra observed on the bulletin board in a London hostel (the four exclamation points are theirs, not mine). Equally applicable to the young at heart.

  10. ABOVE ALL ELSE. Disregard thy mate's worries, objections or nightmares and adhere to the Lonely Planet guidebook motto: "Don't worry about whether your trip will work out, just go."

Saturday, October 27, 2007

China Trip Updates and a Great Movie Trailer

I am gradually getting to updating the posts made during May's trip to China with pictures that are now on the Flickr site. So far, Days 1-3 have been updated with some pictures.

In the meantime, while surfing around our old blog home Boots N'All, I found a link to a documentary called "A Map for Saturday" about the phenomenon of RTW backpacking. If you've never had the experience of backpacking around the world, it gives you a taste of what you're missing. A young lady sums it up this way: "It sounds like one big, long holiday, but you've got to meet people, you've got to find someplace to live, you've got to communicate in a foreign language."

So true...and to me, some of the best reasons for traveling.

MAP FOR SATURDAY is the product of a year’s travel through 26 countries on four continents. Emmy winning producer Brook Silva-Braga left his cushy gig with American TV network HBO to travel the world with five pounds of clothes and 30 pounds of video equipment.

The barebones production set-up yields an intimate window onto the world of long-term, solo travel; moments of stark loneliness and genuine revelation.

During the year, two-dozen solo travelers intersect with Silva-Braga, helping tell the story of the place they’ve met and the experience they share.

The film lands in Australia at mid-summer and in Nepal on the eve of revolution. There’s the challenge of Vietnam’s absurd traffic and Europe’s steep prices.

Beyond clichés of shagging backpackers and dubious self-discovery, Silva-Braga finds a hidden world of long-term, solo travelers. At times lonely and difficult; more often joyous, and always adventurous, A MAP FOR SATURDAY completes an around the world trip in 90 minutes.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Our first plug

As a way of breaking up the daily commute (about 2 1/2 hours on the road coming and going), I listen to a lot of different podcasts. The daily favorites are politics or tech related, but I have to say that I look forward to the approximately bi-weekly installment of Mark Peacock's Travelcommons Podcast. As he says, it's more about the journey than the destination.

In an entry a couple of weeks ago, Mark discussed the proliferation of local eateries inside of airports bringing regional flavors and favorites to travelers who may just be passing through. You can now find barbecue and burger joints, and a number of micro-breweries in almost any airport now.

When we lived in the Washington DC area, one of our favorite places to eat was 5 Guys, an incredible greasy burger place. We didn't have enough time to hit it last July when we were in town, but to our gastronomic delight found they had opened up a franchise inside Reagan National Airport.

Well, I remarked on our find in the comments of Mark's entry, and this week, Sand and Tsunamis made the big time with a mention in his podcast. While he was in DC recently, he went to find it, only to be denied because the restaurant wasn't in his departure concourse.

This may be Sand and Tsunamis' 15 minutes of fame, so go check it out. While you're there, take a listen to his other entertaining and insightful podcasts. We've had him on our favorite links section for a while now.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Packing Light

In all the traveling I've done, I like to think that I've been able to pare down to the absolute necessities. Apparently, I still have a long, long way to go.

Tim Ferriss, author of book The 4 Hour Work Week (and blog of the same name), took a trip to Maui back in the Summer, and managed to travel with about 10 pounds worth of stuff.

Take a look at his site, and in particular, the short movie outlining some of his packing strategies (namely, clothes that pack to small sizes). Very cool...

Friday, October 19, 2007

Flashback to the Empty Quarter, 2004

I was rooting through one of my old hard drives for pictures to post and came across this small movie from my trip into the Empty Quarter in 2004. I've been meaning to upload it to Youtube, and finally got around to it.

For the full story, click here or on the title above.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Baseball Been Berry, Berry Good to Us...

About a week ago, we went to see one of the last Yokohama Baystars games of the season. Though not big sports fans (other than Sumo of course), we still enjoy going to live baseball. Something about sitting in the stands, eating hot dogs and drinking beer makes for a fun day. There's a game on, you say? Those guys down there running around and stuff? I guess that's ok too.

Melody recently started a blog of her own, and she posted a good overview of our experience. It's something different than going to see the Orioles at Camden Yards. They still had hot dogs, and beer, it was a good time.

Baseball teams here in Japan aren't usually named after cities like in the US. Instead, you have corporate sponsorship, and some (at least to gaijin like us) strange names. Like the Nippon Ham Fighters who take their name from a meat packing company. That would be like having a team called the "Hormel Deviled Chickens" in the US. Then there are the Chiba Lotte Marines, named after a brand of chewing gum. Do you think that anyone would root for the Wrigley "Big Reds?"

While there are the usual team names like "Giants" and "Tigers" you also see teams of not so typical team mascots such as "Carp," "Swallows" and the aforementioned "Ham Fighters" (though I bet you could get your butt kicked by a ham if it was big enough and swung by one of the Giants).

Besides the names, there are a few other differences, such as the teams have cheerleaders that come out in between innings to root the players on. Also, there is the fact that you DO NOT cheer for your team unless they are at bat. You'll get dirty me. Even then, you have to stay with the approved, programmed cheers (none of which we knew) and say them at the same time as everyone else. It was sort of like going to Mass when I wasn't yet Catholic...everyone around us knew the right things to say. Since we didn't, we just clapped and whacked our little plastic bats together in time with everyone else. Still, a lot of fun was had by all.

Check out what Melody has to say about it. Here. And for more information on Japanese Major League Baseball, go here.

Oh yeah, the Baystars won, 6 to 4. Take that Chunichi Dragons!

Monday, October 08, 2007

Jet City Jimbo

A few years ago, when I first started getting interested in adventure travel, I found a website with some great travel writing kept up by a guy dubbed Jet City Jimbo. Nee Jim Klima, he and his wife wrote about their various travels, cleverly entitled "It will be so awful, it will be wonderful." They took trips in a huge truck with Dragoman, one of the oldest overlanding companies out there. (I went with Encounter Overland to Morocco in a similar incredible experience) Their stories were some of the most incredible accounts of adventure travel I've read. For instance, it took them over 30 days to cross Zaire (back when it was Zaire), and they spent much of that time mired in mud on the main highway across the country. In another account, they almost died in Nepal during a flash flood...reading this gripping story will give you shivers.

Unfortunately, a few months ago, I tried to get back to the site, and found it down. Through some sleuthing around on Google, I found another blogger who wrote about Jim, and mentioned that he was sick with cancer. Well, tonight, I got a subconscious prompt to check again, and found the site back up and operational, but with a caveat that Jim died in May. It was quite sad to find out...almost like I'd lost a travel partner. I learned a lot about independent travel from their site. Jim's wife is keeping the site up as a fitting memorial to his life.

Check it out. You won't be disappointed.

Rest in Peace, Jim...

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Sumo Fun

Last weekend, we went with our friends Ginny and David to the Sumo Tournament going on in Tokyo. This is one of the classic things that you must do when living in Japan, and it did not disappoint.

As we arrived, the Kokugikan, where the tournament was happening, squatted over the skyline like the sumo wrestlers it contained. The excitement of finally getting an opportunity to see these gargantuans (to quote Mama Boucher from The Waterboy) up close was building. Several were hanging around the station, as if they were waiting for someone. Melody tried to get me to pick a fight with one, but I decided to wait until later.

We walked down the street to the front of the building, festooned with banners of the different wrestlers, and ran into (literally, almost) some of the junior Rikishi coming out from a side door after finishing their matches. Despite Melody's urging, I still didn't succumb to the temptation to take one on. I used to box in college, you know. I got a D, but at least I didn't have to take it in summer school. That would have been bad. Not only do all your friends leave, but you get to stay and get beaten up. Every. Single. Day. But I digress...

We all got out our tickets, which David (AKA Young David to tell us apart) had gotten through the Japan Tourism Bureau, and walked up to the ticket collector. He ripped off one end and pointed to a door on the garishly painted front of the building, while saying something about the number two. Eventually, we figured out that we had to go to Tea Stall #2, since we were occupying one of their booths.

The stadium is pretty much like any other, except that the lower deck is filled with small square cubicles about 5 feet by 5 feet square, into which you sit four Japanese or 2.892 Americans. It's something like one of those things used for veal calves that PETA is always complaining about. And all this for a mere $400 or so. The four of us were led to our box by a fellow carrying a pot of tea, one of the perks of having the box. You could also order bags of food in the form of o-bento boxes, yakitori, beer, and of course, more tea. The only problem was that, when you had to go because of all the tea, it required pretty much everyone to move around to allow one person to leave. And, your legs fell asleep. But still, I'd do it was all part of the experience.

Since we arrived relatively early and while the lower ranking rikishi were fighting, there were very few spectators. Over the course of the afternoon, however, and especially later in the afternoon when the big names were out there, this would change, becoming pretty much standing room only.

For a great primer on Sumo, to include reviews of the most recent tournament, go here. The sport is a lot more than just two big, fat behemoths shoving each other around. Some of them were amazingly quick and nimble.

At about three PM, the juryo division started. This is the division in which you start to see rising stars, such as the Estonian Baruto, who had a lot of fans, including this one lady in a box next to ours, enthusiastically cheering him on.

At about 4 PM, the makuuchi division began their procession, each wearing their elaborately designed and expensive (over 1 million yen) sumo skirts. Don't go up and tease them saying, "Nice dress...your sister know you're wearing it?" They will take offense.

After each team (east and west) came in and performed the entrance ritual, it was time for the Yokozuna, or highest ranking rikishi, Hakuho, to make his entrance and perform the Yokozuna dance. There are currently two yokozuna (both Mongolian), but Asashoryu, was recently caught goofing around with some kids playing soccer while home in Mongolia. As he was excused from the upcoming tournament for an injury, it was an instant scandal resulting in his suspension from this and the next tournament. It affected him so badly that he reportedly is having something of a breakdown. Not what you'd expect of a guy who regularly faces and wins matches with 200kg angry men.

This was the moment we'd been waiting for. All (almost) the famous rikishi I've been following since becoming interested in Sumo when I arrived in Japan were beginning their bouts. My favorites include Kotooshu, who has sort of become the David Beckham of the sumo scene and is one of the potential yokozunas of the future, Iwakiyama, an average fighter, but charmingly funny looking with his smushed in face, and Takamisakari, whose antics pre-fight have garnered him a respectable following as well. The Russian brothers Roho and Hakurozan, and the Georgian, Kokkai, were also in this group.

The bouts were exciting, and I paid extra attention to Takamisakari's, and his entertainment factor. Sure enough, the crowd really got excited when he started pumping the air, getting himself fired up to compete. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough. Our friend Harumi's "boyfriend" lost...He was fun to watch, though.

The other exciting bouts, though all disappointments because they all seemed to lose, were Iwakiyama, Kokkai, and Kotooshu. But, all in all, despite that, it was an incredible day. Even the really, really, drunk guy who almost voided on my leg while at the urinal next to me just was part of the overall excitement and experience. As always, we enjoyed our time with Ginny and Young David. We had a chance to catch up a little bit on David's trip to China, a month or so after mine. He did some volunteer work with a travel company called Earthwatch, and worked in a small village in Inner Mongolia. Sounded like a great trip, and he's posted some pics at their Flickr site...check them out.

As we walked out of the Kokugikan in a crush of people, we got delayed for a short period, as the Imperial Princess had to leave first. It turns out that she's a big sumo fan as well. As we walked back to the train station, I took one last look at the building as it shone in the night. We'll do our best to get back for the next one.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Our friends Ginny and Daid (parents to Sinatra the cat seen in an earlier post) introduced us to a weblog called "Dooce" that we've really come to enjoy.  While surfing around there, though, I came across another site, showing some artwork by a guy named Brian Dettmer who does "Book Autopsies."  Basically, he carves away portions of the book to reveal words and pictures inside.  It's the first art that has made me say, "Wow." in a long time.  Check it out here

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Back in the USA

I took a week and a half long business trip back to the US, escorting some Japanese around Atlanta and Washington DC. I got back to Japan last night, and am struggling with the jet lag.

Flying out, I upgraded to business class using some of my United miles. United's had a rough summer, but overall, my experience wasn't too bad. For some reason, when trying to arrange my flights to, from, and around the US, I was unable to get a direct flight to Atlanta, or back from DC. Delta flies direct, but apparently, there are no government fares for those legs. Which meant that I had to spend an additional 3-4 hours each way traveling to or from an intermediate stop.

Atlanta's airport doesn't seem to have changed since I used to fly in and out on a regular basis. In the past, it has not been uncommon to see someone I know while there, but this time, no luck. There were, however, a lot of soldiers transiting to and from the war zone. It was great to see the reception they were getting. The USO has a big operation there, and had folks personally greeting all military members as they came up the escalator from the arrival areas. There was a large crowd of people all waiting to pick up arriving passengers, but they all clapped when a soldier would arrive. It was nice to see, considering all the supposed "support the troops" crap you hear about whenever you turn on the TV or radio news.

DC was great...Had a chance to catch up with cousin Tim, and several other friends not seen in far too long. I also introduced my Japanese friends to several different types of foods, including Ethiopian and Lebanese at a couple of our favorite restaurants and old haunts. One night, I took a few of them up to Baltimore where we saw Ft. McHenry and ate supper in Little Italy. So, they got a bit of American culture along the way, in addition to the series of meetings that we went to.

It was a long, 13 hour flight back from Dallas yesterday, but a couple of Krispy Kreme donuts prior to the flight made it almost worth the stop. It's just nice to be home again, trying to sort out what emails are important from the junk...I think I've got about a 20/80 ratio there. Just part of the fun...

Friday, August 31, 2007

Sorry for the dearth of updates. Not much happening except work lately. I will be headed back to the US next weekend for a 10 day tour escorting some Japanese to different places in Atlanta and Washington, DC. Unfortunately, since it's business, I probably won't be able to catch up with friends and family there for more than a short time. Zannen desu...

Other than the crazy hours, I've recently gone through training in Lean Six Sigma. A quality assurance/improvement type of course, it was interesting, but difficult to grasp at times. It is heavy on the business language and case studies didn't necessarily translate well to my day to day work. Still, it gave some good techniques to organizing projects and focusing on what really makes a process tick and become something that adds to the end value of your product/service, etc., vice detracting from it. Now, I just have to get through my project, and I'll be officially a "Green Belt," with all the rights and privileges afforded me because of it...Near as I can figure it, that means that I'll get more work. Of course, the street value of such a course is rumored to be on the order of $16K, so that's nothing to sneeze at. And, apparently, it looks good on a resume, and may benefit me in my future life.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

New Flavor - Kirin Nuda Grapefruit and Hop

One of the best things about living overseas is that you get different soft drinks. After 2-3 years Melody and I love green tea much so, that when I was in Hawaii last year, I willingly paid $3.00 per bottle just to get some. I know, I might be an addiction. Well, to that I say (in the words of an old drug rehab center commercial from when I was a kid),

"I don't have a problem...YOU have the problem!! Maybe it just walked out of your purse!"

But I digress...

My current favorite is a seasonal drink by Kirin, called Nuda. For some reason, you only see it during the summer time. Normal Nuda is basically soda water. But now, they've come out with Kirin Nuda Grapefruit and Hop flavor. It's great. So great that I've been stopping by one particular convenience store to buy 4 bottles at a time. They must think I'm nuts. Who puts grapefruit and hops together as a flavor? Where did that idea come from? Chalk it up to another one of the wonderful things about this country.

Monday, August 13, 2007


Last Saturday, Melody and I stayed up at Zama to catch a 4 AM bus to Mt. Fuji, probably the singular symbol of Japan. Despite the early departure, it took over 3 hours to finally get there due to the holiday traffic (the Japanese Obon holiday just started), everyone trying to escape Tokyo.

After arriving, we spent a half hour or so at the 5th Station, getting a bit acclimatized to the higher altitude (around 7000 feet). We also bought our hiking sticks, which would get branded at the different stations as we ascended.

Since we got a late start, we decided that we wouldn't try to kill ourselves to get to the summit. The bus left at 6 PM sharp, and it's a long series of train rides to get back. Much better to ride. So, we decided that at about 1 PM, wherever we were, we'd start heading back down.

The climb up is a steep hike, punctuated by different "stations" where you can get snacks at ever escalating prices. We saw bananas for 500 yen on the way up (though the night before, back in civilization, we saw a watermelon for 15000 yen, or about $150...insane).

It was a lot of steep climbing, scrambling over sharp lava rocks at different parts along the way. The stick really helped, but there were a few parts where it seemed pretty precarious and exposed. Nothing really dangerous, but you wouldn't want to fall because you'd be chewed up by the rough terrain.

After about 5 hours, we made it to the 8th Station, at 3100 meters (over 10000 feet). It was about 1:30 then, so we cut across to the descending trail, and began the series of switchbacks all the way back to 5th Station. The descent took almost 3 hours itself, and though on a trail, was so steep that both of us fell a couple of times. I ripped my pants and skinned my knee up, but we made it down with enough time to grab a plate of curry rice before getting back to the bus. While we had time to spare, we were glad we didn't push it. 4 of our bus didn't make it back by the appointed time, and got left behind.

The whole day was great. The weather cooperated and was gorgeous. Even up at our high water mark, the temperature was only so cool as to have us don a long sleeve shirt. It was quite a long, hard slog up though, and we certainly slept well later that night.

Since the season closes at the end of August, I'm going to head back again for another attempt at the summit at the end of the month. Will keep you posted on what happens...

Monday, July 30, 2007

Quickly Catching Up...

We've been busy since I got back from China. Lots and lots to do at work, and another 12 days or so of traveling in July, this time back in the US.

We flew to Houston to visit Melody's Mom and Dad for a few days. It was Dad's 75th birthday, and we had a great time catching up and celebrating with them, Uncle Sal and Aunt Eden (Dad's brother and sister-in-law), and their neighbors across the street (from Peru).

We also took a day trip to San Antonio to look at homes there. It looks like we're headed for Texas when we leave here next spring, so we wanted to get a head start checking out the area. My Uncle Ed and Aunt Barb live out there too, and Melody hadn't yet met them. so it was a good chance to get everyone acquainted.

After a few more days in Houston, we flew on to Washington DC where we spent a couple of days catching up with friends and checking in on our rental property there. This was the first time we'd had a chance to actually see it in person, as we bought it sight unseen last year from our Realtor, David of John and John's REMAX Allegiance Team. We got to see John and John as they met us at the condo. (NOTE: If you live in or plan to move to the Washington DC/Northern Virginia area, do take a look at their website...they're great guys to work with if you're in the market for a new home.)

While in DC, we stayed at the Army and Navy Club, enjoying the hospitality and all our old friends there like Suleiman, Tony, Sam, and Tibor. It's as classy as ever, and we really enjoyed reminiscing on our wedding reception, held there in 2003. We also hung out in our old Shirlington haunts, and I drank an Amber Waves Ale at the Capital City Brewery for my old friend Colin...Cap City was our Sunday Afternoon establishment where we proceeded to solve most of the world's problems (if anyone would listen to us).

On Friday, we headed up to Bethesda for Melody's old boss' retirement ceremony. We'd brought along our uniforms for the occasion, and joined about 200 people in wishing him fair winds and following seas. He and his wife were thrilled when we RSVP'd yes from Japan, and while we didn't have much time, we did get to catch up with him for a few minutes before braving the Friday afternoon rush hour traffic to Reagan National Airport.

We made it to National with enough time to have a 5 Guys hamburger (God bless the 5 Guys for getting themselves in there) and fries, and then hopped a short 30 minute flight to Boston for our connection to Buffalo, NY.

Getting to Buffalo, we picked up the rental car and drove to the hotel where we checked in, and walked a couple of blocks to meet some of my cousins for a beer and 3 years of catching up. We spent the weekend there with about 75 family members, some of whom we'd never met (an entire branch of the family), and others that we'd not seen since our wedding or the previous family reunion. Everyone looked great for the most part, and we all had a great time.

Got to see my Mom, Dad, Brother and Sister and her family, with Charlie and Thomas, both of whom are really growing up fast. All in all, it was an incredible trip.

We started back to Japan on Monday morning, almost missing our flight to Newark due to about a zillion people in the TSA screening. As we were rushing to get in line, with about 20 minutes before the flight left, one of the airport security guys caught us and asked to see our boarding passes. Upon checking them, he directed us to another lady who pointed us downstairs to another lady who sent us to a different part of the terminal where there was no line. We got through the alternate screening checkpoint and just made it to our flight as they called general boarding. Whoever you were, thanks for taking care of us. Also, unusually for us, we never once had to do the secondary screening (unlike last year when we got screened at every flight...probably the series of one way tickets).

We dawdled in Newark for a while, eating breakfast and doing a lot of standing in preparation for a 13 hour flight back to Japan. The flight itself was long, but uneventful, and we got to watch Blades of Glory (hilarious).

By the time we got home, I ate a bite of supper and collapsed, having only had a couple of hours of sleep on the plane. Going to bed at about 8 PM synched me reasonably well, though, and I didn't have much jet lag after that.

So we keep busy...Melody was ill this past weekend which kept us home, but we had planned to visit her cousins in Kobe for the twins' first birthday. Instead, we'll probably go in September.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Silk Road Trip Day 17-18 Kashgar to Beijing, 28-29 May 07

27 May 07

After lunch, we took our short break, Steve and I first dropping around back to see the former British Consulate, still on the grounds of the Qini Bagh hotel. It was an antique looking place, but with laundry and Uighur workers hanging all over the balconies. A little underwhelming, frankly.

After that, we wandered down the street looking for the now familiar characters indicating an internet café for a quick chance to update the outside world via emails and the blog.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long, and within about 100m, we found one. We had to bypass the Caravan Café, though, as it was undergoing a management change. I’d looked at their website during the planning phase, as they offered tours and ticket services. I was possibly going to get our return to Beijing tickets through them, but Peregrine had an add on feature that took care of it for us.

So, after a few minutes on the computer, we headed back to the hotel to link up with the group for an afternoon tour of the old part of town, ending up at the Mosque in the center of the city.

The old part of any town is always one of the highlights anywhere I travel. You get the feeling of stepping back in time, and this was no exception. We also had a rare opportunity to stop at a home under construction. A fairly typical home, though obviously a well off family, the workers were in the middle of plastering walls and putting up expensive looking molding. It was a courtyard style, with rooms around the edges, and about a 5m x 5m space in the center. There was also a stairway to a second floor, and roof access as well. While we looked around, our local guide explained what we were seeing.

After a few minutes there, the real fun began…we started running into all the little kids who lived on the block. They would see us coming down their street, and shyly peek from the doorways and side alleys. We persuaded a few to come out, and once we shot a couple of pictures of them and showed them on the displays, they started to be camera hogs, posing and making faces. It was great fun for everyone, and we got a lot of classic pictures.

Finally, we emerged from the labyrinthine alleyways of the old town onto one of the main shopping streets. This area was a bit more like the classic market area, with bakers (nan bread, baked in a pit oven, so fresh it blistered our fingers), juice filtered through big blocks of suspiciously dirty ice (we opted out…), hat mongers, household goods…just about everything one would need. And a lot of great, character filled faces. I took a picture of one guy, and he wrote down his address so I could send him a copy. Unfortunately, it’s all in Uighur, so I hope he checks the blog.

We emerged onto the large square facing the mosque. Just in front, was a touristic photo opportunity with a camel. Just behind the booth where you would pay for the opportunity to have a picture taken with the said camel was a baby camel. There is nothing cuter in this world than a baby camel. Even the baby pugs seen in Xian weren’t this cute. Unfortunately, as cute as they are, baby camels don’t smell very cute.

We spent a half hour or so wandering around the grounds of the mosque after the walk through the old part of town. It's always interesting to me to see the inside of mosques. Even though technically an infidel, I've been fortunate to have been able to visit mosques all over the world, from the US to Egypt and now China. Never saw any in Saudi Arabia...visiting any there would have been totally out of the question, and considering what was going on during my time there, dangerous and stupid.

The mosque grounds were cool and shady, and we had a nice few minutes wandering around. Abdul gave us a brief history of the mosque, and for a short period of time, we talked around the various tenets of our respective faiths (Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism all being represented). Before things got too controversial though, we headed on our way.

Next, we continued our wandering through some of the market streets. We stopped to some woodworking, metalworking, and other crafts. Even got to see some guys dealing dope. Strange that they'd do that right out in the open.

Finally, we headed back to the Qinibagh to get ready for our farewell supper. We got in our best and least sweaty clothes, and headed across the street to a Chinese restaurant where we had a small private room reserved just for us. Coincidentally, in the next room were our French friends. I popped in to say hello/goodbye, and Michel took the opportunity to introduce me to the larger group. After a (very) few words, we drank toasts to enduring Franco-American friendship with each of a red, white, and rose Chinese wine (all quite bad), and sang a few bars of The Star Spangled Banner and La Marseillaise before saying farewell. I returned to the Peregrine group and we shared a nice dinner while reminiscing on some of our favorite moments.

After supper, we all went back to pack up and get ready to go. We had an early departure to catch our flight back to Beijing. As it so happened, Gary, KY, Irene, Steve and I would all be traveling back together. Deb was catching a flight through Urumqi to Shanghai where she was going to spend a few more days before going home.

28 May 07

Traveling light is didn't take long to get packed up, and we even had a chance to once again sample the Qinibagh's mediocre breakfast before linking up with Abdul for the trip to the airport.

We all headed there together, and except for me overlooking the fact that I'd put the Tibetan knife purchased in Turpan at the bottom of my pack (requiring me to take 3 extra trips through the X-ray machine) and trying to laugh off my forgetfulness with a humorless security guy, it was relatively smooth. On the other side of security, we all got together to spend a few last minutes before Deb boarded her flight to Urumqi and then Shanghai. We hoped we'd see her at the stop, but just in case, all traded hugs. As it turned out, we didn't run into her again, so it was good that we did.

Finally, our flight arrived, taxied up to the tarmac, and dumped its load of passengers onto the concrete. After a few minutes, we all headed out into the sunny morning to queue up for boarding. Since they had steps at either end, we headed for the aft stairs and waited for about 10 minutes before they decided not to board that side. So, the mass of people moved to the front, and finally, we got on, and said goodbye to Kashgar.

The flight from Kashgar wasn't too long, and flew over the Taklamakan Desert, one of the most inhospitable places on earth. The saying is that "Taklamakan" means, "If you go in, you don't come out." Had we more time, taking the bus back through the desert to Urumqi would have been an interesting trip. Ahh, well...there's something to do later.

We got back to Urumqi, and had to claim our bags and recheck them. I took a couple of minutes to move the knives from the bottom of my bag closer to the top, only to have the security guys not even pay them a second glance as the bags were zapped. Still, if I hadn't done that, it would have been sure to get searched.

We spent about 2 hours in the airport before boarding again for the trip to Beijing. The 4 hour trip was a reminder of just how huge China is...and most of the terrain below us was Gobi Desert, nearly all the way to Beijing.

Finally, we made it to the capital. We waited for about an hour while the bag conveyor was clogged with some idiot's bag. It got to the point that the Chinese travelers were so impatient that guys were climbing down the baggage chute to try to grab their bags. Steve was one of them, and was the only one to get read the riot act for doing so. Eventually, they shunted bags to one of the other carousels, while they unjammed the one we stood at. As it turns out, I think that the idiot mentioned above was me, as when I finally did get my rucksack, the top carrying handle had been cut. It perhaps was what gummed up the works.

Bags in hand, we walked out to the curb. Here, we said goodbye to Gary, who had been kind enough to make sure that we got into a cab going the right way. KY and Irene were with us too, and we all headed back to the Qianmen Hotel we stayed in when we first arrived in China. It seemed like a long time ago, but it was fun to come back to an area that we'd gotten to know pretty well.

After dropping off our bags in the rooms, we all went around the corner into the Hutong behind the hotel for a bite at the hotpot place. They didn't have any good tables, though, just ones in the shadows, so we opted for the place next door, serving the same food, but with a nice, roadside table. We spent the next hour or so boiling our supper and reminiscing on the trip. Finally, appetites from a long day's traveling were satiated, and we went back to the hotel to turn in.

The four of us were in a cab by about 5 AM headed for the airport. There, we said goodbye to KY and Irene, and eventually, it was back to just us two. We split up for some wandering around before meeting back at the gate to board. I spent my last few yuan on some assorted chocolates for Melody, and brought back just enough for souvenirs.

Before long, we were arriving in Narita, negotiating immigration and customs, and boarding the bus for the 2 hour trip back to Zama (nearly the same period of time it took to fly from Beijing). Once there, I found my car, and drove home.

It had been a long trip, an epic journey that took us to what felt like the back of beyond. I took over 4000 pictures during the trip, made some great new friends, saw things I'll probably never see before, and took away a whole lot of memories. But, as I hugged Melody, it felt even better to be home again.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Silk Road Trip Day 14-15 Urumqi to Kashgar, 26-27 May 07

26 May 07
We had a bit of a later start this morning, not having to leave until about 10:30. This was actually a bit longer because one of the elevators was out of service, and being on the 14th floor made for a long wait as we watched it go up and down until it finally hit on us to hit the up button. This worked, and though we had to ride a while longer, we ended up on the ground floor.
We drove about an hour and a half to the Heavenly Lake, situated about 2000 meters up into the Tien Shan (Heavenly Mountains). It was a gorgeous blue surrounded by soaring mountains capped with snow. If it wasn't for all the really loud Kazakh music blaring at the different shops around the area, it would have been pretty peaceful.
Jackie, our local guide for the past few days took some of the group around, but I just took off to the quiet side for a look around.
We ate a quick lunch up there on the lake before heading back to Urumqi to go to the Xinjiang museum. It was a great place, but unfortunately, we got there close to the end of the day for them. We had a good look at the different exhibits showing the major ethnic groups of the region, but got sidetracked by the usual "here, look at this carpet" place and missed one of the other halls. As we found out, this (and a few other things that happened earlier) got Gary pretty ticked off.
We drove to the airport following our tour, and Gary gave Jackie his tip. When we first got together 2 weeks ago, we all contributed to the tipping kitty, and Gary has doled out the tips as he has seen fit Most of this has been transparent to us. Jackie didn't really meet up to his expectations, though, and so got a smaller tip. What was shocking was that he had the audacity to come back, argue with Gary in front of us, and then tell us that Gary stiffed him. It was extremely unprofessional, and awkward for us all. After he left, Gary explained what had transpired, and indeed, it was more than just missing the last exhibit hall at the museum.
After the dustup, we chilled out by the gate, or tried to, as that part of the departure hall was really hot. The plane was delayed in arriving by 30 minutes or so, and once people were allowed to board, it was like a rugby scrum. A little Chinese lady ran over my leg with her suitcase on her way to the gate. Somehow, though we all made it on board. The flight was about an hour and 40 minutes, and I alternately read and dozed until we got there. Landing was interesting, because off to the left side of the plane, it was pitch black. Not a light to be seen for miles. It's a pretty small airport where you get off the plane and walk to the terminal and its one baggage claim. After we collected our stuff, we met up with our local guide, Abdul and driver, Shan, and drove into town.
Got into Kashgar about 1130 or so. Checked into the Qinibagh (Chin-ee-bah) hotel which is on the grounds of the former British consulate back in the days when the Great Game was being played here in Central Asia. It's of the nicest we've stayed in.
27 May 07
Today, we first went to the livestock market. Lots and lots of cows and goats and donkeys and horses and one camel. Didn't buy anything, thought the goats were pretty cute. Next stop was at a mausoleum built in about 1640. There were some beautiful examples of Muslim architecture on the grounds with a couple of mosques and a madrassa. Some of the buildings are off limits, though, because they're falling apart.
After the mausoleum, we hit the famous Kashgar Sunday Bazaar. People from all over Central Asia come to the market, and it was incredible. Bustling, busy, bursting at the seams with people and every kind of thing for sale that you could imagine. I bought some apricots and mangoes and a small Uighur knife for the collection. I bargained about 10 bucks off the initial price and was happy with it. The best part though was the variety of people. I took over 100 pictures just in the time that I was walking around. Amazing...lots of really character filled faces. Old men with wispy beards, old women with gold teeth, kids of all shapes and sizes, Han Chinese, Uighur, Tajik, really seemed like all of Central Asia was here. This was my main reason for coming on this trip, and my Central Asian Travel Ya-Yas (as Melody calls them) have definitely been fulfilled.
We've a few other places to go this afternoon, but tomorrow we head back to Beijing. We'll spend the night there, and then head back to Japan on Tuesday. It will be sad to say gooodbye to everyone, but it's been a great trip, and we've made a lot of great memories, and some new friends as well.

Check our blog,

Friday, May 25, 2007

Silk Road Trip Day 12-13, Turpan to Urumqi 24-25 May 07

We're here in Urumqi (pronounced, Oo-Room-Chi) now.  A few hours on the road this afternoon after a full morning of touring around Turpan.  It's a big city, compared to the smaller places we've been for the past week or so.  There's a nice Internet cafe here, with leather seats, cold drinks, and even a dress code.  Some of the kids walking around look like they're going to a night club or something.  Anyway, to continue...

Evening, 23 May 07
After we boarded the train, we ran through the usual routine of getting the luggage stowed, and settling in.  As we did so, a group of French travelers began to board and join us in our car.  This was actually the same group of travelers that have been shadowing us since the Bingling Grottoes, when we first ran into them.  One of the guys is a Jerry Garcia lookalike, and thus is pretty identifiable anytime we see the group.
I was going to try to get out and take a picture or two while still on the platform, but couldn't due to the press of oncoming passengers.  On the way down the passageway, I noticed a lady and her husband struggling with their luggage, and offered, in my high school French, to help.  They had it taken care of OK, so I didn't do much, but later on in the evening, when I ran into them again, they were quite grateful.
While we sat around waiting for the train to leave, we enjoyed an ice cold beer and a few snacks.  Steve brought out the shrink wrapped chicken foot that he's been carrying since Xiahe, and we debated whether not to eat it.  The consensus ended up that, since we were running out of beer (only 2 bottles between the group), and because Deb has a particular attachment to chickens from her youth, we decided not to eat it.  Fortunately, we'd get another chance later on...
At one point, while debating it, one of the French guys walked by.  I said, "Pardon, monsieur...voulez-vous un pied de poulet?"  He unsurprisingly declined, and looked at us like we were crazy.  Later, while in the passageway, I saw that the Jerry Garcia lookalike (named Michel), was having difficulty ordering a beer, so I translated from French to English, Gary translated from English to Chinese, and eventually, we got a couple of bottles.  That was a good introduction, though, and I had an enjoyable half hour or so of chatting with him and his buddies in their compartment while we watched the sun go down (coucher de soleil).  I caught most of it, and they were extremely patient with my attempts.  Now, though, as a result, every time we see each other, there's a hearty "Bonjour!" between us.  Pretty cool.
The night passed with a few stops, but overall, a good rest.  We arrived the next morning at Daheyan (about 1100 m elevation), where the train stops.  Turpan is at or slightly below sea level, and while it was easy for the train to get down there, it was difficult to get out.  So, now it stops about an hour away. 
24 May 07
As usual, after the train ride, we went straight to our hotel, and checked in.  After a quick shower and breakfast, we headed out for the day.  The first stop was at the ruined city of Gauchang.  Once a central and important city on the Silk Road, it was also a place where Taoist monk Xuanzang, the first Chinese to travel the Silk Road (to India for Buddhist teachings), was detained by a despotic king.  Xuanzang is the inspiration for KY's taking this trip, so it was moving to be in the same city as he had been, long, long ago. 

Steve, Gary and I walked while the others took a donkey cart.  The weather here in this section of Xinjiang is quite a bit hotter than other places.  Just a couple of days ago, we were wearing sweaters in the morning.  No need here.  Turpan is the land of "mosts" for China.  It's the hottest, driest, lowest, and sweetest place in all of China.  The sweetest record is for its grapes.  They're not ripe yet, but we had the opportunity at the Grape Valley to try a few of the local raisins, buying more later on at the Emin Minaret.  Grape Valley is just what it sounds like...a big valley with lots of grapes.  It also had a 103 year old man there who's job was to sit around and take pictures with people.  I paid my 5 yuan and got a few shots, hopefully allowing him to retire someday.
We spent a half hour or so at the Astana Tombs, as well, which were not quite as interesting as the tombs in Jiayuguan, but had mummies.  The desert climate preserves bodies quite well, and apparently, the hair and fingernails continued to grow for a while after their deaths.  I didn't notice though. 
We made an obligatory stop at a Jade market, and Irene made a small purchase.  Steve and I hung out with some of the employees, and as soon as it looked like we were all going to leave, they turned out the lights, and locked the doors.  Done for the day, I guess.
The highlight for me was the the Emin Minaret.  Constructed in 1777, it is a beautiful example of the Muslim architecture that I have been longing to see on this trip.  The minaret is constructed of bricks, and has about 10 different designs as it ascends.  Gorgeous.  Initially, we tried to go to Uzbekistan, but that idea was nixed due to the security situation there.  So, China it was...much easier to get to, and much safer to boot.  But, we missed out on Samarkand, Bokhara, and some of the other famous cities of Central Asia.   The Emin Minaret is quite similar, though.
Once back at the hotel, we freshened up, and then went out for supper.  Gary again ordered way too much food, including a delicious dish of fried beef and bread.  This was surprisingly delicious.  Who fries bread?  Never heard of it before, but it was excellent.  We stuffed ourselves so as not to waste any of the good stuff, mainly the mutton.  Mmmmmutton.  We've had more and more of it as we get farther west. 
After supper, Gary went back to the hotel, and the five of us wandered around for a while.  The night market was just getting started, and as we walked up, there were two huge buckets of sheep parts boiling on one of the stoves, and emitting a less than delicious smell.  Steve and I ended up at the Internet cafe across the street, and I wrote and lost this particular post.   Then, back to the hotel.
I gave Melody a call once back there to say goodnight, and while on the phone, the doorbell rang.  Steve got up, went to the door and looked through the peephole to find 3 women there.  As he cracked the door, I heard one of them say, "Massagee?"  "Um...No thanks.  Good night" Steve said.  Now this is something that I've heard other travelers speak of, but never expected to happen.   Quite strange...We're still trying to figure out how they picked our room rather than the two on either side of us, with our other group members.  Near as we can figure, they probably were in cahoots with the Silk Road Oasis Hotel (where we were staying), and got our names because we were a couple of guys.  Weird, but bloggable.
25 May 07
I woke up this morning at about 6:15, got showered and ready to leave.  Left the room for a while to go to the business center, and came back at about 8:30 to find Steve still asleep.  Since we were leaving at 9:00, he got moving, and we still made it down to join Irene and KY for breakfast.  I saw Michel and his friend Kathi down there, and we chatted briefly.  But mostly, it was scarfing down a couple of hard boiled eggs before running up to get our bags and get on the van. 
We stopped first at another ruined city, Jiaohe, this one up on top of a plateau, and much better preserved than Gaochang.  Jiaohe was a sister city of sorts to Gaochang.  The position on top of the willow leaf shaped plateau and between two rivers forms a superb defensive position.  One of the most interesting facts about the city is that rather than building structures up with bricks or wood, the structures were constructed by digging down. 
We spent a couple of hours there before heading off to visit with a Uighur family.  Here we were given funny hats to wear, watermelon and mulberries to eat, and were encouraged to join in on a Uighur dance.  Suffice to say, it was less than authentic when we did it.   The son and daughter of the family did it much better than we did... Still, it was fun.
After our visit, we left to see the local irrigation systems called Karez.  The previous inhabitants used ground water coming down off of the Tien Shen (Heavenly Mountains), and accessed it by digging wells and underground tunnels that channeled the water to the fields.  Thus, they are able to grow a range of crops from grapes to melons to wheat and cotton.  Pretty incredible.  It is truly an oasis.  The exhibit was excellent, as it had a number of great displays on how they were constructed, and even had a tunnel dug down to see an actual karez.  Apparently, the
Finally, we got on the road for Urumqi.  It was a three hour drive or so that took us through a pass in the Flaming Mountains (named so for their red color) and into a valley between China's Dead Sea and the snowcapped Tien Shan mountains.  It was a scene straight out of a movie about Central Asia.  Which makes sense, since that's where we are.  Gorgeous scenery. 
We stopped for a late lunch about 40 km from Urumqi at a place serving the local special of chopped up chicken in chilies and garlic.  Two huge plates came out, along with others of cabbage and greens.  As usual, it was delicious.  As we ate, we discovered that they used pretty much the whole chicken, including the feet.  Steve, Irene and I all had one.  Strange, and not a whole lot of meat there.  Mostly just cartilage and gristle.  Still, part of the experience.
We finally arrived in town at about 4 PM or so, checked into the hotel, and just relaxed for a while.  Steve went out for a wander, and I caught a quick nap.  We'll be here until tomorrow, when we head off to see some local sights before flying to Kashgar, the end point of our trip. 

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Silk Road Trip Day 9 - 11, Jiayuguan and Dunhuang 21-23 May 07

Will try to do a quick overview of three days...
21 May 07: 
Arriving in Jiayuguan Monday morning, we met up with Simon, our next local guide.  He and Mr. Wei took us to the hotel, Jiayuguan Hotel, a nice, business style hotel with lots of plate glass and overstuffed couches in the lobby.  Since we couldn't check in right away, we just stored our bags and got some chow, a "bland" breakfast, as accurately described by the Rough Guides. 
The highlight of the day for me was the Jiayuguan Fort, where we spent most of the morning.  It commands the gap between two mountin ranges, extending walls to each, includig the First Beacon Tower (pronounced "Bacon Tower" by our local guide, to giggles) of the Han Great Wall.  It was a great effort that apparently was quite successful in achieving dominance of the region.  As a museum, it had a great mix of active and passive education.  An excellent wax museum showed daily life in the fort, and for a yuan a shot, one could shoot "Mongols" from the ramparts with a bow and arrow.  I hit my Mongol in the knee.
At the far side of the fort were a bunch of camels, so I finally got the chance to see one of myt main interests for this trip, the Bactrian (2 humped) camel.  As we approached to take some pictures, the camel herders tempted us with rides, but we decided to wait until Dunhuang.  Still, we weren't disappointed, as one of them spit on Steve.  It wasn't his fault, though, as the tout had yanked on the spike through his nose (the camel's, not Steve's) to get him to sit.  Guess I'd be pretty cranky too.
The next stop was a opportunity to walk to the top of the north end of the wall extending from the fort, dubbed the Overhanging Great Wall.  Lots of steps, and virtually straight up at times (or so it seemed), but a great view of the Gobi desert upon arrival at the top.   We again denied ourselves the opportunity for a camel ride, and instead went back to the hotel for check in and a quick cleanup.  A late lunch, and we were off to see the Xincheng Dixia Hualang Underground Gallery, an incredibly detailed tomb outside of town.  They call it a gallery, though, because of the detailed paintings on the bricks inside, showing scenes of daily life, and extolling the riches of the deceased. 
Once back at the hotel, we decided to go to the night market for supper.  Steve and I went to the internet cafe, and I made a quick update to the blog before going out for kebabs.  We found the place with the most people, and tucked into about 150 kebabs between the 6 of us.  Granted, though, they weren't all that big.  And one set (ostensibly the special of the day), all gristle and fat, we returned.  Later on in the meal, a busker singing Chinese love songs on his guitar came and showcased his good, but loud, talents.  After a quick trip to get some water and snacks for the road trip to Dunhuang the next day, we all turned in.
22 May 07
We got a relatively early start this morning, with a bland breakfast and side trip to the First Beacon before getting on the road in earnest.  The trip to Dunhuang was nice, smooth, and over good roads.  Surprisingly, even out in the middle of the Gobi desert, the mobile phone reception was three bars the whole way.  We passed a huge wind farm and finally got to Dunhuang at about 3 PM. 
After checking into the hotel (the same one used by Deng Jiao Ping, and other Chinese dignitaries when they visit the city), we had a lunch of donkey, camel, and some more normal foods.  It was all surprisingly good, especially the camel which tasted pretty much like beef.  The donkey was very rich, but tasty, served like cold roast beef with a marinade. 
Following supper, I updated the blog, and then Steve got his Tevas fixed at a local cobbler's stand.  Since we'd had such a late supper, we decided to wander the night market (not really true to name, though, as it stays light here until nearly 10:00 PM - being on Beijing Time).  Dunhuang is a surprisingly cosmopolitan town bordered by huge sand dunes of the Gobi.  Still, there were really nice shops, and I found a small Tibetan knife that I bargained the guy down from 800 to 100 yuan.  It'll go into the collection. 
We stopped for a beer at a local beer festival, getting to watch some of the local talent at jumping rope, drama, music, and beer chugging.  Even the kids were getting into the act, as we saw a number of them downing the same big beers that we were drinking.  Hilarious.  One little guy came up to us and started talking.  Turns out that he'd spent a while in Minnesota, and spoke excellent English as a result.  I took the opportunity to bring him up to date with what kids say in the US by teaching him, "What up, Dog?" and "Peace out, Homie."  Just doing my part...
23 May 07
We got up early for a sunrise at the dunes, but strangely, it was raining.  This town gets about 32 mm of rain a year, and we probably got half of it today.  So, no sunrise.  We ended up going out there at about 9, though, after having breakfast.  A bunch of what looked like big wigs from the local army base were there too.  Saw several gold epaulets and lots of stars. 
The dunes are great...rising to almost 300 meters in some places, it was the perfect storm of commerecailized nature.  There were hundreds of camels to ride out into the dunes so you could climb up, take your pictures, and then ride a sled or innertube down.  Of course, you did have to pay for the privelege to climb, as well as decend.  I chose the inner tube, and was rewarded with an exhilerating if somewhat terrifying ride as I almost ran into the demarkation be honest, I was more worried about my camera.  Still, it was worth the buck or so it cost. 
We also rode out to the rapidly shrinking crescent lake, before heading back to the hotel for lunch.  The afternoon was spent at the Mogao Caves, repositories of some beautiful Buddhist art.  Unfortunately, in the great goodie grab of the early 1900s, most of the good stuff was removed (stolen) and taken to fill museums around the world.  China actually has just a fraction of that which originally was there. 
Finally, after a dinner near the previous night's beer garden, we got on the road to the station for our overnight train to Turpan.


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