Tuesday, August 22, 2006

This Is the End

Well...close enough anyway--the end to my adventures abroad, that is. Today it is Tuesday, August 22, 2006. On Sunday, August 27 I fly back to San Francisco. It doesn't take a mathlete to figure out I don't have many days left before I return home.

It's hard to fathom, actually. It's not like I've been gone for years. It's been six months, and while I feel that I've had loads of amazing experiences, saw so mamy fabulous and not-so-fabulous things, met a bunch of fantastic people, all of which have certainly made their mark, my guess is that San Francisco and its inhabitants are probably not significantly altered that I won't recognize the place or my friends when I return. And since I've spent three weeks in the UK, I won't even be shocked at hearing English again. Yet, even though San Francisco is hardly the "unknown" as China and Mongolia were...there is still that wondering "Well, what the heck will happen when I get back? What will it be like? What will I be like?"

It is somewhat sad to think it's over...this grand adventure that not only took up the six months of my life that I was traveling, but many months before that of conceptualizing and planning. What will I plan next??? (Luckily, my occassional overzealous planning tendency has been somewhat muted by Mongolia and the realization that often planning was quite useless. So, I'm actually not that bothered that I don't have something major on the horizon to "plan".)

Without a doubt, I do not overstate when I say that going on this adventure was one of the best decisions I've ever made. And now, soon, on to the new adventure that is a slightly different life in San Francisco than the one I had before.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Almost on the Fringe

As I have finally reunited with my laptop, was able to sort out some problemos with the ability to update my blog, and have some time to kill...I'll fill ya in on what's been up since I was in Mongolia.

Well, three weeks ago, I boarded the direct train from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing. My roommate Alexandria had returned only late the night before from a trip to Lake Khovsgol that had gotten delayed in coming back due to flooding-caused road closures. I was happy to see her because...well, it was nice to see her again but also it made things a little bit easier logistics-wise leaving early in the a.m. and having her go to the train station with me and then take the keys to the apartment.

At 5 a.m. the morning I was to leave, Degii from upstairs knocked on my door and said she was going with me to the station. So I told her to come back at 6 am when we were slated to leave (the son of a woman who had worked temporarily at LEOS offered to take me to the station). Degii came back and was sitting in the living room for a while and then got a call from her dad. At some point she told us he was waiting outside for us to drive us to the station. I hadn't realized he would be driving and of course I had arranged for another ride, so I told her that, hoping her father wasn't too angry. No big deal, he left to go early to the office. But, it was so typical that I wouldn't know he had been planning to drive us and that she wouldn't mention anything about it!

So, anyway, we made it to the station with ample time and everything getting into my compartment went as smooth as yak butter. (Actually, that might be pretty lumpy, so maybe it was smoother than that, I really don't know because I've not had the pleasure of seeing or tasting yak butter, should it actually exist.) It turned out that in the four-person compartment, the only other passenger was a 57-year-old Russian woman who spoke only the slightest English but was fluent in Mongolian, knew German, and of course Russian. I believe my favorite thing she said in English was "Chinese...NO LOVE!" when explaining she didn't care for Chinese people.

I slept pretty much immediately after the train started moving, and several hours later, I woke up as we were crossing the Gobi. There was really not much to see but a lot of sand. So much sand that some of it sneaked through the tightly closed window and got in our hair! But, it was cool to see the Gobi even if I wasn't trekking across it on the back of a camel.

The train was 32 hours or so long, made a number of stops, at some we were able to get off the train and look around for a bit. It was a delightful journey, and I had much fun having "conversations" with Lyuba, my compartment-mate. We ended up having a couple of guests who came in late at night and only to get a night's sleep in the bunks. Turns out it was the Chinese Customs agents. Good thing I didn't know that at the time because I would have inevitably felt nervous or something that I didn't declare anything and yet had like 25 Mongolian handbags in my suitcase.

In Beijing I stayed at the Far East International Youth Hostel and it was a great place to be, smack in the middle of a vibrant and interesting Hutong (old Chinese alleyway type road). I had a dress tailor-made for me out of a really lovely blue raw silk. I visited a few spots I hadn't got around to seeing before. I made some fantastic new pals (one may be moving to San Francisco, the others are two Swedish fellas I might not see ever again, but we hope to keep in touch.) It was glorious to be there and it gave me a new perspective on the city. I totally loved it. It also felt amazing to be back in China, where I felt so at home and comfortable. The traffic wasn't nearly as nutty as it is in UB, and I could walk freely alone at night without worrying about a thing!

My 11-hour flight from Beijing to London was remarkably easy, but all in all, it took 20 hours between my hostel to Josie's flat in Bath. So I was a bit exhausted, to say the least. But a wonderful, relaxing weekend with Josie and Nick and his family on the coast was just the ticket to good food, rest, fantastic company...

I made it to Amsterdam on Monday and except for some poor weather and extreme tiredness, it was great. I saw some friends of the family, saw some art in museums, wandered the streets along the canals. Got stuck an extra day due to flight cancellations, but otherwise, a nice visit indeed. Then...a few days in Cambridge, where I saw Darren and his family (a fella I had worked with in Berkeley and stayed with back in March) and London, where I stayed with a woman called Ruth, who I had known when I interned at the Independent on Sunday, Sunday Review TEN YEARS AGO!!! Blimey, that's a long time.

On Tuesday I went back to my old hood in South Kensington, where I had lived when I spent the semester abroad in London. It felt so familiar. I photographed the Oddbins (wine/liquor shop) where I had purchased my first bottle of wine in London, and many bottles of wine and beer throughout my semester there. It was also where I had received my first marriage proposal. A South African fellow I got to know a bit who worked there learned I was from the Russian River and decided we should marry so he could live there and produce wine. It was very sweet. I also had a drink at the bar that was around the corner from our flat, and while it wasn't terribly exciting, just sitting at a bar by myself while tennis was on the large flat-screen tv, it was nice to be back there and reminisce about all the times my friends and I had spent there ten years ago. And to think how much a person's life can change in a decade.

And now...I am in Perth, Scotland, at Janie's. We go tonight to Edinburgh for the weekend to take in some of the famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Except for having come down with a cold a couple of days ago, I am in decent spirits and pleased to be here most certainly. I will perhaps report back on the Festival and ensuing happenings.

Then...on August 27, I fly home!!! I am so excited to be coming home. It's been a long time and this mad jetsetting I've been doing since leaving China is a bit more exhausting than I had anticipated. But, worth it of course.

Monday, July 24, 2006

I Am Jack's Superglued Heart

So...the day after I found out my project would be on hold because all the files went to India, my spirits lifted considerably. I haven't really been able to do much in terms of work, but I have been busy on the computer, applying for jobs, messing around with photos I've taken, etc.

A Mongolian pal, Naraa, and I met up Friday night and went to a movie. The one that was playing right after we got there was Basic Instinct 2, and we thought, okay, why the heck not. I had seen the first Basic Instinct in the auditorium at my university, so why not see the sequel in Mongolia? I don't think I would have ever planned to see it had I been in America, but I really was keen on seeing a movie. The theater itself wasn't that much different from American theaters, except the seats are numbered (I've noticed this in the UK and Germany as well.) We didn't have to sit in our assigned seats, however, as the theater wasn't very packed. But I was so excited to be inside the theater, eating popcorn, that I didn't really care if the film was great or not. Some might remember that I did see "Below Eight" in Shanghai after all, so my standards are quite a bit lower while abroad. I will leave my film critic comments to myself, but I will say it was, as to be expected, violent and, as the ticketseller said, "erotic." I wasn't quite sure how Naraa would like it. It turns out, she didn't. As we walked away from the theater, she consulted her Mongolian-English dictionary to tell me it was "terrible."

Over the weekend I went with Khulan to the tourist camp that her husband runs. It consists of four gers (one is the kitchen ger, where all food is prepared, eaten, etc.) in the middle of beautiful green hills surrounded by a few other gers here and there (about 20 as far as the eye can see, some belonging to his family), and a lot of horses, sheep, and goats. I rode a horse for a while, which was pretty cool. I accidentally spit on the poor thing, though. Oops. I've heard of camels spitting on people, but people spitting on horses? That's just silly.

I also helped Khulan prepare lunch for a Japanese tourist who came to the camp to ride a horse for a while and have traditional Mongolian food in a ger. When he came to the ger for lunch, he wanted his photo taken with me. I thought that was pretty hilarious. But, he also took his photo with Khulan and some other people there, so it's not like I was totally special.

On Monday Oyuka took me to Terelj, a gorgeous national park area east of UB. The weather wasn't great, but it didn't ruin our fun! We walked over a precarious bridge that was constructed of branches and rocks as we waited for our lunch to be prepared. Then we went on an hour-long horse trek, through rivers and streams and meadows covered in colorful flowers as rain drizzled down on our shoulders. It was a setting ideal for a deodorant commercial or a mystical photograph of a unicorn. And it was a delightful time, except for the horse poo on the leg of my jeans where the horse of the girl leading me and my horse let go without warning just as my leg was in the way. Actually, when that happened, I just had to laugh. It did smell a bit, but otherwise, it wasn't too gross. Just really pretty damn funny. And when we got back, we rinsed it off, so my jeans will survive!

Today is Tuesday...I am in the office. Apparently I will help edit a translated document, then, at the end of the work day, I should return home to clean my apt. I was expecting Alexandria to return last night, but her trip to Khovsgol had a two-day delay in returning due to some flooding and closed roads. So, she should return tomorrow. We had planned to see the National Academy Dance and Theatre Ensemble, which features traditional dance, music, contortionism, etc. I think it would be great to go, but I am not sure I want to go solo, and I'm running out of tugrik (Mongolian currency) anyway. So I might skip it. Tomorrow sometime after work we will go out (by we, I mean, my coworkers and pals I've met in UB) for some kind of farewell drinks or something.

Friday morning at 8:05 a.m. my train should depart from the station. Then, about 30 hours later I will arrive in Beijing. I am excited to spend a few days in China, but naturally, leaving here has gotten me all emotional. I will be really sad to leave the great people I've met here and look forward to the day I can return.

Monday, July 17, 2006

From Six Months to Six Weeks

I will be home in six weeks. That is a crazy notion. It seems like just yesterday...no, wait, it seems like quite a bit longer than that, that I departed SFO and embarked upon this nutty journey. I have been feeling really emotional about leaving UB. I had an opportunity to go on a tour to Khovsgol, which sounded absolutely fantastic, but I stayed here because it would have left me with only 3 or 4 days before I was to leave. And, I'm not finished with my project yet. But most of all, I couldn't imagine having that short of a time left with my pals from LEOS (NGO I am volunteering at, for those who need a reminder.) We tried to organize a trip last weekend, but it was cost-prohibitive. Good thing anyway since I had the whole foot injury to contend with. I am really hoping I can get one last jaunt to the countryside this weekend...

I told (via gestures, of course) the woman who looks after my building that I was leaving in about 10 days, and word must have spread a bit because last night at 10 pm there was furious knocking on my door. I was a bit concerned about opening it because I couldn't see who it was through the peep hole--not enough light in the hallway. I said "Hello" and I heard "It's me." It was a girl's voice, so I opened the door. It turned out it was Degii, a girl on the 4th floor I met when I first moved in. On second thought, she might have said "It's Degii." But whatever...so she said she heard I was leaving and asked "why". I didn't know exactly what to tell her. "I need to go home...and see my family and friends." She invited me to her home tonight. I don't know what this will be like...is it for dinner (god, I hope not only because they don't know I am vegetarian)...is it for just hanging out? I guess I'll see in a few hours. I was really touched by her invitation. I am starting to really feel like I am welcome in my little neighborhood and so it makes me quite sad that I am leaving it.

The other night I walked through a game of soccer (right in front of my building) to go to a shop nearby for some Mongolian black tea (for my foot), and on the way back, all the boys (probably ages 5-8) stopped and said "Hello". And two nights ago, as I walked from the Topaz Hotel mini market back to my apartment, the crowd of boys were on the steps of the neighboring building applauding me! It was so cute and totally funny. They like to say "Hello" and "Hi" to me, which they all did, and I said "How are you?" and "See you later." They mimicked me and I smiled and went on home. Anyway, even though conversation is limited, they make me feel like I belong. And make me realize even more that kids can be so dang adorable!

The other day I was sitting outside, away from the computer, and I scribbled the following down in my notebook...

****
I am drinking a Budvar (Czech beer) at a pub called Dave's Place that has a large outdoor seating area overlooking Sukhbaatar Square. A man on a horse, pulling along a second horse slowly rode by. Montains rise behind the city buildings to the left. People mill about the square. And I just think, damn, I love this place.

I love the little things that, when I first got here, I found totally remarkable, but are still charming. Like the man with the horses on a city street, or a man with three camels going down a main, rather busy road the other day. Or the interactions with other people. The universal joy of laughing with someone about something silly even if you don't speak the same language.

I love the things the gals in my office say. Like when I ask Enji, "How are you?" and she replies "Not bad." Or how Khulan asks me questions like "Scarlett, how long have you been vegetable?" or, "Scarlett, why didn't you tell me my hair was dangerous?"

The city grows on you. When I first arrived I was intimidated by traffic and the Mongolian Cyrillic and sometimes a bit on edge walking around, a bit unimpressed by the pot-holed roads and the dirt. Those were the things that stood out and the rest of the city's charm and beauty were hard to notice. Now all those things (except the traffic, though I am better at dealing with it) have fallen into the backdrop and the glory of UB stands out.

Before I got here, I was excited because I felt that the size of the city would enable me to really feel like I could know it. Sure, parts of it are still undiscovered, but I have gotten a pretty good lay of the land and feel like I can navigate around and know where I am (most of the time).

Well, I am leaving on a high note. Can't beat that!

My Home


My apartment building. I live on the second floor. One of the balconies belongs to me and is accessible by a door from the bedroom. One day I came home and some kids who were outside playing ball asked me (with not so much English) if I could drop down their ball that had somehow landed on my balcony. Of course, I obliged.



The view from my kitchen window on the third day I was in UB, the day it snowed like a mutha****.



My kitchen.



My bedroom that has become Alexandria's bedroom now that she is here. Since she is taller than I am, I thought it the nice thing to offer the bed and I'd take the couch, which is very comfy!


The livingroom, with couch set up for me to sleep on. I bought those sheets at the black market for less than 8 bucks. They are very pink, but I like 'em.

All Fun and Games until Someone Injures the Metatarsus

Not sure if it was the running through the wet, muddy field to look at the horse racing, or on the way back to the car to escape the rain, or maybe it was some other fancy footwork I did on the first day of Naadam, who can know. I do know that starting Wednesday afternoon, my foot starting hurting. The metatarsus, to be more precise. And with all the walking I was doing, it really didn't help. By Friday night, it was in severe pain. So, I texted a few Mongolian peeps and asked if I should go to the doctor. One friend told me to put black tea and salt on it and that would help before I had the chance to see a doctor. Indeed, it alleviated some of the pain.

The weekend was spent mainly resting, save for a trip on Sat. and Sun. to the Internet cafe to do some emailing, send out a few resumes, etc. I also went to the ballet, which was great fun. It was a Mongolian ballet and I missed the first 20 minutes, so wasn't sure exactly at what point I came in and what exactly was happening. The costumes and set were beautiful, though, and the dancing and music was mighty enjoyable. I am glad that I went, and it was nice to get out of the apartment!

Today, I went to the Korean hospital. Oyuka took me when I arrived at the office. We took a taxi there and I went in. I had to register, get a little patient card, pay a 4000 T fee (less than $4), and wait to get seen by the doctor. Maybe we waited 15 minutes, and then I went to the doctor's office. There was nothing particularly remarkable about the hospital or his office. It didn't look quite as modern as the Kaiser in Oakland, but naturally, I did not expect that. The doctor looked at my foot and felt it a bit, asking me what hurt as he applied pressure in certain areas. He said X-rays were unnecessary; nothing was broken. He also said my tea/salt application was good and he prescribed me some Korean medicine. I went to the pharmacy, bought the medicine, which cost me about $1.50, and I was on my way.

Should be fine. Just need to rest, take medicine, continue to apply tea/salt mixture and elevate the foot. I hope it gets better in time for this coming weekend. I would like to get out into the countryside one last time before I leave at 8 a.m on Friday the 28th via train (YES I FINALLY GOT MY TRAIN TICKET!!!!) to Beijing.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Frozen Fermented Mare's Milk on a Stick

Yesterday was the last day of Naadam. Alexandria and I saw the final rounds of the wrestling competition, and even though we still didn't know really what on earth was going on, we could tell when one guy lost because he'd be quickly thrown down on the ground and then there was much clapping and excitement from the crowd. We couldn't stick it out until the end because it became unbearably hot, and we weren't so lucky to get in a good section (that had covering), so we were directly in the sunlight. Not to mention, we needed to make it back toward the sqaure to get tickets to a performance we wanted to see that night. I just have four words for you: Chinggis Khan Rock Opera.

On our way home that night, after the show and dinner at an excellent Indian restaurant, we stopped at a market so A. could get supplies for her trip to Khovsgol. And even though we were super full from dinner, nothing sounded finer to me than an ice cream bar for later. The shop only sold two kinds: the pineapple flavor I had tried before and a mystery one. She got the pineapple, I thought I'd try the other one. Uhm, yeah. We were sitting on the chairs in our living room watching The Simpsons with Russian dubbing (over the English, which you could still hear as well), having just laughed ourselves silly because I was trying to sing the Mongolian National Anthem in the tune of "Mary Had A Little Lamb" (because I don't remember the tune, but it was fun to try to read/sing the cyrillic). And it was ice cream bar time. I opened mine, saw that it was creamy white and suspected it was also pineapple flavor, or maybe vanilla. Nope. I tasted it and immediately was overcome by disgust at the sour/dairy flavor. Airag!!!! I started laughing and A. was asking me what it was but I just couldn't tell her. I made her taste for herself, and she was just as shocked and grossed out as I! Then we just could not stop laughing for a good while afterwards because we thought...who on earth thought it was a good idea to freeze that stuff and put it on a stick?!?!?!!?!

My ice cream bar ended up in the trash, barely eaten.

It's a Dog, It's a Sheep, It's a ...

Each day, even before Naadam, that Alexandria has been in UB has been filled with loads of nutty experiences that make for good stories (although some are better told orally then written).

One night we came home much later than I ever do on my own...It was the night of the final football/soccer match and we were planning on going to a park where they were projecting the game. 12 DJs were supposed to be there spinning, starting around 11 pm, but we were waiting for friends of friends at the Great Khan Irish Pub until after midnight. Before we ever made it to the park, it got really cold and rainy, and we decided that checking out the DJs or trying to stay up until 5 am watching the game wasn't worth it. So we took a taxi home. My apartment is on the second floor, and as we stood in front of the door getting out the key, I noticed on the landing of the next flight of stairs was a man, and what I thought at first was a dog. My eyes were tired and my contact lenses were dusty, so it took me a while and then I realized it wasn't a dog. It was a goat. I was staring at them; they were staring at us. I think we were all in a bit of disbelief. The man with his goat because he probably was wondering what two white girls were doing in the building, and us, of course, because we'd never seen a goat "in" the building. (Actually, I haven't really seen any animals besides dogs in my entire neighborhood.) I think the goat was just thinking, "please don't eat me."

Happy Naadam!

This week is Naadam, the national holiday that features wrestling, archery, horseracing, and also anklebone tossing. The opening ceremony, on Tuesday, was a wonder to behold. My new roommate (another Alliance volunteer, who just arrived last Friday) and I were picked up by the Chairperson (Enkhtuya) of NGO for which I'm working and we were taken to the Naadam stadium.

The traffic was quite bad approaching the stadium, so we got out of the car and walked. We approached a bridge made of stairs that was missing a few steps, but rather than walk around, Enkhtuya suggested we just climb down the railing. Good fun and sort of adventurous. We rushed to get inside so we didn't miss the start. Enkhtuya managed to shove us in an overcrowded "line" or mass of ticketholders trying to get through the gates of Section 1 (the best section), but she didn't get through. She waved at us on the other side of the bars, "Have a good time at Naadam!" Luck led us to seats in the first row, and with my zoom lens, I got some amazing close-ups of people and performance on the field. Enkhtuya made it through another entrance, but we didn't catch up with her until later.

The opening ceremony was quite a spectacle: there were a few speeches, and some dancing, and horses, and a shamanistic ritual type thing, and beautiful, traditional costumes...and I'm completely doing the shortest summary of that ever. We were in the stadium for a couple of hours. I sat there, snapping away, thinking, "wow" this might be the coolest thing I've seen in UB yet. I was excited to be part of it, and really happy we had such good seats. At some point towards the end, some more people were let in our section and were sitting, then standing in front of us. That kinda sucked, but I stood up when I needed to to see what was going on, so it wasn't too bad. We saw a bit of the first round of wrestling, which took place on the field in the stadium. I don't really get the rules, but the outfits they wear (depicted in a photo I posted awhile ago down below) and the waving of their arms (like an eagle, apparently), make me laugh. A lot. We realized we were starving, so around 1 or so, we decided to go out of the stadium and get some food at one of the vendors on the grounds outside.

After eating, we were able to meet up with Enkhtuya, and we drove about 50 km outside of UB to the countryside where the horses race in to the finish line. By then the weather had turned rainy and cold, and we were unprepared. Still, we ran in our skirts and maryjanes through the muddy field to watch the horses. We were still a bit far away, but we did see them going as fast as they could with the children jockeys on the saddles. (Actually one horse no longer had the jockey!)

After the race's finish, we decided to head back to UB, but we first tracked down the ger of the Democratic Party, and stopped in. Enkhtuya knows some of the Democratic Party officials, so they were happy to greet us. We walked inside, and sat down and were offered bowls, not cups, bowls of airag. Airag is fermented mare's milk, and it's all the rage here in Mongolia. But let me tell you...I think it's pretty gross. When the girl ladeled it out of a gigantic vase-type bowl into another ample sized bowl and handed it to me, I asked Enkytuya if we could share it. I didn't think Alexandria nor I would be able to finish that on our own. I grabbed the bowl with my right hand (as you are supposed to do) with my left hand bracing my arm. But they gave Alexandria her own bowl as well. I slowly brought the bowl to my lips and tasted it the white liquid. At first it had a sour taste that I actually didn't mind, but the end was a kick in the throat of dairy that I just couldn't handle very well. I don't drink milk anyway...and it was just too heavy for me. At one point I told Enkhtuya that I didn't think I could finish it and she said I definitely should NOT because it will do a number on my stomach since I am not used to it. She didn't phrase it quite like that, but that was the gist. Then they opened the bottle of Chinggis Khan vodka that Enkhtuya brought, and we were all given little cups of it. (The officials had glass cups and made a toast; the rest of us were given plastic cups.) So airag and vodka in the official ger of the Democratic Party. Not bad.

We met a Member of Parliament in the ger, who lived and studied in San Rafael, as it turns out, about 6 years ago, and a couple other elected officials. It was very exciting, in a way. Inside the ger were photos of the early 90s when the democratic movement was making headway in Mongolia (speeches, hunger strike, important figures). Outside the ger stood the democratic party flags against an amazing blue, cloudy sky, and just a little ways away from the ger was the "toilet" which consisted of a dirt hole and a little cloth on some wooden pegs around it. The cloth in the front wasn't exactly covering the "toilet" very well, so anyone using it was sure to bare a little more than some of us might be used to doing.

We made it back to UB in the evening and we were beat! That was only Day 1 of the official three-day Naadam celebration in UB.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Mongolia...from the Community Development Naadam


A woman in traditional dress for a performance in the Community Development Naadam


Mongolian wrestlers before their wrestling performance at the opening ceremony of the CD Naadam. Sometimes it's all about being at the right place, having your finger pressed half-way down on the shutter release button for a long time, and having an excellent zoom lens!



This girl obviously knows where she wants to go...but she might be having a hard time convincing her dad, or whoever that dude is.



More performers in some kind of traditional costumes


Now that is the biggest horsehead fiddle I ever did see. This was on the stage at the event and was never played...maybe just for decoration? The man in the suit is one-third of the boy band that performed in the finale of the event.

More Images from China


Tourist Attractions on Emei Shan (Mt. Emei). When first approached by other tourists waving a camera, we thought they wanted us to take a photo of them. Turns out, they wanted to take photos with us. This is one of many we posed in throughout China. We considered the idea that we could stay in one spot and start charging the Chinese tourists to take photos with us.






On part of Emei Shan is a "laughing monkey zone." In the hostel where we stayed were numerous warnings written on the walls by other travelers of what these monkeys will do to you to get food. When we visited "the zone", official monkey regulators kept them in line. Though they got a bit frisky at times (one reached into my pocket), they didn't scare us.




Ah...yes, revolutionary icons. The image of Mao can be found on many a product throughout China from bags and hats, to tee shirts and clocks. I refused to purchase any of them, but couldn't help taking a photo of Mao and Che together in Lijiang.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Some Photos! Suh-weet!

Hey,

Finally I am posting some photos. Not very many, not the "best" by any stretch of the imagination. But a few to give you an idea of where I've been and what I've seen over the last few months. Hopefully more to come! (Click to view a larger version, which will be especially handy for the photo of the menu below.)



Behind the guards is the entrance to the Forbidden City in Beijing





That would be me on top of the Great Wall of China, at Simatai



A small portion of the menu at the restaurant at the floor of the hotel we stayed at in Xian. Yum.




Terracotta Warriors. Well, models anyway, at the Terracotta Warrior factory, with special guest




Janie and me and a Buddha wall carving




The scenery we rode past on bicycles we rented in Lijiang. The wind blowing in our hair, the beautiful mountains, green fields, and shimmering water beside us, the smell of poo...How can you beat that?

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Hot Damn!

It is freakin' hot today. I mean, as my friend Jackie would say, Africa hot. Except it's Mongolia hot. I am sitting at the office doing some emailing and such because the computers that have my work on them are being used and there's not much work I can do now since I finished all I really can on the Web site until I get additional information.

Did I mention how hot it is? (By the way, I checked the weather report, and it must have cooled down because it's only 91 deg F right now, and it has become partly cloudy.) I think if it's this hot HERE, I think my decision to not go to the Gobi is probably a good one because it would be downright horrifically hot there. With the sun and the sand for miles as far as the eye can see. The sun! The sand! (Oh, I am reminded of "L'etranger" now!) Anyway, I like to challenge myself, but torture is another matter. Instead, I am hoping to go to Lake Khovsgol, which is up in the north and has what guidebooks call "alpine scenery". We'll see if that works out. I think I could arrange a trip, but it costs $$$ and the more people you have, the lower the cost. So, if I find some peeps or even strangers who are game to go, then it could work out. I thought before I came here that the Gobi was like my Mecca and I wanted to go there more than anything. But, funny how things just sometimes change. I am all about riding a camel on the desert, and I think the Gobi would be cool someday, but the best I'll get is riding through it on the train. If I ever actually get my ticket.

Here's the train ticketing scenario: Apparently it's not so easy to get a train ticket here in Mongolia. For the transmongolian railway trains that go from Moscow, stop in UB, and then terminate in Beijing, you can only get a ticket to embark in UB the day before (because they don't know how many seats will be available.) There is a direct UB-Beijing train that you can get in advance, but you can't buy the ticket more than a month before the departure date. Apparently, with an advanced reservation fee, you can reserve the seat, however. To avoid this hassle myself, I had recruited the help of Durzii, a travel agent, who studied in Germany, btw, and also speaks totally respectable English. He has experienced the travails of this train ticketing situation on my behalf. This is what he has done since the day I met him and enlisted his help.

1) He goes to the train office to see if tickets were available. They said yes, they were.
2) The next day, he brings the money I gave him to the train station to buy the ticket.
3) He finds out he could not buy the ticket because they won't sell them; has an argument and arranges to come the next day to speak with the manager.
4) The next day, he learns the train and ticket price he previously was told was available was not. He calls to tell me the ticket would cost about $30 more because it was a Chinese train, but he could get that ticket for me
5) After my approval, he goes to train ticket office to buy ticket. Finds out he can only "reserve" ticket, can't actually purchase it until after July 2. But, he reserves the seat for me.
6) On July 3, goes to train ticket office to purchase ticket and is told he can't because the manager, apparently the only person who can actually sell/issue the tickets, is not there. She is in the hospital. They tell him to come back Friday.

WHAT KIND OF SHODDY OPERATION ARE THEY RUNNING HERE??????

Because Durzii paid the reservation fee, he is certain that they won't give away my seat. But the poor guy is really frustrated now. I have to shrug my shoulders and thank god I'm not the one trying to communicate with the people at the train ticketing office. Oh, and hope that I do actually get that ticket soon so I have it in my hands and can rest assured that I will make it to Beijing before my flight to London leaves. (I'm giving myself 5 days in Beijing, so it should be enough lee-way, but if something happens and I don't get the train ticket, I guess I better get a plane ticket!)

I sometimes think this place is crazy. And, in my eyes, it pretty much is. But, of course, there are its wonderful attributes as well. Some of the people here that I have met are really A-1. Near my apartment is a hotel, called "Topaz Hotel", that has an attached mini mart, which I started frequenting about 2 weeks after I got here. It sells some snacks and a few more substantial food items, drinks, piv (beer), etc. The second time I went in, there were two girls, sisters, who worked there helping their mother during summer. After that, every time I went there, they were so excited to see me, would wave and smile as soon as they saw me coming, and were very helpful. They both spoke decent English (the older one a little more), and were so friendly that I would often stop at the store to buy something on my way home just to see them. (I think they are around 9 and 11, but I never found out.) One day about a week ago, they said they were leaving the next day for the countryside for the rest of the summer, and I was so crushed! I couldn't believe I would not see them again. But...what ya gonna do? Well, a couple of days later, they still hadn't gone. And the day after that, they were still there. As I was purchasing my drink, the younger girl, said, "Wait", and I did as she went inside her apartment. She came back a couple of minutes later with two little photo albums. One contained photos of her and the other of her sister. They showed me their pictures and then offered me one. I felt bad to take it, as if I shouldn't take one of their precious photos. But they insisted. They ended up giving me a picture of the two of them quite a bit younger (4 and 6 maybe) in front of the statue in Sukhbaatar Square, the main square in UB. It might be my favorite photo I have of anything in Mongolia, even though I didn't take it. Well...it's a toss up with the photo of the Mongolian wrestler pulling out a wedgie.

I think they are gone now because I haven't seen them the last few days I've been at the store. That's the thing that bums me out. You meet all these great people, and the reality is, you'll likely never see them again. And, in some cases, never even be able to communicate with them again.

Speaking (or writing) of communication... last night at 11:30 pm the woman who takes care of my apartment building was knocking on my door to tell me, with assistance of a girl and boy (her kids maybe), "No water tomorrow." She mimed brushing teeth and drinking and shook her head. It was cute. Much like the way I communicate with her. Hand gestures, funny sound effects, etc. She must have learned how to say "No water tomorrow" in English especially so she could inform me because last time when I needed to ask her when the hot water would come back on, she didn't know those words. She had to tell me "tomorrow" by putting her hands together and putting them to the side of her face and cocking her head, as if she were going to sleep.

The hand gesture thing seems to be very effective, though. Yesterday I got some ointment to put on my mosquito bites at a pharmacy by showing the woman at the counter the bites on my back, then making a flying bug gesture, biting gesture, scratching gesture, and rubbing in lotion gesture. Well, at least I think the ointment is meant to help that. I don't really know for sure. It seems like it helps.

In two days my roommate arrives. This should be a new and welcome change. We have had email communication and she seems very nice. She has been interning in Italy. Next week is Naadam, and the celebration should be great fun. I hope. If it sucks, that would be a crying shame. After that, with any luck, travel out of the city. More work on the Web site. Going away celebration. Then...in three weeks from this Friday, I think I get on that train to Beijing.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Coloring in a Map of Mongolia

Gadzooks! I am only here in Mongolia for one more month! I have officially been here five weeks, and it's quite difficult to comprehend. My Web site project has been making some more progress lately, so for that I am pleased. Oyuka brought her computer from home into the office for me to use because all other computers and the laptop I thought was designated for my work have been occupied.

Part of the Web site will include an interactive map of Mongolia. The aimags (provinces) that have LEOS branches will be clickable and will link to information about the branches in those aimags. I found a map online but it has a lot of extra details I don't need and is, quite frankly, a rather dull color. So...this is what I am taking a break from to write...coloring in (thanks Photoshop!) the aimags. It's totally fun.

In other news...well, I went to the museum monastery of Choijin Lama on Saturday, and on Sunday, I met up with the director of the Buddhist center run by the Federation for the Preservation of Mahayana Tradition. She gave me a tour of the center after I attended the very end of the graduation for the students taking the free English classes at the center. They sang a few songs for me, offered me cake and soda and other treats, and then asked me about...twenty questions. Then they insisted I join in their photos during picture time. It was really fun.

Not much else going on. Every week night I leave work, go home, eat dinner, watch TV, study for the GRE, read...etc. Monday nights I am still going to my yoga class. So that is a slight variation :) I think I have my train ticket reserved to take the train to Beijing (July 28) and I am still hoping to plan a trip for the Gobi. Before I know it, I will be leaving this country, so I also hope to get the chance to visit a few more museums and places of interest here in UB. And of course, be here to celebrate Naadam, which starts July 11, I believe. Should be lots of fun: wrestling, archery, horse racing competitions. Music and general celebration.

Ok, back to coloring.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The latest from UB

Today marks three weeks since I have been in Mongolia. It's hard to believe. I have come down with a bit of a cold, which is annoying, but otherwise, I am doing well and I think acclimating to life here without too many problems.

This past weekend I went to a ger (felt yurt) camp in the countryside. I went with Bridget, who is a peace corps volunteer and also a volunteer with the Alliance for International Women's Rights (known as "the Alliance"), the organization through which I am volunteering. I met her the third day I was here and she's been a great help in showing me bits of UB and being a generally friendly contact for me here. Her friend Jonathan came in from Boston for vacation and so she organized the trip and invited me along. It was great to get out of UB. Even being there 2 1/2 weeks had worn me out...just going from place to place crossing in the middle of crazy traffic is exhausting. But in the countryside, the land is vast. Beautiful blue sky, green hills, rivers, horses, sheep, shephards...all the stuff you expect of Mongolia. Sleeping in a ger was fun. Interacting with the Mongolians who were staying there and also who worked there was...legendary.

The weekend alone deserves a very lengthy and well-crafted vignette, which I wish I could have the energy to write. But, let's just say this: I was sung a belated happy birthday Bridget, Jonathan, and five Mongolians (Bridget's friend who joined us and the four camp staff) in Mongolian; I sang the last two verses of a Lord Loves A Working Man song (Good Time) when it was my turn to sing (we all took turns singing a song and people joined in if they could); and I waded half-way across the river up to my waist, until the current got too fast and I got a bit concerned I'd fall over, to get a closer shot of five horses hanging out by the bank of the opposite side. (Damn me for not bringing my zoom lens that weekend!) And if you want any further details you'll have to wait and ask me next time you see me, I think.

In other news: yesterday I was shopping at the local supermarket (or hypermarket as it is called) and I found a French press! Suh-weet. I tried to see if the shop stocked real coffee, which I doubted, but thought I would ask. What ensued was just a lot of confusion when I tried to ask a couple of the employees who spoke and understood some English. Nah, nothin' but instant at that shop. But, I finally found some real coffee at a German cafe on my way to the Internet cafe I am now typing away from.

Otherwise...my volunteer project is going slowly, but okay. The organization where I am volunteering is called Liberal Women's Brainpool or LEOS. Founded in 1992, LEOS is the first women's NGO in Mongolia. The NGO's mission is to "contribute to the sustainable development of the country where women's knowledge and skills are fully and equally used in the formation of the efficient political, social, and economic structure." My project is to help them rebuild their Web site. (When that is done I will post the link and you can learn a lot more about their history, activities, etc.)

When I arrived, LEOS was (and still is) in the midst of organizing a big event that will take place this coming weekend. The event is called Community Development Nadaam, and it is funded by the United Nations Development Program and somehow the Royal Crown Prince of the Netherlands is involved and he will be here at the opening ceremony on Friday. The CD Nadaam is designed to "celebrate community-based initiatives, innovations, and solutions to address existing challenges and problems" and focuses around themes of basic social services, natural resources management, income diversification and sustainable livlihoods, local appropriate technologies, and development of organization, structure and management of Community Based Organizations. Representatives from communities all over the country will participate. I get to attend and take photos, so that should be really cool. I don't really have more than a vague idea of what it will really be like, so after I attend maybe I can report back. In the very least I should have hundreds of photos to share!

So, after this weekend, I understand that things in the office will calm down a bit and I should be able to make more progress with the site. I was able to come up with a draft site architecture based on the materials in English that they gave me, and I reviewed that with Oyuka, who will be my main contact/partner for work on the site. Based on that, I started coming up with the technical development of the site structure, along with a bit of design, which can easily be modified. From what I understand, we need to start from scratch pretty much, so I think there is a lot of work to be done in the content development area. Lordy. I hope I can finish it before I leave! Because of the event, not only has the office been busy and unable to give my project much attention, but there have been a lot of extra people there, and getting a computer to use was difficult at first. Now there is a new laptop I can use, but it isn't hooked up to the Internet, so getting online at the office is currently a bit of a challenge.

In addition to my work with LEOS, I have been assisting another Alliance volunteer, Nikita, who arrived in UB about a week after I did. She is a grad student and former Peace Corps volunteer (in Mongolia) who is also in the country for the summer on a granted project from Asia Foundation related to human trafficking. The project we have been doing for the Alliance has been to go to the six partner organizations (primarily women NGOs) here in Mongolia (including LEOS) and interview them to understand more about their organization and how the Alliance can better serve them with in-country and armchair volunteers. The women we have met with are phenomenal. The work they are doing is inspiring. I was particularly impressed and touched by the projects in action by the National Center Against Violence (NCAV). It turns out that NCAV is rebuilding their Web site and has requested an Alliance armchair volunteer to edit the translation of the Mongolian text for the site. A volunteer has already been assigned, but since I offered to help and I am here in UB, I will be supervising that volunteer. That should be a good side project for me to do.

Even though my own project has been delayed, I have been enjoying being in the office. The women at LEOS are incredible. Though very busy, they are still very nice and helpful. One woman who is the sister of a full-time staff member is working temporarily helping out with the CD Nadaam. She is a French translator and so she and I have been communicating in French and I am having a fun time with that.

I still feel lonely and somewhat isolated at times. Even with knowing a couple of other Americans here and meeting some friendly Mongolians here and there, it's hard for me to socialize much after work. Part of this is because I still haven't been able to sort out getting to my place via taxi when it's dark. Luckily it doesn't really get dark until around 10 pm, but still it's hard also because people have lives and are busy...so I am continuing to watch a good amount of television. Today I watched part of NBA Finals Game 3 (and was seriously disappointed at the outcome, btw!!!)

But, luckily UB isn't too large and I am getting the hang of how to get around pretty easily by foot. I have been going to a fantastic vegetarian cafe for lunch. The place, called Ananda Cafe and Meditation Center, also has yoga classes on Monday nights, and I attended my first class on Monday. It was really pretty basic, which was great for me since I'm such a yoga novice. What I love about the cafe is that each day they have a set menu and for less than $1.50 I can get what they call the "main meal," which changes slightly daily. It usually includes some kind of rice, potatoes, beans or soy meat, and vegetables. Damn tasty, healthy, and way cheap!!! I feel like no matter what happens when left to my own devices to cook for myself for dinner, at least I've had one meal that is healthy and filling. (By the way, it's not like I'm a total loser when it comes to cooking, but let's just say that the stores don't have as much of a variety of foods as I'm used to cooking at home.)

Phew! This has been a long post. I think I should end it for now and try to write a shorter, more focused entry next time.

P.S. I didn't get hot water for my birthday! Didn't come back on until the afternoon of the next day! But that shower I had after work that day was like a gift from the gods!

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Mongolia!

Well...after a 12-hour flight delay, I made it to Ulaan Baatar (after midnight). As I drove to the hotel from the airport, I tried through my tired eyes to observe as much as possible, but except for a few buildings, trees, and signs in Mongolian Cyrillic, I couldn't see much of what the city was like. I was so excited to be here, though, nothing else mattered. I had been anticipating arriving in UB for such a long time. Hard to believe it was real.

It took me a while to fall asleep. I wanted to call people to let them know I was a-ok, and I was just so excited, I suddenly couldn't sleep, even though I had been so dead tired earlier. The next day, I woke up, got ready, phoned a few more people...and then I was 15 minutes late to meet Oyuka, the woman from the organization where I am volunteering (who also picked me up at the airport), because I didn't realize that Mongolia was an hour later. (I had forgotten that China does NOT follow Daylight Savings Time, but Mongolia does. Otherwise they are in the same time zone.)

So...first thing we went to my apartment. As we approached it, I thought where on earth are we going to? We went down a dirt road that was filled with pot holes that the taxi had to dodge. There were a few old, run-down apartment buildings, a playground, and a few little shops that are like convenience stores, I guess. They sell some vegetables, drinks, snacks, and the like. Except for a sign with pictures of laundry detergent or veggies, I would have no idea that these places were shops because they look like there isn't much of a storefront. It just looks like someone put a sign up over their apartment door. (I didn't actually know what these shops were at first.) But we got to my aparment building, and I was pleased to see it was one of two modern brick buildings (each about 5-6 stories). Inside the apartment, I got very excited because it seemed gigantic (especially for one person) and it had all sorts of amenities (except a washing machine, but no biggie.) It was modern, clean, bright, and very spacious!!! Not bad at all.

I later discovered that it even has cable TV.

So, what is UB like? Well, it's hard to explain, really. Most of the buildings are not so tall. Some less-than-well-maintained roads. Trees. The stupidest traffic jams I have ever witnessed.

Crossing the street is often hazardous. There aren't many crosswalks, so you have to jaywalk. You get to the middle of the road, stand there between lanes of traffic and then when you have a chance, bolt across to the other side. This was often the case in China as well. Only here, cars will hit you. In China, as chaotic as it was, it wasn't as seemingly life-threatening. I am not even good at jaywalking in Berkeley with cars 100 meters away, let alone in nutty traffic in a foreign country. So, sometimes it takes me longer to get across the street than it should. A lot longer.

It's nearly impossible to find any coffee but instant (unless you order a cappucino or something in a cafe). I had contemplated getting a french press at Starbucks in China (along with some coffee). Should have. I don't think I'll have luck finding one here or fresh ground coffee. The other day I think I bought brown rice, but I can't really tell. I purchased some Kikoman soy sauce (the only brand they sell but I'm not complaining because it's fine by me.) However, they had only one size. It's like a 1.5 L bottle, I think. Freaking huge. If I ever managed to use that much soy sauce in two months I would have to wonder about myself.

So, I have been here a week. I am trying to figure out how to make the most of my time here and explore and see stuff. But, so far I have spent a lot of alone time in my apartment. The second day I was there I was supposed to meet up with Oyuka, but she was busy the entire day with a meeting and wasn't able to meet me. And I had no idea where my apartment was in relation to anything, so to avoid getting lost and unable to find my way home, I stayed in. Also, I caught a little cold, so I was inside all yesterday.

I expect most of all I will be spending a lot of time in the apartment because I shouldn't roam around at night on my own. I go home to the apartment when it is still light and it's not like I have a ton of people I can call or meet up with or a computer to use or the Internets to access. So...so far I've been studying for the GRE, reading, watching cable TV like "Undercover Brother" on Star Movies or the Tour de Taiwan on ESPN, and trying to practice a bit of "Les Artes de Martiaux Chinois" from a book I picked up in Lijiang, China. Chinese martial arts, in French. I can understand the language but I can't do those moves, I can tell you that much. Even the "basics."

Oh, so far in the week I have been here, I have seen the weather go from bright and sunny and very hot one day to rainy with thunder and lightening followed by snow the next! The fastest, fiercest snow I ever did see. Now it is sunny again today, but a bit chilly. Oh, and some of the apartments in the city do not have hot water for a week. Including yours truly's. I get it back on Monday, supposedly. Suhweet! I'll get a hot shower for my birthday. What else can a gal ask for?

Sunday, May 21, 2006

On Leaving China

Today is my last day in China until I return to Beijing in about two months to fly back to London. It is completely difficult to fathom that I have been here as long as I have been and in a way, it seems like I have been here forever. Of course, it seemed like I had been here forever after a week. So...maybe traveling can do that to you. My concept of time or even what day of the week it is is totally out of wack.

I remember when I first arrived in China...feeling ill from turbulence and straining my back with a heavy bag filled with cameras and equipment, the taxi drive into Beijing from the airport was probably the worst entrance into a destination I have ever experienced. The city pollution and the ugly tall buildings made the place look quite dismal. Of course, after I was feeling better and we went to see some of the requisite tourist spots and I got a little more used to being in China, Beijing seemed cool enough.

And now, after traveling across a good part of the country, China seems a lot more normal to me. Even though...the longer you stay here the more you come to understand how little you know about the place, the culture, the people (or so I've been told by ex-pats who live here.) I don't claim to know much of anything, but I do feel really comfortable in this country. And so maybe it is that it seems quite normal to me that I am in China.

About mid-way through my six-month adventure, I can't say that I have had any major ephiphanies or feel like my life has totally changed. Well, and I never expected that, either. (And if that happened, I might be a bit suspicious.) But, I do feel as though little, subtle things have already started to seep in. Even though I had my bout of homesickness and a few hard days here and there, I have never regretted leaving San Francisco or coming to China. I do wish I had visited a few locations here that I won't get to on this trip. But...I think it's always good to leave a few places for the next time, should there be one.

In a way, I am sad to leave, but I am ready to move on. And I am so excited about going to Mongolia, that I think I'll reserve my sadness for when I am finally saying "zaijian" to China in August when I board that plane to London.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Last Days in China

Well, I just accidentally deleted a post I was in the midst of writing, so I am going to avoid going into it all again for now (it wasn't that exciting anyway) and just let everyone know I am still alive. I am in Beijing. After Shanghai, I spent a week in Hangzhou and had the great fortune of meeting a friend of a friend and staying with him and his roommate for several days.

Hangzhou was beautiful. At least the area where I was...it has a famous lake called West Lake, and the main street near where I stayed, Nanshan Lu, is lined with gorgeous trees (and a Ferrari dealership, btw). The day I arrived, I checked into the hostel (I stayed there the first three nights I was there), and then I went to get lunch. I walked outside and immediately felt revitalized. My spirits had been dampened a bit, I think, from all the time I spent in Shanghai. I think Shanghai in general is a nice place, but I was exhausted from the intensive three weeks of practically non-stop touristing I did with Janie and Silke. I thought that being a traveler had gotten tiresome, but I realized it was being a tourist that was so tiresome. Being a traveler doesn't have to be at all. I spent a few days just chilling out, watching dvds, etc. and it was great. When you stay long enough in a place, you realize you don't have to go out every day in search of temples, pagodas, stone forests, etc. Not that I regret seeing any of those things! But, going everyday to see something new does get to be too much after a while. Also, there is a numbing effect. Things aren't as special or exciting anymore. I think what has become more interesting for me is going to the supermarket or a department store. And while I had plenty of days of non-touristiness in Shanghai, I didn't feel very much at home there, and it was hard to really relax.

So, after my week in Hangzhou, I headed to Beijing, where I met up with a relative of mine (Will) I had never met before. He lives and works here and I have been staying at his apartment. It's been really great. Most of the days, I haven't been doing any touristy things because I had some logistical stuff to take care of for my coming trip to Mongolia. And I also just wanted to do some more chilling out and watching dvds. But, I have now seen a bit of Beijing night life and some good live music. The other night I went with Will and a colleague of his, a British fellow my age, to a Middle-eastern-type place that has live music and belly dance (though not at the same time...the band will play, then they leave the stage and the dancers perform, and back and forth like that for the duration of the evening's entertainment). The food was mainly Chinese, though there was pilaf on the menu. After dinner we went to a bar called Frank's Place that was absolutely filled with ex-pats. When we walked in, I said "What happened to China?"

One of my favorite music experiences was seeing a group of four women perform English songs ranging from "Yesterday" by The Beatles and "Tears In Heaven" by Eric Clapton to "Driftwood" by Travis on traditional instruments (pipa, erhu) and keyboard. It was pretty cool. They don't speak a word of English, but the vocals were very convincing.

So, in two days I leave for Mongolia. I am very excited. After a number of absurd challenges, I finally managed to wire money to Ulaan Baatar to reserve an apartment that I plan to rent for the two months I will be there. As always, with travel, there is a bit to be nervous about: I don't have with me any of the Mongolian currency, so hopefully the airport has an ATM. Because, if plans go awry, and for some reason, I am not met at the airport by someone from the NGO where I will be volunteering, I need to get a taxi to the hotel where I will stay initially. Which means I will need to exchange money or find the ATM, or to find a taxi driver who takes US Dollars. But I only have twenties, which I am sure is too much for the drive to the hotel...None of this is such a big deal, but apparently I have to be extra careful of pickpockets, and of course I will have all my bags, so, it could add an extra bit of stress when I first arrive. But, as long as I am mindful and don't get too panicky, I won't need to sweat it. Once I am at the hotel and once I have also verified that everything is a-ok with my apartment, I will be home free. So to speak. And then I have a few days in UB before I start the volunteer project to get acquainted with the city and get a mobile phone. Suh-weet! I'll try to write more soon after I get there with intial impressions and stuff.

The real shame is that as I've been traveling, I have been writing in my journal and I have all these great ideas of things to write on the blog...but then when I am the computer, I no longer have the same inspiration. So many of the thoughts and feelings I have had in China get left behind.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

So Long, Shanghai

It is almost 3 p.m. The sky is overcast. It is my last day here in Shanghai. I leave on the train tomorrow at about noon, and I will leave the hostel around 10 a.m. just to make sure I have plenty of time to decipher the train station signs and figure out exactly where my train is and where I am meant to be sitting.

I have just finished reading Capote's "In Cold Blood," which was good, but depressing as all get out. Several people asked if I started reading it, inspired by the recent film, "Capote." And in fact, I had not been inspired by the recent film, which I haven't even yet seen, but I think the film inspired the prominent display of the book in Waterstone's, where I bought it in Perth.

So, on this last day in Shanghai, I don't feel much like going out and sightseeing, but I am planning on going out for sushi for dinner, one last time :)

I feel slightly odd about leaving. But, I am done with the city. Shanghai is nice and all, but the dirty streets and crowdedness has worn thin (and I haven't found that many good places to eat). I am over the Bund and Nanjing Road. It has been a fine place to stay for the 10 days I've been "stuck" here. Enough days to see and do things when I felt like or just sit around and read and relax on other days. But, I am ready to move on. Yet, I think it's always strange to leave a place where you've spent any signficant amount of time. I felt quite sad when I left Lijiang, where we had stayed for four days.

Next I am on to Hangzhou, which is supposed to be beautiful. So...that shall be fun AND exciting. And I am just so excited that in two weeks I'll be in Mongolia! I think it will be great to be in Ulaan Bataar for several weeks. It seems like a small enough city that I can navigate around and really get a good sense of what it is like, maybe not ALL its nooks and crannies, but certainly a good number of them...and I am so happy that I'll finally have something to do besides being a traveler/tourist (my volunteer project.)

Well...I didn't end up perfecting my game of pool as much as I had planned (though did play a couple of decent games). And I didn't end up adding the backlog of blog entries as I had wanted. Something about standing up at the computer really deprives me of my creativity and stamina to write.

But, I met some really swell people and overall had a good time of it. And I quickly overcame serious homesickness (the day Janie and Silke left I spent looking at flights to San Francisco--thought I could go home for 2 or 3 weeks before Mongolia.) Now I think I am capable of traveling on my own. Phew. Thank goodness. :)

Friday, May 05, 2006

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Museum...

Yesterday around 2 pm, I set off in search of a museum that is not very close to the hostel but not far from a main road that I could walk along from the hostel. So, rather than turn left on Beijing Road as I normally did, (the direction to go to the Bund), I turned right. For blocks and blocks, I passed machinery shops, some quite large, and some that are just like little storefronts, that sold all kinds of nuts, bolts, devices, rope, steel poles. Whatever machinery your heart could desire.

I passed a garden with beautiful flowers that also went on for a few city blocks. A couple sitting on a bench said "Ni Hao" to me and I approached them to say hello. They looked so sweet that I showed them my camera and asked if I could take a photo (not in Mandarin by the way, in hand-signal), and the woman's face lit up. We decided the city street backdrop against which they sat wasn't as nice as the flowers, so they stood in front of the park instead. I snapped the photo and then showed them. They asked that I sit with them for a few moments to chat but soon our conversation ran dry, as you might expect given our limited shared vocabulary. Anyway, I wanted to continue on my journey, so I bid them adeiu and walked on.

At some point, perhaps nearly 2 hours since I had began my trek, I ran across a couple of boutiques, which seemed out of place along the road I was going. But I stepped inside to see what they offered. And in one I found a skirt that I really thought looked cool. I tried it on. A perfect fit! But, unlike the shop next door, this place didn't accept credit cards and I didn't have enough money. So, I went a couple of streets down and found a bank. Turns out the street I was on to get to the bank was Nanjing Road, and this is a very busy shopping street. After buying the skirt, I also realized I was hungry and my committment to finding the museum seemed to dissipate. Instead, I returned to Nanjing Road and found myself in a couple more shops. Buying clothes!

So, a skirt, a dress, and two tops later, I decided to head home via Nanjing. Growing ever more hungry, I also thought now was a good time to try out one of the vegetarian restaurants I had read about. So, several more blocks down, I found it. It was big and at first I thought maybe it was no longer there, replaced with something more "meaty." But, this place is popular it turns out, and indeed, completely vegetarian. But, they do make dishes out to be like meat. I know you will all be disappointed to learn that I did not try anything daring. No fake-meat fried sparrow for me. Or pig bowel. Or mealie with pine nuts. What the heck hey mean by "mealie" I don't know, but that doesn't sound good. I was so very curious to see what I would be eating had I ordered the "Verdure Towel Gourd Cassserole," but I am sorry to say that in the end I didn't get that either. I got some tasty noodles and some sweet and sour soup. Very run of the mill, but delicious and I didn't have to worry that the soup base was made of pork or that I would find pieces of meat in the noodles.

Right before I went inside the restaurant, it had started to sprinkle. And by the time I left, the sun had gone down and the rain poured a bit more heavily. But the temperature was warm and it felt glorious to walk outside in the rain with the reflection of Shanghai city lights on the wet pavement and asphalt.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Suzhou Creek

After successfully getting my train ticket to Hangzhou and getting a booking in the hostel there, I decided to go for a wander. Most days, to get anywhere interesting, such as People's Square, the Bund, or the sushi restaurant I have been frequenting, one needs to turn left out of the hostel. But, I noticed yesterday that to the right (where I turned to get to the store where I bought detergent for my laundry), there was some greenery. So, today I decided to explore and see what it was.

It was a little park that went along side a creek, Suzhou Creek, as it turns out. I have no idea what significance this has except that it's a fairly large creek on my map so it seems impressive somehow.

As I was leaving the park, I noticed a group of people doing something akin to Tai Chi and a woman smiled at me and I had a fantasy that I would go join their group and do some of the movements with them. But I didn't. Instead, I ventured toward a street that runs parallel to mine because it looked fairly happening. I noticed in a magazine kiosk that there was a Chinese language magazine featuring Dirk Nowitski of the Dallas Mavericks (basketball team for those who aren't hip on the NBA) and I wanted to buy it for Janie. But the woman in the kiosk was fast asleep and I decided instead to photograph it.

As I turned around from the kiosk, I heard a "hello" and it was a man sitting at a table with a briefcase-type bag. I said "ni hao" and then he engaged me in conversation in quite decent English. He said he knew 7 languages, which I don't doubt, but it makes me think what a shame he couldn't use his language skills for profit and get some dental work. (He had one, single, majorly decayed top tooth remaining, and nubs of teeth on the bottom.) He asked if I had any American coins to give him as a present but unfortunately I did not. Since it was out in the open on a busy street, I wasn't particularly threatened, but I did end up thinking this guy could go on talking all day, so I said I had to get to meet some friends. Which, I guess in a way was true because later tonight I am meeting up with two Finnish sisters I have befriended (who are staying in my hostel) for dinner.

I walked back by way of the busy street where I passed a bakery and ended up with way more baked goods than I wanted. But for less than 4 yuan, it was okay. Then I photographed a few things I saw on the street, including a policeman getting his LPG (natural gas) tank in his motor bike looked at by what looked like the appropriate LPG motor bike mechanics, and passed by what looked like a scuffle between some pedestrians and a man on a motor bike. Aye aye aye.

Back at the hostel for a while...tomorrow I will try to do some sightseeing and brave the masses. And oh boy....are there masses.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Shanghai Sushi

A few nights ago, Janie and Silke discovered a sushi restaurant near the Bund and told me it was worth going to. So, last night, I went there. It was damn tasty. So I went back today for lunch and almost had dinner there as well. I expect I might visit the place several times while I'm in Shanghai because it's close to my hostel, they have a fairly extensive range of vegetarian options, and after 3 1/2 weeks of Chinese food, it is nice to have something different (and McDonalds and KFC is just NOT an option!) Also the restaurant is big and clean with decent ambience and their toilets are well-stocked with toilet paper. Lordy, the things we start looking for in a restaurant. It may be surprising that with the Chinese hatred of the Japanese that a Japanese/sushi restaurant would do so well for itself. I haven't been able to investigate further this phenomenon. And may never do so. I think I'll just sit back, enjoy the avocado maki and deep fried pumpkin and be content with the world.

Eight Below in Shanghai

Tonight I went to the cinema with my dorm-mate, Ivan, from Denmark. We walked about 20 minutes from the hostel to People's Square (which earlier today was insane because it's the May 1st holiday and everybody and his brother was walking around there.) Near the square is a multiplex cinema featuring an IMAX screen. As it tuned out, we were just in time for the English-language film, for which I earlier saw a poster and was joking that I'd much rather see a film in Chinese than that cheesy-looking movie. Eight Below. A film about an Antarctic expedition that goes awry and the heroic desire one man has to go back to save his team of 8 dogs (huskies and two malamutes.)

But somehow at the ticket booth it seemed like the right idea, so we go the tickets and it turned out to be in the IMAX theater. I had to get popcorn, of course. It was my third time getting popcorn in China, and as of yet, the only kind available has been sweet. But, better than nothing, so I got some and a beer because they sold beer there and I thought...damn, haven't ever bought a beer in a cinema yet!

Now, let's be clear about a few things. I am very much in love with the idea of going to Antarctica some day. And my favorite kind of dog in the world--the one kind I hope to own someday, is a huskie. AND I do like adventure films set in extreme environments. So...you do the math. It was based on a true story as well. So, despite some cheesy dialogue here and there and a corny plot (though some of it is true), I totally enjoyed the movie. And I cried more in that flick then I have in a movie since Beaches.

I don't recommend to anyone else to spend money on this film. But it was just fine for me in Shanghai.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Shanghaied

After three weeks of travel around this very large country, going all over the map, I am in Shanghai, on my own as of this morning, and I plan to stay here for a few days to chill out, write, and maybe wander around the French Concession.

Coming into the city at night from the airport, Shanghai looked like any big city. Tall, brightly illuminated buildings, etc. But as we approached our hostel, and saw Chinese characters on signs, and laundry hanging outside windows, we knew we were in China again.

I am in a hostel that is conveniently located about 5 minutes walking distance from the Bund. And the place is friendly enough and safe. But, outside the window of my room is a whole lot of racket. By 8 am every morning, people yelling, many cars honking, and construction banging makes it difficult to sleep in. Even on a Saturday morning, the noise is only slightly turned down. And there are renovations going on in the hostel as well.

The first day here, we walked down to the Bund and around the International Settlement, where many of the buildings are very European-looking. There is also a Bund museum with nifty old pictures of all the old bank buildings and foreign embassies--some from before 1900.

So, since I am stuck here for a few days and I have some time to kill, my plan, as previously blogged, is to write some more entries about what I've experienced so far.

Topics to include: traffic; "tourist attractions"; accommodations; modes of transportation; how we inadvertantly joined a tour (sort of); being a vegetarian; how i have learned to jaywalk, get over my modesty, and be a quiet american; and joining the revolution (pedal revolution, that is).

So, stay tuned...

Friday, April 21, 2006

A Vacation from My Vacation

China has been amazing! I have been meaning to write loads of stories and observations, but everytime I have a few minutes on the Internets, I am busy trying to send a few emails to people to make sure they know I've made it to my next destination a-ok. My itinerary hasn't changed, so you can see what cities I've been in so far. We got to a smaller town called Lijiang a few days ago and it's a stark difference. The places we've visited have had populations of millions. This town (as of 2002 or so) has about 8,000. It is a popular tourist destination, however, so it does get crowded. In Lijiang, there is an old town and new town. The old town has little cobble stoned streets that curve every which way and present scenes and views that are worthy of many photographs. After you walk about 5 minutes from where we are staying, the streets become lined with shops selling clothing, dolls, artwork, combs made of some sort of animal horn, dolls, tea, postcards, bells, and let's not forget..."dried meat yak" as it says on the store front.

We are staying at a guesthouse that is filled with Westerners (the first such we've been to so far as many of the other hostels and guesthouses have also had many Chinese travelers and we haven't seen that many Westerners.) The guesthouse is called Mama Naxi's. Mama's dinners are legendary and people who stay in other guesthouses also come to dine here. (She charges 8 yuan, the equivalent of 1 USD for guests for dinner.) At night the courtyard is a buzz with numerous foreign languages from people sitting around the four tables. We have met a very nice Israeli fellow and his mother and have become pals with them. They have even invited us to visit them in Haifa! The guy is studying Chinese language and culture and has visited Lijiang before, so he was our sort-of tour guide walking around the village.

Today (Saturday) is our last full day here in Lijiang, where we have enjoyed the relaxed, laid-back atmosphere at the guesthouse. There isn't tons to do or see here, and the entire town is walkable, so we've meandered here and there, shopping, visiting one attraction called Black Dragon Pool Lake, and enjoying tea or coffee in a cafe that affords gorgeous views of the nearby mountain whilst writing postcards and enjoying Leonard Cohen flowing through the stereo speakers.

Our plan today is to rent bicycles and ride around the town and explore the less touristy shop area. Tonight we are supposed to get tickets to a traditional Naxi music concert (Naxi is the "nationality" originally in Lijiang--more info on them to come at a later time.)

Next we go on our cruise on the Yangtze for three days and then on to Shanghai. After a couple of days, Janie and Silke will fly back and I will be on my own. Because of the national week-long holiday starting May 1, travel to and fro is insane, so I have decided to stay put. I will therefore likely be in Shanghai about 10 days, which is longer than I had intended to stay. But, it might end up being nice to have some time to mundane, every-day things. I hope to write more for the blog about what I've experienced so far, have some general chill-out time, read more about Genghis Khan (in preparation for Mongolia), and check out a film. Of course I will also see some sights and wander around the city.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Ni Hao (from China)

Only the 7th day and yet I feel as though I have been here forever. Well, sure, forever is a bit of an exaggeration, but I certainly feel like I have been here longer than a week. You can see on my itinerary that where I have been and it seems a waste to just say in narrative form the same thing. So, in this post I will say the following:

My arrival in Beijing was a bit rough as I got quite ill (in my stomach) from turbulence at the end of the flight and then strained my back quite severely getting down a heavy backpack from the overhead bin that was way too high up for little ole me to reach. I spent the day in Beijing in bed. The next day we walked around the city and at first I must confess I experienced a bit of culture shock. But now that I've been in the country for several days, I feel much more comfortable. In fact, I felt fine after a day. My semester in Mandarin has already paid off and I am so happy that I invested the time to learn a bit of the language before the trip.

I will soon write more about some of the experiences and impressions I've had. But, just really wanted to take the opportunity while I am staying at Sim's Guesthouse in Chengdu (where they have nice internet access) to write a little hello and let anyone checking the blog know that I am a-ok and that China is well...different, but pretty freakin' awesome. One thing I will mention... I ate lunch at a restaurant called Ma Po Doufu (doufu is tofu) and ordered the dish called ma po tofu in Jason Ditzian's honor because I know how fond he is of it. It was soft tofu in a bowl of chili sauce with chili ALL over it. And it was SPICY. But, I gave it a go. And it was tasty...not quite like the ma po tofu we ordered in Berkeley (which was also tasty but not drowning in chili). Damn.

More to come...most certainly. It might be a while as I am about to hike a mountain tomorrow.

China Itinerary

April 7: Arrive Beijing

April 8: Beijing (Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City)

April 9: Beijing (Great Wall at Simatai)

April 10: Beijing (Summer Palace)[Overnight train to Xi'an]

April 11: Xi'an (Big Goose Pagoda)

April 12: Xi'an (Terracotta Warriors, City Wall)

April 13: Chengdu [Fly from Xi'an 10 a.m.]

April 14: Emei Shan (Mountain about 2 hours from Chengdu)

April 15: Emei Shan

April 16: Le Shan (Grand Buddha) [Bus to Chongqing)

April 17: Kunming (Fly from Chongqing 10:40 a.m.)

April 18: Kunming

April 19: Kunming/Lijiang [Fly to Lijiang from Kunming 3:30 p.m.]

April 20: Lijiang

April 21: Tiger Leaping Gorge

April 22: Lijiang

April 23: Lijiang/Chongqing/Yangze River Cruise [Fly to Chongqing from Lijiang via Kunming 1 p.m., start cruise in evening]

April 24: Cruise

April 25: Cruise

April 26: Arrive Yisheng/Shanghai [Fly to Shanghai from Yisheng 4:40 p.m.]

April 27-May 9: Shanghai

May 9-16: Hangzhou

May 16-22: Beijing

May 23: Ulan Bataar (From Beijing 8:50 a.m.)

Monday, April 03, 2006

A-Punting We Will Go

I am currently in Chrishall, about a half hour south of Cambridge, recovering from some sort of stomach flu (if that is its real name), at the home of Darren and Rachel and their little baby Elena. Darren used to work with me in Berkeley and the family moved back to the Cambridge area last year. I arrived on Friday, and the weekend was filled with lots of good fun. Saturday we went into Cambridge—my first time visiting. The weather, a bit windy at times, was otherwise fantastic: sunny! Since Darren and Rachel had been students at Cambridge, a handy pass got us into a few places such as St. John's College Chapel and King's College grounds without the need to pay an entrance fee or wait in line!

We had lunch at the historic Eagle pub, parts of which date back to 1600. It was at this pub that Watson and Crick supposedly discovered the form of DNA. As you first enter the pub from the courtyard, you go through the RAF bar, which has writing burnt into it (apparently with cigarette lighters) dating back to WWII. I had a tasty cheese baguette sandwhich and a half-pint of Abbot ale as we sat in the sunny, non-smoking room.

Then we went down to the River Cam for some punting. Darren and I hired a punt (a square-ended boat) from Scudamores, founded in 1910, while Rachel and Elena did a bit of shopping. In order to punt, one person stands on the edge of the boat and uses a pole (about 15-feet long) to propel and steer. There were a number of other punts on the river, some steered by guides who gave details about the colleges as we sailed past them. We did not hire a guide. It was just the two of us, and Darren started out with the punting as I took photos and learned about the bridges we punted under. One bridge is the mathemtical bridge that was rumored to be designed and built by Sir Isaac Newton. (However, I just read that is only myth and that he died well before the bridge was designed and built.) The famous covered bridge is called the Bridge of Sighs, named after a bridge in Venice (so-called because it led to the gallows.) How sad.

I did give the punting a go myself, although I must confess that I forgot to read up on the technique and found it difficult to get very far because the pole was quite heavy and I struggled to lift it sufficiently to make much progress with the propelling. Also there are loads of other novice punters on the river and several of them careened their boats into ours, giving a bit of a jolt. I didn't fall off or lose our pole, though, so for that I must be pleased. But after a few minutes of going nowhere fast, I turned the pole back over to Darren. I think it would be fun to try again now that I've observed a bit more of how to do it, but for my first adventure out on the river, it was a bit better to sit back and relax.

Sunday we made it out to the Wimpole Estate, which is part of the National Trust, where there is a farm, a hall, park, and gardens. Before touring around, we had a picnic that was interrupted by wind and eventually sprinkles of rain. So, we didn't last long before we decided to pack it all up and go check out the place. Luckily the weather started cooperating with us. On the farm we saw the cutest little lambs, goats, and piglets. Many had just recently been born. Along with the babies' mommies, there were also some horses, bulls, and chickens. We weren't very excited about the chickens, though, sorry to say. I don't know if there is anything more adorable than lambs just a few weeks old sprinting around. I don't like to get preachy about vegetarianism, but how anybody could eat those cute, little lambs, I just don't understand! I know that sounds very Lisa Simpson of me, but I am dead serious.

Aside from the farm, the other amazing thing to see is the hall, which is the largest country house in Cambridgeshire. It was first built in 1643 and was last owned by Elsie Bambridge (Rudyard Kipling's daugter, btw). She and her husband, Captain George Bambridge bought Winpole in 1938 and bequeathed it to the National Trust in 1976. Walking through the house, I was reminded of Gosford Park. As we first walked in, we noticed each successive drawing room was bigger and more ornate than the previous, each with a fireplace. In the upstairs, we toured the bedrooms. The first one we came upon was where the most honored guest would stay. In it was a style of bed called a Lit a la Polonaise (Polish bed), which looked more daunting than inviting with its crazy, ornate canopy. The other bedrooms were less ostentatious and not as remarkable, although one's walls were covered with little, framed pictures of all sorts, including some slightly rude (though not bawdy) drawings with people's (or a ghost's in one intance) bums in full display.

We made our way down to the basement (or ground floor, i guess) and saw the servants' rooms, some kitchen-type room, and of course...the chapel. These days the big thing is to have your own movie theatre or bowling alley in your house—then you've really made it. But back in the day...at least for the devout... I am sure it was a chapel.

Outside of the hall, there is a church (which is still used) and a beautiful, little burial ground. The church apparently was not part of Wimpole, even though it's on the grounds. We did a quick tour of that and then we really didn't have much left to see, so we came home.

I had intended to go to London Monday morning, but all day Sunday I had an annoying sore throat that progressed into a head cold that night as I was trying to sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night I woke up and felt very ill to my stomach. I'll spare the details. I am starting to feel a bit better...but am trying to rest as much as possible. I am planning on getting to London this evening where I will stay with my friend Dan, who has just returned from India. I am supposed to fly to Beijing on Thursday, so being well is my number one priority. Not sure if I'll have any chance at posting again for a while, but will try to from some place in China in the next couple of weeks.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Mission to Find the Highland Coos

On Friday around 3:30, Janie and I set off in our rental car to the Highlands. The weather had been a bit rainy and snowy, so we were rather dubious as to how much we would be able to see and enjoy. But, as we drove along Loch Ness (no, we did not see any monsters), we were lucky that the weather cleared up, permitting us to get a perfect view of the lake with snow-capped hills looming behind and sun shining through clouds in the sky. Needless to say, we took a lot of photos (eh...too bad I haven't posted them yet...)

We made it to Inverness that night and stayed in a nice little B&B called Braeside. After getting settled in our spacious room (that accommodated three twin beds), we head off to town, ate some dinner at an Indian restaurant, and then made our way into Hootenanny's, voted the best music venue in all of Scotland the last two years running. The place was packed with old people, young people, middle-aged people, and on the last Friday night before the smoking ban went into effect, it was also very smoky. I had come down with a bit of a cold on Thursday (wiped me out all day), and so my throat didn't take kindly. But, the music that night was a traditional Scottish group, headed up by Duncan Chisolm (touted on as "one of Scotland's finest and most celebrated fiddle players" and who incidentally, along with frequent music partner Ivan Drever wrote a song on the soundtrack to "Good Will Hunting"). It was definitely very good music, very appropriate to listen to in Scotland, and the place was fun, even though we only lasted through about one pint.

The following day, we had our breakfast in the B&B, and were rather amused by the contemporary R&B hits pumping through the stereo system—a tad incongruent to the quaint, traditional B&B setting. Our hostess asked us where we were from, and when I said San Francisco, she said she'd always wanted to go there, especially in the sixties and seventies since it was the mecca for hippies. I had to laugh thinking of this cute Scottish B&B owner once being a hippy. After we checked out, we ventured to Black Isle Brewery, which is on Black Isle. But don't let the name confuse you: Black Isle is not an island. So it wasn't as exciting as a drive as it may sound. Nonetheless, it was well worth the trip. Our tour of the nano-brewery was about 3 minutes long, and then we went on to the tasting room, where we had just about each of the 6 (organic) brews they regularly produce. We came away with a six-pack (one bottle of each kind).

Later, we drove past Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the UK, under which we had tea and scones at a fancy inn called "The Old Pines". I don't know why but we were perusing the pages of some Wedding magazine and making fun of some of the most hideous dresses. At one point, while Janie was eating half of her last of two scones, a young boy (about two and a half years old) came along and put his finger on her scone. She politely asked if he'd not touch her scone, but he didn't oblige. Instead, he picked it up, shoved it in his mouth, and then ran away as his mother came along to see what was going on. It may well have been one of the most hilarious things I've seen in a long time.

That evening while it was still light, we made it to Fort William and found a B&B that suited us just fine. Also called Braeside (how strange), but slightly different. Our room was quite tiny but it was en suite, i.e. we had our own bathroom. We found ourselves that night in a pub in town, having a drink (big surprise) and then back to the room where we saw a made-for-television film called "The Ripper" starring Patrick Bergen. This film suggested that it was indeed Prince Albert Viktor who was the crazy killer. How annoying that we will likely never know who the Ripper really was.

Sunday morning I had the vegetarian breakfast and Janie had a full Scottish breakfast, which she said later didn't exactly treat her stomach very nicely. There was quite a lot of meat on the plate: white pudding, black pudding (and I don't even want to know what exactly was in those puddings, I just know it's some kind of meaty "delight"), and ham and sausage. Good lord. Onward ho, we went to Glencoe, a glen that is designated part of the National Scenic Area of Scotland. We went to the Visitor's Center, where we finally saw some Highland Cows (coos)...BUT...they were a bit away and it was rainy and they were all wet, so they just looked like regular cows.

The Ben Nevis distillery is meant to have a couple that are around for visitors to pet, but the distillery was closed and the coos were no where to be seen. We didn't end up visiting any distilleries, actually, as the season doesn't start yet for many of them to be opened all weekend for tours. We did stop and try several whiskies in the shop at the Green Nelly Stop, a tourist destination in a village called Tyndrum.

So, although we didn't stop at a distillery, we didn't see any highland cows at close range, we had a great time. The scenery is amazing and everything you'd expect the Highlands to be. Hillsides with russet, golden, green, and occassionally snowy patches. Flowing rivers, glistening lakes. You get the idea.

We made it back to Perth around 6:30 and that was the end of our adventure.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Scotland!

Currently I am in Perth, about an hour north of Edinburgh. I made it here Sunday night after arriving in Edinburgh Sat. night. Had a bit of manic re-packing at the airport in Bristol, as Easy Jet's weight limit is much less than United's. I don't think they expect people to bring enough luggage for six months. So, after shuffling things between checked bags and carry-ons and leaving some things with my friends in Bath (to take to Janie's in Perth when they visit in May), I made it on. Lordy!

In Edinburgh, Janie met me at the airport and we took the bus to her friend Zee's flat. Zee was one of Janie's flatmates from a time long ago before she lived in San Francisco and was my flatmate. Zee is very fun and nice and he was a great host. As it turned out, two peeps we know from San Francisco, Amy and Andy, were in Edinburgh that weekend. Janie had met them for dinner and we were hoping to join up with them for a drink. So we set off to the Grassmarket, a square filled with shops and eating/drinking establishments that is not far from the castle. Amy and Andy had to get back to the hotel before we made it, so we walked around and then ended up in another place a few blocks away called the Left Bank. The Grassmarket, by the way, is no longer covered by grass, but it may well have been ages ago. It used to be the site of public hangings and the gallows. There is a pub called The Last Drop and the sign has a noose on it. Nice.

The smoking ban goes into effect on March 26 (yippee!), but for now places are still smoky as can be. I am so not used to this, so when we went to the Left Bank, I opted for going to a room that was a bit more spacious and not as smoky. In this room was the stage and a band playing. Janie, Zee, and I stayed for at least 30 minutes. It is hard to describe the music this group played, sometimes like funk, other times calypso, a bit of hip-hop. Some of the lyrics were sung in Spanish. At first I didn't realize this and I said to Janie, "I never realized the Scottish accent could sound so much like Spanish!" She laughed and then told me it was Spanish. The other singer/guitarist resembled what we imagine Jesus to look like: longish brown hair, a beard. He was shirtless and shoeless and if only he'd been wearing some sort of robe...But what may have been far more entertaining was some of the audience members dancing about and their strange hair-dos! One man was wearing a hairband with antennaes and had what was like a mullet with frizzy hair that was pulled into a bun in the back. Another man had an almost mullety thing going on. I call it nouveau mullet. Very, very odd.

Today I am at Janie's office (the Green Tourism Business Scheme). Her boss was kind enough to let me bring in my laptop and hook up to the ethernet cable so I can use the internet for free. Free wi-fi spots in cafes and such are not to be found so far here in the UK. Granted, I've only tried to find them in Bath and Perth, so maybe London has some...Cafes and bars do have internet service, but you have to sign up for T-mobile, or another service and pay up.

More to come after our weekend adventures up North. I'll let you know if we spot Nessie.

V Is for Vegetarian

So far, I have noticed a few funny things regarding food and the names of food items. For example, ketchup is called "tomato ketchup." I guess they figure specificity is good, but they don't have any other kind of ketchup here. They also have something called "salad cream", which is kind of mayonnaisey, and I find it quite unappealing. On menu items and products that are vegetarian, there is a little V symbol with the statement "suitable for vegetarians." Very helpful! There have been numerous fantastic vegetarian options at just about every place I've eaten. And I haven't stuck to just the healthy-looking establishments. I went to a little pub in Lacock that served vegetarian sausage and mash and it was damn tasty! One thing I've realized before, when talking to mates from the UK, is a different perception of vegetarianism. I've heard several people from the UK say they don't eat meat but they do eat fish. But, I have always thought that fish was meat. I finally decided to see what the Internets have to say about this. The USDA food pyramid lists these categories of food in the meat and beans group: meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts. Okay, so it separates meat and fish. But it also separates poultry. And you'd not see a vegetarian saying they don't eat meat but then eat a chicken! So, I don't know what's up! Webster's doesn't distinguish poultry and fish from other meats in its definition. Nonetheless, vegetarianism does not include meat, fish, nor poultry in the diet. At the end of the day people should eat what they want to and heck...call themselves what they want to. But labels only work if there is a common definition. Ah well...maybe the word "pescetarian" isn't all that popular?

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Jane Austen-esque

I've made it safely to the UK. Had a bit of challenge getting through passport control, but finally after giving the agent quite a detailed explanation of what I am up to for the next six months, she let me through. (Had forgotten to print out my China flight itinerary, so she gave me hassle for that.) I've been staying with my good friends, Nick and Jo, in Bath. My first weekend here we went with 14 other people (friends of theirs) to stay in a cottage in the little surfing village called Croyde, in Devon, where I had a delish pastie and a cream tea. (Tea served with scones, jam, and clotted cream.) The weather was quite cold so I didn't make it into the water, although some of our group did surf. (Crazy lunatics!) I did, however, engage in some drinking games at night back at the cottage, including one in which we each had to pick an animal and make a sound and gesture to represent it. Mine was a jellyfish. The next night we played Twister. Good times.

Back in Bath the past couple of days, my day-times have been chill, kinda lazy. The last two evenings I have gone to town with Jo and we've made some tasty dinners. Tomorrow we head to a village called Lacock, where they filmed Pride & Prejudice. (Not sure if it's the recent one or the old one with Laurence Olivier. I'm guessing it's the latest version...) On Saturday I'm off to Scotland. It's taken a bit for me to get adjusted to this new, strange life--that of the constant traveler. But, I think I will get more used to it. Sorry, this post is rather dry. It's late and I'm tired, but I will write more again, hopefully next time a bit more animated!

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

My Itinerary

March 8, 2006: SF>London, UK
March 9: Arrive in London, travel to Bath
March 10-12: Croyde (surfing village in Southwest England)
March 18: Bath>Edinburgh, Scotland (via Bristol)
March 19: Edinburgh>Perth, Scotland
March 19-April 1: Perth
April 1: Edinburgh>Cambridge (via London)
April 2,3: Cambridge
April 3-5: London
April 6: London>Beijing
April 7-May 22: China
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(Rough Partial China Schedule Below)
April 7-10: Beijing
April 11, 12: Xi'an, Terracotta Warriors
April 13: Chengdu
April 14: Emei Shan
April 15: Leshan, Chongqing
April 15-17(?): Cruise down Yangzi
April 18-20: Lijiang
April 21-23: Shanghai
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May 23:Beijing>Ulaan Bataar (UB) (via the Transmongolian Railway)
May 24-July 31: UB
August 1: UB>Beijing
August 2,3: Beijing
August 4: Beijing>London
August 8: London>Amsterdam
August 8-12: Amsterdam
August 12: Amsterdam>Edinburgh
August 12-25: Edinburgh/Perth
August 26: Edinburgh>London
August 27-29: London (with a bit of Oxford sometime that weekend)
August 30: London>SF

The International Adventure Ends Here

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September 1: SF>Cleveland
September 2-4: The Cleveland area
September 5: Cleveland>SF
September 6-?: SF

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Going East

Just thought I'd get things started here with a blog so that whilst away, I can keep friends and family updated with adventures and mayhem as I journey abroad for six months. I am leaving on March 8 and flying to London (England), where I will be for about 6 weeks or so before embarking to China and Mongolia. Plans are still being made, but I will be sure to keep you updated.