Friday, October 27, 2006

Pictures from China

As promised, here are two sets of pictures from China.

Set 1 - of the Green Ram Taoist temple complex in Chengdu
Set 2 - part of our horse trek in Songpan (Sichuan province) on day 2, from our campsite up to the Ice Mountain lookout.

Enjoy, and later this weekend, we'll hopefully have time to tell you all about the REAL near-death experiences we had this month on the Class III and IV rapids of the Bhote Kosi river in north eastern Nepal! Monday, we begin a 7-day trek through the Annapurna massif, so we'll be incommunicado for a while. Have a nice weekend, everyone!


Sunday, October 22, 2006

Supplies I'm Glad I Brought

I'll leave out the more obvious supplies, like "our guide books," "underwear," "a toothbrush," and "my wife."

1) Our Nalgene bottles - okay this one might be in the "obvious" section, but there is no other item in our packs that we use as frequently, besides our day bags.

2) Water filter and chlorine - Again, maybe this one some people consider "obvious," but other travelers we know either brought one and didn't use it or just plain never brought one. It is true that you can easily get by without one, even hiking in the Himalaya (because the major treks are all so heavily touristed that every village and shop sells bottled water). In contrast, we've used ours extensively since we left Japan, and I fell good knowing that for every liter I pump, we save a bit of money, a bit of resources (plastic), a bit of health (the WHO doesn't even approve of Nepalese bottled water, as we learned from noted photographer and author, Chris Beal), and we help prevent pollution (the Himalaya are litered with millions of un-recycled plastic bottles). A correlary to this item is our 1.5 and 3 L Nalgene canteens, so in any given day, I'll fill up both of our 1 L bottles and the 4.5 L in the soft bags, which we'll go through in a day or two. PS - if anybody is sending things to my grandma's house in Singapore for us for Christmas, a small bottle of MSR brand chlorine solution (from REI) would be appreciated!

3) Cliff bars - A much-needed energy source throughout China when we were looking for real food options (i.e., quality street grub!), and undoubtedly, these will come in super handy when we go trekking in two weeks.

4) Pedialyte and Gatorade (powderd) - the gatorade we'd used before, but I must credit former UCLA chemist and current George Washington U law student Keith O'Doherty for introducing me to pedialyte. Even in the dilute solutions we make on or after really hot and really exhausting days seem to help perk us back up. It also helped with our recent illness (see posting below). These will also come in handy for keeping us hydrated on the trails in the Annapurna region.

5) Small camera - as most of you know, we have two cameras in our posession: the Canon Rebel XT SLR and two lenses (a 60 mm macro and an 18-200 mm zoom), as well as the Canon 700is, a compact digital camera that takes great pictures and video. I wouldn't dare be without the SLR, since I can do so much more with it than with the compact, but there are actually many days where I don't even carry it around. In fact, the more J and I use the compact, the better we are at getting it to take really nice pictures (although today, J couldn't quite get the sunset pictures she was looking for, but the XT turned out some really beautiful shots that you probably won't see until Christmas). So in general, I'm extremely happy with the pictures the compact takes, the batterly life is excellent, it fits in our pockets easily, and so I wouldn't be without that camera, either. For the record, we bought the compact the night before leaving on this trip!

6) 30 GB video iPod - besides being our storage device for the thousands of pictures we've taken so far, there are nights (and long plane rides) when I'm so happy to be able to put that thing on and just listen to my music. As an added bonus, I spent a bunch of time before leaving ripping a few movies and some of our favorite TV shows (Family Guy, Simpsons, Venture Bros., etc.) onto the iPod for our entertainment; we've already watched Anchorman twice on this trip!

7) Handkerchief (Thanks Bert!) - This thing is great, acting as a profalaxis for dirty pillows, a mask against unbelievable smells and pollution, a cooling device (when wet), and an impromptu towel, among many other things. I can only hope that the laundry place we went to two days ago still has it, because we didn't get it back yesterday when we picked it up. I'll have to check with them tonight......

8) Oragami bowls and a sporknife - Yes, we brought foldable plates, bowls, and cups, as well as a sturdy plastic sporknife (that's a spoon, fork, and knife all at once!). We've used thse extensively, especially for breakfast cereals (hot and cold, thank you Horliks!), but we also made our own dinner a few times, as well as lunches. The utensils have been particularly useful, for example on the horse trek we took in Songpan, where moldy old chopsticks were distributed for each meal, then washed in the nasty river nearby. No thank you!

Okay, there's probably more, and I know Justine wanted to blog on this topic, too, but since she's kind of a "blog bum," you'll probably have to wait another month or two for her take. I'd also like to brag that I've finished a couple of books on this trip, despite having very little time to actually read (but comparatively much much more than before we left for the trip). I have read former punk rocker Joe Meno's book "Hairstyles of the Damned," "Hard Travel to Sacred Places," by Rudolph Wulritzer, the 1984-1991 Royal Kumari's autobiography "From Goddess to Mortal," and am currently half-way through Charles Darwin's first edition of "On the Origin of Species." What have you read in the last two months?

ps - I'm only bragging because I so rarely had a chance to read books before I left, so I feel a sense of accomplishment for having finished 3 and a half in 8 weeks, besides the fact that I've also read huge chunks of the Rough Guides book for Japan, and the Lonely Planet books for China and Nepal.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A Blitzkreig of Postings

Don't forget to read the finally-posted "Deep Thoughts, By Justine" (2 and a half weeks in the making!) and "Giardia-Ho!", which you'll find below (both posted today).

On another note, I'm sorry to all our fans that there have been so few pictures, lately, but as I've said before, upload times from Asia have been abysmal. Thankfully, I have family members who are willing to do great things for me and my cousin in HK let me burn 3 GB worth of pictures and videos onto CDs that my sister carried home and uploaded for me! The pics need to be filtered a bit and annotated, but here's a few tastes of what's to come:

Justine at the Beijing Urban Planning Museum

Justine at the Beijing Urban Planning Museum in front of the scale-model of the entire city. It took up an entire floor of the 5-story museum!

A relief carving at the Green Ram Taoist Temple in Chengdu, China (Sichuan Province)

This girl was practicing on a zither-like instrument, learning from a famous musician and maker. Her name is Tingting, and in Chinese, "ting" means "listen." When I asked her about this, she kind of laughed, but played us a few songs, anyway. She's in her 2nd of a 6 year graduate program on traditinoal Chinese instruments.

A lit-up bridge crossing the Yangzi River

Cruising down the Three Gorges area on the Yangzi River

Shanghai City Skyline



Yes, it's October, and for those of you who do not already know, this is the month of medical disasters for J and I. Although the last two years have been busts as far as near-death experiences, rare allergies, broken bones, falling powerlines and the like, this year we have made a resounding come-back with the dreaded parasite giadia lamblia!

Yes, giardia, as it is known, is a very common cause for diarrhea and terrible stomach pains in this part of the world. After forking over a hefty heap of Nepali Rupees to go on a white-water rafting trip down the Bhote Kosi river, northwest of Kathmandu, we decided that we were simply too sick to be useful to anyone else in the raft and cancelled at literally the last minute: After much discussion and frustration, I walked to the pick-up point this morning (19.Oct) at 6am to tell them we weren't going. We were really looking forward to this trip, and were super dissappointed to miss out, but plan on rescheduling for early next week when we're feeling better.

The thing that really sucks is that we're losing days in Nepal to this problem, which first hit me on the 16th of October after eating breakfast at our hotel (and hit J several hours later). I think it was the yogurt I had with my muslei in the morning, and since J had some, too, we both got it. Later that day, we went to a town called Nagarkot on the eastern edge of the Kathmandu valley at an elevation of about 7200 ft. From here, there are excellent views of the entire Nepali Himalaya, from Everest in the east to the Anapurna and Ganesh Himal sets in the west. No doubt about it, the views from atop our hotel were stunning at sunrise. Unfortunately, I couldn't enjoy much of it, as I was extremely nauseous, had severe stomach cramps, and as I tried to walk back to our room at the Top View Hotel (where Justine was already taking care of business!), I began to lose vision and consciousness, having to sit down many times as I climbed down 5 flights of stairs, got lost, and finally found the bathroom by the hotel's restaurant. It was a pretty scary morning. To top it off, the country's commerce consortium decided to put all buses and taxis on strike that day, so we had to pay a crazy fee to some guy at the hotel to drive us the 1.5 hrs. back to our hotel in Kathmandu. Worst of all, because we were sick and buses weren't running, we missed out on a great hike from Nagarkot to Sankhou, half-way back to Kathmandu, through the terraced rice fields of the Kathmandu Valley rim. Such a dissappointment, but alas, we'll get better views of the Annapurnas and excellent hiking when we go trekking in two weeks.

Anyway, the purpose of the above paragraph was to discuss how we're losing days to being sick, which really sucks. We lost part of our time in Nagarkot (including the hike back), and now we've lost two more days because we cancelled the rafting trip, and today we wasted by going to the doctor's office to get medicine (it should be noted that since I, Mike, am feeling pretty much fully recovered, I didn't get the giardia medicine and only J did, but if my big-d comes back, I'll just go over there and get some). Now, the rest of our schedule in Nepal looks something like this:

20 Oct - Recover more and go to Bodnath, where the world's largest Tibetan Buddhist stupa is attended to by a huge number of monks and pilgrims.

21 and 22 Oct - Go to Patan, just south of Kathmandu. The city is an ancient Buddhist center with the highest density of temples and shrines anywhere, as well as excellent Newari (a Nepalese minority people) architecture that doesn't survive anywhere else. The 21st is also the first day of the 5-day Tihar festival in Nepal, which includes the Newari New Year on the 3rd day. Return to Kathmandu on the 22nd.

23 Oct - See the rest of Kathmandu, south of Durbar Square.

24 and 25 Oct - Re-try our river rafting trip. Return to Kath. on 25.

26 Oct - Take the bus to Pokhora, which is the starting point for the Annapurnas.

27, 28, 29 Oct - Hang out in Pokhora, getting ready for our trek by getting some supplies and taking a few day hikes to altitude.

30 Oct through 6 or 7 Nov - Begin the hike up to the Annapurna Sanctuaray (also called the Annapurna Base Camp), but head east at Chhomrong towards the spot known as Poon Hill at about 3150 m. From here, views of the Annapurnas and the rest of the western Nepali Himalaya are supposed to be the best.

8 and 9 Nov - recover with beer and good food in Pokhora.

10 through 13 Nov - Take a river kayaking clinic (with camping) on the Sun Kosi river near Pokhora.

14 Nov - recover

15 Nov - Return to Kathmandu

16, 17, 18 Nov - Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal. Return to Kath. on the 18th.

19 Nov - Fly to Kolkatta (formerly known as Calcutta).... Or maybe we're having too much fun in Nepal to move on to India.... stay tuned!

Notice that Tibet is a glaring omission from our itinerary (see Note from Justine, below). That's because China is jacking up the prices to visit and it would not cost J and I almost 1000 US dollars each to get there and back for a 5-day trip, which doesn't even include eating or sleeping or sight-seeing, all of which are super expensive, thanks to China. In the last week, Air China (the exclusive flyer into Tibet) raised the price of their tickets to something like 300 bucks for a 45 minute flight (one way!), and China doubled the price of the airport tax to $80. On top of that, the Tibetan visa (which is different from the Chinese visa... go figure) costs 60 bucks and the Tibetan Tourism Permit (which you MUST by before entering the country) costs an astounding 160 bucks! That's just to much to justify. We're making up for the loss, however, by going to Patan and Bodnath and have filled up the days with our giardia!

Thank you, October and Hotel Ganesh Himal, for these fond memories of Nepal!


[Two Discalimers: 1) no positive diagnosis for either of us, yet, but the doctor said he thinks it's giardia and 2) the problem may have stemmed from a fresh salad we both ate the night of the 15th.]

Note from Justine: Blame China. See "That's China's fault" in my previous post. But I can't wait to go back and visit you again soon!
Sigh, China.

Deep Thoughts, By Justine

Although Mike is a "blog hog" as some have accused, the real truth is that I am a blog bum. Today however, Im sick, it's raining outside, and we're still recovering from our horseback riding trip so spending quality time on the computer in Chengdu isn't a bad use of time. (And in fact, by the time I'm posting this an additional 2.5 weeks have passed since I started it on 25.Sept.2006).

Songpan's most eligible bachelor
Meet Zhou, a 20 year old cowboy who can cook, speak four languages, and open a beer bottle with his teeth. He'll serenade you with romantic Tibetan songs while dragging your horse, with you on it, up steep muddy slopes. He enjoys long walks in rocky terrain and a nice bottle of hard grain Tibetan alcohol from a recycled coke bottle. He's good with children, willing to strap your infant on his back for the horseback ride through rockslide territory. He has left behind a lifestyle of tatoos and knife fights to follow the straight and narrow. Women as far away as Korea are ready to move in on him, so ladies, don't pass up this chance!

Yaks: one of my new favorite animals
Seeing a yak on TV is entirely different from meeting one in person. They are quite pretty, with long, silky fur. They are shy but curious -- they were clearly interested in what us humans were doing when we made camp, or hiked through their grazing land, but bolted when we approached within about 15 feet. The majority of yaks we came across were running free in the wild, typically brownish-black, probably part of someone's herd in the mountains, but we also saw some more glamorous ones that were gussied-up in Tibetan costume for the tourists as we blazed through towns on the bus. Yaks make cute short moo sounds and raise their tails like a red flag warning when they freak out and trot away.

"That's China's fault" *
Why China, why must you take perfectly good tourist sites and bulldoze them to build something us Westerners can find at home? The more important question is not so much the "tourist sites" that are being dismantled but the actual homes and livelihoods of the people that live here. This is one of the major quandries of globalization, I suppose -- that while developing countries are doing just that (developing), they run the risk of wiping out cultural and historical sites, traditions, or practices in order to make way for the new and improved. Beijing, as I think Mike touched on in earlier posts, is a prime example. It is an example of nothing existing where communities once thrived, where every restaurant listed in our guidebook that we looked for was either boarded up or appeared blown up, and in one case, with a homeless family living inside. Walking or driving down many of these streets, one sees nothing but eight or ten-foot tall, block-long vinyl billboards advertising what new stores or apartments are to be built on the site. If you happen to duck behind these massive "coming soon" posters, you find the dusty remanants of a neighborhood that may have existed as recently as 6 months ago, but is now a construction site or tent city. Truly depressing. The winning of the Olympic bid is likely the motivator for these "rennovations", but there are larger forces at work -- namely, capitalism. And to my planner friends, if dealing with public input is wearing you out, Beijing may have a job opening for you, because I dont think the public *has* input here. There is, however, an impressive urban planning museum in Beijing laying out all that is planned for the City's future, and save the most famous locales such as Tianamen Sq. or the Forbidden City, it pretty much will look nothing like it does now. Tell that to the people on Huntley (WeHo!)
* quote from Aqua Teen Hunger Force

Call me Auntie Mame
I am now an expert horsewoman, after three days of training in Songpan (read parts one and two). The experience was part Auntie Mame's fox hunt and part Vicky the evil would-be step-mom during the camping trip in Parent Trap. If you don't know the references then you have two movies you need to watch. Hopefully I was more tolerant (and tolerable) than both women during the horse trek, because despite coming back with a cold/fever, it was the highlight of our time in China for both Mike and I. Dare I say that our nest of a bed, created with tree branches, horse blankets, and Tibetan coats with saddles for "pillows", were more cozy and comfortable than some of the hostel/hotel beds we've slept in.

The World's Cutest Kid Contest: Japan v. Chinese Tibetans
As our photos demonstrate, there are some seriously cute kids over here. I thought the cuteness levels couldn't be any higher than those found in Japan, what with the shining black eyes and dolled-up clothes and doting parents. However Sichuan toddlers have given them a run for their money (for scientific proof, see here, here, and here). I will continue my search in Nepal.

Western food is underrated
That's right. I said it. After turning our noses up at western fast food joints the last two months, the Burger King veggie burger in HK brought our noses back to earth. We haven't eaten fast food since pre-vegetarian days (aside from the single experience with the "not buger" from In-N-Out), but once we learned that BK serves up a hefty, loaded-with-condiments, grilled veggie burger, Mike and I forced Lisa to sit and watch while we gobbled down two delicious combo-meals at the top of Victoria Peak in HK. These burgers were wonderful in ways I cannot describe, surpassing its American BK counterpart from what we've seen (but never touched) in Los Angeles. Hats off to you, Burger King of Hong Kong. You will remain a shining memory of my time there.

That is it for now from me, and though I wish I could say I will be better about blogging, it will probably not be true. But please feel free to email me and post comments because I still want to know what is going on back home!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

An update about Chnia from Nepal

I can't possibly do the Three Gorges river cruise justice in a single post; I'll wait until I can post some pictures and discuss it then. Instead, I'll skip ahead from Songpan (our horse trek) straight to Shanghai and Hong Kong, where my sister met up with us and replenished our supplies.

Our first night in Shanghai coincided with the start of the Chinese National Day and the golden week holiday. The entire downtown part of SH was closed to vehicle traffic and 8-lane roads were so thick with people that you could hardly move! The city was fun and lively and there was excellent cheap food everywhere, including Muslim home-made Cliff Bars, flat breads, chow mein, pot-stickers, pastries galore (Lisa knows what I'm talking about... because we were always searching for another pastry for Justine), etc. One day we took the train out to Suzhou, which is reknowned for its fabulous ancient gardens. We got there relatively late in the day and only saw one garden (called The Master of Nets Garden, after some polititian who lived there and liked to fish), but it was absolutely stunning. We also had an excellent Uhigur dinner in Suzhou (the Uhigur people are the Chinese minority people who live in the remote northwest and are of Turkish descent). The same day, we saw the Jade Buddha Temple in SH, which houses two gigantic Buddha statues carved from single pieces of jade. Another day, the three of us went to Old Shanghai and the Yuyuan gardens, which were even more spectacular than the Master of Nets! There's a 9-zig-zag bridge over a pond leading up to Yuyuan, in the middle of which is a famous old teahouse where we drank some excellent tea.

Hong Kong was mostly dissappointing to me, as the sights were few and far between, but the company was excellent as we met up with our long lost cousin, the law teacher I-Ping, and her hilarious husband, a British chemist/sociologist/teacher named Simon. We did cruise around the Kowloon shopping districts, and the HK Island shopping district, and the financial center shopping districts, plus some side-street shopping for Justine and Lisa. And oh... we also did some shopping. Besides that, we took a cruise around Kowloon bay in a sampan (a traditional fishing boat) and went down to the beach communities on the south side of HK. Finally, on our last night there, we helped Simon develop a jet-powered egg-floation device, which promptly caught fire and didn't quite work as planned. But we did get to watch Dr. Who (word up, Terry B.) with them and we pitched in by blowing out 4 eggs for the experiment. I can only hope that his class had more success with the project than we did! ;)

And now here we are, in Kathmandu, Nepal. We've been here for 2 days now, and the weather is just perfect... sunny and 77 F. Kathmandu is an excellent place and the food, people and sights have not dissappointed. Today (15.Oct) we hiked to the temple/stupa complex of Swayambhunath, also known as the Monkey Temple because so many monkeys hang out there, and yesterday we walked around Durbar Sq., where they have a three-story high temple carved from a single piece tree (a "There's Something about Mary" joke goes here, if you know the movie). In a few days, we'll be going to a river-rafting trip, then we'll start treking in the Annapurna mountain range in western Nepal. We'll keep you updated!


Friday, October 13, 2006

Kathmandu - Quick update

Just to let you all know, we finally left China and Hong Kong and have
landed in Kathmandu, Nepal today (13.Oct.06). In Shanghai and HK, we
spent time with my sister, who helped replenish our supplies, and we
also met up with our long-lost cousin in HK, who (along with her
husband) spoiled us with some fantastic dinners. Look forward to some
real blogging soon and we'll be posting pictures soon. Signing out
from "the roof of the world,"

Mike and Justine

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Audioblog #4

From aboard the HMS crappy-first-class-4-star-my-butt boat we took down the Yangzi river from Chongqing (China's largest city at 35 million people) to Yichang, the most charming city we've seen in China!


Horse Trek, Pt. 2

See Horse Trek, Pt. 1, first.

Now, my journal entries continue:

Day 3 - Basecamp
Some minor quibbles about the trip, although it has been great so far. Here they are:

1) The Tibetan horses, which are much smaller than regular horses, seem to be mistreated at times. Rocks are thrown and our guide Zhou punched one in the face today. Mostly, however, they look healthy.

2) The conditions here are filthy... not recommended for the prissy traveler (Heather, I'm looking in your direction). There are no outhoses or toilets, so TP is strewn all over the wilderness near the campsite. There's also no sink, so hands are filthy, even those preparing our food. The only water source is the near-by river/creek, which is used for horses drinking, human drinking, cooking, and washing. At least everything they cook is boiled, so the water should be okay, but still... it's gross.

3) The company offers 3 and 4 day treks to ice mountain, the only difference being that they stop for camp by the Tibetan village, but 3 days is enough, since it only takes 1.5 hrs. to get to the Tibetan village.

Day 4 (24 Sept) - 4:30 pm, Songpan Hostel above the horse trek company office

The last night in the woods was cold... much colder than the previous night. It also started to rain in the middle of the night. By morning, however, the clouds lifted and we got our first taste of sunshine in the wild! The sky was an incredible shade of blue and the hills were both green and bright red, many trees having started to change colors for autumn.

Best of all, with the blankets and pads back on the saddles, the ride back to Songpan was much easier on our bums. We took a different route back than we took in, which was fun because it included a stop at a Lamasary (a monastary for Lamas, the leaders of Tibetan Buddhism). The ride was fun, but mostly uneventful, save for the gorgeous, sweeping views of the river valleys from 3000 meters up... actually, I'm sure we passed 4000 m above sea level several times. When we got back to the town, we bought water, took nice hot showers, and will hopefully meet up with our guides for beers at 7pm. Tomorrow we go back to Chengdu for a day, then start our Yangzi River cruise through the Three Gorges area!

Day 5 - 9:45 am - Bus rest station
The long and winding road
Last night, only Zhou showed up for beers and after an hour and several 20 oz beers (which he opened with his teeth!), J and I retired for the evening. It's a shame we couldn't stay out longer, however, because he was really fun to talk with, even though he had limited english and I have only limited chinese. He regaled us with stories of a crazy Korean girl that wants to marry him and move to Songpan. He made fun of Chinese tourists and said he hated visiting Lhasa, Tibet because the people there drank too much and started fights.

Our sleep last night was rather rough because J was quite sick, but when we woke up at 5am, J was feeling much better. The bus today is the most horrible experience yet. I thought I could handle long-distance buses, but maybe I can't. Everyone is smoking and it's very cold in here. When we showed up at the bus terminal, it was almost full and 10 minutes after the bus started (and after making 3 or 4 stops in 500 feet), there was a crowd of people sitting and standing on the floor of the center aisle. This bus is filthy, and we already hit a guard rail, stopped to inspect the engine, and have had the brakes cooled with hose water twice in the last hour! We still have at least 5 more hours of this and the sores on our a$$es are not happy. We also had to pay to use the bathroom, which seems to be the norm here, but the rooms were disgusting (I'll save the description from publication, but we both almost barfed). On the plus side, we've seen many adorable children, including many small kids sweeping the water and debris off their play yard at school and an assembly outside for a flag-raising ceremony. I just pray that the rest of the day goes quickly. Why hasn't the bus started yet?!

Day 5 - 11:45am - another bus stop
Well, when the bus finally did start up again, the TV came on playing the LOUDEST, most techno-ed up versions of traditional Tibetan songs. Even with ear plugs, the noise was deafening... no joke. (By the way, it seems that busses in China all come equiped with Karaoke machines, which the bus drivers play at full blast, even though nobody seems to sing along.) LAME!

Editor's note: My journal entries end here for the Songpan trip, but I would like to mention that we didn't get back to the Chengdu bus station until 4pm, having left Songpan at 6am. We also got hit by another bus from behind, and the Karaoke was playing the whole dang time! We got no sleep and were absolutely miserable when we returned to the Loft hostel in Chengdu... it was so bad that we almost cancelled our Yangzi river cruise. We ended up going, anyway, and got better really quickly since we had a full day to kill in Chengdu beforehand. Today, 3.Oct.2006, we are in Shanghai and it has been wonderful here. More to follow on the river cruise and on SH.