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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

China part èr

Back in the day, as they say, WEBN, the FM rocker in my hometown of Cincinnati used to play new albums all the way through on Monday nights.  On December 3rd, 1979 they debuted Pink Floyd's The Wall.  Being a major Pink Floyd fan, I was excited that night to hear new music from what was one of my favorite groups at the time.  The most chilling and unforgettable moment of the evening came at the end of side two, of the double-album set,  when the song Goodbye Cruel World was finished.  That's when WEBN first confirmed that there had been deaths at the Who concert that evening at Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum.  I can still hear the words, "Goodbye cruel world, I'm leaving you today, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye" followed by the news that music fans had died in my hometown.  Everytime I hear that, I flash back to the bedroom of my parent's house in Pleasant Run Farms in Cincinnati.  I had thought about going to the show that night, but couldn't really afford it, and didn't have any friends who were that into the Who at the time.  I had been to the previous concert at Riverfront Coliseum a couple of weeks earlier, featuring (ugh) Styx and recalled having to shove people out of the way to hold onto my girlfriend's hand as we tried to stay connected in the crush of people rushing to get the best seats in the soon-to-be-banned general admission show. 

This will give you a hint of how my brain works in that when we got to the Great Wall of China, north of Beijing,  I was thinking of Pink Floyd.  We had been in Beijing for a couple of days, arriving there from Xian.  The windy conditions that greeted us created a rare weather phenomenon for Beijing:  clear blue skies.
Our guide in Beijing was a young woman whose English name was Nancy.  As a guy, I've got a pretty good radar for knowing when a gal isn't into you.  (Not that it's happened all that much to me over the years!!)  Nancy was kind of there with us.  There was no open hostility or anything, she just seemed to be going through the motions.  Still, she performed her guidely duties efficiently if stoically.

Our first location with Nancy was the Temple of Heaven, one of the many historic sights around Beijing.  She pointed out that in many of the attractions, the intricate artwork at the tops of most of the buildings had been re-done for the 2008 Olympic Games.

The good weather continued the following day when we visited the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.  As one might expect when the government is pretty much is complete control of things, there are no markers remembering the massacre in 1989 which brought the world's largest city center square into the living rooms of people around the globe.

The square is mind-boggling big and is the latest place on this trip where we have all said, I can't believe we are actually here.  Nancy wasn't all that forthcoming with any local impressions or information about the June 4th incident from 1989.  When I asked if the people were happy with the current government, she just smiled and shook her head, saying "not really."  Then she quickly proceeded to start talking about the portrait of Chairman Mao that hangs over the entrance to the Forbidden City.
Like we had seen the previous day in the Temple of Heaven, a lot of the artwork on the buildings in the Forbidden City had been spruced up for the Olympics. Which, considering it is over 600 years old and has seen the changing of hands through various dynasties, wars, revolutions, etc etc, is certainly understandable.

The Emperor who built the FC certainly had it going on, as he had the pick of some three thousand concubines who were recruited from all across the country.  They ranged in age from 14-20 (creepy!) and were said to be the most beautiful women/teenagers/victims in all the land. His wife, who had her own quarters, probably didn't mind as she certainly knew what she was getting into when she was selected to be the wife of the emperor.  Besides, who would want to be around a sleazebag like that for more than a night or two anyway?  Just make sure your signature is readable on the pre-nup and move on with your life.

While the temples are impressive, after a while, when you've been traveling as long as we have and seen as many countries and the accompanying temples, mosques, etc, they kind of start to run together.  Whoever is ruling or in charge at the time of whatever country you happen to be in, builds something massive to show his power, or compensate for some other short coming.  (Kind of like when guys in their 40s and 50s drive those tacky Corvettes from the late 70s and 80s.)  Then, for whatever reason, they are no longer in power and the monument(s) they have built to themselves are ransacked, destroyed, defaced or re-done.  It just goes on and on.

And it continued in our next stop at the Summer Palace outside Beijing.   It's not all that far from the city, so it's not like this is the Park City getaway for some executive in Denver or even Cincinnati.  The weather can't be all that much different from that in the city, but you know how those show-off emperors are.  We see them today in board rooms all across the U.S.--getting massive stock options and golden parachute bonuses after pretty much leaving the company in worse shape than it was when they took over.  But I digress. 

The Summer Palace is beautiful, with a serene setting on a massive man-made lake.

Well, it would be a serene setting were it not for the thousands of visitors such as ourselves jamming into the place.  Which makes this probably a good place to bring up one of the more annoying features about Asia, especially China:  There's a LOT of people here and they don't share space well with others.  And that's a trend that was very prevalant as much if not more so in India, as Annie and Marley discovered getting into the Taj Mahal.
It actually got a little freaky in a couple of spots around the Forbidden City with people jamming in to a small area to see inside one of the chambers.  I mean, we don't behave that way in the States, expect for important stuff like bursting through the doors of Target at 4am the day after Thanksgiving. That's where being of a somewhat larger size by Asian standards came in handy.  I'm polite to a fault normally, but I don't do well with being pushed around, especially by strangers and especially when I don't know it's coming.  After a while, I started cross-checking and slamming people into walls like an NHL-goon. Okay, probably not that bad, but I let those around me know I wasn't going to be jostled without giving some back while realizing my dreams to someday be a U.S. diplomat in China were probably dashed.  It also made us very much look forward to having some elbow room at the Great Wall.

Nancy had a good strategy for us the next day on going out to see the Great Wall of China.  We had a couple of other stops to make, and I think she could tell that the kids especially got a little more disinterested as the day wore on, but she also knew that they were both looking forward to the wall.  So on our way out to a section of the wall called Mutianyu, we first visited an area of tombs dating back to the Ming Dynasty.  Being the idiot I am, I expected the tombs to be shaped like vases, and I was disappointed to find that not to be the case.

It was a pretty day, so we enjoyed the stroll through the area leading to the tombs, but were pretty much killing time before seeing the star attraction of the day.
The drive to the wall took over an hour and we made a quick stop for lunch before heading to the parking area where a cable car would take you up to the Wall itself.  The cable car unloads passengers at the bottom of a series of stairways that lead up to the Wall.  Heading up the stairs I did have strains of "we don't need no education......we don't need no thought control!"  I managed to keep the lyrics to Another Brick in the Wall to a dull roar in my head and focus on what we were about to experience.  

Seeing the Wall first-hand is breath-taking and one of those moments that you'll never forget.
Once you get up on top, you can see that it just goes on and on and on as far as the eye can see in both directions.
Ben and Marley, who can suffer from the occasional bout of fatigue from seeing all the things we've seen on the trip, were very enthusiastic about this particular stop.
I had a couple of different reactions to see this amazing piece of work up close.  First was wondering how in the world something of this magnitude could be accomplished when it was.  Second was, I'm thinking it's a bit of overkill.  The section we saw is built along the ridge of a very rugged line of mountains.  No invading horde in it's right mind is going to try to advance through this terrain without being the laughingstock of rival hordes!
We really enjoyed the ninety minutes or so we took to walk along the wall, looking to the north and south, imagining what the world was like when the wall was first built.  And, unlike the cramped conditions we found at the Summer Palace and Forbidden City, there was plenty of room to move about without being pushed around.
The sheer magnitude of the Wall and knowing that we were seeing just a tiny portion of it really put things into perspective.  Our time on this planet is so short when put into the context of an ancient landmark like this.  It tends to make the little everday worries not so worrisome.
There was an added bonus to our visit the Wall once we headed back to the parking lot for the ride back to Beijing.  A shiny red Ferrari was parked right next to our van and Ben really enjoyed getting a close up look at one of his favorite brands of cars.

We managed to get Ben up close and personal with some other exotic cars the next day in Beijing.  After being so busy from the time we arrived in China more than a week earlier, we had a couple of free days to play with.  Ben had painstakingly mapped out where he would be able to see Ferraris and Bugattis and Lamborghinis during the course of our trip and one spot was in Bangkok.  The only problem there was the dealers that had the exotic cars were about a forty-minute trip one-way from our hotel, and Bangkok is a very difficult city in which to travel.  I felt bad that we hadn't been able to see some exotic cars in Bangkok, so we were determined to make it happen in Beijing.

The location of our hotel in Beijing was much more favorable to seeing Ben's favorite cars as a dealer we found online was on the same street as our hotel, and only about a 15-minute walk away.  We walked by a Rolls Royce dealer that had some beauties on display and came upon a dealership that had Maseratis and Ferraris.  Our casual dress made it pretty clear that we were strictly window shopping as we made our way through the doors, but the salesmen were kind enough to let us look around without touching of course.
They also wouldn't allow any photos inside the showroom, but that didn't keep us from catching this gorgeous blue Ferrari digitally from outside.  

The big prize for Ben was seeing a Pagani, and it just so happened a couple of blocks away was a dealership that carried those as well as a Koenigsegg.  He hadn't seen either model in person ever, and was disappointed when the salesman standing in a not so welcoming fashion said that no, we could not come in and have a look around.

Ben was pretty disappointed and sulked a bit through lunch, so we decided to give it another go as we walked back toward our hotel.  As we strolled by FFF Automotive, there were not one but three salesmen standing guard at the door.  Annie had a couple of hundred Yuan stuffed in her delicate hands, prepared to try to grease the skids if necessary.  

We managed to explain our situation and say that we only wanted Ben and not all four of us to get the chance to see the Paganis up close and only be inside for about five minutes.  One of the salesmen spoke more English than the other and relayed our plea to the one who seemed to be the decision-maker.  He kindly relented and Ben got to enter his own little nirvana.

The smile on his face when he came out of there was ear-to-ear and he couldn't wait to report back to his car.  Seeing those machines up close put a real explanation mark on our time in China.  

It's truly an amazing and challenging place.  The people were friendly, as we find that a smile crosses all language barriers.
That's one thing we are finding consistently in our travels through nine countries thus far.  People are as nice to you as you are to them.  Maybe that's even something that we could put into better use in our day to day lives back home.

Monday, April 23, 2012

China, part 1

A few days into the China portion of our trip, our twelve-year old son Ben declares he wants to learn a foreign language.  Not Mandarin, but instead German.  That would really help break down some barriers in a strange land: a blond-haired, blue-eyed pre-teen speaking broken German.  The origin of this desire goes back to a trip Annie and I took to Berlin through WEBN radio back in 2005.

The Dawn Patrol broadcast for an entire week from the German capital in early June.  I came home from there with a couple of soccer jerseys, including one that I discovered was worn by Der Deutscher Fussball Bund, or the German National team.  Shortly after returning to the states, that team started competing in a bi-annual international competition called the Confederations Cup.  Ich Liebe Dich!  I was completely enthralled with their precise, methodical and very effective way of playing. It didn't hurt that they played well, losing to eventual champion Brazil 3-2 in the semifinals.   Before long I had two other DDFB jerseys, including a really sweet long-sleeved personalized goalie jersey with BANGERT on the back.  It is orange with black trim, making it perfect to wear to Bengal games.  The colors showed my support for our NFL team, but at the same time (which unfortunately happened all too often) if things didn't go the Who-Dey way, I could say, (in my european wannabe superiority) hey, I'm a German Soccer fan, and we've won three World Cups.  Oh-for-two in the Super Bowl?  How sad.  And what a stupid name for a championship game!  Why don't you just call your national professional baseball championship something silly like the World Series? 

My devotion to the highly successful German Football program continues to this day and has rubbed off on our children.  Whenever Germany plays an important match, we hang our German flag outside our house in Madeira.  And when the German team emerges with another glorious victory, I blare the German National Anthem over the speakers pointed into our backyard so the neighborhood can share in the glory.  We try to keep the goose-stepping to a minimum, but sometimes that's a struggle.

Annie,  Ben and Marley have embraced the whole thing, especially Ben.  He had a white German jersey that he wore so much he ruined it.  So one of our goals while in Asia was to find him a new German jersey, knowing that we could probably get one for a pretty good price.  That happened in Malaysia not once, but twice.  The first one replaced the white one that got trashed back home, and the second one was one that featured a color that we had never seen incorporated into the usual Red, Yellow and Black color scheme of the Germans:  Green. 

Turns out its their new 2012 road jersey for the 2012 Euro competition that we hope to catch some of during the European portion of our trip.  We got both his new jerseys at great prices at the local market in Penang, and he was excited to have them with him as we headed into China, practicing his German on an app he downloaded on the iPad.  For the next few days we were frequently asked by him:  "Wie Gates est Ihnen?"

Our answer to that throughout our time in China would be "Sehr Gut!"  We decided to go the tour route in China after doing a lot of research and talking to some people we knew who had traveled to China and a few who had even lived there for a while.  It was very comforting to see our guide Peggy waiting for us at the airport in Guilin. 

The main attraction in Guilin is the spectacular scenery, which we got to see our first day there when we took a cruise down the Li River to the city of Yangshuo.  The river slices its way through and around tall rock formations the jut skyward on both sides of the water for almost the entire 63 kilometers.

The ride was a great time, with our guide Peggy occasionally coming up to us and pointing out interesting rock formations that we would be cruising by.   We also made friends with a couple of guys from the States who were on a quick tour of China on a cultural exchange program.

The cruise ended in Yangshuo, which  is a touristy but quaint town.  Kind of like Gatlinburg without the fudge shops and Ripley’s museum and all the cars with Ohio license plates clogging the streets.  We managed to find a restaurant that had options (pizza/pasta) for Marley and enjoyed a quiet dinner.  The next day meant a return trip to Guilin, this time via our van and our guide Peggy, who gave us some good background on her home region during the 90 minute drive.

The Guilin area is home to some interesting rock formations,  including one called Elephant Trunk Hill, which gave us the chance to do an O-H-I-O formation.   
That honestly wasn’t quite as spectacular as the pictures we had seen led us to believe it would be.  What was more spectacular than anticipated was the nearby Reed Flute Cave.  It’s a subterranean series of chambers that were undiscovered until 1959.  The interior is filled with the most amazing stalagtites and stalagmites that we had ever seen.  The complex of underground rooms went on for what seemed like forever, each with its own unique lighting.
That evening, we took in a performance of a very unique musical show that took place on a lake.  An outdoor ampitheater that holds about 2,500 people was near capacity for the show that depicts five different stories of the struggles and triumphs of local farmers and various tribes.  The show was directed by the same group that put on the opening ceremonies for the Olympic Games that were held in Beijing in 2008.  Mother Nature deserves some of the credit for the ambience as the setting was spectacular, with rock formations as a backdrop that would be lit up at various times. 

The show also gave us our first taste of the impression we made on the local people.  A group of Chinese women sitting to our right got one look at Marley and Ben and were squealing with delight at the sight of their fair skin.  Several of them had photos taken with them, something that would happen many more times at various locations in China. 

Guilin was a good starting point for us in China in more than one way.  It gave us a good feel for what it was like to have a tour guide.  Peggy was great, taking a strong interest in our needs without being annoying about it.  She did her best to make sure there were food options available for Marley and was fine when we scratched an event or two off the list to avoid being burnt out. 

As much as we have the goal on this trip of getting as local as possible, having a guide in a land as foreign as China is a welcome security blanket.  If anything ever got squirrely, we could just get Peggy’s attention have her handle it. Sure beats having the US Embassy on speed dial.  She also filled us in on the government's one-child policy, which her parents violated by giving her a sister.  Peggy says her parents call her their "secret" child. 

Guilin also gave us our first taste of our status as oddities among the local people.  That would really become more common in Xian and Beijing.  At first, it was a bit off-putting, but once we embraced the process, we had some fun with it, especially in Xian-more on that later.

And our first stop in China made us realize that the man who hockered up a loogie and spit it into the barf bag on our flight into Guilin from Malaysia was just doing what a lot of Chinese men do.  It’s very common to hear the delightful sound of a man going deep to get a little extra and then enthusiastically spitting out a projectile, and usually right on the ground.  Once you realize how often this happens, you start to notice some things on the ground that you really don’t want on the bottom of your shoe.  No wonder we didn’t see anyone wearing flip flops.

Peggy got us safely to the airport the next day, where we said our goodbyes and got on the flight to our next destination of Xian.  Once we got our bags, we headed out the door and saw the beautiful sight of a Chinese man holding a sign bearing our names.  His English name was Kenny, and like Peggy, he was in his mid to late 20s, and very friendly.

He took us straight from the airport to that main attraction on our half-day of checking out life in Xian, the Wild Goose Pagoda.

It's a beautiful ancient building with an interesting history.  But it's location created something of a fascinating juxtaposition.  The local government had invested some money in reviving the surrounding area, bringing in some shops and restaurants, including the first Papa John's we've seen since leaving home in December.
There was also a Subway nearby, which provided a good location for lunch for Marley, who didn't eat the fish or chicken and rice provided on the flight from Guilin.
The next day would be our busiest one in Xian, and probably our most enjoyable for a couple of reasons.  Kenny, our guide, took us to the ancient wall that surrounds Xian.  It's the oldest, most intact city wall in all of China.  We took him up on his suggestion that we rent bikes and ride around the top of the wall, about a ten-mile trek.  As we got to the top of the wall, and Kenny was trying to do his tour-guide thing and give us a history lesson, he kept getting interrupted by passersby. 
Several of them just HAD to get a picture taken with us.  They were all very polite about it, and very thankful after they had gotten one or two snapshots with the fair-skinned people wearing shorts on a cloudy and cool morning.
The locals fascination with us continued once we got on our bikes and started pedaling.  Many would stop and take a quick pic as we rolled by, and their faces would light up when we would smile and say, "Ni Hao!"

The trip around the top of the wall took about an hour and a half, and it was a great family time.  We stopped a few times to catch our breath or take a photo or two before turning the bikes back in, and making our way through our throngs of admirers to get back in the van with Kenny.

The highlight of any visit to Xian is a trip to see the Terra Cotta Warriors.  They are an army of thousands of life-size soldiers built under the orders of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang around 210 B. C.  When things didn't work out so well for him, as would be the pattern for several subsequent Chinese Emporers, invading hordes did their best to destroy the warriors and they weren't heard from for centuries.  

But then in 1974, some farmers digging a well uncovered bits and pieces of the warriors and the daunting process of rebuilding the warriors began and continues to this day.  They are being reassembled in three separate pits.  The most-impressive pit is the first one.  There are an estimated seven thousand of the hand made soldiers in that pit.
It seems to got on forever, and one can only imagine the work it took and is still taking to restore the figures.
Their are several different kinds of soldiers, as well as horses that are pulling chariots.  The work is also going on in two other pits.  It really was an impressive if a bit self-absorbed.  I'm guessing Emperor Qin Shi Huang might have been the Donald Trump of his time.  And the experience set the stage for the most famous landmark in all of China which was next up on our agenda.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Three bedrooms, four pomeranians

We left many things behind at home when we departed on our trip more than four months ago:  Family, friends, our home, jobs, school, consistently reliable internet service,  Skyline Chili, Graeter’s Ice Cream  and our pets:  six cats, one dog.  Fortunately, we have someone renting our house who has four kids and one of them, his 7-year old daughter,  just loves cats.  Our dog, after an initial period of difficult adjustment, has settled into what seems like a comfortable existence with Annie’s sister.  Still we miss them and have been pleased when we’ve come across animals during our travels.

In our very first stop in Fiji, a stray orange tabby cat helped us ease into our year-long life without pets.  He loved to hang out with us on the porch of the house we rented there for two weeks, and we enjoyed feeding him as much as he enjoyed devouring whatever sort of treat we would put down for him.  Rafael would disappear for a day or so but then make a biblical return which was always met with smiles. 
Our next encounter with a dog or cat came when we stopped for the night in Lake Hokitika on New Zealand’s South Island.  We had been looking through a guidebook for possible places to stay and a place called the Jade Garden Hotel boasted of having a couple of cats on the property.  Sure enough, when we pulled in, found the place to our liking and got to our room, Puddy-Cat, (it’s given name from hotel management, not us!) pranced into our room.  We all enjoyed having a tabby kitty around, even if it was only for one night. 
After that, we were pretty much pet-free for the rest of our 27 day stay in New Zealand and our 35 days in Australia.  We had plenty of animal encounters along the way.  We enjoyed our well-documented obsessions with koalas, kangaroos and kookaburras in Australia, plus the occasional street encounter with someone else's pet like this Great Dane we saw in Sydney.
Then there was the water buffalo that briefly shared our trek in Sapa in Northern Vietnam.
Plus, Ben is sort of like having a pet with you a lot of the time.
Our animalless streak continued through the rest of Vietnam and Cambodia and into Thailand.  Although, at times some of the meat dishes we ordered raised questions about the origin of the “beef’ in our stir fry.

The window for our stay in Southeast and southern Asia was starting to close as April 10th drew closer.  All the way back in July or August of last summer we had booked our tour in China with a departure from Penang.  That location was chosen strictly because it was the most affordable way for us to get from Malaysia or Thailand or Vietnam into China. 

Our search for a stopping point for a few days on the way to Penang from Bangkok resulted in us finding Krabi.  When we were in Ha Long Bay, we talked to Paul from Australia who had done a lot of traveling in Thailand and he recommended Krabi as a good location for a family.  The desire for at least two-bedrooms, a good price and free wi-fi led us to the Baan Sawan resort near the beach town of Ao Nang. 

The only drawback to Krabi is that it’s not on the rail line that stretches through southern Thailand.  In my previous blog entry, Staying Grounded in Thailand, I described our journey from Bangkok to Krabi.   It involved a nine-hour train ride, followed by a pick up truck ride to a travel office where we got a car for a two and a half hour ride to Ao Nang.

It was almost ten pm when we finally pulled in to Baan Sawan.  The property features 9 bungalows, plus a pool area where there is a bar which serves up drinks and where food can be ordered.  We were warmly greeted by the man overseeing the property, a friendly Norwegian named Svein.  As he showed us into our bungalow,  we were welcomed by some unexpected additions. 
Four Pomeranian dogs came scurrying into the room, and ran around us like we had known them forever.   That became a pattern for our entire stay in Krabi.  At least three of the dogs, and sometimes all four,  would spend the night in our bungalow.  Ben usually had two with him, while Marley would have another and sometimes another one would sleep with Annie and me. 

It was great fun to have these little bundles of fur hanging out with us, and helped fill the hole left in our hearts by the absence of our herd back home.

If you’ve spent any time in the coastal areas of the Southeastern U.S.,  you’ve no doubt seen the signs that say Hurricane Evacuation Route.  In this part of the world tsunamis are the concern along the coast.
Malaysia didn’t suffer as badly as Indonesia from the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004.  But still, there are frequent reminders of where to go and what to do should there be a tsunami warning sounded. We saw the sign shown above when we took a half-day longtail boat ride to Chicken Island from Ao Nang Beach.

Another enjoyable aspect of our stay in Krabi was the fact that the bungalow had strong wi-fi.  Knowing we had a long travel day on our way to Penang, I downloaded some podcasts of the two-hour radio show that Tony Kornheiser of PTI fame does on ESPN 980 in Washington, D.C.  It's great radio with a great supporting cast that makes the two hours of each show just fly by.

As we got on the van that would take us to Hat Yai, I got my ear buds in and fired up the first of about eight Tony podcasts I had downloaded on my iPhone.  I knew that would help take my mind off the news that I had learned from Svein, the proprietor at the bungalows we were leaving. 

I was talking to him about the next leg of our journey, saying that we were taking a mini-van to Penang, stopping in the town of Hat Yai in Southern Thailand.  He then informed me that there had just been a bombing there that had killed a few people.  He said it happened every few years and that since it had just occurred we should be fine, that there probably wouldn't be another one anytime soon.  

I didn't share this information with Annie and the kids until after we were safely on our way out of Hat Yai.  I figured it didn't do any good to have them be worried about it, especially Marley.  There was no sense of impending peril as we drove through Hat Yai and I saw no sign of the violence that had happened just about a week earlier. 

The ride to Penang was uneventful, as was our stay there for the most part.  It was brutally hot, and the apartment we rented was at the top of a fairly large hill that was close enough to town to make it not worth while to get a taxi, but also meant a climb up an asphalt driveway that invariably would leave me sweating like Robert Hays in Airplane when he's fighting his demons trying to safely land the airliner.   The positive about where we stayed in Penang was that the position of the apartment complex gave us nice ocean views that we enjoyed when we were able to wipe the sweat out of our eyes.  

We also frequented a local hawker stand down in the village that featured a variety of food to keep everyone, including Marley (if it ain't pizza or pasta it ain't food!), happily fed.
The main thing that Penang did was provide us with a little down time ahead of what we expected would be one of the busiest and most exhilarating parts of the trip:  the ten days we had booked in China.