Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Kunming, Yunnan 19:24

June 19, 2010 Leave a comment

Woke up yesterday with one of my girlfriends zonked out next to me and the mid-morning sun blaring through the dusty curtains. Walked into the living room to see my friends and roommate sprawled on the couches, a strange Italian man with tattoos all over his body sprawled on a mattress that had been dragged to the middle of the floor. I realized that along with the increasing amount of work stress, of packing, and of final exam activities, my life had fallen into that somewhat sordid short-timer condition. It was definitely time to leave Zhuhai.

But I’m not coming back just yet…not after the weeks at Town No. 1 with Wendy, with saving up all my extra yuan and taking on those extra classes. I didn’t spend my early mornings to my late nights at UIC, grading papers, running clubs, and planning lessons for nothing!

Megan (from SB) and I arrived in Kunming, Yunnan last night. There’s something that all of my students have said about Kunming, almost using the same cadence and the same phrases in that spooky way that many Chinese people echo one another, “Ah. Kunming is called the spring city. They say there that it is never hot in the summer and never cold in the winter.”

I don’t know anything about the winter, but I do know that unlike in Guangdong, we were able to walk outside for more than an hour without breaking a sweat. The streets were swept clean, and high mountains that dropped suddenly into cliffs formed a background for the city skyline.

Last night as we drifted into much needed, twitchy sleep, I asked Megan if we could pleeeease please please go to the “Ethnic Minority Village” at the edge of town. China has this exploitive propensity that can sometimes be kitschy to the point of being horrific. I expected this to be something like the new “little person park” that was written up in the New York Times, and that I would have to keep my hand over my mouth entirely.

By the time we’d left, I was quite relaxed and happy. I was happy to be breathing clean air and looking over clean water, even if from man made lakes. We watched a demonstration by a group of Miao people, dancing, singing hymns in a homemade church, a young Chinese man with a popped collar came up to offer a song (as is a hospitality tradition) and was then forced to attempt climbing a high wooden telephone pole whilst trying to preserve his designer pants. As we rounded the side of the church, Megan and I turned just in time to get our own photos taken by a Chinese tourist. I wasn’t horrified as I walked through the well kept park, looking at beautiful handicrafts such as embroidery, clothing made from tree bark, clay teapots shaped like chickens, and elaborately carved traditional instruments. People seemed happy, and even if it was touristy, to us it was still Chinese.

This will not be the same sort of trip as we took in Thailand and Malaysia. Megan and I have an elaborate, only halfway formed itinerary that leaves us only about two days in a given place. Tomorrow we’ll be taking a 9am bus to the old city of Dali, slightly further up into the mountains. In the meantime, however, we hope to get out into the city to try some “Across the Bridge” noodles, and maybe spend sometime in the bouganveillia lined courtyard of the Cloudcity hostel.


Meanwhile, Back in Surat Thani

February 10, 2010 2 comments

“Temple!  Temple!  Temple!  HA–34 POINTS!”

I couldn’t determine the accent of the couple next to us, but they were definitely speaking English.  Crammed in the front of the bus from Khao Lak, scoring one point for every bird-house like construction that they saw standing in front of a house.  They’re not exactly temples, I kept biting back.  They’re actually called “Spirit Houses”, and are used to keep any and all ghosts/poltergeists/demons sheltered and out of the house.  The more people who have died in any given spot, the bigger the Spirit House.  They come in bright colors, and are gilded in the clawed style of Thai Temples.

“SPIRIT HOUSE!” may’ve been a difficult thing to shout, though…every time they yelled “temple!”, a drop of water from the leaky air conditioner landed on Brian’s shoulder.


The final day and a half in Khao Lak was beautiful, but we’d gotten antsy again.  After our wade across the lagoon, one of the workers of the Sunset Bar rushed from the beach hut to summon Nop, who brought us a tray of 4  squid.  They’d just been pulled out of the ocean, and their skin was flashing from purple to white and every hue in between.  Nop told us that’s how we could tell it was fresh.  He cooked two for us with lemony spices with sauteed cabbage, onion, and carrots.  We could barely finish.

“Three people on a motorcycle!  46 points!”

Saddlesore yesterday, we left the bikes beside the Amsterdam Resort workers, who were cracking open shells on the bricks outside the computer room.  We walked two blocks to the International Tsunami Museum.  It was little more than two skinny stories with a few presentation boards with facts and photos, a small laptop with seismic readings and a horrifying video of the wave coming in, but it was extremely effective.  It’s been six years already, but the memory is still poignant, and the results are observable in the sparse population, the construction outlets, and the under-utilized, but beautiful beach.  Most of the facts about the incident can be found online.  One thing I didn’t know, that I think is worth sharing, is that the earthquake that set the waves in motion also moved the North Pole by an inch. 

I realized that I was more shaken by the visit to the Tsunami Museum than by my visit to Auschwitz two years ago, which was confusing.  But then, for something like the Holocaust, one can focus anger on the evil people who were the cause and the perpepuation.  I can’t hate the ocean, or fault lines, so the feelings are a little more conflicted…

“Temple…Temple….MONKEY ON A MOTORCYCLE!!!”

We lurched forward to look as the bus passed a man riding a moped down the left side of the road, literally with a monkey clinging to its back. 

Our train will get here after midnight.  We’re sipping fountain drinks in the internet cafe surrounded by Thai teenage boys playing computer games.  We’ll arrive in Penang, Malaysia tomorrow morning at noonish.  Before that, though, we’ll try to squeeze in one last Pad Thai.

Perfection (barring jellies and tsunamis)

February 8, 2010 4 comments

We knew when we were herded onto the open truck with a couple of Poles and all of our gear that we weren’t getting to Khao Lak that night.  The bus station, as the man at the Surat Thani information desk had warned us, was an overpriced Tourist Agency that didn’t even sell tickets to our location.  We had gone irrevocably downtown away from the bus station, and by that point so had the sun.

We crossed the street in a bit of a huff, I refused to pay the cab driver (and miraculously got away with it–possibly because we stomped away while he hassled the Poles).  There, however, we were drawn back to another agency where a polite woman named Ahn convinced us to spend the night at a low cost backpacker hostel and then take the 7am bus the next day.

Surat Thani is like the Kettleman City of Southern Thailand, albeit slightly larger.  It’s a juncture from which one can head to a multitude of different spots of interest.  It’s got the cheap In&Out burgers (or Pad Thai, rather), but it doesn’t have much else.  We lay in the hostel watching a Jessica Alba movie until we fell asleep.  It was a bit of a disappointment, as we’d been on the train from Bangkok for eight hours that day and had spent our final day in Bangkok in air conditioned markets or indoors hiding from the rabid street vendors and Ladyboys.  In our defense, though, Zhuhai does not have the National Geographic channel.

So until today we had been feeling a bit disillusioned, a bit tired of temples and pretending to pray to gods we didn’t feel any connection to, and a bit disappointed in ourselves as travelers.  We got on the bus, and fell right back to sleep.

Five hours later we got off the bus and were in Paradise.  I mean the city of Khao Lak on the Southwest Coast of Thailand.  We’d read about it on and seen that it was very small, friendly, and was trying to recover from the devastation of the 2004 Tsunami.  If ever there was an opposite to Bangkok, this was it.  We sat down in the “D-Time Bar” where the servers saw our backpacks and immediately called our hotel for us.

As we sat, sipping cool drinks and staring at the emerald-green mountains, a lanky farang (foreigner) with a fanny pack stalked up to us.

“You speak English or Sprechen sie deutcshe?”  He told us that he was Kees and would be taking us to the Amsterdam Resort.

Don’t let “Resort” fool you–I’m far from a high roller.  What we got was a simple bungalow with a fan and a mosquito net.  We did find out, however, that Kees is in charge of the place itself.  He likes to sit at a table in the center of the open-air restaraunt giving free travel advice and adding up totals on a clacky-keyed calculator.

We ran straight into the ocean, and then straight back out, after Brian was stung by a jellyfish.  After that incident we decided to take it easy and wade across the lagoon to a beach shack called the Sunset Bar, where we sat, quietly, until sunset.  Nop, the owner, came to us with a brown paper folder full of before and after pictures from the tsunami.  He apparently, had the bar for years before.  There had once been evergreen trees surrounding it.  There had not been any lagoon.

We promised to come back, tonight, for dinner.

Brian and I spent the day cycling on the left side of the road to witness white sand beaches and step over dead jellies lying in beds of shells.  Tomorrow we’re going to hike to a waterfall.  Right now, though, we’ve got a date with Nop, a Sunset, and squid.

Suck on that, Bangkok.


February 3, 2010 3 comments

So what brings me to the biggest tourist magnet this side of the equator, complete with crowded temples, gem scams, commodified everything and ambiguous cultural genuineness?  Well…I’m just a TA getting paid Chinese wages.  What did I expect–the glitz and expense of Tokyo?  It’s my second night on the tourist circuit of Thailand/Malaysia, I’ve seen more white people here and heard more English than I have since I was in Hong Kong during October.  It’s got its merits, some of which I’ve really enjoyed, and some of which I’m still trying to figure out.

So here’s a breakdown on Bangkok so far:

A.  I’m traveling with my friends Jim and Brian, and we’re staying at what has turned out to be the gayest hotel in Bangkok.  There’s a twenty four hour internet cafe with art deco windows and amazing pad thai on the bottom floor.  Working boys are sitting at every table that a leering white man is not.  One of our Chinese friends met up with us today–Jimmy–my age and incredibly bright and cute–and he was trying to ignore the wrinkled stares.  Or at least laugh it off.

B.  We hopped a package trip today that was arranged by the omnipresent concierge at our front desk.  We should have known by the diamond shaped diagram on the back that we would be rushed through all of the colorful tiled spiers and solid gold Buddhas (including the 5500 kg and one 46m long reclining, and one in a temple made of Carrara marble) and shuttled through a gem shop.  Every guidebook I’ve ever read from Thailand has sworn me away from these places…but here we were, uncomfortably trying to shake off the overeager saleswoman and find the exit.  We just grit our teeth, waited for a shuttle and stared at sharks as they circled a tank in the center of the showroom.

C.  Our new Thai friend, Ken, has been accompanying us everywhere and helping us with translation.  He’s a chef about 100km south in Pattaya, and today he took us through a knot of street food stalls into a teal lunchroom, complete with stacks of Pepsi crates and posters of the King in his smart glasses and side part.  We had plates and plates of chicken livers, duck meat and fats, bean sprouts atop spicy noodles and coconut milky soups.  We’d been canistered inside of the Gem-scam van all day with no food, and we were happily sated.  Walking amongst the buckets of steaming ingredients, the soup pots, and the barbecue stalls, I felt like I was in the middle of an episode of No Reservations, complete with local “fixer”, dark dining rooms, and offal.

D.  Last night we went to the red light district.  I don’t want to make this too graphic, but I definitely saw some things that I never want to see again, and got a ping pong ball shot at my leg from a place a ping pong ball should never be.  Chandy (what we’ve been calling our co-workers Chad and Andy) who had been staying at the same hotel as us, sat next to me in silent horror.  Our mutual friend, my travel mate Brian, managed to violate most Thai tabboos, lifting his legs up and showing the bottom of his feet, laughing and dancing so uproariously that he was the first one accosted by tip jars (which didn’t confuse anyone but him), and attempting to take a picture as he stood, quite literally under the “NO PICTURE.  NO DVD.” sign in blacklight paint.  The photo was blurry, but it would’ve shown us all with our mouths in the shape of “NOOOO!”

So that’s it for now.  I’ll try to blog every few days so as not to get too behind.  If you have any advice for what to do while I’m in Thailand, let me know.  All I really know is that I’m heading South from Bangkok, and want to be in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia by Chinese New Year to see my friend Usha 🙂

Siberian Paridise

January 25, 2010 Leave a comment

We stop in the middle of an open parking lot and my eyes snap open. The red digital numbers in the front of the bus read 2:00. People are filing off the bus, holding their shoes in red plastic bags, putting them on in the spongy red matting at the bottom of the stairs. We cross the parking lot to a ferry terminal, waiting in clouds of cigarette smoke. I buy another water bottle to add to my collection of half-drunk ones in the metal basket at the foot of my sleeping mat. There are no bathrooms on the bus, so even though I haven’t finished any of them, and I have gotten off the bus in almost all of the many Guangdong stops, my bladder still aches with paranoia. The ferry has a bathroom though. It also has a bootleg version of Ice Age, dubbed in Mandarin, and rats that shoot out of the walls like darts in an ancient, booby-trapped temple. Steve and I sit with our legs crossed on the metal benches and listen to my iPod until the battery runs out.

When we get on the bus, I close my eyes, and I don’t open them again until he shakes me. It’s 7:30am, and we’re in Sanya, a tourist city on the Southern end of Hainan, China’s only tropical island.

We eat, first, at the “McDonalds” of China. China does have a McDonalds, yes, but we use this in reference to the Uighyr noodle shops that all reside under the same blue banner with cut out photos of a mosque, a bowl of noodles, and a cow.

The cab driver has a picture of Chairman Mao hanging from his rear view mirror, and when we show him the address of our hostel, he takes us someplace entirely different. “Bu shi, bu shi,” we say—this isn’t it—and he yells at us in Chinese that YES YES IT IS. He drives around to the other side of the street and stops again, pointing at an unmarked house and continuing to yell. We get out without paying, our hostel still nowhere in sight, and walk halfway down the street, finding it at last. We go back and pay him, and we can hear him screaming at us as we walk away, flailing his arm at an abandoned building, telling us we should go inside—that this is the place we’re looking for. We stopped looking back at him, and as we entered the courtyard of the Sanya Lama hostel, the front lawn dotted with tents for the construction workers, his voice dies away.

We could fall asleep there, but choose instead to go out to the beach, where I finish reading Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones, sitting on a green towel with a cartoon puppy that I’d bought the previous morning from the grocery store, and he sleeps, insistently sunscreen-free, on his stomach.

There’s not a lot to do in Hainan, which is a major part of the attraction.

You could select live fish from the rows of bubbling, cascading tanks. Sometimes the shrimp would even jump out at you, as if to volunteer themselves. We didn’t take them up on their offer—we stuck to spicy cucumber salad and fried noodles as wandering Chinese minstrels played warbled, dragging their guitar amps behind them.

You could drink cocktails on the boardwalk at a place called “CCCP”, Soviet propaganda posters stapled to each wooden column to attract swarms of be-Speedoed Russians. Steve didn’t drink, having fled to the seashore with me to rest and heal a little bit from an obnoxious and recurring illness, but he demanded that I did whatever I expressed the desire to do.

“You should buy one of those,” he said, as I eyed a rack of beaded purses.

“I’d break it,” I said, imagining myself snagging it on a hook, the handle snapping and the beads scattering across the gritty floor.

“That’s a pretty negative thought pattern,” he said, from his mountain-top, lotus position.

I argued with him, but after he’d gone back to the hostel, I bought a blue and yellow one with stretchy brown handles. It zips up, and rests safely tucked under my elbow and over my hip. It can also, of course, fit a decently-sized book—Oscar and Lucinda has been traveling safely inside of it for most of the week.

The third day, I brought the first printed draft of a book I’ve been working on to the beach, and as he went off hunting for return tickets (for the train this time, to avoid rats), I sat at CCCP with my red pen, a melonball and a smile. They first sent the Russian waitress to me, but I asked for the Chinese girl, and we had some of the shy and faltering, albeit smiling back-and-forth that I am growing to love. I sat there for hours with my red pen, looking out at the clean water, over the tops of thatched umbrellas, past the naked Chinese children burying themselves in the sand, to the clean, blue water, the jet skis maneuvering around fishing boats.

The Filipino band at the Rainbow Grill (that boasted real cheeseburgers with BACON) didn’t end up being a real band, but rather a guy who played electric guitar over karaoke tracks, and two women who sang soft rock and soft salsa. Steve had commanded that I stay out and have fun, even though he wilted into bed early. So I sat, talking to Victoria, a waitress from Henan province who moved to Sanya specifically to practice English. Henan is the home of the Shaolin Temple, and when I asked her if she knew Kung Fu, she said, “Of course!” and did a couple of kicks to demonstrate. When I got tired of watching the men with Mohawks dance and sharks who came to holiday from monopolize the pool table, I walked back over the bridge and crashed headlong into bed, sleeping off what felt like a wild five months of shock and newness.

In the hostel, we met a worker at the hostel from Anhui province named Neo. I didn’t ask, but I’m about 82% sure that he named himself after the Keanu character. He was bigger than most Chinese people I’m used to, and a lot more outgoing, making jokes about how, the further South from Beijing, the better China becomes—hence he was here, at probably the most Southern point possible. The first question he asked me is what the difference was between a “chance” and an “opportunity.”

The second question was, “Is that man your boyfriend?” He said this sotto voce, when Steve was in the other room.

“No,” I said.

“Oh,” and as if he couldn’t take back the sentence he’d already planned, or perhaps in conspiracy of future conversations, “he is very handsome.”

While we were lying on the beach, done with our books on the morning of departure, Neo came and sat with us, pulling off his shirt. I got up to take a picture of he and Steve together, and he yelled, “No! I am too fat!” All I had to do was to nod my head toward the Russians behind him for his worries to be slightly allayed. He spent most of the conversation trying to convince Steve that he should marry a Chinese girl. When Steve asked why he should, Neo shrugged and said that this was just what Westerners did when they came to China. He left after about an hour, because he had to go “check his stocks.”

The next chance meeting came in a grocery store parking lot, where a woman, Coldstone’s style, mashed mango and banana together into an icy paste. As we sat savoring the fruit and the hour to spare before taking the bus to the train station, a big white man with a do-rag hovered over our table and rattled off something in Russian. We motioned for him to sit down. “OK-le,” he said. His name was Dennis, and he was on a two week holiday from being a firefighter in Siberia. Steve also insisted (always insisting) that I let him buy me a beer. He knew where Santa Barbara was, because apparently in Siberia the soap opera is still extremely popular.

We took a sleeper car, stacked three bunks high, and traded playing card games with watching the sun set over the South China Sea. This was the train that gets loaded onto a ferry, snapping apart and then back together like a toy set). I let slip some Chinese as we all crowded around the window and was almost immediately surrounded by Hunanese home-goers who stretched my vocabulary to its limits, miming, pointing and writing the words that I didn’t know. As we got off of the train in the morning, a quiet old woman followed me, wishing me a happy new year, shyly seeing me off. A man named Geng still calls me, late at night, and when I say that I don’t know what to talk about, that my Chinese is not good enough for the phone, he giggles.

We arrived back in Zhuhai, Stephen with better health, and me with a renewed interest in studying Chinese. There will be more traveling to do next week, but in the meantime I have more exams to grade, and some hostel reservations to make in Thailand.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: , , , ,

Xin Nian Kuai le!

January 3, 2010 1 comment

Hey Everybody!

Xin nian kuaile means happy new year! Though here, that “New Year” is all but only Western, and the party in Zhuhai was, in a word, zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzed….

In order to properly introduce the Chinese experience, rather than be selfish and focus on the stories of my own daily life, I would like to inject some more focused cultural studies to my weekly(ish) e-mail. I wrote this handbook on the bus, while smashed like a bookend between a middle-aged Chinese man, and a young female students, both asleep. One on my shoulder.

This is a guide to driving and traffic related rules in Southern China:

  1. The instant the light turns green, lean on your horn.
  2. If a giant tour bus crosses three lanes of heavy traffic, it’s your own fault if you run into it
  3. If in crossing three lanes, as said bus driver, you discover your lane ends abruptly or unexpectedly veers to the right, stop driving and lean on your horn. No one, but no one, will honor a turn signal.
  4. It is your duty as a citizen of the harmonious society to honor any and all honks. Unless you don’t want to.
  5. Speed limits in the left two lanes are higher than those in the right. Therefore, all drivers in the right lane are permitted to stop as quickly and as many times as they desire.
  6. The more expensive your vehicle, the faster you are permitted to drive (true in every culture).
  7. Bike lanes are for bicycles, motorbikes, pedestrians, fruit carts, acrobatic street children, men with big-balled gibbons on leashes, parents kicking their children, defecating, piles of rubble, and taxi cabs driving against traffic (etc) ONLY.
  8. If someone in one vehicle hits your vehicle, do NOT pull to the side of the road. Leave your vehicle, make sure your entire family leaves your vehicle, and argue in the middle of the road about which drivers’ fault it was. In order to save face, the bigger the crowd of indifferent bystanders, the louder you must shout and the more widely you must gesticulate.
  9. If you, as a fruit or knick-knack vendor, see a crowd gathered in the center of the street, you may cross in front of any and all oncoming vehicles to take entrepreneurial advantage.
  10. Traffic should drive in the allotted lanes on the right side of the road—that is unless someone cuts you off. In this case, you may drive in the oncoming traffic lane in order to reach the left turn signal before them and teach them a lesson.
  11. Red means drive slowly through the busy crosswalk.

That’s all for now, folks. If you want to check out pictures of Christmas, look at and if you want to read some old blogs (especially those of you who are newbies—hiiii!!!) check out

I promise you’ll like it.

Love you all and happy new year all over again!


Categories: Transit, Uncategorized Tags: , ,

Merry Christmas From a Lazy Traveler

December 21, 2009 1 comment

Everyone is going to Hainan for the Christmas vacation. When I say everyone I mean double digits–the TA’s, my boss Dave, and a high number of lecturers with surf boards in tow. Hainan is an Island way way way south of here, close to Vietnam. To get there, one takes a train that, eventually, boards a ferry (yes, the train boards a ferry), that continues onto the beach side paradise for cocktails and some yuletide sunbathing.

I, however, after the shame and difficulty of getting my job back after copious misunderstandings and phone calls between my uncomprehending boss and middle-woman, Jocelyn, don’t feel like asking for another Saturday off from tutoring. So I’m glued to Zhuhai, and it looks like Brian and I have a good 10 hours of the final seasons of Six Feet Under accompanied by several different types of cake lined up for that day. I can’t shake the feeling, though, that after staying only in Zhuhai for the past two months with no fascinating excursions to speak of since the momentous mud-wrestling at Qiao island that I am a boring, boring traveler. In my dreams I see myself as a miserly Scrooge stealing lollipops from babies (I am not exaggerating). Christmas? Train rides? Sunny beaches? Bah humbug.

Something about getting on a crowded 13-hour train trip, though, with nearly all of my co-workers in my department, awkwardly skipping a Saturday that could be spent making money and giving a potentially really fun Christmas-oriented English lesson…I don’t know. Would you want to spend your Christmas taking a Chinese train trip with everyone you work and live with every day of the week? Or would you rather hang out with your gay boyfriend from another department, eat cake, and watch quality television? Although it seems like a logical explanation, I wonder if it’s just a rationalization of the anxiety that arises in me when I think about bus or train trips where I have to communicate in Chinese characters.

I confessed this fear to Stephen over squid and broccoli last night, and he said in that psuedo-guru way he has, “Well you know, it’d probably be good for you to do things that make you anxious. Let’s take some bus rides together next term, ok?”

Yes, I know. I know, Steve. Why do you think I watch horror movies? Why do you think I went camping in the freezing dessert with you? Why do you think I went skydiving? Why do you think I moved to China? Why do you think I do anything that I do? Because it’s all safely within my comfort zone?

Honestly, though, the funk and misery of my former homesickness has passed at last. I was again salivating over pictures of the Beijing summer palace that Wendy, my Chinese tutor from another one of the nearby Universities, showed me, instead of just covering my eyes and ears and reciting “there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.”

“Zhe shi shenme?” What is this? I asked excitedly, my pitch getting higher, as I pointed at a picture of terraced tiles and dark blue, intricately painted and molded signs.

“This is Tunxi Old Street—it’s also in my home province Anhui!” Wendy said. She looked a little undone by studying for her finals, small and lithe with artificially lightened brown hair all askew.

“How old is it?” I asked her.

“Oh, just like…” she looked up, thinking, tapping her bottom lip with her finger, “2,000 years.”

Just, like, 2,000 years, she said. I was so excited about the book that she gave it to me to bring home and browse, to return after the spring festival in February. It’s not like my Lonely Planet travel guide. It isn’t just colored pictures, places to stay, and which bus line to take. It is a boring, intensive, historical detailing of all of the famous sites in China, and at this point I feel like reading the whole darn thing.

And to be fair, to myself, I bought a ticket to Bangkok for February 2, and a ticket back to Hong Kong from Kuala Lumpur for February 20.

So anxious that nonsense, suckahs!

I hope that, given circumstances in many of your lives, you are having a good holiday season. That you’re happy and spent some good time with family. It’s been a rough month for a lot of you. For those of you that are having some positive Christmas firsts (with baby, with marriage, etc.)—awesome. My thoughts are often with you.

Merry Christmas, everyone.