Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Well, well, well....

I took a month hiatus from updating this little blog. I got caught up in the holiday spirit and was more than a little overwhelmed upon to my return to the United States.

I must admit that it didn't occur to me how many people are actually reading this thing. To all of you, I apologize for the laziness. And I will resume the telling of the adventures in the coming days.

Yes, my travels are finished for now. Boo hoo. Sad face.

However, I plan on returning to Thailand to do my TEFL certification at the end of January. My triumphant return will be short-lived. The sun and beaches prove to have too strong a gravity for myself.

So, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for having an interest in these exploits and tell you all that I am determined to finish what I have started.

Tales to be continued....

Sunday, November 29, 2009


Golmud was surreal in the most disappointing of ways. We arrived at 4:45 a.m. China's transportation system is miraculously, and magically, designed so that no matter what the distance to one's destination, and no matter what mode of transportation is used, the arrival time is always just before dawn.

We spilled out of the over-night bus and stood at a dark intersection just a block up from the massive train station. It stood there silent and empty.

One Chinese man who spoke good English asked us where we were headed as we gathered our bags from underneath the bus. We said that we were going to find a hotel here in Golmud, but were not yet decided on one.

He looked surprised and asked, "You are not going to Lhasa?"

"Uh, no, not yet. Hopefully, next week."

"Alright. Well, good luck." He waved his hand as he pulled his bag (on rollers) in the direction of the train station.

It was at this moment that I realized the ban on travel permits to Tibet applied only to foreigners.

Tom and I found a taxi and showed him, in Chinese, the hotel we wanted him to take us to. We piled in and we were off. The first hotel we went to said they were full, although the large parking lot was completely empty. The next two hotels also said they were full despite appearing totally abandoned. By the time we found a hotel that was willing to give us a room, the sun was rising.

Golmud, at sunrise, is reminiscent of something from a science fiction movie: it is perfectly flat, the streets are flawlessly straight, and the blocks are all precisely the same length. Even the buildings are all the same height and shape. It has the feeling that it was entirely built before anyone actually lived there, possibly even dropped there from a prefab factory. Eerie.

We got our room and slept until noon. I was the first to wake.

"I'll go scout around, you sleep," I said. Tom was not about to get out of bed.

We needed to find a way to get our permits and find a couple to join our Tibet tour while in Golmud. I walked for a good thirty minutes in a counter-clockwise circle. I found an internet room, a couple of noodle restaurants, and a handful of hair salons. All of the other places were strictly industrial.

Golmud is a mining town, and for all intents and purposes, it is perfect for what it is. What WE needed it to be, on the other hand, was something else.

Via the internet, we found the location of the two tourist offices in Golmud. Either of these places are authorized to arrange tours into Tibet.

We took a taxi to the first one and found a man sitting behind a desk smoking cigarettes and listening to the radio. Once he saw us, he motioned for us to sit down and made a telephone call. After ten minutes, a young woman entered and informed us that the office was "closed" until October 9th; the other tourist office would also be closed until that date.

However, she was amiable and made a few phone calls for us. She told us that the passport office was open and that they were able to make arrangements as well. She wrote down the address for us and we went to get a taxi. This was another instance which confirmed my belief in the lack of efficiency of taxi drivers in China.

The man had an address, written in his mother tongue, in his hand and he still could not find where we wanted to go.

He eventually dropped us off in the area he thought it was and drove off. We showed the address to store clerks on every corner until we finally found one who pointed us in the right direction. By the time we arrived at our destination, it was closed. The man in the shop next door said it would be closed the rest of the week, until October 9th.

The frustration that I felt at this time was nearing its pinnacle.

I went and got my hair cut. That's right. I got my hair cut in Golmud, middle-of-@*!&$#@!-nowhere, China.

Thomas and I had some serious deliberation to attend to. Contrary to what I was told to believe back in Cheng Du, it would not be possible to start the permit application before October 9th. Our understanding at that time was that travelers would be allowed to go on the 9th or after. This was not true. The process would not be allowed to start until the 9th; therefore, the soonest anyone would be going to Tibet would be the 13th.

The options were: 1) stay in Golmud for 5-8 days and try to find tour partners via the internet or 2) get the train back to Cheng Du where most of the Tibet travelers meet to form their tour groups. For me the decision was simple. Cheng Du. It didn't take too much discussion to get Thomas to agree.

That night we were on a train back to where my China adventure had originally started, and this time....we were going to go to Tibet.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Dunhuang, Microlighting and The Jedi Mind Trick

Upon arrival in Dunhuang, it was quite easy for us to find a nice hostel tucked into the trees beside the edge of the desert. And the Lonely Planet was absolutely correct about the town being convenient for foreigners. But, I started ahead of the real story...

Early in the morning, before our arrival, I questioned Tom about his visa status. I knew that China mostly grants one month tourist visas. He had been traveling from Beijing for a couple weeks before I flew into Cheng Du and we had already spent about two weeks together. So, I casually asked him while we were both half awake on the sleep-filled train, "When does your visa expire?" This question seemed to rouse his curiosity. He sat up and pulled his passport from his bag.

"It expired yesterday," was his reply. Both of us were slightly nervous about the implications of such a situation. The resolution was to first find accommodation and then find the passport/tourist office in Dunhuang as soon as possible.

When we arrived at the hostel, they would not give us a room because of the expired visa. Luckily, it was midday. We asked the man at the desk to call us a taxi to take us directly to the passport/visa office.

As the taxi pulled into the Dunhuang Police Station, I saw the expression on Tom's face change from inconvenience and disgust to one of uncertainty and slight terror. The Chinese Police are not the ideal type for understanding misunderstandings.

We walked into the lobby and there were three police officers lounging around in their socks, chain-smoking cigarettes, and watching the replays of the holiday celebration in Tiananmen Square from the day before. There were trucks with nuclear rockets and tanks in formation and millions cheering on the screen.

One of the men told us to sit down and wait. He made a phone call and then resumed his position on the sofa next to the massive ashtray. About fifteen minutes later a woman in a pantsuit arrived and escorted us to an adjacent office.

To make a long story short, Tom convinced me of a theory that I've maintained since childhood: the Jedi mind trick is not a fictitious invention.

At first, the woman said it would be no problem to get a month visa extension. It was printed out on the spot and pasted in his passport. Then she came to the subject of price. Tom's visa extension would be 160 yuan (approx. $26 U.S. dollars). She then proceeded to tell him that he was two days past his expiration date. Each day came with a 500 yuan penalty. Thus, she concluded that he owed her 1,160 yuan.

It was at this moment that I actually witnessed the Jedi mind trick for the first time in my adult life. Tom, being the master price negotiator that he his, proceeded to tell her that the day before was a holiday and that he had no way of obtaining his extension. Therefore, it should only be a one-day penalty. She agreed.

"You're right, it's only a one-day penalty," she repeated after Thomas.

"And I was on an overnight train, as well." Tom produced our post-midnight train stub from Shandan and presented it to her. "I could not do until now. So, there should be no penalty."

"Okay, there is no penalty," she again repeated the words from his mouth.

Tom paid her the 160 yuan and we walked out into the street.

As soon as we were around the corner I burst into belly-full laughter fits. Tom had gone from scared pale 60 minutes earlier to bartering with the woman about the price of his extension. And he had won.

He threw up his arms in a manner that spelled V-I-C-T-O-R-Y. I told him that we were going to get the most expensive western-style meal we could find and that it would be on him. There were no objections.

We spent three days in Dunhuang. It truly is a lovely town. The streets are tree-lined, well-paved, and the girls are slave to fashion (as in much larger cities around Asia).

We went micro lighting, which is quite possibly the single scariest thing I have ever done, yet also one of the most exhilarating. It's basically a boxcar with a fan that is tied to the bottom side of a hang glider. It takes off completely vertical and loves to wobble (the only thing holding you in is a car seatbelt).

We also saw The Old City, an ages-old dynasty fort that has been turned into a quasi-amusement park much in the same vein of Old Tucson (for those who are familiar).

All in all, Dunhuang was a lovely place. We met some nice Canadians at the hostel and even had a barbecue with some of the locals.

We exited by sleeper bus to Golmud. The next week needed to have us preparing our Tibet permits for the earliest possible departure (according to the sign mentioned earlier, October 9th).

Despite all of the excitement, we were getting antsy for Lhasa and, of course, Everest.

Link to short microlighting clip on Youtube:


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Shandan, Western China

The morning that saw Gunther and Yong Ha return east also saw Tom and I getting on a bus to Shandan. This was the next stop on our path that would eventually lead to Golmud. When we booked the ticket, I understood that it was only a 200km journey. This was one of the shorter distances I had covered at once in China and I expected it to be rather uneventful.

200km is only 126 miles. Even in a bus going a conservative 60km/h it shouldn't take more than three and half hours. This bus ride was about to challenge everything I thought I understood about distance equalling rate times time.

First of all, I believed that a cross-country bus with approx. 30 seats wouldn't be able, or willing, to transport more than 40 people. This was my first misconception. After the aisles and the steps at the front door were properly covered with bodies, we set off.

The road was dirt most of the way. Vertical. Winding. Desert mountains. Cliffsides just inches away from the tires. Sheep in the road.

Six hours later, we arrived in Shandan. Tom and I had flirted with the idea of going into Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Shandan looked like what my imagination told me either of those two places would look like. It was mostly dirt and dust. Cars filled the streets, cars that appeared to have been magically lifted from the science fiction magazines of the forties and fifties. There were a lot of buildings, but most were vacant, hollow, ghost-like. Again, the men in the street seemed to have been standing/sitting there for decades. They were withered, wind-beaten, and smiling at us with no teeth.

We immediately took a taxi to the train station in search of the earliest train to the next "town." Luckily, there was a post-midnight train to Dunhuang. Dunhuang, according to the Lonely Planet, was "tourist" friendly. We bought the tickets and hiked the 4km back into town (the taxi having deserted us).

Instinct told us to find the restaurant with the most patrons and go in prepared to point and smile as charmingly as possible. We ate noodles with some meat-such substance and pantomimed that we would like to find an internet room. One woman amazingly understood what we wanted and pointed us in the right direction down the road. We had eight hours to kill.

A few blocks from the internet room, we were accosted by a high school English teacher and his apparently "star" student (her English was more discernible than his). She was sweet, if not disastrously naive. She confided in me that she wanted to study journalism in university. I decided it was best not to point out why being a journalist in China may not be the most desirable position for a girl with such potential. Then, once she found out that we were headed to Lhasa, she very proudly boasted that her brother was a soldier living in Lhasa. Again, I decided not to try to explain that he was undoubtedly suppressing religion and culture. She was painfully sweet and thoughtful. She showed us to the internet room, arranged for us to pay for the time we wanted (eight hours), and even sat with us while we checked our email to make sure that we were able to use the computers properly.

I mostly streamed movies and drank Sprite for the duration of the afternoon/evening. I watched "Bronson," an ultra-violent film loosely based on the story of Britain's most violent convict. The performance by the lead actor, Tom Hardy, was astounding. He will be a rather big name in years to come. I also watched "District 9" which I believe is the best science fiction movie I've seen since "Primer."


It was the big holiday. 60 years of Chinese communism. The shouts and fireworks from the town square could be heard. Hordes of cheers. I asked Tom if he wanted to go and check it out. His answer was a stout, "not a chance."

By 11:30 p.m. when Tom and I were hiking our way back to the train station, the streets were deserted and quiet. We passed by the town square which was completely covered in celebration debris. I bought a big bottle of beer upon entering the station. As I drank it on the platform waiting for the train, I stared at the stars blanketing the sky. Little did I know that the skies were only to get more and more inspiring as my journey continued.

I also looked at the few silhouettes of people standing in the late-night/early morning dust on the platform as the train arrived. We piled into our car and promptly fell asleep among the Chinese sprawled all over the seats in various states of undress.

We would be in Dunhuang by the late morning and onto another stage of spelunking the depths of the Chinese West.

Good bye to Gunther and Yong Ha...

After returning to our hotel after the desert, Gunther and Yong Ha decided that they should start heading back to Beijing. Gunther's trip was running out of time (he never intended to go into Tibet). Yong Ha's girlfriend, an extremely patient girl who had been waiting for Yong Ha in Seoul while he traveled for an undetermined amount of time, had let him know that she had fallen ill. He told us that he had been traveling for eight-plus months and that he didn't know how much longer her patience would last. He was more than willing to give up Tibet in order to go and be with her. However, he told Tom and me that he would try to meet us in Kathmandu in two/three weeks time, if able.

So, it would be our last night together. The four of us had been traveling together for at least 12 days by this point (and encountered/endured situations that test the best in one's character). "Bonding" doesn't fully describe such times. It was clear that we would stay up as late as possible, drink beer, and play the last few hands of a marathon game of "shithead" that had begun the night we all met.

The night went as planned. A lot of laughs and Gunther being "shithead," "tete de merte" (French), "ddong muh ree" (Korean), until he gets a chance to redeem himself.

The next morning Tom and I said good-bye to Gunther and Yong Ha. We decided to continue our journey into the nether regions of Western China and wait for the Tibet suspension to end in a town called Golmud. Golmud is the last stop on the train before it heads into Tibet. The idea here being that we could avoid another 30+ hour train ride and see more of China while doing it.

It promised to be interesting, if nothing else.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Badain Jaran Desert (Inner Mongolia)

The morning began with an hour-long jeep ride to where the dunes begin. It was nine in the morning, but still quite dark. We drove through a massive parking lot in the middle of nowhere; a few dozen desert-blazing jeeps were preparing to go out for the day. They were each fully-equipped with roll bars and a pair of "oh-shit" straps for every seat. Our jeep dropped us off at a lone tent two hundred yards out into the sand where our guide apparently set up the night before for us and had to camp out in wait. Once he saw us pile out of the jeep, he emerged from the tent and began to load up four, massive, beautiful-looking camels with the gear we would be needing for the journey.

About a hundred yards behind the tent was a 100 foot sand dune that blocked our view of the desert, so we hiked to the top of it while the guide finished preparing the camels. The view from the other side was unlike anything I'd ever seen. It was a veritable ocean of sand. As far as the eye could see there were rolling dunes with sporadic patches of small green shrubs. The shrubs are able to flourish due to what I was told was a series of underground rivers (this also makes it possible for there to exist multiple little fresh and salt water pools in random areas of the desert).

Each of us picked the camel we wanted to ride and proceeded to give them names. I thought it was only natural to give them feminine names; however, Tom named his "Lumpy." Mine was "Gertrude."

We climbed onto our camels and were on our way. Camels are supposedly more difficult to control than horses, so each of our camels had a lead rope attached to the camel in front, with our guide in the lead (on foot!).

The first hour was difficult to say the least. Our guide stuck near to the jeep path and every time a desert jeep caming roaring past, it spooked our entire fleet. Every time the camels would stick their heads in the air and sidestep nervously about 15 feet. The dunes were soft and steep and we went straight over them. Camels ae amazing creatures.

The giddy feeling initially felt upon climbing atop a camel ends quickly, however. After about forty minutes, I could no longer feel my ass or legs. Constantly shifting in between two hairy humps doesn't help either; it was impossible to get comfortable. I motioned to the guide that I would like to get off and walk (he didn't speak any English). He understood and very simply motioned for me to dismount with a wave of his hand. Dismounting from a seven foot high seat with packs tied on both sides of the animal is not the easiest thing I have done. On my first attempt, I landed hard on all fours in the sand...but, overall, walking across the sand dunes was enjoyable.

We all got off our camels and trekked across the sea of sand dunes. We all got to laughing about our guide who seemed to be inhuman. He maintained a slow, steady gait and blankly stared at the shifting horizon. His inital nickname became "Terminator."

After a few hours of walking, Tom began to question where we might be camping for the night. Every time we asked the guide, he would just nod and point straight at the horizon. The agreement with the tour agency had been for a three hour camel journey into the desert, camp for the night, and return the following morning. This was not what the guide had heard and he was committed to a full day of hiking.

After seven hours of hiking deep into the dunes of the Badain Jaran Desert, we finally reached our destination. It was five in the evening and we were all exhausted. We had about forty minutes until pitch dark. We pitched our tent and collected bushes for a fire in record time.

We spent the night beside a salt pond and underneath the stars. I think we were all asleep by nine.

The next morning our guide was up with the sun and ready for another seven hour hike. I was freshly rested, newly motivated and ready for it.

The views were breathtaking, but the journey felt like an enternity.

Yong Ha spent the entire day on the back of a camel. That is a feat which I cannot explain. Myself, I hiked the whole way with the guide, whose nickname changed from "Terminator" to "Terminator X" to "T. Rex." He was unstoppable and most impressive.

All said, the journey into the desert was well worth doing, but two whole days of hiking Chinese sand dunes spells disaster for undertrained calves and feet used to comfortable shoes. I believe I lost two kilos in those two days. And, sadly, foot massages in China do not compare, even remotely in terms of quality, to those in Thailand.

It dawned on me as we returned that we were the only ones in the entire desert on camels; everyone else took jeeps.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Journey to Badain Jaran Desert

Our mission was simple: ride a camel across a China desert (Badain Jaran). "This desert is home to the tallest stationary dunes on Earth. Some of the dunes reach a height of 500 meters (1,600 ft.)" (Wikipedia).

We booked a "soft-sleeper" for four on the 29-hour train from Cheng Du to Yinchuan, departing at 10 p.m. Once on the train, we had a beer, spoke excitedly about what unpredictable experiences awaited us, and went to sleep.

The train ride, for being the longest train ride I had ever encountered, went more smoothly than I anticipated (not counting having to use a squat toilet on a constantly rocking train). The first many hours we slept. After waking, we had breakfast, played more cards (Gunther was "shithead" for a long time on this trip), had a few beers, and interacted with an overly-energetic Chinese girl who kept running up and down the aisle of our car. She couldn't have been more than 10 years old and it was later discovered, by Thomas, that her parents were feeding her watered-down beer. Although this came as quite a shock to the lot of us, it went quickly ignored and Thomas mysteriously disappeared from the cabin.

Thirty minutes later, Thomas returned saying that he had ventured a few cars down and found a group of university choir students that were eager to practice their English. So, we packed up (beer and cards) and went to socialize with the locals.

They were a merry bunch: constantly singing songs (with the natural performers' usual and unequaled hunger for attention), flirting with us, and giving an endless supply of high fives and compliments. I was quite impressed that they sang in so many languages. Some of the men knew Italian arias. About six of them got all of the way through "Arirang" (a traditional Korean song). Although their education was fascinating to me, the high-level of energy proved too much for me to endure on the narrow and constricting train. I said good-bye as politely as possible and returned to my sleeper for an afternoon nap. Shortly after I left, Gunther was beaten in an arm-wrestling match with one of the seemingly pre-pubescent young choir boys. This was a source for much taunting throughout the duration of our travels together and I promised to include the fact here.

After another night of sleep, the train reached Yinchuan at four in the morning.

Upon arrival in Yinchuan, we had arrived at a decision as to which hotel we wanted to stay at (based on the options given in the Lonely Planet). It was not difficult to get a taxi at the station.


However, I must regress here for a moment to lament some truths about the current taxi driving situation in China. First of all, a Chinese taxi driver will have no problem picking you up and driving you even if he has no idea where you are going. Secondly, taxi drivers often are not familiar with the towns in which they are driving (and presumably living!). Thirdly, they expect payment based on their time, not on whether or not they get you to your requested destination. On more than one occasion, I sat in a taxi for up to five-ten minutes before realizing that the driver had no clue where he was or where he was going. Drivers would often stop to ask other drivers where certain locations were to be found. More than once, a driver would stop the car and get out to go and talk to men and women standing on street corners. There were even instances when I had a local map, in Chinese!, and was able to point where I wanted to go....confusion was still victorious. And, sometimes, after any of number of minutes of driving, the driver would sometimes give up, drop you off on a corner where YOU had no idea where you were and still have the gumption to demand payment. Such moments were always welcome to vent some pent-up traveler steam.

This was the experience on that very early morning upon entering Yinchuan. Three taxis, four hotels (all mysteriously booked in a town that looked empty), and well over forty minutes of sitting on the sidewalk (while a slew of drivers confusedly ranted at one another) later, we finally found a driver who seemed to take a little pride in his work. We got a room and crashed hard.

Yinchuan was about as happening a city as we were to see for many a moon. It had a fairly-good-size outdoor mall, tree-lined streets, and even a visiting American, semi-pro basketball team traveling through town. They were treated like celebrities; their height was impressive, especially in Yinchuan. Every Chinese person on the street stopped them to take a picture on their cell phones (I witnessed this for a good thirty minutes).

The town of our final destination for camel-trekking is called Alashan Youqi. For the better part of the afternoon, we spent an eternity traveling from bus station to train station, back to bus station and then back to train station and then propositioning taxi drivers and private cars, in an attempt to get to where we wanted to go. Thomas was convinced we could hire a private car for 200 yuan. Anything higher than that, in his guesstimation, was highway robbery (this was later discovered to be a major error on our part, Alashan Youqi being over 700 km away). So, we continued to hustle the shit out of the locals. The haggling that ensued, in retrospect, is insanely comical. They must have thought us to be mildly, if not completely, mentally impaired.

At one point, we had a female driver who piled all of us and our bags into her car and started down the road. After she got out, twice, to ask others where this place was that we wanted to go, she nicely told us that it wasn't possible (by a negatively-inspired flailing of her hands).

Our hopes of getting to Alashan Youqi that evening were shattered. We decided to stay another night in Yinchuan. The next day we would take a bus to Alashan Douqi (not Alashan Youqi), from there it would be another night stay because the next bus from Douqi to Youqi only leaves at 7 a.m. The journey from Douqi to Youqi is 500 km (a fact unbeknownst to us at the time, as previously stated).

In Alashan Douqi, NOTHING DOES EXIST. Sartre would have loved it. The streets were barren. The tallest building in sight was two stories. A layer of dust covered everything as though movement was scarce. The few people sitting on the sidewalk (all smiling with missing teeth) looked as if they'd been sitting there for years.

We ate a massive plate of mutton (Gunther pictured above in his normal/primal state) and spicy noodle soup with dumplings. The food was amazing, but we were all very excited to leave Alashan Douqi as quickly as possible.

The bus the next morning was brutal. It was over-packed and sweaty sweaty hot. Sweaty sweaty highway travel in China is very similar to sweaty sweaty highway travel in the Western United States, actually.

Just as it seemed that we would never arrive (10-hour, cramped bus journey later), the bus pulled into Alashan Youqi. Everyone rejoice!!!!! The bus station was a closed building with eight people standing outside. In every direction, sand as far as the eye could see.

As soon as we stepped from the bus, a girl handed me a flyer for a desert jeep tour and Tom set to work. Through an impressive, and lengthy, performance, Tom was able to communicate that we wanted a camel tour instead of a jeep tour. That was the easy part, then, as always, came the issue of price. This is where Tom really likes to shine; the man should have been born in a Turkish silk bazaar. Every time he gets a chance to haggle, he gets as giddy as a boy with a toy. By the time he was finished, he had a crowd around him (some cheering/some jeering).

Anyway, we found a room and booked our camel trip for the following day. It was agreed that we would take an hour car ride out to the desert, from there we would have a three-hour camel ride to a campsite, stay the night, and return the following day in the same manner as we arrived.

This promised to be a lot of fun.

Monday, November 2, 2009

"Tibet is closed...again"

When we returned from Qingcheng Houshan to Cheng Du, we found a sign in Sim's lobby: Tibet is closed...again.

The Chinese government is not issuing travel permits to Tibet until Oct. 9th.

No one had to say a word, but it was the talk of the town. China was preparing for its 60th anniversary holiday. The Chinese flags were out on every flagpole, in front of every shop and flapping alongside each taxi.

It would be bad for foreigners to be in Tibet in case any Tibetans felt like protesting the fact that they have been occupied and oppressed by the Chinese for the past fifty years.

Gunther, Yong Ha, Tom and I sat and drank beer on the veranda.

"I could have stayed in Thailand for another two weeks if I had known this was going to happen?" I, unthoughtfully, said.

"How can they close a whole country?" Yong Ha asked (his English is surprisingly good on occasion).

"It's not its own country, according to the Chinese." Tom was ceaselessly flipping through the Lonely Planet for options.

"Look at those two over there. We should go to a club tonight. Ladies, ladies." Gunther mostly just smiled and sipped beer.

A German guy we had been eating with regularly had already paid for his Tibet tour would now not be allowed to go.

"This is b*llsh*t. I'm just going to fly to Kathmandu. Maybe I'll see you guys in India." he said. (He later gave me a pair of long pants that he wouldn't be needing anymore and some socks....nice guy)

Somber moments....and then...

"Up north, in Inner Mongolia, they have the fourth largest desert in the world, camel-trekking, dune buggies, microlighting, 700 meter sand dunes!" Tom had found the section of the Lonely Planet that he had been searching for.

"I'm in." I said without a thought. "We have two weeks to kill."

It didn't require much discussion to get Gunther and Yong Ha to sign on. Yet, we lost Mark...he had to return to Beijing.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Sichuan Province - Qingcheng Houshan - Three River Gorge

The bunch of us had so much fun at The Big Buddha that we all (minus a possibly-offended Margo) decided to go on an overnight excursion to a much-talked-about monastery on the top of a mountain in the recently-earthquake-devastated Sichuan province.

We woke early and took a van for a couple of hours to a "tourist entrance" for a mountain hiking trail. However, we were looking to get around to the not-so-often-visited village on the other side. Just beyond this village, Qingcheng Houshan, lies a second mountain, our destination.

So, we all wandered around the parking lot trying to hire a private car. This was not the easiest of exercises since none of us speak any Chinese. There were a number of drivers willing to take us, but I, inexperienced at bartering as I am, bumbled a couple of negotiations. It was decided at this point that I was no longer allowed to try to arrange prices for the group for the remainder of our travels.

After a few minutes, we had a car and were headed around the mountain.

Along the road, the majority of buildings were still left in half-standing heaps of brick, rebar, and pieces of furniture. Obviously, many of the inhabitants had just moved on. The remaining villagers, however, could be seen swinging sledgehammers and pushing overloaded wheelbarrows. All this still going on and the earthquake occurred a year and a half ago!

The car dropped us off in the middle of the village and pointed to the mountain where the monastery is. We piled out and made our way down the street.

Along the way, we continually asked the locals the name of the monastery and which direction we should be going in (mostly by making confused looking faces and pointing in all directions). Some seemed to be very confident in pointing us along the way, while others responded with equally confused expressions.

The mountainside also offered a peek at the strength of the earthquake from 2008. At the peak, facing the village, it appeared as though someone had cut a slice out of the mountain and all of the trees beneath stood hip-deep in rock and sand.

We finally found what looked like the path we wanted to take. Sim from the guesthouse told us to expect a three hour hike to the top. It was early afternoon and we had plenty of time. Up we went. We talked about how exciting it was to be staying the night in the monastery, and Gunther talked about women.

The path was narrow, covered in trees, and wound up a narrow/steep valley. It was comprised of stone steps and wooden bridges. Within the first few hundred meters we encountered an outhouse that had been shattered by a massive boulder. There was a urinal and a "toilet" sign, but all that was inside was an eight-foot rock. There was another spot where a boulder had taken out a ten-foot section of the stone steps, forcing us to go around on the mud-slippery slope.

Every few minutes rounding rock cliffs and coming out of tree enclosures presented a scene more impressive than the last. It was a seemingly neverending series of waterfalls and pools that constantly took us aback.

At one point, covered in sweat and tired of climbing, Tom decided to jump into one of these pools. Pause for a momentary swim break.

The water was so cold, I couldn't breathe once I got in past my waist. Gunther jumped in and let out a banshee-like, schoolgirl wail that startled Yong Ha, and didn't stop whining for at least five minutes after he dried off.

We encountered a number of questionable points in the trail. Areas where it looked like the monks had just tied a bunch of rubble together to patch the broken spots in the bridges and steps. We would pause for a minute, look at the rigging. look at one another, and then decide it was safe to proceed (even if I actually wasn't convinced). It was always in the back of my mind that I must weigh far more than even the heaviest monk residing at the top of that mountain.

"The monks take this path every day." That was the inevitable rationale that kept us pressing forward.

We hiked for about three hours. Then, the path ended. It just ended: a dead end where a bridge led directly into a rockface in front of a waterfall. Yong Ha, being quite a nimble and natural mountaineer gave a noble effort, forging his way through untrodden brush and steep, tree-covered terrain. Yet to no avail....the trail was lost.

It was about an hour from sundown, so we decided that the best plan was to retreat to the village.

We flew down the trail, past all of the potentially-life-threatening patches, in record time and hit the village just at dark.

We got a room easily (with a restaurant attached). Gunther wanted a "big chicken." So we did chicken dances and sounds until the Chinese cook understood what we wanted. We also got tomatoes and scrambled eggs, capsicum chow mein, and a number of small noodle dishes.

Gunther's "big chicken" came just as that. It was one, big, whole chicken in a pot of soup. The skin, head, beak, neck and (of course) feet included in order to make our dining experience as complete as possible. The Chinese are generous people. Even Yong Ha flinched when he saw it.

In all honesty, the food was delicious. The mood was joyous. We had all had a fantastic day. Gunther continued with his inevitable stories and fantasies of girls. Yong Ha said "very nice" to everything.

We drank beer and played "shithead" until the wee hours of the morning.

When we got back to Sim's Guesthouse, we told Sim that the trail didn't reach the monastery. Sim informed us that we must have gone "up" the "down" path, the "down" path being completely neglected and unused since the earthquake. It was at this time I realized how lucky we were that no one got hurt.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Big Buddha

All six of us woke up and took a van to Leshan. The Buddha has been carved out of the side of a riverside cliff and stands 71 meters tall. At the top, all one can see is the head. Then there is a rather steep stairwell alongisde, going to the bottom. There, Buddhists light incense, bow, and pray (as well as a throng of Chinese taking photos of themselves touching his toes, which are often taller than they are).

After the Buddha, we hiked around the mountain to see the temple (a seemingly never-ending series of steep steps up, down, around, and heavy heavy panting). We hiked so far that after forty minutes or so, we were all alone, the swarms of western and Chinese tourists alike apparently don't go that far around the mountain. Once we reached a little group of buildings, we all decided that lunch was a good idea.

As soon as we sat down at an empty table in the courtyard, a woman appeared energetically from a doorway and handed us dusty English menus. I believe the "rice that cooks the chicken" was a popular dish, but we were also interested in the plastic buckets of water that lined the walk. Inside these buckets were an assortment of seafood. I became intrigued by a large red trough full of crayfish, or what I, as a kid, called "crawdads."

The woman was only happy to cook up a plate full of them for us. She even let me pick out a few and help by pulling the heads off (which is surprisingly effortless).

While on our hike among all the other tourists and swarms of Chinese, Gunther continually told every girl that looked at him how "beautiful" she was. Now that we were somewhat secluded and eating, he momentarily paused and very thoughfully asked Margo whether or not she liked "she-males."

I thought Tom was going to choke to death on his mouthful of "crawdad."

After eating we hiked the rest of the way up to the temple, where I found a monk talking on his cell phone (which was a common theme throughout my time in China and Tibet, but upon first encountering...seemed strange).

Then we took riksha bikes all the way around the mountain to regroup with our driver.

That night Tom and I had a few email responses to our Tibet posts and were excited about getting the ball rolling.

Getting To Cheng Du

The flight from Bangkok had a stopover in Guangzhou before continuing to Cheng Du. I had to gather my bag and go through customs/immigration before I could go to my connecting flight. In the quarantine line, everyone was violently coughing, but we all got through (gotta love China). At immigration, the man stared at the picture in my passport (from 2003), and at my current state/appearance, and could not come to the realization that I was the same person. So, he called another immigration officer over to make the comparison. After about five minutes, they concluded that it must be me and let me pass. Customs was an undisturbed walk through.

Where I had to re-check my bag for the connecting flight, I met a large African-American man named Al. He wore a purple, satin, button-up shirt and black silk pants; he was no stranger to this land. We went outside to smoke a cigarette before heading to our next gate. He told me that he served in the Army for twenty years. Now he helps design radar systems for off-shore oil rigs. Spending thirty weeks a year bouncing between the Philippines, Thailand, and China, he was excited to have a week and a half off to go see his "China Doll" in Cheng Du.

We laughed about America, Asia, and potato chips that aren't really potato chips. He was one of those strangers one meets and feels completely at ease with. We said good-bye at the taxi stand in front of the Cheng Du airport.

I stepped to the front of the taxi-line when it was my turn (a foreign concept in China). I gave the driver a printout from the SIM'S COZY GARDEN HOSTEL website and he knew exactly where I wanted to go once he looked at it. By the way, SIM'S is the only place to stay in Cheng Du (I will explain later). Once again, I endured a frightening cab ride in Asia (we must have made record time...or at least the driver was going for his personal best).

I arrived at Sim's at ten o'clock on Saturday, September 19th (will be important later). Tom was due to arrive at 5 a.m. the next morning, Sunday. We planned on spending a week in Cheng Du arranging our Tibet trip and getting the necessary permits. So, I went directly to sleep expecting a full day to follow.

I met Tom the next morning at 10 a.m. It was strange seeing each other somewhere other than Korea (Tom has been a fellow English teacher in Seoul for the past 3 years). The excitement of going to Tibet (something we had talked about for months) was upon us. We immediately set to work: rented bikes, got a map of the city, and set off.

In order to travel to Tibet, one needs to arrange a pre-determined itinerary with a licensed guide. These are the rules that commie-commie China has established. These tours are least expensive if a tour has four people (the number that fits in an off-road-equipped SUV). Therefore, Tom and I had to find two others.

We rode all over Cheng Du. At all of the major hostels, we left notices on the bulletin boards saying that we were two and looking for two others to travel 8-11 days across Tibet and ultimately to the Nepal border (including Everest Base Camp). This is a fairly standard schedule and we anticipated zero problems in finding fellow travelers.

We had a great day cycling around the city and returned to the hostel for beer and dinner. That night we ran into some wonderful people:

Mark - a quiet-but-funny Irishman

Yong Ha - an on-the-road Korean who is avoiding is home country as
fastidiously as myself

Gunther - a Belgian with serious one-track mind issues

Margo - a Chilean-American from Florida

We stayed up a bit late and decided we would all go to see the "Big Buddha" together the following morning.

Sorry for the Delay....Not my Fault :(

Okay! So, the blogger.com site is blocked in China and China-occupied Tibet because they are a bunch of information suppressing commie-commie Chinese.

That is why this thread had been temporarily neglected. I will do my best in the coming two weeks to recount all of the events which occured in that time.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Jellyfish Incident

Saturday, September 12th was a good day. My last day on Thong Nai Pan. Woke up early: 5:40 a.m.

Thong Nai Pan is said to boast amazing sunrises and I had yet to see one. So, I set my alarm.

I sat on the sand with Mary and smoked a cigarette. The sunrise was impressive to say the least. The sky was a purple-orange pastel hue and the fishing boats could be seen heading out for the day. It was dead silent (except for the lapping of the waves) and the beach dogs were sleeping soundly. As the top edge of the sun peered over the horizon, Mary stood, stripped down to her bikini, and walked out into the surf. When she first reached the water, forty feet in front of me, all that was visible was a black silhouette against the brightening backdrop. Tall, broad-shouldered, slender....French....and as she slowly waded out, hip-deep, it was a moment straight out of a Bond film.


I went in shortly after and soaked for a good twenty minutes. Then, quite unusually, I was struck with the sudden urge to run. I ran the entire length of the beach (approx. 500 meters). Once I reached the far end, it dawned on me that I would have to go back...so I ran some more.

I found two plastic buckets on the sand (the kind that the Red Bull cocktails are served in). Some late-night revelers irresponsibly left them and a dozen straws of assorted colors scattered on the shore.

I collected the buckets, rinsed them in the surf, and returned to Mary lying stretched out on her towel. Her English is minimal and my French is non-existent, but she understood "sandcastle."

We dug a circular moat about twenty-feet from the tide and got to work. Mary confessed to me that she hadn't made a sandcastle since she was a child. I, honestly, couldn't recall having ever made one. As a result of the abandonment of the planning stage, we produced a near-perfect circle filled with upside down-bucket-shaped "towers" (all on a single level). It was less than impressive, but I believe that Mary was proud of her work. I am certain that she was relieved that it was completed before any early-rising sunbathers gathered on the beach.

At this point, I took another dip in the sea and returned to my bungalow to get the rest of my allotted rest.

I returned to the beach around noon for eggs, toast, watermelon shake, and jovial discourse. Everyone was out and the skies were clear. I sat with Jason and Scott who were debating whether or not to take a day off of the beer (a daily ritual usually occurring one to two hours before the first bottles are ordered).

It must have been around two when I went into the water. Scott had just returned from doing so and as he toweled off, the look of rejuvenation said the water was good. Ben was eating his lunch and we agreed to throw the football once he was finished. So, into the sea I went.

I was floating on my back and frog paddling. It was instant shock!! My first thought was that I had hit an electrical cable: wrapped around my right knee. My back muscles contracted/twitched/contorted involuntarily and I gasped. My hands went straight for it. It was slimy-soft-mushy mesh. As soon as my fingers caught hold, the fire-sting all over them, I untangled my knee and slung it away. In the immediate desperation, the tentacles or tendrils or whatever were flung onto my left ankle, which I instantly kicked free.

The lengthy eruption of obscenities that directly followed caught Ben's attention. He looked up from his food at me in the water (rarely does Ben get distracted "whilst" eating). I was about chest-deep and hopping and splashing my way back to the shore. As soon as I reached the sand I plopped down on my ass to assess the damage. My right knee and the four inches of flesh above it had a ring of swelling redness and M & M-size white bubbles began forming.

I stood up and walked up the beach. As I passed the tables, Scott looked at me with an enormous grin on his face.

"You get jellyfished?" he laughed (apparently they juggle and cuddle jellyfish every day before breakfast in Australia).

The staff at the guesthouse were most eager to help, but they certainly weren't moving as fast as I would have liked them to. One gave me a cup of vinegar and another wandered off into the brush to find some special leaves. By this time the white-bubbling flesh was growing more and more contrasted with the darkening redness. My entire body was tingling and my knee was burning. It was quite a unique sensation. After a few minutes of pouring green, leaf-soaked water all down my leg, I returned to the table and ordered a "tall" Tiger Beer.

"I saw a couple jellies out there. I should have told you," Scott said with his usual nonchalance.

A kind Dutch or Danish man, not sure, offered to urinate on my leg for me, but I politely declined. The burning stopped after about forty-five minutes, but the overall discomfort lasted long into the night.

Even now, as I type this five days later, there is a collection of red dots all around the area.

Saturday, September 12th was a good day.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Rasmus' Last Night and The National Parks

On Rasmus and Sabrina's last night, we made a beach fire and sat out in the sand until one in the morning. An Italian, named Samino who is a music producer in Italy, had an acoustic guitar and played for all of us. The moon was glistening off the sound of the waves and the thin clouds raced across its face. No one's camera was able to catch it. It was indescribable.

The next morning I went on another boat trip with Scott, Mary, Liza, and Maria. This time we took a speed boat to the national parks ( a group of 40+ islands out in the gulf). It was overcrowded and a bit disappointing, but the scenery was outstanding.

One trekking trail was rated "difficult" and was a series of rocks and ropes that Scott, Mary, and I decided to give up on about 75% of the way up.

We saw where they filmed the lagoon from the film, The Beach. All the little girls were beside themselves.

On the boat trip back, everyone was exhausted. Liza and I talked the whole way. She is 21, German, going to start her univeristy soon. She speaks English, French, and, of course, German. She is by far the most quick-witted and sarcastic girl I've talked with in a long time. Must be the youth.

I need to decide which day I will return to Bangkok....will be difficult.

Sun Tours - Koh Phag Nan

Over the past few days, a large group has formed on Thang Nai Pan. At any time of the day I can walk out onto the beach and find a table of 6-8 people that I know. One person will disappear for a massage, one will go lie on the beach, two of us will go throw the football/frisbee, and then come back. A steady, yet unspoken, rotation has been created and maintained. So, out of 10-14 people, a few are always around.

On Monday, ten of us rented a boat for an around-the-island tour. It was planned to leave at ten. If I wanted to take a decent shower, have a complete breakfast, and mentally prepare for an all-day boat adventure, I would need to wake up at 9 (the earliest I've been up since arriving in Thailand).

I got up early, had my shower, and ate a large plate of mixed fruit: banana, mango, pineapple, and watermelon. A French woman, named Mary, sat at the table with me silently drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. The beach was dead quiet.

By the time everyone was accounted for and ready it was 10:15. Boys in kayaks came out from the boat to pick us up. As soon as we all got on, our guide, Chris, explained to us what the events of the day would entail. He talked about the different beaches we would see. He talked about traditional fishing villages, snorkeling, swimming, and kayaking. Everyone was smiling with anticipation and off the boat went.

Chris is from Estonia. He went to a boarding school in Sweden. After a few years of making a career in the banking business, he quit and went traveling. He's been living on Koh Phag Nan for 4 years now, is married to a Thai woman, owns his own property and house, and has "made a life for myself." He looks younger than me, but I'm not sure.

The first stop was at Bottle Beach. There are absolutely no roads that lead to Bottle Beach. The only way in or out is by boat and some months of the year the waves are so bad many boatmen refuse to go there. The captain stopped the boat and we all jumped in the water. After everyone swam around and did a bit of kayaking, the boat was off again.
The fishing village was interesting. It was actually where I stayed five years ago, my first time to Koh Phag Nan. For the next stop, we rounded the northwest corner of the island and the water was extremely choppy. Everyone jumped in to snorkel anyway. The coral was beautiful and every possible color of fish was present.

It was at this time, while the rest of us were finishing up snorkeling, that Rasmus decided to make a sport of jumping off the boat. At first, it was just the deck. Then, he graduated to the rail. Finally, it was from atop of the captain's cabin. Even the crew began doing backflips off of the boat. This only encouraged Rasmus further. For the rest of the day, at every stop, jumping off the boat was mandatory.

After that, we ate the lunch that the captain had prepared for us. It was probably the best-tasting lunch I've had in Thailand. The captain watched us eagerly to see our reaction and the vote was unanimous. Everyone loved it. He was a proud captain.

The captain was worried that the sea along the western coast would be a bit too difficult, so he suggested turning back and finding a place to fish. We all agreed.

It was during this cruise back along our previous path that Rasmus came running up to me.

"Would you like to do something really exciting, buddy?"

"Tell me what it is first?" I asked.

"No! This is a yes or no. Very exciting! You want to try?"

"What is it?" I asked again.

Rasmus was visibly displeased with my lack of sense of adeventure, but he told me anyway.

"The captain said he will tie two kayaks to the back of the boat and pull them along with us in them." Big smile.

After that, almost everyone wanted to try it...and they did. So, there was a bit of kayak-surfing/wakeboarding. I was able to stand up for a good 30 seconds on it (but sat back down after I nearly fell). However, Sabrina was in the kayak next to me, and when she fell out it looked so fun, I leapt. Watching the massive boat turn around to retrieve you is a special sight.

Then it was fishing. I think Camilla caught 13. Jason, 16. I caught zero, but I am certain that that was because I was going for the bigger ones, deeper down.

Then it was Tan Sadet for more boat jumping and sunbathing.

When we got back to Thang Nai Pan the excitement, energy, and overall contentment of the day was clear in everyone's face. Everyone was eager to tell the same stories that all the other's had been present for, and the others were eager to listen. Food and drink came around, we all took turns disappearing to shower and change, the same stories told by someone new, laughter. Some came back, others went. How many fish did Camilla catch? How many backflips did Rasmus do off the top of the boat? How bad did the cut on Jason's foot look? How good was that lunch? How funny did Scott look falling out of the kayak?

It was neverending. No one wanted that day to end.

So, we all went dancing at the Jungle Bar and Red Bull, vodka/whiskey till four in the morning.