Tucker in Asia

Friday, May 26, 2006

We find the heat

Today is the first real day of intense heat and humidity and I think it will only grow worse as we continue to move south. We are in Hanoi, I am not entirely sure of the temperature, it is over 30ºC, but it sure is humid. There was a rain shower an hour ago so that cooled things off but this is going to take a bit of an adjustment.

We first arrived in Hanoi a few days ago via a slow, loud, overnight train from Sapa (it was also the nicest train we had been on). The train spit us off somewhere onto a random street with loads of motor cycle taxis and car taxis about 5:30 AM. My first realglimpses of Hanoioccurredd as we were loading into a taxi car with some others (to split the cost) and a mototaxi came up to us with the driver pressing the horn down for us to move; and he was not giving up on the horn.Apparentlyy instead of simply going around us he wanted to drive where we were loading and the horn is the obvious sign to get the hell out of the way. Since he could have easily gone around, it was 5:30 in the morning, and the horn was loud I was sort ofirritatedd at the driver so in my defense I reached over his handle bars and physically moved his thumb off the horn. He got really pissed. It was really funny. The karma came back to me a few minutes as our cab driver went the long way to the hotel and the cost was probably double what it should have been. Oh well.

We have spent two days in Hanoi splitting them up with a two day tour of Halong Bay, the infamous bay with the limestonepillarss. Other than the overcast/rainy weather the area is beautiful and very unique. There seem to be numberlesspillarss that just jet up out of the ocean covered in green foliage.

Hanoi seems to be the land of motor bikes. They are everywhere and here in the Old Quarter they outnumber cars at least 50 to 1. This is a lively city, lots seems to be happening, and the Vietnamese live their life in the street, which is interesting to observe and try to experience. Shops and restaurants pour well onto thesidewalkk, actually we rarely walk on thesidewalkk because it is so filled with motorbikes and random stuff. Its muchtastierr and easier to eat street food here than in China. The food has changed a bit from China, very similar foods but less is deep fried greasy and there is maybe a little less spice. Thanks to the French they have bread which was a rarity in China. The people of Vietnam also differ from the Chinese. First off they seem much more open to western tourists and don't gawk (but they do try to sell you everything in a verypersistentt manner). After doing the little Halong tour and talking with some other tourists I realized that the Vietnamese first approach tourists as open, kind, happy you are here, and then after you pay, or do the tour they turn a bit and act as if they no longer speakEnglishh or are oblivious to any problems or concerns. Like the cab driver. There was also a little food shortage incident on our Halong Bay tour, basically a family traveling with a two year old had paid for all three of them but the crew would only bring food for the two adults. Strange situation. The rest of Hanoi has been fun too see, mostly just walking around and taking the city in but we did see the Temple of Literature and the Hanoi Hilton, the prison where American POWs were kept during the Vietnam War. This is where John McCain was. The information on the Vietnam war was intriguing, a very differentinterpretationn from what most American'sperceivee. The exhibit at the museum makes it sound as though staying at the prison was similar to staying at the Hilton, except you couldn't leave and listed in the rules was no "sharing free thought".

We are leaving Hanoi tonight heading south, starting to push our way a little quicker towards Bangkok. All this heat is making me think beach and there is so much to see and do three months doesn't seem like that much time. Well, see ya later.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Runaway Pigs

The first day spent in Sapa was a day to rest and recover from too many bus rides and in the late afternoon, while sitting out on the balcony of our hotel room (for $6 total a night), we witnessed a great porker site. The road outside the hotel is lined with hotels, restaurants, and tour agencies and thus is quite busy with pedestrians, motor bikes, buses, jeeps, and trucks. There are many sounds but the first real abnormal sound we heard was some loud squealing blended with the sound of a motor bike. I stood up quickly to witness two fairly large pigs tied to the side of a motor bike, in the place where rear panel bags might attach. The pigs just squealed away and the driver just kept going along, determined to bring home his new prized purchase. A few minutes later there was more commotion, it was louder and closer to the hotel than the first pig encounter. Again, standing and looking down to the street I saw two more screaming pigs and a crowd of people watching them. The road outside curves a bit, but another road/path turns off and then quickly turns into stairs leading down to some homes; this was the road closest to us. It seems a man was walking with two pigs, maybe the same two from the bike, and once the man and the pigs reached the staircase the pigs started to act in a recalcitrant manner. One pig started down the stairs as it was supposed to, with just a few screams and a few pushes from the man. Once to the bottom a helper tried to control the pig from continuing on and was able to contain the pig in the general area for a short time while the other pig was being tended to. Pig number two was going nuts. There were a few people helping with the owner taking charge, the problem was that the pig had no desire to be ordered around. First the man tried to simply walk the pig down the stairs, a no go. Second he tried pulling the pig down the stairs by the tail, then by the ears which quickly turned into a full wrestling match. The pig won and moved himself back to the top of the stairs to start roaming around the parked cars. It seemed as though even on the flat surface no one was able to control the loose pig. There was the owner attempting and a few other helpers trying to poke, prod, pull, trying anything that might work to move the pig. Meanwhile pig number one had become bored with waiting at the bottom of the stairs so he thought he would go back to the top to join his buddy, but the stairs seemed all too easy, he decided to walk up the 6 inch wide and 6 inch deep drainage gutter channeled to the side of the stairs. For the owner this proved OK since this delayed any speediness the pig might have had at an escape. The pig would take a half step and get stuck, then push his snout down into the gutter to become more stuck, until finally becoming unstuck somehow just to start the process over. During this time pig two was still wandering aimlessly at the top of the stairs and the owner was getting upset over the trouble and the spectacle he had become. He caught up to the pig, wrapped his hand firmly around the tail like it was a rope on a bull and he started pulling with all his strength. A woman did some pushing to jump start the process and then stood aside. The owner pulled faster than the pig could possibly walk backwards so the pig was forced to push his front legs in front of his body to try and slow the movement with a body slide. This did not work. Although never surrendering the pig eventually lost and was dragged down the middle of the steps where there was a built in plank area used for pushing bikes or carts up and down. The pig seemed to be on his chin and neck the whole time but was able to keep his hind legs erect and bouncing. Once to the bottom of the stairs he started moving in the correct direction to the pleasure of the owner. Pig number one just needed a few good pushes and he was free and obediently moved to the bottom of the stairs with pig number two. The highlight of day one.

The other days here have been just as exciting but maybe in a different way. On day two we went on a 6 hour zoo walk, that is we walked through some traditional minority villages where we stared at the local people and they stared right back at us. I actually found this quite interesting, there was the whole living museum feel at times but the walk was through the hills of rice patties south-east of Sapa and the views were amazing. The valley we were in had a small river at the bottom and then rice terraces carved into the mountains from the river to almost the top. There were workers everywhere, harvesting rice, building new patties, or plowing with the help of the buffalo. The workers were of all ages, literally, from maybe 12 to 70. The children under 12 took care of the even younger children or chased the tourists around to sell them something or to practice their English. Most of the minority cultures we saw were H'Mong. There were different types such as Black, Red, and Flower but these seemed just to represent little differences such as what crops they grow, what color they wear, ect. They all dress in beautiful, colorful clothes, however they seem so heavy that I don't understand how they take the heat. Everyone speaks a tribal language, the younger generations also speak Vietnamese, and it seems like all the kids speak English, just from conversing with the tourists. The typical way of life for boys is to go to school until they are needed in the fields or they are at the age which schooling is no longer free (very few move on to college or secondary school). The girls generally do not go to school, they traditionally get married at 12 or 13 and then go work in the fields. We had a guide that was a girl of 20, she never went to school but taught herself to read and write Vietnamese and learned English from speaking with tourists. She spoke very good English. She said that she has trouble writing Vietnamese because she learned so late, but has an easier time typing it (she says she has an old hand). She is an anomaly as she has not married.

Yesterday we visited a nearby Sunday market. It is one of the larger markets in the area and is a social area for all of the local people. As far as dress goes it is probably the most colorful market I have ever been to. We just walked around and observed only buying some peppercorn, a Chinese spice we are not convinced we can buy at home. I thought of buying a baby pig or dog to travel with as a pet but decided that wasn't real logical. Luckily I was not tempted to buy a buffalo as we arrived late and there were none left. The pigs were just funny and so stupid that it would have been fun, if I would have gotten it back to the States I think it would have made a nice gift for Danny. Sorry Danny, its a no go. The puppies were all in cages and being bought to eat, real sad. I guess if you buy one they will cut it up for you to bring the meat home. Most of the local people don't realize that we keep dogs as pets. Sort of a cultural difference I guess.

This morning we hired motorbikes and braved our horn skills, driving skills, balance skills, and num-chuck skills on touring around the area. We road up to a nearby pass, saw some beautiful mountains, just had fun. Moped-gang-Bozeman needs to happen this summer. Patrick start keeping your eye out for some cheapos.

Well, we are off for a train to Hanoi. If anyone would like some dog meat shipped to them....I don't think I will be able to try it myself but let me know. We had some rabbit for lunch, that was tasty. Also some venison and good ol' chicken.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Onwards to Vietnam

Hmm, I finally have a computer that may just publish this. We have struck out a bit here and there on the whole email thing but that's ok, we were a little off the industrialized trail.

So as of the last post we were still in China and had not embarked on the 22, actually probably 30 hours of hell. To sum it up quickly we took a 1.5 hour bus ride from Langshou to Guilin, then a 22 hour train ride from Guilin to Kunming, and then a 5 hour bus ride from Kunming to Dali. The first bus ride was just fine, and the train wasn't all that bad, if you like sleeping in a smoky bar. If any of you would like to experience a simulation of the ride here is what you need to do. Go down to the Molly Brown about 8 am some morning with a bunch of people. Ask all of these people to smoke and spit as much as is humanly possible. Also ask them to push others (including you) when people walk around, come in or out, that sort of thing. Stay in the Molly Brown until 6 the next morning eating a couple noodle buckets, a couple Snickers bars, and some peanuts. You can also drink tea. At 6 have everyone run out of the bar as quick as they can, sort of like the building is going to blow up; you need to B-line it for the Scoop where you will spend the next 5 hours. I think the Molly is a good place for the simulation not just due to the smoke but for the second reason of the quality of the bathrooms. The kind that makes you want to wear a Tyvek suit into it. The Molly's may be a little nice but will suffice to get the general idea. Don't forget to spit on the floor.

Dali is located in the southwestern part of China in the Yunnan Province. The Yunnan Province in my opinion is the nicest part of China, life is a little slower, there is more preserved old culture, and it is beautiful. Unfortunately Dali was cold and wet so our time there was short but a little further down the road is another charming little spot called Lijiang. There is an old town here which is comprised of small winding pedestrian only streets with old style buildings housing shops, restaurants and hotels. This particular place seems to attract lots of Chinese tourists but it was easy to move off the main streets and avoid the hotspots. Lijiang is starting to be in the foothills of the Himalaya, there is a snow capped peak just out of town.

Lijiang turned out to be our last major stop in China, from there we have moved to Vietnam (though it took two days). Just a few closing thoughts on China...To start here are some of my likes and dislikes:
1. The history, historical places and sites
2. The Food, especially Kong Pao Chicken and Sichuan food
3. Longshou and the surrounding environment
4. Lijiang and the Black Dragon Pool Park
5. The Great Wall
6. Beijing
7. Hong Kong
8. The tea
9. The fact that I saved lots of money on cigarettes by only consuming second hand smoke; the best way to cut costs in China

1. The Chinese tour groups
2. All of the smoking
3. All of the spitting (they spit like Max does, but everyone does it everywhere)
4. The horn honking
5. How the communist country has come to fully capitalize on tourism (damn hypocrites)
6. The disappointment in finding that all fortune cookies must be exported to the U.S.

Overall I enjoyed my time in China, it's just that sometimes there were avoidable difficulties and annoyances present that have not appeared in other places I have traveled. Such is life. If there is one spot that I would come back to it would be Yunnan to spend some time and then follow it up with an overland journey to Tibet. Hong Kong would also be fun to re-visit, although on a much larger budget, or perhaps a companies budget.

We are now in Sapa, Vietnam. Sapa is located in the northwest part of the country and has lots of opportunities for trekking, market tours, and village tours. There are lots of minority peoples in towns close to here. We can also easily rent motorbikes. I am not completely sure what we are going to do here but some hikes are definitely on the forefront. Today we are just relaxing from all those days in buses. We moved fast the last week simply because of time, we are shooting to arrive in Bangkok by the 20th of June so that gives us about a month for Vietnam and Cambodia. We are continuing to cover lots of kilometers but so far have been able to see the things we want to, mostly. Still working on uploading those photos. Its not that I am lazy, it's that I just don't care. Oh, just kidding, I actually never remember to bring my camera to the computer with me. tucker

Friday, May 12, 2006

Hong Kong

Writing of any sort on this trip has occurred thus far due not to time, convenience, or the right cup of coffee but as a matter of fate. It seems as though some days I need a little down time and I am actually geared up to transfer thoughts onto paper, this blog, or email and those are always the days that hotmail will not load, a computer is not in sight, or my water bottle leaks in my day pack soaking all of it's contents, including my journal. Luckily this has only happened once. The few days of full forced motivated writing are squeezed between the days filled with things such as beaches, beer, bikinis, that sort of thing....Wait a minute we have not been to a beach yet....Well the beer part is true. Anyway I am just going to jot down a few places that we have been in the last week, and it will be short because most of the time was spent on a bumpy bus.

I last posted in Hong Kong, that haven of coffee shops, overpriced beer, slum hotels, and the beauty of the modern world. We had quite a nice time experiencing the city by day and night. We got out and tried to live the day life by just walking and taking subways around Hong Kong Island; we ate street food, visited an art museum, looked up at lots of big buildings and of course, drank lots of coffee. We took one day and saw a different part of HK Island, Stanley. There is a large market there where you can get a Rolex for $3.50 or a classy Polo shirt for $1.50. Across the way there is a beach, oh I guess we did visit a beach (but it was for a short time and it was so packed we didn't even walk on the sand). The vistas from Stanley are stunning, it looks out to the ocean with the hilly, lush forests side lining the bay. It was sort of like leaving New York City for Martha's Vineyard (I realize I have never been to either of those places but feel as though the analogy works). The rest of the town was laden with expensive restaurants and high rise apartment buildings with the normal 600 square foot flat with an ocean view going for 4000USD a month. Back in HK for the night we joined some friends we met in Beijing, they both teach in HK. We had dinner with them and then went big on the night life. Quite the scene, but very fun. I guess the highlight was the Russian bar complete with Vodka, a walk in cooler, and fur coats (sadly no Russian women). They say it really resembles Moscow in the winter time. Do they drink Martinis there?

From Hong Kong we took the ferry to Macau, another SAR but on the mainland. This area was occupied by the Portuguese until the late 90's. The European influence on the city made for a beautiful blend in culture, food, and architecture. It was nice to walk in a place that is very Chinese but is a unique city.

We then embarked on a bus journey for Yangshou, a legendary little hangout in southwest China. It is actually very ridiculous, because of the tourism, but it is in a beautiful setting on the Li river and surrounded by limestone peaks that just jump up out of the ground. There is some great food (Chinese and western); I think we have eaten Kong Pao Chicken about 16 times since we have been here. Yesterday we rode bikes around the area for a few k's and saw small villages, rice patties, and the back drop of these peaks. One of the more beautiful landscapes we have scene in China

Tomorrow we are getting on a 22 hour train for Kunming in the Yunnan Province. Noodle buckets here we come. I guess that's all for now.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Many kilometers later....

We are currently in Hong Kong and this is the first internet access we have found since the 27th of April. The places we have been were not small towns, they were large, developed cities; I am not sure why we have had so much trouble with internet. I just posted the last blog I wrote from Chengdu on the 27th, the page at the time was in Mandarin and I choose the wrong button choice on the bottom of the page. Additionally, since we are now in Hong Kong I can finally view my blog. It seems that China has censored the viewing of blogs. Add it too the list. I am not sure how they expect to keep up in this world without the advantages of blogging. As Max said, "It is hard to believe that we got by without blogging only a few months ago."

So Hong Kong. This place is a whole world apart from everywhere in China that we have been. Overnight we moved a few hundred kilometers from a growing and developing third world area to a place as modern as New York or London. Prices of everyday things tripled or quadrupled and there are signs on the streets advertising Tiffany, Dior, Louis Vitton, Rolex, ext (the real stuff). It is certainly different but a nice change; it is fun to soak up the comforts of good coffee, an English newspaper, and no gawking. Traveling to Hong Kong makes me look at the big cultural differences between China and the rest of the world. The big ticket item that has been stuck in my head the last few days are the comparisons of a life in a socialist society and a life in a capitalistic society (maybe this is because I have been reading Ayn Rand but it seems relevant here). For the first time I feel as though I am witnessing and clearly seeing the downfalls and negativities of socialism. Observing everyday life in China, that is the middle and lower classes, I feel that the thinkers are missing. In this society people are no longer required to think. They don't think about choices, other people, improving their lives. They are blinded and censored by the government. They do not have a free press. No real thought provoking articles come out of the China Daily, the paper that they do have (in the few English prints we are found). Sometimes it is as though there is an attitude that says, I am here, I am taken care of, I don't need to apply myself. I do not know how much of this is true but I do not feel it can be over looked when you contrast the economics, personal attitude, and way of life of the Hong Kong residents to the mainland residents. In the last week of traveling eastward from Chengdu (ending in Hong Kong today) Justin and I have become frustrated with the way that the Chinese treat us and each other. I realize that the customs of China are very different, the people who come from a harder way of life generally treat privaledged, westerners differently, and I don't expect China to emulate the western society, but the Chinese seem to gawk, stare, and be rude more of the time than the people I have encountered in South America and even Kenya. The Chinese tourists seem to be the worst. Queues are especially bad, it is perfectly ok to cut off, push, or go directly to the front. Getting on or off a bus can be sheer chaos. The gawking can certainly be tolerated but Justin was actually petted the other day. Its like we are from the zoo. I guess the way I feel is that I am interested in learning how the Chinese live, what their cultures are, and who they are but when this is reciprocated by trying to rip us off and being petted I become frustrated. We have, however, met a few really nice Chinese people who have been very helpful. They all seem to be thinkers and have a little more self respect. Yesterday for instance, we took a bus from where we got off the Yangtzee cruise to another town four hours away to catch a train. In Yichang we were supposed to be dropped at the train station but instead the driver dropped us at some crazy place. A guy on the bus spoke English and basically got us to the train station, got us tickets, and everything. He probably saved us 3 plus hours. So nice.

So where we have gone....Last post was from Chengdu, a stopping point for activities around the Sichuan Province. The Sichuan Province is famous for its food, the spicy Chinese food typically comes from here. Kung Pow Chicken may be the most famous, we ate lots. We climbed this mountain called Emei Shan which entailed something like 60,000 steps. We had a real hard time walking after that two days. We also went to a panda bear research base to see maybe the most adorable animal in the world. They seem like the most content creatures who just play, sleep, and eat bamboo (which they are mighty picky about). Unfortunately there are only about 2000 Giant Pandas left in the wild, this research base works to breed them and seems to be doing some good things.

From Chengdu we took a bus to Chongqing where we started the Yangtzee cruise down through the Three Gorges (this is where we became frustrated with the Chinese, there were at least 200 people on the boat and only four westerners, they just smoked, spit, and stared the whole time). The first day of the river was mellow. On the second day we motored through the first gorge saw the three lesser gorges. The gorges basically have huge steep walls which are lush and beautiful. The lesser gorges are just smaller, we transferred to a smaller boat and were able to see the walls from a closer distance. The Three Gorges Dam is at the end of the third gorge and is massive. It is the largest dam in the world; we all should have been in the concrete business here a few years ago. I have never seen so much concrete in my life. I think they may have actually planned to concrete the whole town but late in the project they decided against it so they planted some trees in a little section and built a barrier wall to protect what the government calls valuable and prosperous farm land. To me it seemed as though this land was where this city was. Must have been lost in translation, I only saw concrete buildings surrounded by concrete. Of all the records the dam set I think displacing the most people was on the list, but so is the hydroelectric capability, which is something equivalent to 8 nuclear power plants, an impressive engineering feat. The whole dam is a very impressive engineering accomplishment its just that it is damn ugly. The top of the dam provided a very nasty vista. The dam is now finished for the most part, they are currently just working on hydroelectric stuff that will be finished by 2009. The water level when we went through the gorges was at about 135meters; I think before the dam was in operation the level was at 45m and eventually will be up to 175m. We rode our cruise ship through the locks which, of course, were massive but we didn't start the process until 930pm and had to be up at 4am so I just watched us motor in to the first lock.

After the cruise we traveled to Hong Kong where we will be for a few days. It is quite the city, I am looking forward to getting out and checking it out. There is a vast array of international food choices here. Anything you can think up. In China we have eaten some great foods and it has been relatively easy finding food and ordering. Most places in tourist areas have an English menu otherwise we just point to something we want. There are times where it doesn't come out like we thought it might but so far we have not eaten anything too crazy. The Sichuan style of food has been my favorite but those old classics are good to have once in awhile as well such as sweat and sour or dumplings. At restaurants or anytime you sit down for a meal the food is family style. If it is just Justin and I we will order two dishes and then rice. The dishes come out on big plates and we pick our food off of those one piece at a time. My chopstick skills are coming around, I make a mess but so does everyone else. One day we ate dinner in a hostel and they brought us a fork and a knife and I was quite confused so I think I have made the adjustment. We eat off the street when it is convenient. When we are in cities we do lots of walking so it is nice to sit down and rest for a meal. In the mainland of China all the food is so cheap that it really doesn't matter. For us, a $3 dinner person is on the higher end, that's with a beer.

I am going to try and upload some pictures while we are in Hong Kong but I don't have my camera here now so I'll try in a couple days. The digital camera is great, much easier to move around with than dealing with all that film.