Monday, September 25, 2006

Horse Trek

Today is 26.Sept, and we just got back last night from the horse trek we took in Northern Sichuan, starting from the city of Songpan. It was a long and difficult trip, and I'm just going to copy pages out of our journal to share the whole story with you. The upload speeds here in China are so much worse than in Japan, so I haven't been able to put up many pics, but there are a few that you can see, so enjoy! Also, tomorrow, J and I will be leaving for a Yangzi river cruise, so we'll be incommunicado until we get to Shanghai on 1.Oct.

Day 1 - 21.Sept.06 - The Bus Ride from Chengdu to Songpan
The last few days in Chengdu have been really great. The other day, we spent $50 U.S. to pet a real live panda! It was a really exciting experience, but afterwards we both said how we wished we had ben more into the moment. I wanted to feel his arms and shoulders and paws, but it was hard to just be in the moment, rather than have my mind racing about what I was doing. His fur is very corse and wire-y, and when I tried to run my fingers under his fur to feel his skin, the fur was so thick that I couldn't feel it!

Today, we took a really long bus ride (10+ hrs!) from the Loft hostel in Chengdu out to Songpan, where it's really cold. The bus driver was really aggressive on some rather precarious mountain roads. We also lost almost an hour of time because we were stuck in a traffic jam. J was miserable on the ride up, calling it "almost hellish" and our bus driver was simply mad. He was passing trucks and cars and bikes and goats and tractors and yaks at blazing speeds around blind corners and he honked at EVERYTHING! There would be nobody on the street for miles, and he's just blow this crazy fog horn. I guess it's par for the course with these tour busses, but the saddest thing is that in every town we passed, kids and grandmas on the street were getting these really loud horns blaring in their ears. They must be scarred and pissed off, because it really made us mad on the bus and made it impossible to sleep.

The scenery on the way up here was something to behold: we passed by huge valleys and rivers and quaint old Tibetan villages with archaic architecture. They had stone walls, hay drying on huge wooden A-frames, and brick kilns dug underground. The people here dress in wonderfully colorful clothing, and all the women here have the reddest cheeks ever (presumably from getting them frost bitten and wind burned all the time!). The people seem friendly and genuine, and all the kids yell hello to us from the streets. Tomorrow we begin the 3-day horse trek up to the Ice Mountain lookout, which is over 4000 m above sea level.

Day 2 - 22.Sept - 2:20 pm - Basecamp in the Songpan wilderness, 3300 m above sea level.

Today, we started the horse trek. It's raining a bit and it's very cold (we're SO glad we bought Tibetan long-johns yesterday, as well as gloves and hats), but worse than that is that the conditions are extremely rustic and we're both still a bit sick. J and I were on our own with 2 guides, a young guy of 20 years named Zhou (like Joe) Jiuming and an older guy whose name we never learned. Zhou was always singing and laughing and spoke a fair bit of English. We rode for about 6 hours, starting before 9am, and the scenery was simply gorgeous. We scaled the walls of several valleys and in no time, we were shrouded in clouds.

Our group of 4 has an extra horse (whom we have named U-Haul because he's carrying our backpacks), as well as the 4 horses for us. On the way to the first campsite, our guides sang songs, reignd in U-Haul, who ran away more than a few times, and kept Justine's horse (named Bitey) in check: Not only did he go the wrong way a few tims, he also blocked passage of my horse (named Farts Domino), even biting Farts twice. (We called my horse Farts Domino because when she would go up hills, she farted with each step!) Finally, after walking down a super steep and muddy slope in the rain, we made camp with 4 others and their 4 guides. The 4 other tourists we had met before: Two Germans, named Katherine (an M.D. student) and her boyfriend Martin took the bus from Chengdu with us, and the two Israelis we camped with, Ravid (a detective) and Eric (a biology Ph.D. student), we had met the night before at dinner.

The main shelter here at the camp is two dirty old tarps slung over a some hand-made poles (made out of trees from the woods here). There's a fire INSIDE the shelter, with no chimney hole, so smoke and ash just escapes out the two sides that are open (or into our mouths and food). The ground is cold and wet, and the tents for us (one for J and I and a bigger one for the 4 other tourists) are basically smaller versions of the same thing. They're really just rain flys put up over wood, again cut from the forest. For "bedding," they have lain down some tree branches to keep us off the ground, and I suppose they'll throw a few blankets or pads over those.

On the plus side, the valley we're in is stunning, which is situated at 3300 m above sea level, the company is good, and there are yaks across the stream from where we are. However, b/c J and I only have 3 days to ride, it's raining, and we're both sick, I fear we won't make it to Ice Mountain.

Day 3 - 23.Sept - 8:15 am - Basecamp

Everyone of the tourists we're with on this trip feels like we do: Yesterday we stopped too early to make camp, after having ridden for only 6 hours. I feel like we could have gone another 3 hrs, at least, but perhaps there are no good campsites within reach. For lunch yesterday, we had boiled cucumbers and flat bread, which was good but not too filling. The guides then got drunk on Tibetan wine (which tasted like bad vodka, to me) as the horses just ran around the surrounding hills. After a few hours, everyone seemed to sober up instantly as they began to prepare dinner and our sleeping accomodation, both of which were quite excellent. For dinner, they made this stew of potatos, cabbage, onions, and hand-made noodles (that they made here, at the camp site!) and 2 bowls were sufficient to fill us all up. The bedding, which was lain down over the previously-mentioned twigs on the ground, was several pads and then a sleeping bag, then two blankets and a thick jacket over that. We wore warm clothes (and our knit hats) to bed and stayed warm and dry all night. Now I'm watching 2 of the guides prepare our breakfast, which appears to be a potato and squash stew with sweet bread, which is fried in oil. Although I'm coughing a bit and J is really congested, this is a really fun trip, so far! I think today we visit a Tibetan village, ride a bit more (hopefully to the Ice Mtn. lookout), then come back here to camp for one more night. The next day, we'll ride back to Songpan and on Monday take the long bus back to Chengdu.

Day 3 - 5:30 pm - Back at Basecamp after Ice Mountain

The day started a bit late for us today, following the excellent breakfast (mentioned above), we set off for Ice Mtn. around 9am. After a long ride (about 4 hours) we made it to the Ice Mountain lookout 4000 m above sea level and about 1880 m below the summit of Ice Mountain, the top of which we couldn't even see because it was so cloudy. The peak towered over us and into the clouds, with a steep climb to the summit over rocks and gravel, so after a short break at the lookout, we started back. The journey took us through some of the most beautiful terrain we've ever seen, through a Tibetan village where everyone was smiling and waving at us, and a small stone schoolhouse full of kids who interrupted their daily lessons to come outside and yell "hello" at us! The structures we passed by and the homes in the villages were simply stunning. We also wen past lots of livestock (yaks, pigs, cows, goats) and several prayer sites marked by prayer flags.

From the start, we crossed a small river by our campsite and then were waylaid by 80-something horses from a huge tour. Our horses (J and I plus our guide, Zhou) went beserk, biting and running all over the place. Bitey was so bad that Zhou had to carry a rope attached to J's horse so that he wouldn't misbehave and I had to give up Farts Domino for the first part of the day so that Zhou could keep her under control. After things calmed down, we took the horses up a steep muddy slope, rounded a corner, and set our sights on a gorgeous river-valley from the top. We slowly descended the valley walls and crossed into the cute little Tibetan village, which is marked by a few houses and some crops. We took a short break, then began the climb towards Ice Mtn. Over the next 3 hours, we gained something like 2000 m up crazy-steep mountain paths. At one point, my horse took two knees and I almost ate it, but he recovered quickly. Near the top were ruins of a prayer-tower, though why it was in such bad shape we didn't know. By the time we reached the top, J and I were both very sore (our bums had seen better days!) and on the way back down, we passed the Germans and Israelis, who had set up camp near the village. When we got back, soreness had reached new heights and J collapsed from exhaustion and sickenss. We're SO glad to be going back to Songpan tomorrow!

The terrain here is gorgeous, as I said before, but is also quite strange. From Songpan, most of what we saw reminded us of the Santa Monica mountains with Chapparel-like plants (pale-colored leaves, low bushes, etc.). This morning, however, our climb took us through trees and it was very damp out, which reminded us of Monterey county, with various pines, and later still in the day, we passed what looked like Alpine terrain. Finally, on the way up from the village, everything was rocking and so jagged... like nothing we'd ever seen before. There was water and blue and yellow flowers everywhere. There were pines and conifers and other trees that we couldn't identify, as well as bushes that had red bulbs strangley-reminicent of rose hips.

Soon, we'll eat dinner again, go to sleep, and head out tomorrow.

Okay, travel fans, that's it for the first 3 days of our trip. There will be more to share about days 4 and 5, so keep your browsers pointed here for the completion of the story once we get to Shangai. Also, beware the pending publication of "Deep Thoughts, By Justine" on this very web-log!


Tuesday, September 19, 2006

More Old Pics

Just for your information, that is a real panda in the post below that J and I both got to pet. And for those of you who know it: "He is a real live bear and he will literally rip your face off."

And now for some more old pictures, some from the last day in Japan and some from the first day in China.


Also, J and I are both fighting off colds this week, and we've postponed until tomorrow (21.September) a 3-day horse back camping trip to Ice Mountain in northern Sichuan. This means we'll be incommunicado for about 5 days.


Saturday, September 16, 2006

Live Journaling

I haven't had much time to blog or think or to write in my journal since we arrived in China, so I'm just going to spill my guts a bit here and type about whatever comes to my mind.

First, I should mention that we're currently in Chengdu, having bought 2 plane tickets from Beijing this morning and scrapping two of our plans: A) we didn't go to Xi'an to see the Terracotta Army and B) we didn't go to Ti'an to climb the sacred mountain there, Tai Shan.

Although Beijing wasn't bad, we didn't really have a good time there. For one thing, everything in the whole city is under construction, as I mentioned previously, and everyone was either rude or trying to sell us something. Basically, we didn't really get a good feeling for the city until Thursday and Friday. But by then, we were looking to get out of there. The whole place was just so oppressive and stiffling. Compared to a place like Tokyo (and even LA), the public transportation was abysmal (it was slow, dirty, clunky, super crowded, and didn't go anywhere near anything interesting except Tiananmen Square). There was trash everywhere (except in The Square and surrounding area), and all of the historic districts are being torn down for rectangular, cement buildings. For the first few days in China, the only bright spot for us was the visit to the Great Wall (non-annotated pics that don't do the Wall justice are here).

Towards the end of last week, however, we began to find the groove and vibe of the city. We saw people gathered in the street (literally, on the sidewalks and in parks) dancing. In the parks, we saw what seemed to be an impromptu gathering of singers and musicians using classical Chineese instruments to what sounded like revolutionary songs! It was excellent. We also found a few good restraunts, had tea at a place called Junk Tea House where to Chinese girls continually filled up our cups with delicious tea and spoke perfect English to us (they were English students in Beijing), and saw a showin of the famed Chinese Acrobats at the Chaoyang Theater. Despite this, we still both felt kind of disconnected from the city. The excellent experiences were over-shadowed by the grime and rudeness and just the vast distances of Beijing. Tokyo, for example, is also a HUGE sprawling city, but the neighborhoods all have character and distances are traversed easily and quickly using and excellent subway system. The same can not be said for Beijing, although today (Saturday), I find that my memories of Beijing are more positive than they were even this morning, when I gladly bid the city farewell.

On Friday, having burnt ourselves out on the capital, we spent all day travelling (slowly) around the city trying to buy train to plane tickets out of Beijing. When nothing materialized, we ended up at a Pakistani restraunt where Chinese women danced and sang Pakistani songs flawlessly. Several tables full of Indian and Pakistani travelers were singing along with the girls and the place was enjoyable, even if it was expensive and not the food wasn't that tasty. Then this morning, we just took a taxi out to the airport, bought two tickets in cash, and flew out here to Chengdu, which is totally awesome! I feel like I should have come here three days ago (though I would have missed out on the best experiences we had in Beijing). We're staying at a place called Dragon Town Hostel, which serves good food and is located in a hundreds-of-years-old Qing Dynasty era building. The street it's on is under heavy construction (in fact, we saw 2 guys diging underground by candle-light) and most of the buildings are demolished or under heavy reconstruction (ala Beijing), but few very lively bars and restaurants remain. Tomorrow we'll explore the city and on Monday we're going to try to go the Panda Kindergarten (just google it and watch the videos... then you'll know why we're going there!).

'Till then, enjoy these old pictures from Japan that I haven't posted yet.

Fuji 5 Lakes

Fuji 5 Lakes (second set)


Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Audioblog #3 and Pics of Tiananmen Square

Check out the third audioblog segment here, and see some
pictures of the famous square in Beijing here.

The audioblog is from atop the Great Wall of China, in an area called
Mutianyu. It was totally awesome and hopefully we'll get some pics of
that up soon.

The pics from T.S. are from 10.Sept.06 while we were waiting for the
flag-lowering ceremony. I'm not kidding when I tell you that there
were literally thousands of people out there waiting for this thing.
The throngs were crazy, and this ceremony (of guards marching out from
under Mao's giant head to take down the flag in Tiananmen Square at
sunset) takes place every day.

On a more general note, Beijing has been a difficult transition for
us. Our first few days here were pretty lousy and exhausting and
everyone here spits. But what was really surprising is the lack of
courtsey we've received. Even though I'm speaking Mandarin to people
here (pretty well, I might add), the most common response we get is
just a grunt... even from hotel staff. Coming from Japan, where we
were babied from the start, this has been a bit unpleasant.

In addition, we were having a hard time finding any good food here,
since the two vegetarian restaurants listed in the Lonely Planet guide
book are closed. On the way to one, a rikshaw driver ripped us off
(but it was only for a buck, so who really cared) and the next day,
when we tried to go to the other place, we walked into a ghetto
created by the olympics (Beijing is hosting the 2008 summer games, in
case you didn't already know). I know Justine is going to blog about
this, so I won't spend too much time here, but basically it seems that
whole blocks of hotels, restaurants, homes, and shops have been shut
down and demolished to make way for new, "friendlier" development. In
the place where a top-of-the-line vegetarian place was supposed to be
was a homeless family with a toddler running around broken glass and
splintered wood. And this was not always some slummy area, but now
the street is desolate, ALL storefronts are closed, and these huge
walls with pictures of happy people shopping and eating (a la the
movie Brazil) line the street. Behind the walls is a totally
different story, and that wasn't the only neighborhood we saw that was
like that.

Anyway, China isn't all bad. The Wall totally lived up to our
expectations, we have since found a really nice neighborhood and moved
from our first hostel (which was quite bland, boring, and of steriled
decor) into the area near all of the foreign embassies. Today
(12.Sept.06) we had an excellent Chinese dinner, and yesterday we had
great Thai food for dinner. One thing I've been craving like mad is a
burrito, and I think we found one or two Mexican places around here,
so I'd like to give that a try tomorrow. In addition, we're going to
try to bike around the city center and visit the Beijing Urban
Planning center, where the long-range plan for the city is laid out.
Maybe we'll find out what's supposed to go behind those walls...

Sunday, September 10, 2006

China Arrival

Just a quick update to let you all know that we made it to Beijing.
Once again, we were slightly disappointed with our first two days of
China, as the transition from the overly-welcoming Japanese to the
spitting-on-the-ground Chinese has been somewhat shocking. More to
follow shortly...



Michael J. Bedard-Hearn, Ph.D.
Attempted murder? Now honestly, what is
that? Do they give a Nobel prize for
attempted chemistry? Do they?
-Sideshow Bob

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Reality TV and Japan

You probably all know that Japanese TV is filled with crazy game shows and reality shows. It's true... just like the stereotype. But did you also know that an American, Mike, is going to be on a Japanese reality show?!?!! That's right!

I forgot to blog about this a while ago, but when we were in Nikko, I got interviewed by a famous old boxer and a J-Pop singer who were walking down the street. It happened like this: Early in the afternoon, J and I saw this film crew shooting that red bridge in Nikko, the one that the snakes made for the Priest (see one of the earlier picture sets for context). Later, when J was shopping for a Kimono, the film crew came by and pulled me out of the store to talk to me for a while. When they were done, the clerk came out and asked if I knew who the two guys were that talked to me. Of course not, I said. She goes, "that was so-and-so, a famous boxer, and that other guy was whats-his-name, the famous pop singer! They have a reality show together." The boxer guy told me that he had been to America, where he lost a fight to Roberto Duran years ago, so I knew at least figured out his story, but the other guy was a young pretty-boy.

My guess is that they have some kind "Surreal Life" kind of show together, but I don't know what it is called.

The other funny thing that happened in our first week in Japan, when we were still in Tokyo, was that we met a Luchador (Mexican wrestler with the mask) at our hotel. He was an American called the Destroyer (appearantly he's been around for a while and has devoted fans who sell his masks on ebay, so feel free to google him). We also had seen several posters about "wrestlefest 2006," so we figured that was why he was here. But when I asked him about it, he said he hasn't participated in that in years, but that he started coming to Japan to wrestle 43 years ago! Sevearal days later, Justine saw him on TV, giving a eulogy about a Japanese wrestler who had just died. What a wierd thing!


Monday, September 04, 2006

Reflections on Kyoto and on Japan in General

I'll be honest... in general, taveling around Japan hasn't lived up to our expectations. I should be more clear. I think what I mean is that Justine and I are still trying to figure out what we're doing out here. We're having a good time, but it has taken us some time to realize what kinds of experiences we're looking for and in the mean time, I think we're not using our time efficiently.

For most of the first part of our trip, we were seeing the many excellent sights of Japan. How can you notin a place with a history as rich and exotic as Japan's? But seeing many of those historic sites ended up being a bit dissapointing since so many of them are re-creations and are over-run with vendors hawking their cheezy wares. Additionally, some of those quintessential Japanese sights were difficult to find or were so crowded that they were almost un-enjoyable. Take a place in Kyoto known as the silver pavilion, Ginkaku-ji. The place was amazing and it had excellent views of the city, but even near dusk, the place was so jammed full of tourists that the Zen garden was impossible to see!

As a result, whenever we asked each other what the best thing about Japan was, it was always interactions we had with other people (other travelers like Nick, Chris/Nichole, or Japanese residents like Hiroshi-san) or the food, which continues to amaze us. I think I've mentioned this before, but Japanese food in America is nothing like what we eat here: Check out yaki-udon (grilled udon noodles), okonomi-yaki (like an omlet that you cook yourself at the table), or hoba-miso (grilled mountain vegetables in miso paste, served on a magnolia leaf) if you ever get the chance. The point is, it's generally so easy to say that the food is the thing you remember most about a country because that's the closest many people get to living and interacting with the people and customs of the place you're visiting.

What we're figuring out, however, seems so obvious: Sight-seeing alone does not allow one to experience enough of the country, nor does the eating. The best days we've had were the ones where we did some sight-seeing and something else that was more interactive. For example, one of the best things we did in Kyoto was participate in a Japanese tea ceremony (called chado). And one of the best day we've had in Japan overall was on Sunday. Justine and I got up around 10 am after having stayed up late chatting with other travelers in the youth hostel we were staying at. We cooked our own breakfast in the hostel's kitchen and then went to Kungyokudo, an ancient incense shop (official site, in Japanese). This place has been in the business of selling incense for over 400 years, from the same spot, in front of Nishi-ji temple in Kyoto. And even though we didn't get to do the actual incense ceremony (called Kodo) or play the Genji-ko game (based on The Tale of Genji), we spent a bunch of time there chatting with the workers and learning about the games and various ways of making and burning incense. We then had a late lunch at an Italian/Japanese fusion restaurant, and hiked to the top of the Fushimi-Inari temple at sunset (pics posted at a later date, but for reference, it's a 4 km hike through thousands of torri gates to the top of a mountain in SW Kyoto, and we did it in about 25 minutes). To top the day off, we went to a hole-in-the wall yaki restaurant near the hostel for dinner. Everything about the day was outstanding, and I guess that's what made it so much fun.

Today, 4.Sep.06, we left Kyoto and came up to the Mt. Fuji area. I can only hope that more of our travel experiences are as good as yesterday's.


Saturday, September 02, 2006

Nikko -> Tokyo -> Matsumoto Pictures

These pictures are from Nikko, Kyoto, and Matsumoto, which I talked about A bit in this post. When we left Nikko, we had to return to Tokyo for one night, transfer trains, then take a 2 hr. train up to Matsumoto on the western side of the Japanese alps. While we were killing time in Tokyo, we ate donuts, stayed in a very nice (and cheap!) youth hostel, and played some video games. The last few pics. are from our ryokan in Matsumoto, which was also extremely nice and we had a great dinner at a place called the loop, which the chef and waitress helped prepare especially for us! It was very nice, so we took a picture with them.