Thursday, July 26, 2007

Shanghai Surprise

I got hit by a moped yesterday. Let me immediately follow that by saying I am totally fine, and it was more like a graze. But given that I have spent 6 weeks dodging the most insane drivers in the most insane traffic I have ever seen (across four countries, no less), it's amazing it took this long for me to get hit, and unbelievably lucky that's all that happened.

So this is really it, the last post from Shanghai, from China, from this trip. I wish I had something more profound to say than I was hit by a moped.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Great Wall Pictures!

One of my friends is home and posted some Great Wall pics, so I thought I'd upload two.


Back in the PRC, chilling in Shanghai, with t-minus three days to go. This has been an unforgettable trip, and I hope you've enjoyed reading about it as much as I've enjoyed experiencing it. This may be my last post just because internet is expensive around here.

Shanghai is the illegimate love child of Beijing and Hong Kong. Crazily modern and civilized mixed with old school Chinese attitude and culture. It's pretty cool, and feels like a nice place to end things. The views of the crazy skyscrapers are as amazing as the photos you've seen, and we see nothing but luxury good stores for blocks at a time sometimes. Between those blocks, we get attacked by people trying to sell us fake versions of the same products. They're pretty aggressive about it here, no doubt spurred by the fact that they tore down Shanghai's biggest market for fakes and knock-offs (note: Frommer's is awesome, but it's 1.5 years since they published this edition, and you'd be surprised how many Chinese restaurants and shopping areas have been torn down in every city in the meantime), so now have to drum up business on the street. If you want a fake Louis Vuitton anything, please email me by Friday.

We saw the Shanghai acrobats last night, which was an amazing show and totally worth seeing. I actually covered my eyes and gasped as if I'd never seen Cirque du Soleil or anything and really thought these people might plummet to their deaths. I did enjoy the fact that despite the 'no recording devices' announcements and signs, flashes were going off non-stop throughout the entire performance. Today, we went to the Shanghai Museum, which is definitely my favorite museum in China that I've seen. It's got a ton of bronzes, jade, calligraphy, sculpture, etc., and though some of it is just Shanxi cast-offs, it's very well curated and in a beautiful building.

On other stuff, I have now been to the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf twice (!) which is truly sublime because (1) it's hotter than hell here, like hotter than anywhere else I've been on this non-stop scorcher of a trip, (2) I couldn't even get a vanilla ice blended in philly and (3) I had been craving one since my second day of travel. We also have eaten fantastic Shanghai-style food, including this bowl of noodles in a spicy broth with gobs of peanut sauce that is worth the price of a flight here, seriously. We are planning out our last few meals in China, and will probably do it up in style on Friday night to say farewell. We've had drinks on top of 3 on the Bund, we've walked through people's square, and we've had at least two McDonald's ice cream cones. We have another museum or two to see, another tower or two to climb, some more noodles to eat, and some tailored pants to pick up, and other than that, it's pretty much a wrap for Juliedelphia Does Asia 2007.

One more thing-- yesterday, Nisha turned to me and said, "Do you know what I like about you?" I shook my head, excited to hear something truly insightful and probably complimentary, and was not sure how to take it when she said, "You really prefer noodles to rice."

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Jolly Old Hong Kong

It's still a constant shock to be able to read the street signs and understand what people are saying. I originally had wanted to skip Hong Kong, since I remember being so bored here 20 years ago. I realize that's because when you're a kid, nothing is more boring than tagging along while your parents are in pursuit of the perfect eelskin wallet. It's more fun when you're shopping for yourself.

On top of a little shopping, we've ridden ferries, seen a temple, and eaten dim sum. We've also eaten some very fancy meals, which have been a nice change of pace. We also experienced the single biggest price differential between two similar snacks in a 24-hour period: a $50HKD (about $7) ice cream cone at Haagen-Daazs, followed by a $2.50HKD (about 30 cents) ice cream cone at McDonalds. Ice cream cones at McDonalds have always been one of my favorite things, and I am happy to stay that along with our Starbucks in every city rule, we've been making them an afternoon snack at least once every few days.

Given that we might as well be in New York, I have far fewer stories. The most amusing thing I've seen is the signs at Starbucks which inform us they are celebrating the 10th anniversary of SAR's. This refers to China's taking over of Hong Kong and giving it special administrative status so that it can continue to function exactly the same as it did, but it does give one pause given this continent was the locus for the outbreak of the disease with the same name. Also, as a Starbucks beat reporter, I feel it noteworthy that this city does not serve us our lattes in porcelain cups, nor did the island-of-Chinese-babies location in Guangzhou. Oh, and perhaps due to the special status Hong Kong has, I can access Juliedelphia once more, but that will be over tomorrow. In review, these posts have been looooong. I bet you're all excited for when I go back to writing about how many times Satchel pees in a day.

We are flying to Shanghai tomorrow morning, and a week from now I'll be in California. I can't believe it's almost over.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Back to Civilization

We are in Hong Kong. Since this city is ridiculously wired, there are no internet cafes. There is, however, expensive internet available at the top of Victoria Peak, where I am currently writing. The views are amazing, in case you're wondering.

We left Guangzhou, and after some harrowing moments at the train station (getting accosted by beggars, watching a man go through the trash and drink half finished beverages removed from said trash), we boarded a delightful high speed train and an hour and a half later were in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is like paradise for us after the past few weeks. There is less spitting on the street, people seem to get annoyed when their personal space is violated, and the streets are named things like "Stanley" and "Queen's Road." We can read those. In fact, we've successfully found a legendary dim sum restaurant and the tram, both on the first try, a record for us.

So this may be my last blog post from expensive Hong Kong, but it's nice to have a respite from incomprehensible signs and even harder-to-understand etiquette. We return to battle once more in Shanghai on Monday.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Pandas, babies, baby pandas

I realized I forgot to write about the pandas, or at least I think I did. Since I can't go back and read my own blog whilst in a communist country, and I am too lazy to go in and reopen my posts in edit mode, you may feel a little deja vu.

Chengdu is home to a big panda breeding center, where they are raising pandas to breed with other pandas around the world and also supposedly to release some in the wild. Anyhow, we got there early to take advantage of feeding time, and it was pandapalooza. Since usually you are lucky to get a glimpse of two pandas hiding in the corner of their cage in a zoo, this was like hitting the panda jackpot. We saw pandas eating. We saw pandas hanging out. We saw pandas lying on their bellies staring forward like Satchel does when he wants to convey he his too bored for words and why are you doing this to him. We saw red pandas (more like raccoons, but still cute). And we saw a baby panda in an incubator, one half of a pair of twins whose mother could only care for one at a time. So while his brother was being nursed (we could see it on closed circuit TV, but not live), he was hanging out in the incubator being gawked at. He was adorable and so teeny tiny.

Another Chengdu note: on our way out from the panda exhibit, we decided to buy some panda souvenirs. We were quoted a price like 40 yuan for what we wanted. Nisha and I looked at each other, shrugged, and said back, "Four for 40 yuan." The woman shook her head no, we shrugged again, and we walked away. Five seconds later, she yelled, "Ok, Ok!" and waved us back. I'm not saying we got the deal of the century on our schlocky souvenirs, but Nisha and I are beginning to feel this haggling thing is getting a bit too easy.

It was hard to say goodbye to Chengdu, and even harder to leave it. Literally. Our plane took off late, and there was a lot of confusion because our gate said Beijing and we thought we might be missing our flight. We finally boarded, and after about two hours in the air and about twenty minutes of circling, we were given an announcement, the English version of which said something about the military, something about landing, and something about another airport. They repeated this message three times, and we finally landed and sat on a random runway somewhere and refueled. We still have no idea where we were. We were the only English speakers on the plane.

We finally got into Guangzhou, checked into our super hip hotel, and headed down to Shamian Island, supposedly ex-pat central and home of a bar which serves buffalo wings. Since I'm travelling with a Buffalo native, it seemed like we had to go. What we found instead was a family restuarant. Side note: Guangzhou, and this island in particular, is where Americans who adopt Chinese babies end up, because it's the location of the US Consulate which specializes in the paperwork for these adoptions. So instead of the usual Nisha-and-Julie-get-stared-at-as-the-only-non-Chinese-people-in-a-restaurants, we got stared at as the only people who were there sans Chinese baby. Every single table was happy American families, some with older kids fussing over their new sibling, and one Chinese baby (90% girls) sitting in the high chair. On this island, almost every store has children's clothing, many boast "stroller available for borrow" (we love broken English), and the Starbucks has a changing table. The fancy Thai restaurant where we had our dinner even had a menu of dishes for babies, with lots of pictures of babies on it. It was quite a sight.

Today, we bought our Hong Kong train tickets, but can't leave until tonight so had an unexpected full day here. We just got back to the hotel from an hour's sojourn at Starbucks. Our decision to visit one Starbucks per city (and to count the Tibetan milk tea in Jiuzhaigou as a tall latte) has been a fun one. This one had some sort of back room you needed a key card to get into, and I theorize that this was the training headquarters for all of Starbucks China. Many people came and went, and from what we could see it was still decorated like Starbucks back there-- a veritable Starbucks U if you will.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The City of Never Say Goodbye

That is the official motto of Chengdu. Seriously.

OK, so I'm back in Chengdu after an expensive, harrowing, but totally worthwhile 24 hours in Jiuzhaigou. This is a town about a 40 minute flight from here that you go to in order to visit the Valley of the Nine Villages. The flight was a bit terrifying and I'm usually pretty immune to turbulence. The drive from the airport to our hotel was an hour and a half in a speeding cab passing everything he could in a narrow winding two lane road mainly being used by giant buses. I don't think I've ever been more certain I was going to be in a car wreck.

After that, we checked into our hotel where (1) no one spoke English and (2) they only took cash. We were informed there was a bank 1.5 km down the road. It was 10:30 at night and we had just survived the demolition derby. We scrounged up enough to cover one night (unlike the cab ride, flight, and admission to the park, our hotel was relatively cheap).

All of this was quickly forgotten when we got into the park the next morning. It's basically a long valley with two long forks and a plank path and a road running down the length of each. The plank roads occasionally meet up with the road, and there is a shuttle bus running up and down making stops at the major sites, mainly waterfalls and lakes. But not as many people hike between the sites, so we had some amazing stretches where we didn't see a soul. The landscape is hard to describe: jagged mountains, turquoise (you will not believe the colors) lakes, expansive waterfalls, mist coming over the tops of the mountains, and lush forest everywhere. And occasionally, there's a Tibetan village. I have to admit the villages were a bit less interesting than I thought they'd be, though I drank milk tea and turned down an offer of yak meat. Basically, they were beautiful architecture, interesting outfits, prayer flags, and selling a lot of the same crap we've seen at other tourist sites. But the landscape was beautiful. We hiked about 8 miles, and it was hard to stop taking pictures.

I was also very impressed with how China has handled this park. The plank path really minimizes the impact people have on the park, but still gets you away from the road so you experience nature. The shuttle buses are orderly and mean there aren't traffic jams and huge parking lots with people bringing their own cars or cabs in.

It was also amazing that though the park was extremely crowded (mainly just at the photo op sites, so it was never really a big problem), we probably saw 5 other foreigners the whole day, none of them Americans. We've definitely been stared at and photographed in other cities, but in this place we were space aliens. I took the obligatory picture, but funnier was the few Chinese people we did talk to (no one spoke English really, but we met a few at the airport on the way out who did) were amazed we had even heard of this place and came all the way there. It's clearly a big vacation destination for the Chinese, but not a huge draw outside of that. The airport is relatively new, so maybe that will change. The town outside the gates has an amazing number of huge hotels, so it seems poised to handle even more tourism in the future. I hope it doesn't ruin it.

Now we are back in Chengdu, and despite its well-phrased motto, we will say goodbye to it tomorrow to fly to Guangzhou. This begins the end-run of the trip, and our return to big cities where foreigners are less of a big deal. We will spend one day in Guangzhou, take the train to Hong Kong where we'll spend four days, and then on to our last city, Shanghai. I can't believe how quickly it's gone, and also am anxious to get back to burritos, a real bed, Satchel, my cell phone, and non-smoking laws.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Putting the Hot in Hot Pot

I am in Chengdu. Where? Well, it's pretty much the capital of the Sichuan province, jumping off point to go to Tibet (or in our case, to go visit a national park with Tibetan villages in it while not leaving China proper), China's fifth largest city, China's second most livable city (we don't know what number one is), and the home of hot pot.

But first-- our last few hours in Xi'an merit chronicling. This China trip has turned out to be a culinary adventure, and a fun one at that. First, we went back to the Muslm quarter to sample an intriguing concoction I saw them making on the street. It turned out to be a disk of rice lightly sweetened, then topped with a syrup, some dried oranges, and some nuts, all stuck on two skewers. It was divine, and a good warm up for our main event, yangrou paomo at a Shanxi restaurant. See, now the food is Sichuan, but way back in Xi'an (yesterday), we were in the Shanxi part of the country. This is supposedly one of its most famous dishes. This dish was so perfectly described by Frommers (more on why this is the greatest travel book ever despite sometimes cryptic directions and listing the Louis Vuitton store under 'shopping' in every city in every book I've ever used) that we were somewhat able to navigate yet another restaurant where we were the only non-Chinese. After some pointing to the blessedly illustrated menu, we were brought two bowls with two buns in each. We then tore up the buns into little pieces (because Frommer's told us to). Our waitress returned and chastized Nisha for not tearing hers up small enough, so we were given a second chance to further shred her bread. They then approved and took away our bowls and brought them back five minutes later filled with broth, mutton, beef, veggies, noodles, and our pieces of bread. This bread was pretty dense, so it soaked up the broth well but not so quickly that it got oversoggy. And it was all pretty delicious. On the side, we got chili sauce and coriander, which we put in the broth (because Frommer's told us to), and whole cloves of garlic that had been soaked for a month in vinegar and sugar, which we ate plain between the occasional bite (because Frommer's told us to). It was fabulous, and we felt like rock stars for finding this place with only two false starts, and for sampling something truly local.

This morning, we flew to Chengdu on CAAC/China Eastern again, but wisely brought Starbucks scones (good flavors here! I had strawberry rhubarb, which Roger would love) so didn't have to even look at the breakfast-box-of death. We had the aisle and middle, and when our window companion came, he decided charging right into our row without giving us a chance to get up and let him in was the right approach. Nisha happened to already be up, so I found myself in the middle seat with an older Chinese gentleman ramming into my legs. I looked at him in shock, waved my arms until he stood back, and then got up and let him in. Truly priceless. He clearly had not seen the helpful video about airplane etiquette.

Anyhow, we got to Chengdu, it was the first time the airport was less than an hour from the city (yay!), and we set out to navigate and deal with flights to Jiuzhaigou for tomorrow. Our two attempts to find restaurants in our books failed (Frommer's is good, but the place we tried to find was in a building that had been demolished, so not their fault), so we decided to risk it and go into a hot pot place we could see was semi-crowded with only Chinese people. Our agreement was that if there was an English menu or a picture menu, we'd do it, and if not we'd try the hot pot place we knew had both. We walked in and mimed menu. Blank stares, and then entreaties to please sit in the waiting area. I pull out Frommer's and flip to the back to the language section to find the word for 'menu'. I say it to them, and somehow flip to another section I did not know I had that is chinese characters/pronunciation to english for Chinese food organized by cuisine with a whole PAGE on hot pot. The guy lights up as the woman brings us the 'menu'. This is an 8 1/2 by 11 form with carbon copies (you can order in triplicate!) more complicated looking than a tax form, all in Chinese with tiny writing and at least 100 boxes on it. The guy starts pointing at my hot pot page and pointing at the teeny tiny type on the page. We decide to risk it, get whisked to a table, and I start pointing. I start with "half spicy half broth", because Chengdu hot pot is Sichuan, and is notoriously spicy. We are brought a pot divided down the middle, but unlike the Mongolian hot pot, each side is filled with stuff already. The hot side has tons of chilis and some leeks, and the water is red. The broth side proves to be a hilarious treasure trove, with tomatoes, leeks, slices of what looks like lunch meat, and (as we discover late in the meal to Nisha's chagrin) a whole fish-- all of this just for seasoning. After much pointing, we get beef, lotus root, mushrooms, and another kind of beef. It was amazing, and I was surprised by how well I could handle the Sichuan spice. Texas paid off, I guess. Of course, our lips were burning by the end, so we had to go get milkshakes after. But it was fantastic, and I can only describe what we experienced as not just culinary satisfaction, but something like triumph for having managed to order under these circumstances. And I bow down to whoever put together that section in Frommer's. I owe them a Mons (the local beer we washed down our lunch with today).

I think it's pizza tonight.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Beijing, Xi'an

Our last day in Beijing was spent at the Summer Palace (beautiful) and the Silk Market (anarchy). The shopping is getting schlockier and more competitive as we go, and our desire to bid may mean that Marji is getting many gifts which will disintegrate in seconds. If you need a knockoff anything, please email me soon. Also, I cannot read any comments that you post. Apparently, Juliedelphia is controversial in its stance on communism, because in both Vietnam and China, I can post but not view my own blog.

Food: we ate a fantastic meal once again on our last night in Beijing. This was 'hakka' cuisine, which even my book couldn't describe, but included whole shrimp served on skewers in buckets of rock salt and a whole cooked perch cooked in foil. The food was amazing, we were amongst the only white people once more, and we were right on one of the back lakes so the setting was gorgeous. The food has been the most pleasant surprise about China, since that was pretty grim the last time. While we have done quite well, we have seen the following menu items repeatedly: dog, snake, turtle, bullfrog, cartilage, duck head, and intestine. The bullfrogs and turtles especially seem popular, and since many menus handle the language barrier by posting pictures, I have seen a few too many photos of whole turtles and frogs sitting in a sauce. Delightful.

We flew to Xi'An yesterday, and saw the terra cotta warriors. It's breathtaking, you should see it, enough said. It also poured and we got stuck in the rain. What's shocked us all is Xi'An itself. I wasn't picturing a village or anything, but this is a huge city complete with a Louis Vuitton, a Chanel, and a Rolex store. This is all here because the warriors are such a tourist draw. When you go to visit the tomb near the warriors, they bring you into a gift shop and show you the surviving farmer who made the discovery. He tries to sell you an autograph. What a living.

It's also worth mentioning that this was my first adult encounter with Chinese domestic aviation. We flew CAAC when we were here in 1987, known as "Chinese Airline Always Cancels". I remember the runway workers were on bikes, the food was a hot box of something bizarre, and the flight attendants could not get a rogue smoker to stop. This time, I flew China Eastern, which turns out to be a rebranded CAAC. The airport is high tech as one would expect, but the food is once again a train wreck. We were given a croissant with freezer burn (our life saving snack), a little container of shredded pear? with red seeds in some kind of jelly, a plastic container with soybeans, noodles, and half of a black hard boiled egg, and a hot metal container of white sludge. The guy next to Denise put his croissant on his fork in his left hand, and alternately scooped out and all but inhaled the white stuff, pausing every six scoops or so to bite some croissant off the fork. It was hilarious. There was also a cartoon we watched about plane etiquette telling us not to take off our shoes if our feet stink and not to pick our noses, presumably because that's just common sense.

Last night, we went to the supposed 18 course dumpling place but found they were sold out of all but five kinds. We overate anyhow, and brought beers back to our superior room to toast Denise's last night and play cards.

Today, we went to the Shanxi History Museuem, which lived up to its billing as one of the best to see. We then tried to see the Goose Pagoda, but ended up wandering around the outside of it instead of paying a lot to go in. We accidentally stumbled on a crazy synchronized music fountain show, and got to pose in two girls' photos. We went to the Muslim quarter for lunch and ate dumplings with soup in them. Soup! What will they think of next? I actually read about these in a New Yorker article years ago, in which the author was using the availability of said dumplings in New York to try to lure his daughter back from San Francisco; her counter was burritos, which I must agree with given my latest fantasies invole a Taqueria Cancun carnitas super burrito. Our other pair left us today, and it's me and Nisha from here on out.

That pretty much covers it. Pray for affordable internet again in Chengdu!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Tales from the Wall

First of all, Beijing is simply amazing. It may not be ready for the Olympics, but I am amazed by all that is here, and how much it's changed. I was dreading the food, but it's been amazing. All in all, a pleasant surprise.

Yesterday, I undertook a 10km climb of one of the more challenging (read: unbelievably steep and not well-restored) sections of the Great Wall. We met up with five Wharton guys for this hike, which turned out to be a blast. I have an intense fear of climbing and heights, so this definitely pushed me to my limit. At one point, we had to climb this ridiculously steep staircase with over 100 steps and no wall on the side, just open air and a long drop down. I did this (as did everyone) on my hands and knees. I did a lot of the downward journey on my butt and using my hands. Staircases seldom had all the stairs. Of course, we were all struggling and these middle-aged Chinese women are following us the whole time, serving as guides (uninvited) in the hopes of selling us books at some point during the hike. They also often point over the side of the wall and say, "Mongolia!" which is amusing.

Post-hike, we had Mongolian hot pot with one of Denise's learning team mates. I ate way too much, and am excited to head to the hot pot capital of China in a few days. Also, he arranged for us all to get foot massages afterwards, which was heavenly. If only they could do something for my quads.

Today was the Summer Palace, which was as beautiful as I remembered, and then the Silk Market, where our expert negotiation skills means we were only slightly ripped off instead of completely ripped off.

I've also been spending a lot of time dealing with and setting up internal flights to figure out how we're going to see what we want to see. Heartbreakingly, we have now eliminated Datong from our trip, since we couldn't justify spending $500 and/or cutting two days out of other cities just to go see the caves and the hanging temple. But we have some more time in the Chengu/Valley of the Nine Villages area, and we're going to spend a day in Guangzhou and take the train in to Hong Kong, which should be neat.

Tomorrow we're off to Xi'An to see the Terra Cotta warriors, a supposedly unmissable history museum, and to eat an 18-course meal of dumplings for $7.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Beijing: 20 Years Later

Wow. Beijing is extremely overwhelming. First of all, everything is ten miles away from everything else. My map makes things look like they are centimeters away when they are in fact a 15 minute cab ride. 20 years ago, it was bicycles and watermelon stands as far as the eye could see. Now, it's cars, Starbucks, Ferrari dealers, and pollution as far as the eye can see.

Several things 'due for completion' in 2006 are not complete. Huge sections of the Forbidden City are scaffolded off for restoration. Mao's mausoleum is closed. This is a city madly preparing for 2008, and based on what I've seen, it's going to be tight.

I also remember being able to go into places. At the Forbidden City, you don't set foot inside any of the buildings except the ones which have been turned into museums of vases or clocks. I have teased my traveling companions that 20 years ago, I got to sit in the imperial thrones. While this is an exaggeration, I know I must have been inside.

Ome thing that hasn't changed is the fascination amongst Chinese tourists (probably making their first trip to Beijing from way outside) with white people. When the first group of girls approached me and asked "take picture?", I reached for their camera thinking they wanted me to snap theirs; instead, they passed it off to another friend, crowded around me, and added me forever to their personal photo collections. By the time the fifth person did this to us, we knew the drill. I am traveling with one very blonde girl and one Indian girl, which no doubt adds to our appeal. One woman had me snap the picture with them, since presumably I'm the least exotic of the three.

Last night we had Peking Duck, but instead of it being in an old traditional restaurant, we were in a restaurant so hip I could've been in San Francisco or New York. It was phenomenal, but then I could eat pretty much anything if it was first drizzled with hoisin sauce.

So far, we have seen Tianamen Square, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heavenly Peace, the Lama Temple (formerly the biggest Buddha or biggest wooden Buddha or something in the world, but we hear that record is no longer), and the Pearl Market. At the Pearl Market, I used my now finely honed haggling skills to acquire 7 (!) necklaces, three pairs of earrings, and one bracelet, none of them for more than $9. We are told the pearls there are all real though of dubious quality, and I'm not sure everything I have is a real pearl. I am sure my jade and coral are fake, but since I paid so little it hardly matters. It was exhausting and fun and since I own next to no jewelry, I feel like spending that little to pick up that many fun things was worth it. I got to really haggle there, and used my new favorite approach: the walk-away. This is met with yelling, arm grabbing, and "please lady, best price, best price, no more bargain, make a friend!" And when I stick my ground, I usually get it for what I want to pay, which is no doubt still profitable for them. One time I walked away and she didn't budge and I realized that I was leaving something I wanted over $1, so I went back and paid it.

Our other shopping was at the supposed best antiques market we went to on Sunday. I have no idea if the little statues I picked up were antiques, but they were cheap enough to be worth it, and suitably heavy that I will probably end up regretting the purchase anyhow. And I picked up my favorite souvenir of the entire three and a half weeks there: my Mao clock. When you wind it up, the little communist girl waves her hand to tick off the seconds, as several images of Mao look proudly at her. This is going to be the centerpiece of my new decorating scheme.

Tomorrow, I'm off to a wall climb organized by 9 guys who already trekked in Tibet. I cried when I was on the Wall 20 years ago (a fed up little girl who had enough of the heat and the crowds), and I have a sinking feeling I may do a repeat performance this time.

Viva Beijing!

Thursday, July 05, 2007

One chapter ends...

Yesterday, Laura left to fly to Bangkok and then back to the States. I am back on Koh Samui after two days on Koh Tao and one on Kofi Anan (Koh Phangan), and headed to Bangkok with Denise and Amelia later this afternoon. Tomorrow morning, I fly to Beijing to meet up with Nisha and start my last three weeks of this trip, all of them in China. It's weird how quickly this has all gone by, and that I have what feels like an entirely new trip starting tomorrow.

Koh Phanagn: hilarious. We're on an island that is paradise for ravers once a month, and the rest of the month it appears to be in some sort of bewildered recovery. Many of the tourists there are young hipster types, wandering around as if they're still hungover or stoned three days after the party ended. We saw a guy wearing a homemade brace from some kind of injury. We watched as a series of messed-up looking 20 somethings tried to jump a rope that had been lit on fire and was being offered as entertainment in a bar. Many of them got hit, which explained why we saw so many people earlier in the week with random burns on them. It was a very memorable 4th of July-- with the flaming jump rope standing in for the usual fireworks show, and Singha and hookahs on the beach replacing my usual family barbecue. We did not partake of the buckets of liquor with mixers available for sale at the many stands on the beach. I was told by yet another European tourist that I look like Angelina Jolie.

It's nice to be back in big touristy Koh Samui, which has the nicest beach we've seen and some fantastic food. I am going to get my third Thai massage in five days after I post this. Thai massage is the greatest thing on the planet. I've never been a big massage person, but this is the form that was made for me. Not too much pressure, but also not just an hour of sustained oily rubbing. And for about half the time, they stretch you out which is amazing and is helping the fact that I have not done pilates in almost a month.

OK. Time to make the most of my last three hours here. The next time I post, I will likely be in Beijing. Goodbye, Thailand!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Swimming with the Sharks

Koh Tao has been described to me by everyone as being paradise. I agree, but think it meets that description in two ways. It is beautiful. It is also 'unspoiled', which is to say a bit rugged. I spent several hours last night listening to a small wild animal (probably a distant relative to my long-ago philly roommates) run around our room. And when you book a 3-bedroom air conditioned house, one of the bedrooms may be in a separate shack sans air conditioning and requiring the use of a mosquito net to sleep.

But this island has the best snorkelling, and I must say it lived up to expectations. At first, we didn't think we were going to survive the day. The water was a bit rough, and then smoke started pouring out of the engine on our suspect looking boat. We then were tied to another suspecte looking boat, and rather than being hauled back to dock (this was ten minutes in), pulled further our to sea. Riding in the wake of another boat in already rough sea is not fun. When the rope broke, also not fun. When they brought out a new rope, that was just a sign of the apocalypse. but miraculously, they got the engine running again and the snorkelling was amazing.

The best part for me is that I love snorkelling but am terrified of sharks. I know this is irrational, but it's there. But today when people saw a shark, i not only stayed in the water, I swam around looking for it for a while. I never saw it, but I consider that real progress.

Monday, July 02, 2007


over 200. Enjoy if you are really bored. I'll post highlights later.

Southeast Asia

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Two Tickets to Paradise

This is heavenly. We are on the island of Koh Samui in a little beach resort. The ocean is shallow, crystal clear, and there are no waves on our beach. The sand is as soft as baby powder. Sitting there is just lovely.

Stepping out of our little resort coccoon, we are on a street with a Starbucks, a Baskin Robbins, a Swensens, a Haagen Daazs, a McDonalds, etc. There are also a zillion souvenir shops, Thai massage parlors, tailors, knock off designer clothse stores, Italian restuarants (a staple here), and as we learned last night, a red light district. My friends Bryan and Tiffany are here on their honeymoon, and our island hopping itineraries overlapped for just one night, so we went to dinner and far too many drinks after. It was a blast catching up with them, and trading the Wharton talk for old work gossip. But it was challenging to find a bar that didn't have lots of 'ladyboys' inside. Everything here seems to be a front for a brothel or an English pub. Perhaps we'll find a place that brings the best of both together. It's funny, I will have one more night in Bangkok, but I fly to China the next morning so assume I'll just crash in my hotel. But I feel like last night, I got a taste of that side of Thailand.

Tomorrow, we're taking a boat to Koh Tao, which is the undeveloped island. Hopefuly my picking a hotel blindly over the internet skills will continue to serve us well!