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.

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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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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Silk Road Trip Day 8 - Xiahe to Jiayuguan 20 May 07

This was mainly a travel day for us, as we ate breakfast and got on the road by about 10.  The long trip that we had to get to Xiahe from Lanzhou was cut considerably shorter by not having to go on the rutted dirt road that we took for about 3 hours on the way up.  As we descended, our ears popped, coming down from about 9700 feet to around 5000. 
We stopped again in Linxing, or Little Mecca, as James called it, but this time at a restaurant that had no sides of lamb hanging in the bathroom.  We browsed a while for some crystal sunglasses that are all the rage here, but not finding any that I liked, I decided to stick with my Ray Bans for now. 
Back on the road, we made good time through the mountains until we got back to Lanzhou.  Then we hit a traffic jam for a few minutes...everything cleared up pretty fast though, and we made our way for a brief stop at the Bridge over the Yellow River, and a statue commemorating one of the earliest travelers on the Silk Road, the monk Xuanzang. 
After this brief stop, we went by the famous waterwheels, with some interesting exhibits and working water moving machinery that would certainly be too dangerous in the USA.  Visions of pinched fingers and lawsuits would never have allowed the exposed gearing to see the light of a public park. 
Before we hit the station, we grabbed some snacks at the grocery store, and a quick supper.  The station was crowded initially, but when we got to the soft sleeper lounge, we were the only ones there. I did get a pack of yak jerky for the road though. 
The sleeper was fine, and we ended up hanging out with a beer and some Chinese brandy/wine before turning in.  Even though we're really 2 time zones farther west than Beijing, the entire country is on Beijing time.  It seems sort of weird, but helps to unify the country, I guess.  It just messes you up a bit, because it is either darker or lighter than it should be at different times of day.
We awoke the next morning just a couple of stops from our destination, Jiayuguan, which is the notable for its fort and the beginning (or end) of the Great Wall.  
I've finally posted some pictures at our Flickr site...check them out.  See the link on the Right.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Silk Road Trip Day 7 - Xiahe

Up this morning at about 6 to catch a shower.  The hotel has hot water only at certain times, and morning apparently wasn't one of them.  Or, maybe hot water is just relative.  I washed a load of clothes while in there, and that allowed the water to heat up to a mildy hypothermic temp. 
We ate a small breakfast in the hotel restaurant before heading out to see the Labrang Monastery.  Along the way, we passed the prayer wheel boundary, where pilgrims and tourists alike were spinning the wheels, while walking in a clockwise manner.  Some of the people were crawling on their hands and knees in their devotion.  They would make a prayer sign above their head, at face level, at chest level, and would prostrate themselves on the ground, stand up and repeat.  In fact, while driving to Xiahe, we passed several pilgrims on the road in the middle of nowhere, working their way to Labrang.  Amazing.
As it turns out, our driver's mother's uncle is a Living Buddha, who lives at the monastery.  .  He was chosen at about age three, was raised in the monastery, and now considered to be a Living Buddha.  He wasn't home, having gone down to Lanzhou, but, we stopped by to see where he lives.  He has a sweet, but stinky dog, and a friendly cat, and lives a pretty normal life, from what we could tell. 
While there, we got a chance to try some hot yak butter tea.  This was an interesting experience.  The first time I ever heard of it was in high school, from a visiting missionary to Tibet.  He described it as "hot tea with rancid yak butter floating on top."  He was describing the first time he ever drank it, by saying that he just tried to get it down as quickly as possible without vomiting.  Ours wasn't bad at all.  Guess the butter wasn't rancid enough.  However, we also ate tsampa, which is yak butter and a coarse ground grain mixed into a sort of no-bake coffee cake.  This was what we call, "Varsity Food."  Definitely an acquired taste.  It was sort of like natto in its ability to be a "taste that keeps on nauseating" (to coin a phrase).  Fortunately, yak butter tea dissolves it pretty well.
A young monk also came in and gave a demonstration on how to make sheen (correct spelling unknown), which, though similar to tsampa in its ingredients, but with regular, fine ground flour, and tea added in.  The consistency was more like cookie dough, and the taste like a wheaty dough.  It was still warm from the tea (and the monks fingers). 
So far, in spite of some of the things that have gone in the mouth, no major gastrointestinal episodes.
We spent the bulk of the morning wandering the Monastery, viewing two temples with larges statues of the Buddha, and lots of yak butter candles.  We also watched some of the young acolytes practicing some dances that included bending over backwards in a bridge.  Just up the hill from those kids were other monks playing the long Tibetan "alpenhorns" and chanting.  When they finished, the horns telescoped down small enough to sling on their backs.  Interestingly, when they walked out of the area, a few of them shouted, "Free Tibet!" 
We followed a large group of them wearing their yellow hats to another temple where they all gathered for a lunch of hot buttered tea.  Irene and I went inside of the hall and watched for a while.  One of the head monks continued to chant while the lower ranking monks waited for their brass bowls to be filled with the tea.  They sat quietly, for the most part, drinking their tea.  A few of them were kind of goofing off, like teenagers tend to do all over the world. 
We stayed a while longer before heading down the hill.  I stopped briefly at a great restroom, three rows of cubes with a straddle groove, and water periodically rushing through the groove, taking the waste with it.  It really was an ingenious system.  Also, there were a couple of monklets (maybe 8 or 9 years old) who were raising a ruckus, and ended up getting rapped on the head with a stick by the bathroom attendant.  Quite funny...
We ended up eating lunch at the Overseas Tibetan Hotel, before heading out to visit the grasslands nearby.  James told us that it was 10 minutes walk away.  In actuality, it was about a 15 minute drive.  Glad we didn't try to walk out there.  We hung out taking some pictures for an hour or so, enjoying the expanse of grass leading up to the mountains on either side of the valley.  The only thing missing were a bunch of Mongol Hordes. 
We tried to ride some horses, but couldn't bargain the guys down to a price that was acceptable. 
Once we got back to town, Steve and I went to the Internet cafe to answer some emails and update the blog, before linking up with Deb and KY to go to supper.  We tried to find a place called the Monastery Islamic Restaurant which apparently had some excellent yak, and walked all the way to the far edge of town looking for it.  We never found it, but some drunk guy did come up and pinch Steve's arm hairs.  A few minutes later, we were watching some pigs rooting around in the street, and the guy came up again and asked KY for some cigarettes.  KY doesn't smoke, so the guy wandered over to Steve again.  As Steve was distracted by the pigs, the guy reached up and rubbed his beard.  Steve's reaction was almost to punch him.  He didn't then, but came even closer when the guy said, "Wo ai nee" or "I love you," while making kissing noises.  We erupted in laughter, and walked away.  We of course continue to make fun of Steve even now (3 days later). 


We finally ended up at the same place we ate lunch, because they had yak steak.  Unfortunately, it was more like yak-burger; still, it was pretty tasty.  After supper, Steve and I met James at the Internet cafe for another session of CS.  This time, we did somewhat better, until a couple of monklets came up and started taking over.  They were incredibly good...kind of like Luke Skywalker or had text messaged, the other hand shot bad guys.  Amazing. 


Got back to the hotel, and got a call from Melody letting me know how her day went.  It's I am in the middle of China (literally), and we can talk just like I am down the street.  Of course, we'll pay for it with a huge bill...but, that's OK.  That's why we got global roaming.  It's been a godsend, actually. 


More soon...Trying to catch up on the past days, as we're now in Jiayuguan.  Might be a day or two behind, but I'll do my best to get back on track.  Of course, the farther out we go into the wild, wild, west, who knows what we'll be able to find. 

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Silk Road Trip Day 9 - Jiayuguan

Just a very quick entry to catch you up on the past couple of days...
Long story short, we spent most of yesterday (20 May) on the road from Xiahe to Lanzhou where we caught the night train to the desert town of Jiayuguan.  We dropped our bags at the hotel, grabbed a "bland" breakfast (so described by the Rough Guide - China), and went to the big fort on the other side of town.  We also climbed the Hanging Great Wall, nearby, and checked out some ancient tombs. 
We'll be in town until tomorrow.  I'm working on getting the days caught up.  Thought I'd be able to upload some pictures today, but no luck.  USB Port - check.  Connecting the camera to the computer?  3 systems later, still couldn't make it go.  So, hopfully tomorrow...Thanks for the patience.

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Silk Road Trip Day 6 - Xian to Lanzhou to Xiahe

After leaving the internet cafe, I just made it back in time to the hotel to wash the day's grime off my face and grab the bags.  Our driver dropped us off some ways from the station, and we had to schlepp about a quarter mile or so.  Once there, we put our bags through the x-ray machine, and then sat in the soft sleeper lounge.  Steve and I went to get a few bottles of water and a couple of beers for the train ride.  Almost as soon as we returned, we had to grab our stuff and join the chaos to get on to the train. 
We fought our way inside, and then, like a well oiled machine, my roommates and I put our bags up into the overhead.  I hopped up on the top bunk, and Deb would hand a bag to KY and then to me.  We'll be doing it in record time by the end of the trip.
About 15 minutes after boarding, the train started moving, and we cracked open our Tsingtaos to celebrate.  We chatted for a while, and around 11 or so, decided to turn in. 
At 6, the conductress was walking the passageway banging on doors to awaken everyone.  Unlike the last ride, where we had time to eat a small breakfast, there was none of that.  We arrived at Lanzhou at about 6:30, and did the reverse chaos to disembark.
James, our local guide was waiting for us with our driver for the next few days.  James is a Hui, one of the Chinese minority ethnic groups, and is a Muslim.  Originally from Urumqi, he's now a student at the Univerisity there in Lanzhou, studying tourism, and is soon to start a master's degree as well.  He's a smart, well spoken guy, and has been a great addition to the team.
We stopped briefly at the Gincheng Hotel, where some sort of medical supply convention was going on.  There were lots of demo models for surgical instruments and (at 6:45 AM) empty booths for others.
After a quick shower and some Chinese TV program about mermaid syndrome, we went downstairs for s Chinese breakfast (soup and some local bread).  Most of the restaurant was filled with what looked like the conference atendees, and a few military personnel of probably lower rank (assuming that because they only had one star on their shoulder). 
Breakfast done, we loaded up in the van and went to the Liujiaxia Dam, one of China's largest hydroelectric plants, where we caught a speedboat to Bingling Caves, or the Thousand Buddhas Caves.  While not really 1000 Buddhas, there were bunch of them.  There were a few more, but when the dam was constructed, the lower lying caves were flooded.  Apparently, the majority of the important works were saved, and moved up to the present level. 

The highlight of the complex is the 27 meter tall stucco and straw Buddha, constructed several hundred years ago.  It's an impressive sight. 
After a couple of hours at the caves, we took the boat back to the ferry landing where we re-boarded the van for a dusty, bumpy three hour ride to Linxia, which James described as "Little Mecca" because of the large Muslim presence there.  Judging from the many men wearing the short skullcaps, and the "Mosque on every corner" style neighborhoods.  It was interesting seeing the differences, as there were many in the Chinese style, as well as more Arabic or Turkish style mosques.
We stopped at an Islamic noodle place, that was our first real "adventure" in eating.  Walking in, we passed the kitchen, where a young man was hacking up pieces of mutton with a big cleaver.  We walked through to a private dining room where another waiter (or "Little Number Two" in Chinese) came in and wiped down the table with what could possibly be the dirtiest rag I've ever seen.  During this time, Steve had excused himself to go to the facilities, and came back with a pale, shocked look...more on why in a moment.
As we waited, we watched Little Number Two drop a bag of chopsticks on the floor we'd just crossed, and then put them back in the bag.  We chose ours from a different bowl, and ordered some boiling water to soak them in before use.
We ordered bowls of noodles, which arrived piping hot, and layered in deliciously spiced mutton.  With a scoop of hot pepper on top, it was perfect, and so much that I couldn't finish it.  I ate most of the noodles and meat, but didn't even consider sipping the broth, as I wasn't convinced that I would be able to survive it with several more hours in the van left to go. 
As we were leaving, I stopped to use the restroom, and Steve said, "Look behind the door..."  This I did, and I was disturbed to find half a sheep hanging there.  Not 10 feet from the squat toilet, which had a bucket full of food scraps right next to it.  Unsanitary?  One could call it that.  I understood then the look on Steve's face.
Back into the van, and on a much better road to go to our final destination, Xiahe.  As we drove, we gained elevation steadily, and wound our way up a valley that looked more like Bolivia than my previous conceptions of China.  The farther away from "civilization" we got, the bluer and clearer the skies became.

Arriving in Xiahe at about 4 PM, we checked into the Gangjian Longzhu Hotel.  Steve and I dumped our bags and went out for a wander. 
The town is basically on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau at about 3000 meters, the elevation difference is noticeable.  Taking our bags up the steps to our 5th floor room resulted in a few minutes of gasping to get the breath back.  Despite that, it is a beautiful place, in a small valley surrounded by mountains and clean air.
Our foray out into the town took us off the main drag and up to the northern side of town.  We walked through the neighborhood, just taking pictures of people going about their daily business.  The best part were the cute rosy-cheeked children, who posed like movie stars for us as soon as they saw the cameras.  We would show them the back of the camera, and they'd just laugh and laugh. 
As we wound our way up the hill, we passed a couple of guys shoveling dirt onto a roof.  As we passed, they looked at us like they'd never seen our types before.  I asked one of them, "McDonald's?" and pointed up the hill.  They just laughed, and shook their heads.  We ended up on a place up above the town, and just stared at the scenery for a while.  After a few minutes, Steve decided to head down and give one of the guys a breather.  A couple of minutes later, he was hard at work, tossing shovelfuls of dirt with the younger man.  I went down and joined them, and as we headed back down the hill, they invited us into the home.

We got to meet the family, including the 85 year old toothless and wheezing patriarch.  He was a funny guy, and just grinned and laughed while talking with us.  After a couple of minutes, one of them came over to Steve and felt the hair on his arm.  Now, this is something I've heard of from others who have traveled in Tibet or Thailand, but never thought I'd see. Sure enough, they checked both of us out, pulling on the hair, and comparing our relative hirsuteness. 
Finally, we headed back down the hill, and I turned to Steve and said, "THAT is why I travel."  Those are the priceless experiences that you just don't get at home.
We stopped a few more times for more pictures, before ending up in an area where guys were doing a brisk trade in some sort of roots.  Still don't know what they are, but it looked sort of shady, so we didn't stick around.  We ended up at another Islamic restaurant where we played "Menu Roulette" and ended up with some delicious soup (again thinking that anything that is boiled, is probably safe) and mutton ribs.  The food was great, and the total with 2 beers was less than 10 dollars.  I'll say it's going to be difficult to get used to Japan style prices when we go back.   
After supper, we went to the internet cafe and met up with James who gave us some lessons on CounterStrike (CS, as the kids say).  Most of those lessons were learned at his hand (for some reason, he would choose the terrorist...).  But, by the end of it, we were holding our own. 
After an hour or so of that, we went back to the hotel where a more thorough inspection revealed scary sheets.  Thank goodness for the sleep sheet I brought along...
I slept well.  Steve, with no sheet, did not.
Tomorrow, adventures in Yak Butter!

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Silk Road Trip Day 5 - Xian and the Terra Cotta Warriors

For the past few nights, I've been emailing these entries from Yahoo, rather than going in through the Blogger Dashboard.  While some of the Chinese characters look the same, there are none of the other helpful Japanese scripts to help.  So, please ignore the advertising that gets attached to the bottom of the entries.
That short disclaimer out of the way, let's continue.
I'm back in the same Internet cafe as we were in last night.  After the blogging duties for the day were complete, Steve and I logged onto one of those online shooter games, Counter Strike, I think.  We kept hitting buttons until we got into a game with three other guys, and through trial and error, kept getting ourselves killed for a whole hour.  It was a good time, though, and we actually did win one of the 30 or so three minute rounds that we played.  It was only in the last few minutes that we realized that we could have been using heavy weaponry rather than the dinky little 9mm pistols that we'd been fighting with.  Up until that, we'd have to gang up on one of the guys, kill him, and steal his gun; then, turn it on his friends.  This worked, but it was ugly.  We did taht for about an hour before heading back to the hotel.
We still got up early this morning so we could take a wander through the Muslim Quarter of Xian.  Having been in my share of other Muslim Quarters, it was really interesting to see the contrasts of a Muslim society outside of Arabia or North Africa.  There's a gorgeous mosque, the largest in China, which has a really different feel to it.  Much more ornate and Oriental looking, with Terra cotta roof, and even depictions of living creatures (though mythical - i.e., dragons) around the garden-like courtyard. 
We also tooled around past some of the shops as they were getting ready for the day.  There were plenty of murder scene butcher shops with various and sundry organs for sale.  We saw livers and lungs and stomachs, and watched a guy for a while as he hacked at cow spines and pelvises with an axe.  Scary.  There were a lot of songbirds for sale, and in front of one store, three guys were feeding baby birds with chopsticks and dog-food.  Deb tried to take a picture, but got yelled at.  Steve and I took advantage of the distraction and snapped away. 
Finally, we all split up.  Steve went for a bike ride, Deb for Starbucks, and I did a little shopping before heading for the city walls.  Turns out that it cost 40 yuan to go up, so I chose to head back to the room and get ready to check out. 
After we all assembled in the lobby at about noon, we headed for lunch at a local noodle shop.  This particular place was somewhat traditional, in that they served beer in bowls.  Strange, but a nice way to quench the thirst.  Just be careful when you say, "Ganbei!" or someone's going to get wet.  KY also got a small bottle of the local wine, which tasted more like sake flavored cough syrup.  It was apparently about 57 proof, and burned going down.  We didn't drink too much, though, because after lunch we were driving out of town to see the Terra Cotta Warriors.
The Emperor Qin, in about 200BC, decided to create a huge mausoleum complex honoring himself, and made pretty much a complete replica of his army, with upwards of 6000 soldiers, horses, and chariots.  They were all cast with the actual faces of his soldiers (well, not their actual faces, because what good are real soldiers if you peel off their faces to put on fake ones...but I digress), so each soldier is a unique creation.  2000 years later, a farmer digging a well discovered them.  He was sitting in the entrance hall with a big sign that says "No Photo," looking very bored.
We saw a short movie in surround-a-vision, and spent a couple of hours walking around the different pits where the soldiers were found.  Pit one had over 1000 soldiers in ranks, drawn up in the accurate order of battle of the day.  Pit 2 was mostly horsemen, chariots, and archers, and mostly still un-reclaimed.  Pit 3 was the command post.  All in all, it definitely lives up to its billing as the 8th wonder of the world.
Now, gotta run as I'm catching a train for Lanzhou tonight.  More later, when I can.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Silk Road Trip Day 4 - Xian

Last evening, after checking out of the Internet cafe and getting my deposit back, Steve and I went to grab a bite to eat.  Unfortunately, of the 20 or so pages of menu items at the place we ended up, only 3 or 4 seemed edible.  Here's a list of the less appetizing, apparently all delicacies (according to Kei Wei and Irene):
  • Tongues of Duck (2 different varieties)
  • Fried Hot Chick
  • Mature Vinegar Jellyfish
  • Roast Legs of Sheep Belong to Mongolia
  • Cooked Sea Slugs with Green Onions
  • Singed Hearts of Ducks
  • Boiled Rabbit (ok, this was probably edible)
  • Mustard Palms of Ducks
  • Mixed Ears of Pigs
  • Pieces of Pigs Lungs
  • Fried Pigs Large In Testines with Peppers
  • Boiled Blocks of Eel and Tripes of Cattle and Pieces of Pigs Intestines (hot)
  • Fried Ducks Intestines with Peppers
  • Fried Blocks of Sea Slugs, Squids, and Shrimps Meat

We both had regular old pork dishes with rice.


As we lingered over a Coke, thinking that the train left somewhere around 9:30 PM, we got sort of a feeling that we needed to just go check one more time.  As we entered the big hall to walk down the defunct escalator (with years of who knows what built up in the grooves), we saw Gary wildly waving for us to hurry.  So, we ran down the steps, and followed him into the waiting room to grab our bags, and rush to the station.  As we got down to the platform, we realized we needed to be on the far end of the train, and began the forced march to get there before it started to pull off.  We just made it, and had enough time to find our compartments before it headed out. 


Initially, Gary and Steve were bunked up with a German couple, but then, due to a dispute in one of the other groups on the train, involving a woman who insisted on a bottom bunk and threatened to "fly home," they traded with a Chinese couple to keep the peace.


I was in the compartment with Debi, Irene and Kei Wei (pronounced K-Y), and we chatted over a 15 yuan bottle of beer and some less than great beef jerky before turning in for the night.  The rocking of the train was a great way to be lulled to sleep. 


I got up just before six, brushed my teeth, and sat on my bunk for a bit.  Then, as the ladies started to move about, I excused myself for 20 minutes or so for them to get changed.  Sleeping in  my clothes, I didn't have to worry about that.  Kei Wei and I chatted for a while in the passageway before heading back to the compartment.  We all shared some snacks and drank a couple cups of coffee and swapped travel stories for a while, before finally arriving at Xian. 


Once at the station, we all grabbed our stuff, slung it all on our backs, and headed for the van that would take us to our hotel.  It wasn't ready for us to check in, so we just dropped our bags, and decided to go see the Bell and Clock Towers, two of the main attractions in Xian City.  Xian is one of the last walled cities, which makes it pretty unique.  The wall around it stretches 14 km or so, and tomorrow, we'll probably go for a bike ride around the walls. 


While at the Bell Tower, there was a short show of Tang Dynasty music and dance.  Far from being the plinky, discordant music that I expected, it was actually pretty good, with a variety of different musical instruments of the Tang Dynasty period (around 600AD). including a zither, some funky looking flute, a regular looking flute, a girl banging on a variety of bells, and a few others that I couldn't really recognize.  Still, it was interesting, and a good introduction to what we would see after supper tonight.


At the Drum Tower, there was also a drumming exhibition, but mostly, we just spent some time up at the top of the building on the veranda, enjoying the sunshine and slightly better air quality than in Beijing.


We grabbed a bite of lunch at a Chinese Fast Food place before meeting Gary at the hotel to check in.  After we got in the room, I took a shower, and read for a while before falling asleep.  We had to be downstairs at 4:30, though, to head to dinner and a Tang Dynasty show. 


The dinner was a special dumpling dinner, showcasing 21 different types of dumplings.  Dumplings with beef, pork, chicken, mushrooms, squid, shrimp, pumpkin, peas and corn, and even walnuts.  The animal filled dumplings were even shaped in the vague approximation of that animal.  The fish had eyes and tails, the pigs had snouts, and the chickens and ducks had chicken and duck heads.  Quite cute.


After supper, we went to the Tang Dynasty show featuring music and dance.  It was good, with a bunch of different songs and traditional dances.  One of the featured dances was an interpretation of a famous Tang mural of a woman listening to birds, a second trying to catch a cicada, and a third pining for her family. 


While it was a good evening, it wasn't quite worth the 350 Yuan that we paid for it.  But still, all part of the experience.  


One nice thing about Peregrine is the fact that it's not just going from site to site to site.  You actually have some free time to do whatever you want.   Tomorrow, we've got a free morning, before heading out to see the famous Terracotta warriors.  We're planning now to go take a walk around the Muslim Quarter and, as mentioned earlier, want to ride around the wall.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Silk Road Trip Day 3 - Beijing to Xian

I'm sitting here in the Beijing West Train Station, with about 2 hours to kill before our train to Xian. We spent the day touring a bit more of some of the major sites here in town, and will spend the night now on the train going southwest. This Internet session will cost a bit more, 5 Yuan (darn near 80 cents) with a 20 Yuan deposit, and they logged my passport in as well. That part was a little strange, but it's probably a security measure or something.

Up at about 6 again, I grabbed a quick shower and then started to pack up my stuff. We were mostly ready by about 7:15, and went down to the lobby restaurant for the breakfast buffet. After a decent meal of eggs, bacon, and fruit, and a couple of cups of good coffee, we went back and linked up with the rest to go to the Temple of Heaven.

When we got there, no sooner had we gotten out of the taxi when we were accosted by good natured touts selling maps and brochures. Deb also had about a dozen tourists come up to take pictures with her. Her height and blond hair just made her the subject of a lot of photos.

The Temple of Heaven was an important place where the Emperor would offer sacrifices for a good harvest. While the architecture and history was impressive, the best part was the people watching. All over the place, people were using the courtyards and other open spaces to do Tai Chi, ballroom dancing, kicking a feathered shuttlecock around, and even writing water calligraphy. It was the place to be for older, retired folks. It was pretty incredible to see the flexibility and balance of some of the old timers out there doing Tai Chi. It's a bit like slow martial arts moves, but apparently you can work up a sweat if you do it right.

In the middle of the complex is a circular temple where, if you place your mouth near one part of the wall, you can whisper and hear it on the other side. It was really interesting, and everywhere around the temple, you could hear these whispers that were a bit freaky. Glad it was daytime. There was also a lady there with some really big looked at first like it was a hat.

We toured the three main areas of the temple, and upon arriving at the north side, found a long porch crowded with more locals hanging out. This time, there were people performing Chinese Opera, whole choruses with conductors, a harmonica player, and a very old man, who was making up poetry on the spot, with wild gesticulating and eyes bugging and spittle flying. Irene, who speaks Mandarin (and 6 other languages), said, "Basically, he's a rapper!" Whatever he was, he was entertaining.

Once we finished with the temple, we wandered down the street (passing a ferocious dog) until we stopped at a silk factory for a quick lesson on how silk is made. They had everything from the bugs to the cocoons, and all the steps in between. Unbeknownst to me, there are different sizes of cocoons, the bigger ones only found in China, and apparently having "twins." The lady guiding us through the tour described the process thusly...

"First, the two butterflies get married. Then the female butterfly lays eggs. Then the babies hatch and every five days shed their skin until they start to form their own cocoon."

There was more after that, but the thought of a tiny wedding ceremony for these little bugs so the babies could be legitimate was really funny. I do realize, of course, that this is the 21st Century, and it is quite common (even in China, apparently) for silkworms to live in sin. Still, it's a nice thought that a boy silkworm wants to make the girl silkworm into a respectable woman. Of course, I'm sure there are some boy silkworms who say, "Why buy the silk when you can get it for free?" What an archaic, misogynistic attitude. Sheesh.

In any case, as is typical, this was a state store and ended with a demonstration of how silk quilts are made, complete with an opportunity to try to stretch out the silk fibers as part of a team. None of us were offered jobs. And yes, Melody, I did get one...It's going by ship, though, so it will likely be an anniversary rather than birthday gift. It would have cost the price again of the quilt to send it via air or "express."

We at lunch around the corner from the hotel, and Steve and I ventured to find the Catholic Church in town, the South Cathedral. We'd made an attempt on Sunday morning, but were unsuccessful in our quest. Had we found it, we would have been there for a Latin Mass. It's a beautiful cathedral dating back to 1905, but a church has stood on the spot since the 1600s (Ming Dynasty) when Fr. Matteo Ricci founded the church. It's been destroyed or damaged several times by earthquakes, and the previous cathedral was destroyed by a fire. It was an oasis of peace, though, from the chaotic city streets. We spent a few quiet moments inside before heading back to the hotel.

At 3 PM, we all loaded our bags into the van for the trip out to the Summer Palace, where the Emperors would go relax and keep out of the harsh summer heat. It has been there for centuries, but was destroyed during the Anglo-French War in about 1860. Rebuilt, it remains a stunning place. It sits along side a large lake, and has several impressive structures, including a 728 meter long covered walkway with four terraces. The air quality was especially bad today, which is unfortunate, as the place must be spectacular when you can see without a brown haze. One sighting of note, was the souvenir shop girl who's hairstyle was that of Chaka from Land of the Lost (or maybe Tina Turner...they had pretty much the same hair). We wandered the main areas, and took advantage of a 4 Star Toilet (registered and certified by the China Tourism Administration) before heading back to the van for the short trip to the station.

Arriving at the Beijing West Train Station, we had to send our bags through an X-ray machine, and walk under a metal detector. The detector didn't seem to be on, and I couldn't see anyone looking at the much for security.

There's a nice waiting room with comfortable couches where we are (it's for the soft sleeper class), and a big open hall with a lot of people milling around. From the looks of it, they're not riding soft sleeper. We'll cool our heels for a while until leaving around 9 or so. It's 11 hours, and if you want to know what to expect, check out my blog hero Erik Trinidad's entry from 2004. He has several entries on the China part of his tour, though once past Xian, we're pretty much doing different things. Just don't compare his blog with mine too much.

By the way, so far, I've not been able to upload any pictures, because all the computers so far have not allowed access to USB ports. Probably at some point I'll be able to, but if not, I'll put up a bunch when I get home. I finished filling the first 1GB USB card today.

Silk Road Trip Day 2 - Up to the Great Wall

After we finished at the Internet cafe yesterday, Steve and I wandered around looking for a restaurant. Not finding anything to our liking, we just stopped at a bakery for a quick Chinese donut (not sure really what it was, but it was good), and drink. Then, back to the hotel to link up with the group.
We went to a Kung Fu show at the Red Theater. What we feared would be sort of cheesy turned out to be a great show. Part Broadway, part "Kung Fu" (the TV show of my youth), it really entertained. The martial arts abilities of the performers were incredible, with some fantastic displays of acrobatics, kicks, punches, flips, and even a section where they went up and down and swung around on big ribbons of cloth hanging from the ceiling. It was really something. Gary said that it would not disappoint, and he was absolutely right.

When we finished, we were pretty hungry, so we ducked down an alley in the Hutong behind the hotel to look for a place to eat. We passed a few before finding one that was clean, well lit, and had a waitress that almost begged us to come sit down. Since there was no one there, we passed it by in favor of one that had a lot of locals, piles and piles of yakitori (not sure what they're called in Chinese yet) sticks, a couple of dogs sniffing around the trash under the chairs, and a table full of drunk guys who offered us cigarettes.

Sitting down, the aforementioned gentlemen, well lubricated by the 5 or 6 bottles of beer on the table, began to talk to us. We had declined the cigarettes, which is apparently the customary thing for men to do (offering them to other men), but they were pretty friendly. Their English was limited to "Hello", and "Thank you for come China", but when our beer came, we offered them a hearty "ganbei" in response.
We ordered a hot pot meal, basically like shabu-shabu in Japan where they bring a boiling pot of water to which has been added some onions or spices. Then, you get a plate of meat (not yak this time), and other plates of vegetables, and you just dump it into the boiling water until it's done. We figured that considering the questionable sanitary conditions, boiling everything would be a safe way to eat. So far, we've not been proved wrong.

We couldn't eat everything, but we tried. At the end, when we called for the bill, it cost us 45 Yuan, or about 6 dollars. Not to bad.

We got up this morning before 7, and went down for breakfast at the restaurant. Debbie joined us, and we met the rest of the group right at 7:30. Boarding a van, we drove 3 1/2 hours to Simitai, a great section of the Great Wall of China. On the way out, we passed through sections of Beijing under improvement, getting ready for the upcoming 2008 Olympics. We passed a group of what we initially thought was maybe a group of military getting ready for physical fitness training. Turns out, it was a group of employees preparing for the day. It's a little bit less restored than other sections, apparently a lot less touristy, and was an incredible thing to see. It snakes up and down mountains that would be difficult to walk up without anything on your back, much less hauling up rocks to build a wall.

We got our tickets, and then started the climb. It brought back memories of the "Steps of Repentance" at Mt. Sinai, in Egypt. We walked 12 sections of watchtower, and put in a full day's worth of exercise in just a few hours. Not sure just how far we walked, but it seemed like 2-3 miles at least, all of it uphill.

The views from up there were amazing. We had perfect weather, and that far out from Beijing (120 km or so), the air quality was much better. No brown haze hanging around. The steps were quite steep in parts, but we all just kept at it slow and steady. As part of the deal, you also get your own farmer woman who will walk a foot behind you asking you to buy postcards or t-shirts all the way up and down. Somewhat annoying, though I did give mine a bit of money for her letting me take her picture. She was a bit peeved that I didn't buy anything from her, as she'd walked all the way up and down basically for nothing. I felt a little bad, about that, but what can you do?
After that, we ate some lunch at a restaurant nearby, which included a couple of Dixie cups of beer that may have been the best beer I've ever had. All that walking worked up a thirst. Lunch bill...20 Yuan (about $2.50).

Once lunch was done, we headed back, making great time and getting back to the hotel in only 3 hours, despite traffic. We cleaned up a bit, and then all went out to supper at a Peking Duck place (dinner bill, 30 Yuan, ~$4.00). Afterward, we were walking back toward the hotel and we heard a loud racket and came upon a group of women in a formation, marching up and down the sidewalk, enthusiastically waving handkerchiefs. Also, since we're going on an overnight train tomorrow, we got a few snacks to keep us tied over (groceries, 46 Yuan, ~$6.50 - We're not in Japan anymore, Toto). I'm beginning to dread going back to Japanese prices...

Tomorrow, we'll see a few more sights around Beijing before boarding an overnight train to Xian. That should be fun. Haven't been on an overnight train since the obligatory backpacking around Europe trip. That was a good time, too, but not quite as adventurous. I'll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Silk Road Trip Day 1

Ni Haw!! I'm finally in China, and am sitting in a 2 Yuan (~30 cents) per hour Internet cafe that has about 500 computers in's pretty amazing, as all of them have a better connection that we get at home. The afternoon sun is streaming in the windows, making the thick cigarette smoke look just beautiful. Anyhow, it's already been an interesting trip.
Steve and I left Japan yesterday with our families. Steve's wife and daughter were going back to the US for a short visit, and Melody just rode up to see us off. We all hung out for a while on the observation deck before the girls headed on their way. Having seen them safely off, we amused ourselves with the flight simulators there; no problems taking off, but flying is more difficult than it looks if you have to do anything like turn or land. Steve had a successful touchdown, but I crashed a half dozen times before the little kid watching (and laughing) at me hit the "HELP" button, which automatically lands the plane. My score was about 6 points on that one.
Finally, time to board. It was a short flight, as international ones go, and about 4 hours and a couple of naps later, we arrived. No problems getting through customs or immigration, and our pickup was waiting for us with a "Peregrine" sign to take us to the joining hotel. We briefly stopped at Tienanmen Square where folks were flying kites with lanterns on them before reaching the hotel, but once there, we checked in, dropped off our stuff, and then headed out for a quick look around and a beer before hitting the rack.
We walked down the street to a small section with some restaurants and people with piles of beer bottles around. We'd passed it on the way in, and it had about 6 or 7 restaurants and people just socializing as they ate and drank. We found an empty table by the street, and a waiter came up and said what we assumed was "Do you want something to drink" in Chinese. We looked in the phase book, pointed at another table's beer, and said, "Pijo, please." A couple of minutes later, he was back with 2 big bottles and a menu. Though not real hungry, the "FRIED YAK" looked intriguing, so we ordered that with some rice. It was actually quite tasty, and we just sat and chatted a while. We missed the meet-up with our trip leader, as we'd gotten in too late.
After a while, the beer finished, we headed back to the hotel. As it turns out, Steve and his wife had actually been there for a night at the opera when they visited Beijing last year. It's a nice place, and actually rates 4 "Ys" in the Beijing book I have. Lots of shiny marble, but outside of the employees, no Chinese. Interesting place.
The room is comfortable, and we were glad to see two beds so as not to have one of those awkward "Planes Trains and Automobiles" moments like Steve Martin and John Candy had. "How bout those Bears?"
Up this morning before 7 so we could grab a bite of breakfast downstairs and attempt to find a church to catch Mass before linking up with our group. We made a big loop, all the way up to Tienanmen Square but never found the church. We did see a lot of interesting stuff along the way, though. One of the favorites was the way they do diapers for little children. Basically, the kid has a slit in his pants, and if necessary, just squats and does his/her business. Different...
Back at the hotel, we met up with our group leader, Gary, originally from Xian. He's been working with Peregrine for 2 years after some time as a freelance tour guide. Thus far, he seems quite good. Our group has a total of 5 in it, and we're the youngest. There's an American, Debbie, from Seattle, and an Australian sister and brother, Irene and Kei Wei, both of Chinese extraction. We've already been dubbed "The Boys" with less than a day into the trip.
Overall, though, everyone seems really nice. We've just spent the morning at Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City, which is just like out of the movie "Mulan." Well, sort of anyway. It's absolutely huge, and incredibly ornate. Unfortunately, they're getting it ready for the Olympics next summer, and are doing a lot of work, so there's scaffolding everywhere. But it's still an amazing thing to see. You walk through successive gates and courtyards, each with a different purpose...governmental activities, Emperor's working area, Emperor's resting area, and the private gardens (complete with a manmade mountain from which to watch the moon). One interesting thing to me was the sheer size. When you see pictures of Tienanmen Square on TV, it looks absolutely huge. And it is. But the area of the Forbidden City is big enough to fit 5 of the squares in it. Amazing.
We ate lunch at a Chinese (surprise) restaurant nearby, and after that, Steve and I were dropped off at one of the old style neighborhoods, or hutongs for a wander around. It was a fascinating look into ordinary every day lives where you have communal bathrooms down the streets. Lots of guys sleeping in their bicycle carts, and a lot of folks just having neighborly chats.
We headed back through the hutongs to the hotel, caught a quick refreshment, and then headed here. We're going for some supper before going to a Kung Fu show, which promises to be fun.

We'll be in Beijing for about 3 more days, before heading south to Xian to see the Terra Cotta Warriors. I will update when I can.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Fw:This Just In: Two News Stories of Interest

A couple of news items for you to check out...

Japanese Female Sumo Wrestler

There's an interesting article in East West Magazine about a female amateur Sumo Wrestler (rikishi) who wrestles for her company here in Japan.

Sinai Peacekeeper Plane Crashes
This story was of interest to me because I served in this unit for a year in 1994. I made many trips back and forth between the North Camp and South Camp, near Sharm al Sheikh. It was always an incredible flight that ended up over the Red Sea, with views that included four
countries (Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia).

It's always sad when people die, but in the business we're in, it's an unfortunate fact of life. The MFO has been keeping the peace for almost 30 years now, and if I'm not mistaken, this is the first time anything like that has happened. There was the horrible Gander crash in 1985 that decimated a battalion of the 101st Airborne, but otherwise, it has been a generally casualty free mission. If you're the praying sort, please include the French and Canadian troops and their families.

Sakura and Sinatra

Despite our best attempts at estimating when the peak would be, we were off on the Sakura, or Cherry Blossom Season, when we scheduled our parents' visit. So, they missed them when they were in full bloom. There were a few late bloomers, though, and a lot of dogwoods in full flower while they were here, though.

Here's what they missed...
In the park near our home.

The pedestrian zone on the way down to the beach.. on the right is our grocery store.

Even the train had a special paint job for the season...

We also had the chance to meet a cat that has no affect on Melody's substantial allergies...not that we'd be so lucky if we ever tried to find one of our own. His name is Sinatra, and he's quite a sweet fellow. More like a dog, really. Friendly, talkative, and affectionate.