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Backpacking in China

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Welcome to my blog!

Many of you have heard me wax poetic about the open plains and the nomadic life of Mongolia. Well, I'm finally getting off the couch and trekking to the edge of the world in search of my private Shangri-la.

If you'd like to follow me on this journey, just bookmark this page and come back periodically to check in on my tales of survival. You can also visit the map to track my stops, leave me messages and questions, and sign up for email alerts whenever I post a new entry. I will do my best to update this blog whenever time and Internet access allow me to.

Thank you for visiting and hope you enjoy my trip.

Home Again

Fullerton, United States

I'm back home again and 'resting' from the life-changing journey of the past few weeks. I especially want to thank everyone who stood ready to call in the rescue team in case I went missing.

It took me a couple of days after arriving in Mongolia to 'get in the groove' and get China out of my mind, but I really enjoyed specific moments. It would be unfair to compare the two experiences. I went to Mongolia to get as far away from everything, and the trip afforded me the chance for self-reflection in solitude. In China 'people interaction' was what I enjoyed the most, albeit unexpected, and through these interactions I had the opportunity to re-evaluate how I view the world.

One of the lessons I learned on the trip is that people make a place special, and home is the most special place because family and friends. I hope you enjoyed reading about my experience, and I hope it inspires you to go on your own journey.

It was a wonderful experience, and it's good to be home!

Here is the link to some of the photos from each place I visited. Enjoy!

permalink written by  Chihyau on July 26, 2010 from Fullerton, United States
from the travel blog: Backpacking in China
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The Final Frontier

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

I woke up before dawn and headed to the Capital Airport in Beijing for the final leg of my journey, leaving behind a lifetime worth of memory, single-serving friends (borrowed that one from 'Fight Club'), and promises of returning to the places I visited. The heavy rainstorm continuing from the day before reflected my mood, and there was no room left to feel excited about visiting the place I've dreamt about for years. Finally, I took out the English copy of Valley of Fear (Sherlock Holmes) I had picked up in Beijing and began reading, just to give my mind a break from the melancholy mood I was in.

The flight to Ulanbator was quite full of people traveling there for the Naddam Festival. It was sheer coincidence that I was heading to Mongolia the day before the festival began, and I hoped my dumb luck would continue throughout my trip here. I was so immersed with my book that I did not once look out the window to get an aerial view of Mongolia. As the plane began to descend I peeked outside the window to get my first view of Ulanbator, and what I saw could hardly be called a capital by western standard. Scarcely any buildings above 5 or 6 stories tall, and two giant chimneys in what looked like an industrial area in the southern end stood out just by their sheer size compared to the rest of the city. It seemed most of the traffic was concentrated in the center and the eastern side of the city. In comparison, the western fringe of the city looked like the shanty town packed with old one-story homes expanding up a gentle slope. As soon as the plane touched ground passengers were up and moving about, and it didn't take long for it to reach the gate. The airport had one terminal, two gates (one International, one domestic), and about 100 feet from Custom to the front entrance. Only 90+ day trips required visa, and one could easily be obtained at the airport if not arranged beforehand.

On my way to the guest house I realized I was ill-prepared for this trip. I had not done any research and foolishly made the assumption that English was well spoken here. I learned that Mongolia was divided into two parts after WWII, with the Chinese taking over what is known today as Inner Mongolia, while the Russians took control of the northern half. When USSR dissolved in 1990, its former territory became an independent nation we now know as Mongolia. However, after over 40 years of Russian rule, its influence could still be seen everywhere in Ulanbator. For example, the traditional Mongolian writing is no longer used, and of the 35 letters in its alphabet, 30 are Russians. Almost all the signs were in Mongolian, and people on the streets returned blind stares when I spoke English to them. Clearly I was not in Kansas anymore. However, I later learned that after 1990 schools began teaching English and the western influences were evident in the growing number of western cafes and restaurants, though they all concentrated on one of two main streets of the city.

I had already booked a room at a guest house and arranged for them to pick me up at the airport. The guest houses in Mongolia are hostels that also operate tours, while hotels are, well, just rooms, sometimes even without a front desk, although there are now a couple of modern hotels catering to business travelers. The system works because the small number of leisure travelers who come to Mongolia do not spend much time in the city; foreigners visiting Ulanbator mostly stay at guest houses for 2-3 days before heading out to see the rest of the country in 4x4s with tour guides. The trips typically range anywhere from 5-21 days, but I also met amateur photographers at the guest house who had been in the country for almost two months, documenting the daily life on the plains during several trips around the country. In China I met travelers from all walks of life with different purposes for visiting, but people who chose to come to Mongolia seemed to be a similar breed that made it easy to connect. All of us had been traveling for an extended period of time, and most of us left behind a world of comfortable living and stable jobs to come to the frontiers to replenish and rekindle our spirit. We understood why the others are here, we appreciated the opportunity to be here, and we appreciated the fact that such place exists. We cherished every moment, every singular experience, and we hoped that in these moments we would find what we came for, even if we didn't recognize it at the time.

After checking in at the guest house I decided to explore the city and get lunch, but first I had to look up the Mongolian currency and the exchange rate on the Internet. It turned out $1 equates to about 1,350 Tug, and doing this math in my head proved too difficult for me, as I mistakenly took out 10,000 Tug from the ATM, thinking it was roughly $75, and panicked at the restaurant when I saw an order of hot dog with fries and Pepsi wiped out all my cash. By the way, for that $7.5 withdraw, my bank charged me a fee of $10. I went back for another 50,000 Tug, and that lasted through my entire trip until I got back in the city. I also found it interesting that the largest denomination is MNT20,000, and no coins just like in China.

The traffic on the main thoroughfares and the surrounding streets were worst than anything I saw in China, mainly due to the fact that most streets had one lane each direction, and the two major streets had two each direction, hardly enough to handle the amount of traffic. Not nearly enough parking spaces in front of most shops and stores, and as a result of inadequate infrastructure, traffic were often caused by lines of waiting cars extending into the streets from parking lots, thereby blocking traffic. There's even less regard for the pedestrians than in China, and traffic laws were hardly observed; cars often had to go around a parked car because its owner had gotten out and stood few feet away talking to friends, exacerbate already congested streets. Yet somehow they made it work in what I would describe as 'orderly chaos'. I saw both right- and left-hand drive cars on the roads, good thing they were driving in the same direction on the same side of the road. In addition to regular city buses, 'private buses' often packed 20 people in a space for 9. Residents in the less-affluent outskirt of the city who came to the city for work and errands would use these 'private buses'. When they stopped to let passengers out, it was like playing the game of how many clowns could fit in a Volkswagen Beetle.

Feeling unprepared and a bit overwhelmed, I returned to the guest house and turned to the TV as a barometer of local culture. I discovered that about half of the 20 or so channels were in Mongolian, most of them showing the wrestling matches from last year's Naddam Festival, one cultural program showing traditional Mongolian song and dance performed on a stage recorded at an earlier, unknown event, and a couple of movie channels playing Mongolian productions that appeared quite dated (one was in black & white). The other half of the channels were showing programs in English, Russian, Chinese, and Korean. I later learned that Mongolians preferred to emulate Korean pop-culture. They were the first foreigners to invest in Mongolia after its independence, and played a big role in helping to modernize Mongolia, lending expertise in everything from industrial development to business management. Most of the cars on the roads less than 10 years old were Hyundais, and young women copied the latest fashion of Korean celebrities. Speaking of fashion, I noticed quite a few hair/beauty salons during my exploration earlier in the day. In fact, the number was extraordinarily high for the size of the city. In my opinion, it reflected the traditional Mongolian culture. The nomadic culture is still deeply-rooted in today's Mongolia, where men are respected for being fearless warriors, while beauty is highly valued in women. They put a lot of effort into looking as beautiful and attractive. However, their demeanor felt genuine and not superficial at all.

The next day the guest house arranged for its guests to attend the opening day of the Naddam Festival. We arrived at the square in front of the National Congress to witness the calvary carrying the nine white banners of Chinggis Khaan (Genghis Khan) from the parliament to the central stadium. The festival celebrates the 3 manly games - wrestling, archery, and horse racing - considered to be essential skills since ancient time. The opening ceremony and both wrestling and archery took place at the central stadium. The atmosphere was festive, with vendors and carnival games occupying every available space around the stadium. It's a national holiday and it felt like everyone in the city were there. We were stuck in traffic and arrived at the stadium late. Tickets were hard to come by and no such thing as assigned seating. The stadium could fit probably 10,000 spectators but had about 2 or 3 times that number crammed in. We stood at the opening of the tunnel we came in, with no place to go while getting pushed and shoved by the crowd coming in behind us. It was so crowded that I could fall asleep standing and not fall down. My instinct told me to carry my backpack on my chest, and it turned out to be a wise move, as we later learned that one of the girls in our group had her bag slashed by pickpockets while she was busy taking photos. It was every man for himself so I waded through the crowd and made my way to the bottom where there was space for me to kneel down by the railings separating the field from the grandstand. After awhile my legs were numb but I dared not lean against the railing like others, as the railing was already tiling forward at a 70 degree angle. The opening ceremony was a lot of pomp and circumstances, highlighted by a team of sky divers landing in the middle of the field. Interestingly, the parade consisted of not athletes, but representatives of corporate sponsors rounding the stadium. By western standard the production value could be described as 'provincial', but that did not diminish how much people enjoyed the ceremony.

Wrestling was originally a game to test the strength and wit, but some sources say it was initially aimed at training young kids how to tame and domesticate wild animals. 512 wrestlers complete in a single-elimination tournament with no weight/age divisions. After 9 rounds of competition lasting two days, a national champion is crowned and given state title by the decree of the President. The competition is steep in rituals and a match can sometime last up to an hour until a winner is decided by forcing his opponent to touch the ground with any part of body other than hands and feet. The participants I saw were huge men with incredible balance, strength, yet nimble. Later on my trip I played around with my driver and gained an appreciation for the skills of these wrestlers (that's a nice way of saying I got my ass kicked). It is no wonder the best current sumo wrestlers in Japan are all Mongolians.

Archery was first introduced for hunting 3,000 years ago, and later used in battle by Attila the Hun to wreak havoc throughout Europe, whom Mongolians revere and consider to share the same ancestry. Unlike wrestling, archery competition at Naddam festival are divided into age divisions, as well as by gender. The bow has no sight and the string is made of taut roebuck neck skin, while the arrow is made of young willow stick and vulture feather. Men shoot 40 arrows from a distance of 75 meter at a wall made of leather rings 4 meter long and 50cm high. I saw a committee of brave judges hovered around the target, hooting and hollering to signal a direct hit. I came to realize the difficulty later on my journey when I had the opportunity to try my hand at archery. My first attempt was a feeble one and barely covered 20 feet of distance. On my second attempt I used all my arm strength to cock my arms in the ready position, but my arms were shaking so much that I couldn't hit the broad side of a mountain. Hitting a 3x4 target 50 feet away required a combination of strength, sight, as well as accounting for the wind and the angle of trajectory. A Mongolian warrior I'm not.

We left the stadium around noon. By then I had gotten used to the crowd (it's all good once you let go of the concept of 'personal space') and not having any feelings in my legs. We got on the tour bus and headed out of the city to where horse racing was taking place. It was going to be my first experience on the open plains of Mongolia, and on the bus ride I felt like I was on a pilgrimage visiting the holy sanctuary. I'll never forget how I felt the moment I stepped off the bus, so overjoyed that I began doing cartwheels until I fell flat on my back looking up at the blue sky, and imagined I was floating in a green sea. I laid there until finally a face appeared above me and politely asked me if I was ready for the boxed lunch the guest house had prepared. While enjoying my lunch, someone said something I couldn't agree with more - 'This is what I imagined Mongolia to be like, not the pile of concrete and dirt we just came from.'

The large crowd that have already gathered there 3 hours before the riders arriving enjoyed their picnics and watched children flying kites in the big open spaces and no mountains to block the breezes. In the distance we could see threatening rain clouds, and before we knew it they were upon us, scattering people to take cover under tents. Just as quickly the rain stopped, and that was our first lesson on how quickly the weather could change on the open plains.

The horse is the most valued possession for Mongolians. It is the main means of transport and considered men's best friend, serving as the symbol of power, strength and loyalty. Mongolian oral literature, songs and poetry are closely related to horses, and the most popular musical instrument are fiddles decorated with wooden carving of a horse head call Morin Khuur. Horse riding is one of the most important abilities all Mongolian men must master. Unlike horse racing in the States, Mongolian horse racing is a cross-country event up to 30km long at full gallop the entire time (about one hour to cover the distance). The riders or jockeys were children with no saddles to achieve lighter weight, and through training they had developed special bonds with their animals. In addition to crowning the champion, they also give special award to the last horse - not as mockery, but as herders' tradition not to blame but to inspire it to win the next race. Due to the distance of the race, spectators could only gather near the finish line. The grandstand was full so people lined up along the trail stretching about a mile long in order to get a look at the action in its final stretch. We could only estimate when the riders might be approaching and waited with anticipation as the moment near. All of a sudden, someone shouted out something and pointed to the west, and we all looked toward the direction and spotted what looked like a car in the horizon, then another, and another. Moments later we saw the first racehorse, a magnificent beast even from afar, with chestnut coat and dark mane and tail. About 30 yards behind it were two horses furiously trying to close the gap, with one (a dark beauty) closing the distance with the race leader down to about 10 yards. Then, as if it was just toying with its chasers, the lead horse picked up its pace significantly with about 3/4 of a mile to go and galloped victoriously toward the finish line. Not willing to give up, but sensing his horse had given all it could, the jockey of the black beauty eased up and petted his companion on its crest in a show of appreciation, and graciously accepted a well-deserved second place, earning thunderous cheers from the crowd. The rest of the field made their way across the finish line soon after, and it's quite amazing that after an hour of full gallop, the field of roughly 100 horses were separated by just a few minutes apart.

After the race the rest of the group headed back to the city, but I met with my tour guide (and her boyfriend), my driver, and the four of us with a car full of supplies embarked on a 5-day journey through central Mongolia. There are no 'standard' tour packages in Mongolia. I had gotten in touch with the owner of the guest house before I left on this trip to discuss my schedule and preferences, and he came up with a customized itinerary that roughly cost $130 a day which included: English-speaking guide, driver, car & gas, food and lodging. It was past 5pm and we had much ground to cover to reach the family whom we were staying with for the night, so I hurriedly said goodbye to the group and we were off.

We traveled on a two-lane paved road with steppes on both sides and not a single car on the road with us for about 3 hours. Occasionally I would spot a group of 2 or 3 gers in the distance and herds of animals grazing in a safe distance from the road. I wasn't in a talkative mood and didn't ask Dena (my guide) many questions. Baat (my driver) and Jak (boyfriend) didn't speak any English but they weren't talking much amongst themselves either, so we traveled in silence. The scenery had changed from lush grassland to more desolate, and giant rock formations appeared in the distance. Dena told me we're near the Khognokhan Mountain and the sand dunes. Unlike the southern Gobi desert in China I visited, where not a sliver of green could be seen, the desert in this area was full of vegetations, which made raising animals possible, thanks to the moisture from frequent rains. It was beginning to get dark and all of a sudden we veered off the paved road and went onto a trail toward a group of gers. The ride was very bumpy and the trail did not make a straight line toward the gers, but curved to go around deep ditches. Sometimes the trail split into two heading in different directions, each trail led to the settlement of a family. There were no signs and no point of reference, so the driver really must know where he's going, and even then there is no guarantee you'd find what you're looking for, as Mongolians move throughout the year in search of ideal pasture for their grazing herds. I did not know at the time that I wouldn't be seeing pavement again for the next 5 days.

There're typically 3 options for lodging on these tours - ger camps, local families, and camping in tents. I asked to stay with families where possible for two reasons: to observe first hand the daily life of Mongolian families, and to help provide additional source of income to them. Gers (the word literally means 'home' in Mongolian) are built with a wooden frame all around made by binding narrow planks of wood with thin stripes of animal hide, and the cone shaped top is supported by two beams and thin wooden trusses running from the top of the frame at an angle and connected at the top to form a circular opening for light and ventilation. Layers of animal hide cover the entire structure to shield wind and rain, while also keeping the gers cool during the day. These gers last 10+ year and must be easy to take down and put back up again when the families move, so no nails are used in the construction to prevent the rusting metal from rotting the wood. Typical family ger runs no more than 20 feet in diameter, enough room for a wood burning stove in the middle (and a metal pipe as chimney through the opening at the top), two twin size beds, and a couple of dressers. All of their personal possessions must fit in this space. Most families own a solar panel but it seemed the electricity generated was used mainly for two things - TV (even though only 2 or 3 channels were available out here, at least they provided a connection with the outside world) and mobile phone charging (I'm not sure why, as there's no reception in most of these places). Water must be fetched from wells and used efficiently (i.e. water used to wash food is saved for later to wash dishes, rain water is collected and used for cleaning).

It was almost dark when we arrived at the settlement of our host family. Dena told me she was leading a tour a couple of years ago and the nearby ger camp was full, and spotted this family's settlement and asked the family if they could put the group up for a night. It's very typical for Mongolians to open up their homes to total strangers (a survival practice on this vast, scarcely populated land). Since then she's stayed with them on several occasions. The family was made up of parents, the son in his early 20s and his wife, a teenage daughter, and an adorable 2-year old granddaughter. We couldn't call ahead to let them know we were coming (there were no phone reception out here), but it wasn't like there was much preparation required. The family served us milk tea as was the Mongolian custom and then moved into one ger and we took over the one normally occupied to the son, his wife and their daughter. I wanted to explore the surroundings, but it was hard to see anything in the dusk, and lightnings in the distant sky accompanied by gale force wind signaled the approaching thunderstorm forced me to cut my walk short. By 9:30 we were all inside the ger, and the sound of rain drops falling on the ger was deafening. I could hear the dogs barking outside, corralling the goats frightened by the lightning. Dogs in Mongolia are no pets and they work hard. They survive on scraps and I even saw them devour entire pieces of bones. Yet they are well behaved and devoted to their owners. The American dogs will not likely survive a week out here, and the same can be said about their owners.

There was nothing to do so I began writing in my diary next to a lit candle, while watching flies and moths fly toward the flame on suicide missions. I'd visited many places before and I always had an idea of what to expect, but I was completely out of my elements here. I thought about the wonderful experience I had in China, the great people I met there, and I started to question if I made the right choice in coming here. My head was filled with the romanticism of tranquil scenery and exotic culture before I came, but now it was time to face reality - flying bugs, questionable sanitary standard, lack of plumbing...even though the conditions were not that different from a desert camping trips back in the States. I slept with the hoodie of my sweatshirt over my head to prevent any bugs from crawling into my ears while sleeping. In the pitch black I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, but when there was absolutely no light whatsoever, there's nothing to adjust to. The complete darkness played tricks with my mind, made me question if I actually exist physically (that's the same concept as the sensory-deprivation chamber). While lying in the darkness I told myself that in order to make the most of this trip I must let go of any preconceived notion of this place and temper my expectation, then I fell asleep dreaming of clean sheets and hot showers.

I woke up at six next morning and went out for a walk. Although we're in a desert, it's teeming with life, butterflies, beetles, giant winged grasshoppers, bees, and the usual lizards and snakes. The animals were already out grazing and I came across a man shepherding his herd of cows from his coral in the high grounds toward the lusher pasture further below. Typical day for a Mongolian meant waking up at daybreak to take the animals out grazing, then returning home by mid morning for tea, leaving the dogs to watch over the animals. Women do chores around the house in the morning, prepare lunch, follow by nap time in the afternoon. In late afternoon men head out again to fetch the animals home, then they wash up after dinner and get ready for bed. In China I had heard comments about the Mongolians being lazy, and not make better use of their time to make more money, but I think it is all a matter of perspective. For Mongolians their wealth is in their animals, and as long as their animals are healthy then they have everything they need. This is their lifestyle for thousands of years and they see no reasons to change, and I'm inclined to agree with them. Life moves at a slower pace in Mongolia, and so did I - walked slow, ate slow, moved slow.

After breakfast we went to explore the sand dunes on camels. Unlike my experience in China, the saddle here consisted of a rug and nothing else. I was given the reins of my own camel and that proved to be a mistake. First, the stirrups were too high for someone my size, so my legs were uncomfortably rubbing against the rough hide of the camel and the buckles of the metal rings. I was told to stand up when the camel went into a slow gallop (or else suffer the most painful pounding on my most tender region). When I stood up, the inadequate length of the stirrups forced me to lean forward, so I pushed back against the camel to regain my balance. Well, he didn't like all these movements at all and began gyrating from side to side, throwing me off his back. Fortunately I landed on soft sand and suffered no serious injury, except for my bruised ego. I decided that was enough and that I needed to preserve my body for the horseback riding later on the trip.

For the next four days we traveled throughout central Mongolia, covering various landscapes and terrains, sometimes blazing our own trail, crossing streams 3 feet deep, speeding and sliding on wet grass...so many white-knuckle experiences I had blisters on my hand from grasping the handle bar. It would've made a great commercial for Range Rover. We were usually on the move throughout the day, making one or two stops at 'point of interest', but to be honest I didn't come here for the history lessons. I told Dena we don't need to stick to our itinerary, that riding in car all day isn't my definition of fun, so we agreed to take things slow. The decision was a win-win for everybody; they'd sleep in a little later, and I'd have time to take morning walks, we'd enjoy hearty breakfasts and get to know each other (Dena as the translator), then go on roller-coaster rides (the nickname we gave to the car rides, which Baat was more than happy to make sure the interpretation stayed true). By 5pm we'd make camp with animals everywhere, goats would poke their heads in our gers, hoping to snatch a piece of lettuce from our supplies, horses strolled past on their way to nearby streams for drinks, cows grazing right next to our parked car. While Dena and Jak prepared dinner, I'd go on long walks, finding bone fragments strewn about, spotting vultures feasting on carcases, apparently fresh victims of careless drivers. After a long day of car ride, these walks offered the opportunities to stretch the limbs and gather my thoughts. My favorite part of the day was finding a place after dinners to sit down and take advantage of the daylight to write in my diary and read. Each day I felt I had shed another layer of gunk built up from being in a toxic environment the past year (metaphorically speaking, of course, but I found it ironic consider I hadn't showered in 5 days).

On the second to last day we were supposed to begin a two-day horseback-riding trip. This had been a dream of mine and and I often joked about retiring to Mongolia and herd yaks. However, the camel ride from a few days ago left me with severe saddle burn, and riding in car all day since then didn't help. I was faced with a dilemma - to do what I came here to do and suffer physically, or listen to my body and give up on the dream. Well, I remembered how I felt after 2 hours of camel ride, and if I went ahead, how I'd feel on the 14 hour plane ride home, and in the end the mind was willing but the body just couldn't comply. I was disappointed but I told myself it's the right decision. Perhaps dreams should stay what they are, dreams.

The next day we headed back to Ulanbator earlier than scheduled so I could shower at the guest house before flying to Beijing. I had an interesting experience in Mongolia but I'd been on the road for a long time and my heart and body were both telling me it's time to go home. I think this is the perfect sentiment to have at the end of the trip, and I'll be revisiting Mongolia in my dreams, and in these dreams I'll be riding horses on the vast open plains without a care!

permalink written by  Chihyau on July 16, 2010 from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
from the travel blog: Backpacking in China
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Northern Capital Revisited

Beijing, China

I left Lhasa by plane (from here on out, no more train rides for the remainder of my journey), headed back to Beijing with a quick stop in Chonqing. The airport in Lhasa is quite unique - it's about 65km from Lhasa and sits by itself with nary a thing around it except some dormitory-looking buildings around the airport. The airport is probably 1/10 the size of John Wayne, but seemed to handle the volume of traffic just fine.

I usually take the aisle seat and go straight to sleep when I fly, but I couldn't miss the opportunity to see Tibet from above, and I highly recommend flying out of Lhasa if you ever visit Tibet. From the sky, it's quite clear why Tibet has the reputation of being the rooftop of the world. Its accessibility (rather, inaccessibility) can only be appreciated from above.

The flight took off heading northeasterly initially. I was hoping to fly over Lhasa, but overheard that Lhasa airspace is restricted out of respect for its religious importance (I should have known since I never saw a plane in the sky while I was in Lhasa). The plane climbed to about 20,000 feet and offered a clear view of the rugged mountain ranges stretching as far as eyes can see, and what little spaces existed in the valleys formed villages, sometimes numbering no more than a few buildings. One dusty dirt road connects these villages with each other and with the outside world. It's easy to imagine the road being used a thousand years ago by wary travellers on yaks instead of motorcars.

The mountain ranges seemed to grow taller still as we continued our flight westward, with endless peaks overlapping peaks. The plane struggled to climb over them, and a bit hairy trying to fly above the weather system and the turbulance. I finally understood why Lhasa is so dry despite its altitude; the mountains, now snow capped, blocks any weather system carrying moisture from all directions. Once we're over the 30k altitude the landscape below was nothing short of astonishing: snow covered most of the mountain tops, with huge glaciers crisscrossing each other like giant highways. Even from above, I could see clearly what seemed like tracks (or lanes) in the glacier created by giant ice debris. They look just like the photos of K2 in National Geographics, except numbering in the hundreds.

The second half of the 2.5 hour flight was uneventful after we left Tibet airspace and flying above the weather below. Well, at least I thought it was the weather. Someone I met on the train had told me that you can't see the sun in Chonqing because of the haze, and he was absolutely right! The plane started to descend and yet I saw nothing but hazy clouds. I thought it was the rain clouds until, at about 2,000 feet, all of a sudden I saw shapes resembling buildings and roads. Much respect to the pilot for landing us safely.

When the door of the planed opened, I expected a bucket of sweat to pour over me immediately. After the good weather in Xinjiang and the dry weather in Tibet, I was not looking forward to getting back in humidity. The stop in Chonqing was a quick one, and we were sent back on the plane in about 15 minutes. Then we sat on the plane waiting for the green light to take off. There was massive delay in Beijing due to the record hot weather, so we waited on the tarmac for 90 minutes, enough time to serve us meal and finish a movie (Blind Side). During the delay the old man sitting next to me kept clearing his throat; I swear I thought I was either 1) going to catch TB, or 2) he was going to spit out the biggest loogie ever on my shoe. However, after the 56 hour trip to Lhasa, I can handle a 90 minute delay standing on my head, with one hand tied behind my back. The only problem with the delay was that I didn't get to Beijing until nearly 11pm, and all public transportation stop services at around the same time, so I had to split a cab to get to my hostel, only to find out they gave my room to someone else because of my late arrival, so I had to bunk with 3 other people for the first night before moving into my private room (that's right, I travel in style!).

I had no plans in Beijing, which was just fine. After nearly 3 weeks of traveling in some of the most remote areas of the world, it was nice to get back to a modern city. I took naps in air conditioned room, and had my best night of sleep last night (didn't wake up until 10:15, can't remember the last time I did that). The weather co-operated on my last day in Beijing, so I decided to rent a bike and make like the character in the award-winning movie 'Beijing Bicycle', with my iPod on and laughing all the way as I passed the bunion-suffering tourists on foot and herd-like tour buses. It took me just several hours in the afternoon to see most of the historic Beijing, including maze-like old hu-tongs and around numerous lake-parks where peddle-boats were available for rent and rickshaws taking tourists around the lakesides dotted with modern cafes (with outdoor seatings furnished with IKEA-like modern furnitures). I gotta say it's the best way to see Beijing (if you don't want to go in any of the 'touristy' destinations and just admire them from outside). It was a perfect primer to learn the lay of the land for my next in-depth visit of this grand city.

My journey is drawing to an end and I'm not sure how I feel; I've had a great time traveling, meeting new people, and generally not carrying what's happened back home. On the other hand, I do miss my friends back at home, and it's perhaps time to start thinking about the new path I want to take with my life. Decisions, decisions...I think I'll go take another nap.

One more day in Beijing to rest up before the grand finale - Mongolia!

permalink written by  Chihyau on July 9, 2010 from Beijing, China
from the travel blog: Backpacking in China
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Pals, People, and Palace

Lhasa, China

I survived the 54 hour trip and arrived in Lhasa in one piece! The two things I wanted the most were a nice, comfortable room, and a hot shower. There was a bit of snafu with the hotel I booked online (turned out they can't accept foreigners. Then why the hell do they have a English website?). No matter, a good somaritan found me a hotel that's nicer (it has to be, it's 'certified' to serve foreigners). In fact, they gave me a suite at a lower price than I would've paid at the first hotel. I was in heaven!

I have to at least talked about the trip getting here. From Urumqi I double back down the Hexi Corridor in Gansu province. I'd been in Gansu and Xinjiang for almost two weeks now, and I'm glad to leave them behind. Not that I've got anything against the place; quite the contrary, I loved Dunhuang and Kanas. This culturally rich region is also one of the poorest in the country, yet most diverse both ethnically and geologically, but I"m just looking forward to the next leg of my journey.

I got myself a soft sleeper to Lanzhou (capital of Gansu) for some quiet & comfort. After the last few days bunking with roommates, it was 'Me Time'. I slept, then I slept more on the 21 hour train ride, then I got on a bus for 4 more hours to Xining, the capital of Qinghai province, bordering Tibet, and the start of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. The province has often been overlooked, with its more famous cousin Tibet in the south, and history-laden Gansu to the east, and the vast Xinjiang to the north. However, the province is home to hundreds of monasteries, countless nomad camps dotting the grasslands, and birthplace of Dalai Lama. Xining is not on the equal footing with Lanzhou in terms of historical significance, but that has helped it developed into a very modern city in just a few years. Driving into the city, I lost count at 84 the number of construction cranes I saw busily putting up skyscrapers in addition to the ones already standing. Lanzhou, on the other hand, looked cramped and had very little construction (it is also one of the most polluted city in China, I'm glad my experience consisted of going from train station to bus station 200 meters away).

I've been looking forward to the train ride to Lhasa. The Qinghai-Tibet Railway is the highest railway in the world and an engineering marvel. I also chose the train because of Lhasa's altitude (3,800 meters, aptly named 'Rooftop of the World'), and many have fell victims to Acute Mountain Sickness (altitude sickness). The train ride's gradual climb up the mountain range offers me a chance to acclimatize vs. flying. I got on the train at about 11pm (it was delayed 3 hours) and went straight to bed, by morning (7am) we were still in Qinghai province, but miles away from any recognizable civilization. The train wound its way thru valleys and canyons, sometimes making big loops depending on what the mountains have to say. To the northwest I spot the Kunlun Mountain Range, with its snow-capped mountain tops year round, and somewhere in there is Shangri-la, immortalized by James Hilton.

We had to climb over Tanggula holy mountain (5,000 meters) in order to cross into Tibet. Sometimes we'd be moving at a snail's pace despite two locomotives pulling; it's hard to notice we're climbing. The conductor carefully monitored the oxygen level, and turns on the oxygen vent whenever necessary. Once we passed the mountain ranges the scenery didn't change much, grasslands stretching as far as eyes can see, and antelope sightings became the only entertainment on this monotonous portion of the ride. 48 hours into this trip and I was barely holding on, growing more claustrophobic by the seconds, any romance associated with train travel were the last thing on my mind. Incredibly, we arrived on schedule (what happened to the 3 hour delay in Xining?), and I was one of the first to get off the train and smell the fresh air.

Having showered and half-decent sleep on a hard bed without people constantly around me, I was ready to explore Lhasa. The city is divided into two sections and the western part, mostly ethnic Han, was bland and offered nothing interesting. I naturally gravitated toward Barkohr (Tibetan section), with its colorful and rich humanity. The neighborhood was a maze; addresses and names are useless here and even the locals were completely clueless beyond their immediate surrounding alleys. No maps of the area exist (no one brave enough to take on the monumental task), and the whole area is an interesting mix of stores, produce market, communal housing (apartments, or rooms, sharing a court yard and other facilities. You'll get the idea if you've ever seen the movie Kung Fu Hustle, but on a much smaller scale and lesser conditions). I had to meet someone there and went to six places that had the same name. After phoning him for help, he came to get me and even he had difficulty finding where I was.

The central feature in Barkohr is the Jokhang Temple, the holiest temple in Tibet. My first visit there was early in the morning, when locals and pilgrims came to pray. Many of the pilgrimages took months to get here; the trips would have been considerably faster if they didn't stop every 3 steps to bow, kneel, and kiss the ground, all the while chanting the sutras. I joined the crowd of worshippers who were circling the temple grounds as part of their ritual, called Kora (you always walk clockwise, with the temple always to your right). While I'm not religious at all, the walk was nonetheless a powerful spiritual experience. I revisited the temple in the afternoon to catch the monks engaging in lively debates of the scripture. While one was seated, the other would recite a passage, interpret its meanings, then snap his hands and make a motion toward the other. The gesture signified a sort of enlightenment, and when it was done in a tiny courtyard with hundreds of monks, it became quite a sight to see.

I met my Tibetan friends for dinner in Barkohr at the hotel own by one of them. He rescued the building from being torn down, and spent 4 years to restore it, hiring foreign architects to preserve the original Tibetan architecture design, and modelled the interior after the Potala Palace, with intricate woodwork and modern touches (furniture in the restaurant were from Italy, china and silverware from England, and salt shaker from IKEA, he laughed about it). I regretted not staying at his hotel, with its rich ambiance and hotel guests full of colorful characters (mostly ex-pats who have been coming to Tibet for 30 years). In contrast, my hotel was a bland business hotel with zero personality. We had a wonderful dinner (the chef was a Tibetan who studied at a 5-star hotel in India), enjoyed interesting stories from two guests who were frequent travellers to Tibet and Nepal, and just an unforgettable evening, by far the best night I've had in China, and one of the best nights I've had, period.

The next morning I rose early to visit the Potala Palace. For crowd control, I had to stop by the ticketing office the day before to pick up a voucher that would guarantee me entry at the specified time. From the outside, the Potala Palace is everything you'd expect. It dominates the city (you could see it from the train coming into the city), and there's a strict restrction on building heights in Lhasa to ensure its residents can see the Palace from any locations without obstructions. Words fail to describe its magnifcence and I couldn't believe I was standing right in front of it, even though my hotel was right next to it and I've walked pass it several times, during the day, at night...I was still in awe of it.

To visit Potala Palace, you have to be prepared to climb stairs. It was built in the 7th century by the greatest Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo, and was later used by Dalai Lama was both the political and religious seat of the Tibet. The Palace was meant to induce awe-inspring feeling and to dominate its visitors with a sense of grandeur. The intricate details (murals, woodwork on the paneling and columns) and the volume of relics was incredible and became a bit sensory overload after awhile. I highly recommend that you study the history of Tibet and its religion before you visit, then go by yourself instead of joing a tour group. Tour groups functioned like a conveyer belt, time-stamped when they go in, and have only one hour or otherwise the guide would be penalized. They were truly 'walking tours' with the guide speaking and walking non-stop, leaving no time to study and appreciate in any great length. By contrast, I spent nearly 3 hours there and felt I glossed over quite a bit. Like I said, one can only take in so many statues relics.

Perhaps it was due to the way I was brought up, the Tibetan religion (and on the whole, the Eastern religions) always had a mythical quality to it that set them apart from the western religions. I've always felt that religion and culture are so intertwined for Asians that we have a much healthier view of religion as a philosophy (religion, by definition, is an institution of Men). However, I must admit that this experience allowed me to reconsider that all religions are highly politicized and the Dalai Lamas are no different from Popes, who can be corrupt, deceitful, and promoting hero-worshipping in the worst kind of way. Seeing the pilgrims and what they go through on their long journey to Lhasa, I'm not sure whatever they get back in return was worth the effort they put in, yet on the other hand, it is not my place to judge as long as they're willing and peace of mind can be achieved.

NOTE: I'm merely stating my thoughts and do not wish to engage in any debates about religion, so please do not leave comments (especially inflammatory) regarding the last passage.

My stay in Lhasa drew to a close and it was well worth the trouble of getting here. What made the place so special was the friends I met here. That's the one thing I've learned from this journey, which is that people made places special above everything else (history, culture, sights...). Lhasa was special because of the friends, Dunhuang was special because of the people there. I hope to be able to revisit my friends again and have them show me the many other faces of Tibet.

permalink written by  Chihyau on July 6, 2010 from Lhasa, China
from the travel blog: Backpacking in China
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Mission Accomplished - Part 1

Urumqi, China

Time for another update!

I'm back in Urumqi after spending the last 4 days in Kanas Lake, and I gotta say it was well worth the 11 hour bus ride each way!

First, a little bit about Urumqi. It is the capital of Xinjiang province and the farthest place from an ocean in the world, but the weather was mild during my stay, and the best weather I've seen since arriving in China. As some of you may have heard, ethnic unrest broke out last July (by the Uighurs who have attempted to established a Uighurstan on several occasions). The city is a bit tense with the one year anniversary coming up, and occasionally you'd see military police in full gear patrolling the streets, and I was told there were numerous police and agents in civilian cloth as well. (I hope this get thru the Great Firewall). Tourism is big business here but obviously has been hurt by the event last year, and while tourists have returned in moderate quantity, it's going to take 2-3 years to return to 'normal'. Other than the sighting of military police, I felt very safe in the city where one can easily mistaken it for New York, with its various ethnic groups, juxtaposition of old and new, fashionabe young people with rainbow color hair and tats, and signs in multiple languages. Because it had only recently being developed, the city looks new and well planned compared to Xi'an (well, the City Center area) and Lanzhou (more on that in the next post).

Business hour starts at 10am here and goes to 8pm, mostly due to there being only one time zone in the entire country, and Urumqi is in the northwest corner thousands of miles from Beijing. I only stayed one night before joining a group tour for Kanas Lake near the border with Russia, Mongolia, and Kazastan (the northern most point of China, and individuals are barred from travelling there alone). Travelling in Xinjiang can be treacherous, with the unpredictable weather and infrastructure that's still being built. Flood is common and unpredictable sand storms can reduce visibility to zero. In the winter planes often have to be diverted to Dunhuang (15 hour train ride away) due to low visibility and -20 degree weather. Therefore a train station and airport are being built in Turpan (2.5 hours away). I got a crash course on the unpredictable weather on the way to Kanas Lake, when in a 4-hour span we experienced summer (80 degree), to piercing wind, to rain and sleet, and back to mild (a pleasant 67 degree). The tour guide explained the differences between various minority groups, but since I wasn't here for the history lesson, I paid no attention and just enjoyed the vast, open scenery comprised of endless grasslands. Along the way one can often spot yurts (used by Kazaks, who are still nomadic) and their herds grazing without a care in the world.

I was initially apprehensive about my fellow travellers - they were all ethnic Chinese from various parts of the country, and mostly retired. I thought to myself this is going to be a long and difficult trip. However, my worries were soon proven unnecessary. My goodness, Chinese people are friendly. I guess I had forgotten what being Chinese is all about. They made me feel like family, offering me food and drinks on the bus, and at each meal break they would take turns inviting me to eat with them at their tables. They were amazed by my wearing shorts on the trip, and insisted that I change into something warmer so as not to catch a cold. I graciously told them I'm used to it and so instead they offered me hot tea to stay warm. There were absolutely no pretense and I can tell you definitively that it wasn't because I'm a foreigner, for amongst themselves, total strangers when we first got on the tour bus, they exhibited the same warmness toward each other, and in no time the whole group was like one huge family. I must say that I was deeply moved, and you all know that I'm dead inside. :)

Kanas Lake. What can I say about Kanas Lake? In one word, Amazing. In three words, Paradise on Earth. It is one of few remaining places on earth that's uncontaminated due to its late discovery and remote location, and the Chinese gov't is doing what it can to reduce the tourism impact by limiting the number of visitor permits per year, and controlling the development of hotels outside the park entrance (none inside). The accommodations were basic, but roughing it in my basement hotel room with 3 others and communal restroom (no bath) is just part of the charm. The fresh air and beautiful scenery made the fact that I wore the same cloth for 3 days and hadn't showered in 2 a non-issue. Settlement in the park is prohibited except for the minority group Tuvas - a branch of Mongols, and they've adapted to combining their traditional ways of life with tourism economy - imagine, if you will, Indian reservations open for tourism, offering overnight stay in tents, horseback riding, archery, canoeing...etc. I was told the only way to obtain permission to live in the park is to marry a Tuva girl. Tempting, very tempting.

We were lucky that the weather cooperated during our visit. Not that it was sunny the entire time, but in fact, it rained overnight, which created beautiful views the next day. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so I'll let the pictures do the talking.

NOTE: I think there's a limit on how many pictures I can post on this blog, so I'll post them on my Flickr account (http://www.flickr.com/photos/24338382@N06/sets/) as soon as I get to Lhasa. You have to, no, you MUST see the pictures from Kanas Lake.

After a most satisfying trip I was back in Urumqi for one more night. Back in the civilization made me crave for the quiet and fresh air of the place I just left 11 hours ago. However, retreating to a place like Kanas is more of a dream than reality. While their wooden huts were equipped with solar panel, satellite TV, and cell phone connection was readily available, it's a fact that evolution is a one-way trajectory, and now that I'm back in the big city, I do appreciate the hot shower, comfortable bed, and KFC next door. I slept with the windows open and sound of the city abuzzing, something I hadn't experience in years, and this is where I belong.

Couple of things to add:

1) Uighur girls are HOT! (Eurasian features, beautiful figures)

2) The Bazaar in Urumqi is even bigger than the one in Istanbul, and one could find everything there (Shoe City, Carpet Town, Garment and Jewelery Districts, Spice Alleys, cell phones, computers, and things I can't even name). I only visited what's above ground due to limited time, and the underground section apparently spans 20 city blocks!

3) DO NOT bargain unless you plan to buy. If you bargain, then you MUST buy, or blood will be shed.

With the Silk Road portion of my trip completed, now it is onto the most difficult part of my travel - a 20 hour train ride from Urumqi to Lanzhou (tracing my way back the Hexi Corridor), then 3 hour bus ride to Xining, followed by a 25 hour train ride to Lhasa. You'll know if I survive the trip in a few days!

permalink written by  Chihyau on July 1, 2010 from Urumqi, China
from the travel blog: Backpacking in China
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Unbearable Hotness of Being

Turpan, China

From Dunhuang it's a two-hour car ride to the train station in Liuyuan, which barely qualifies as a station - one platform, one major street, 2 'restaurants', and a hotel charging by hours for train travellers waiting for their departure.

Once on the train, I noticed that my fellow passengers look distinctly more ethnic, and compared to the train out of Beijing and Xi'an, definitively less sophisticated and more 'earthy' (it's the only description I can think of). It was rather late (11pm) so I climbed into my bunk and went straight to sleep. The train passed into Xinjiang province in the middle of the night; Xinjiang is the largest province in China, making up approximately 1/6 of the total area, but scarcely populated due to its remote location and terrain (jagged mountain ranges and the great Gobi desert). It is also the second most ethnially diverse province in China, with around 47 different ethnic groups co-existing, occasionally peacefully, for 2,000+ years. The province borders Russia, Kazakstan, Mongolia, and Pakistan, and produces abundence of various minerals, most importantly, oil.

As soon as I got off the train in Turpan I could tell I'm in a different world. Signs are in two languages (Chinese and Uighar, a type of Islamic). I could barely understand what people are saying, even though they're speaking Mandarin (but with a very thick accent). The train station is located about 30 miles from City Center, and I got in a cab with someone else in the front seat that I couldn't tell if he was a passenger or bodyguard or what. On the way we stopped off at a place to pick up more passengers. They were all speaking their dialect which I don't understand, and the first thought that came to my mind was that I'm a goner, but one-by-one the driver dropped them off, and I began chatting with the driver (he is a Hui, an ethnic minority that look just like Han in apperance, except they are Islams). He turned out to be very friendly and my worries were unwarranted.

Turpan is 200 meters below sea level and the hottest place in China (summer temperature can reach 122!). I came here to visit the Flaming Mountain, immortalized by the novel Journey to the West (starring the Monkey King - everything person in China knows it by heart). I was told the best thing to do is rent a cab for the day and visit the various attractions around Turpan. Fortunately, I met a fellow passenger in Dunhuang who was also staying at the same hotel in Turpan, so we split the cost and on we went.

The guide book cautions (strongly, in bold letters) not to visit the Flaming Mountain in the middle of the day, so we head out early around 10am, which is considered early here in Xinjiang. It was about 100 degree and I was told this is a very, very nice day. The mountain was glowing a reddish hue and I can imagine how it would look like firey tonuges when the wind blows in high noon, giving it the appropriate moniker. The scenery reminded me of the Grand Canyon in a smaller scale (I guess it's just canyon if it's not so 'grand'), and I can definitely see it as the place to revivie western films (maybe we can call it 'Noodle Western'?) We couldn't stay too long and risk heat stroke, so we continued on to several ancient ruins dating anywhere between 100 AD to 7th Century. Some were hardly recognizable pile of rocks while others were in better shape. My travel partner and I decided we've seen enough old ruins and it was time to escape to the cooler climes of the cave paintings and underground water system.

Compared to the caves in Mogao, the ones around Turpan were in a much smaller scale and have long being plundered by western 'explorers'. Nevertheless, these rustic, unpreserved caves have no tourist conveyer belt, so I could take my time visiting each, and actually see how they were made due to their poor shape. Essentially, a cave was dug first in the rock formation, then mud/straws/clay mixtures were applied to the surface (wall and ceiling), then painted over. Certain statues were then plastered into the clay surface and viola! The underground water system (Karez), on the other hand, was an engineering marvel from 2,000 years ago. Using nothing but gravity, the ancient people were able to divert the underground water from the nearby mountains to the villages far below for farming. These underground channels prevent evaporation and contamination, and totaled 5,000 kilometers!

Xinjinang is an 'autonomous region' and around Turpan it feels more like I was in Afghanistan or Kazastan. I couldn't tell if people I met were Han, Hui, Uighar, Kazaks, or other smaller minority groups I've never heard of. Outside information is scarce, and people I spoke with all wanted to know what America is like - they have the impression that China is about 50-60 years behind. I felt it was too hard to explain to them that in big cities like Beijing and Xi'an there are virutally no differences, and in the US we have Arkansas and West Virginia, so it's not all glitter and gold :). Clearly the influx of tourist, even in small amount, had changed the people here - at each location we visited there were vendors relentlessly peddling everything, from Hello Kitty keychains to commemorative plates bearing Chair Mao's image. The little kids would post for pictures in their traditional outfits, and blocked my path unless I give them money. I figured it is both their culture (they are traders fond of making deals) as well as the poor economy conditions. Nevertheless, it left a bad taste in my mouth especially after the wonderful experience I had in Dunhuang.

Having seen all the places I cared to see, I decided to leave for Urumqi instead of spending the night in Turpan. The plan was to catch a 3-hour bus ride to Urumqi, but wanting to get there as fast as I can, I decided to take a cab for Y65 instead of the Y40 bus fare, figuring that was a good deal. Well, while the cab I was in stopped to find another cab willing to take me the distance, another cab driver opened the door and tried to yank me out and put me in his cab, cab driver #1 pushed him away and a fight broke out in front of me. Then driver #1 got back in with 2 other men, and told me it usually costs Y360 for four to go to Urumqi, and since it's slow season, I was the only one and needed to pay Y180. I mustered the courage and told him forget it and just take me to the bus station. He kept lowering his price and I showed my resolve and finally he relented, and we agreed on Y100 (my sense of self-preservation told me it was the smart thing to do), and on we went with driver #3. I can certainly look back with a sense of humor now, but at the time I thought that was my near-death experience #2 in Turpan. Better leave as soon as possible.

Until next time...

permalink written by  Chihyau on June 27, 2010 from Turpan, China
from the travel blog: Backpacking in China
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Can I Find a Town in US Just Like It?

Dunhuang, China

I headed to the train station in Xi'an for my 22 hour train ride to Dunhuang. According to Lonely Planet, "the fertile Dunhuang oasis has long been a welcome sight for weary Silk Road travellers. Most visitors only stayed long enough to swap camels and have a feed; others settled down and built the forts, towers and cave temples that are now scattered over the surrounding area. These sites, along with some impressive sand dunes and desertscapes, make Dunhuang well worth the effort, despite its remoteness."

The train ride was my first experience in a Hard Sleeper (3-tier bunk beds, 2 per open compartment, 9 compartments per car. READ: no doors). My bunk mates were a group of middle age women from Hunan province heading to Dunhuang for sightseeing. 6 days had passed since I left LAX and the heat/humidity had caught up with me, so I was looking forward to a full day/night of resting my aching shoulders.

Traveling northwestly, the first 3 hours took us through mountain ranges with tunnels every 5 minutes. This train stopped in the bigger stations and I stole a glance at the train on the adjacent track to check out the Hard Seat. Giant smoking sardine can would be an apt description.

It took no time for the passengers on the train to began chatting like they were old friends. In fact, it was like a temporary family; for the entire trip this would be our home, so why not make the most of it by being neighborly. I peppered my fellow passengers with questions about the area. Knowing that I'm a foreign visitor, they were like proud parents showing off their kids (but in this case, their hometowns). I learned quite a bit from Master Chang (the title bestowed on men, akin to Mister, but more respectful), who grew up in the area. No one has called me 'Master' yet (I guess it doesn't apply to foreigners). Instead, I'm being called 'Swai-ge', which literally means 'handsome brother', a common term for anyone under 30. Not bad for someone who turns 36 in two weeks!

After 3 hours the train descended from the mountains to the flat lands that suddenly

opened up. The landscape consisted of 2 colors - light brown & sparse green to the north. The geography was mostly barren rocks/harden sand, which the locals use to produce bricks and/or cement. To the south the scenery was distinctly different with tiny villages (I'm talking 7-8 homes at most) dotting the landscape and creative use of the land for farming by ways of terraces, a perfect example of the indomitable spirit of human surviving nature.

People here also dig caves into the hillside and have been using them as homes for eons. Each goes about 3-6 meters deep and connects from within as well. I was told these caves are back in vogue because they stay cool in summer heat and shield bitter cold in the winter. I hope to be able to visit one on this trip.

Dunhuang is located in the western end of the Hexi Corridor in Gansu province, and the area is dry with very little rainfall. Farming is dependent on the melting snow from the nearby mountains, and warm winter usually means no crop the following year. Surprisingly, the area produces excellent grapes with high fructose(?) level, which is then used to make excellent wine. Therefore, people here are known to handle their liquor like no others. Gov't also subsidizes farmers to plant trees to reduce sand storm and help replenish the soil.

I had lunch in the dining car and boxed dinner purchased from the service person pushing carts like on the airplanes. Lights out at 10pm and nothing to do but go to sleep. I welcomed the rest and woke up at 6:30 feeling replenished (refresh would not be a good

description, as I desperately wanted a shower). The landscape outside had changed dramatically. Gone were the mountains, replaced by dry sand as far as eyes can see. Occasionally a stream emerged surrounded by green pasture, where sheeps grazed.

Arriving in Dunhuang it reminded me a little of the area east of Las Vegas on the way to Zion, bright sun and vast open flat desert, and even though the temperature was about 105, it had more in common with California, so I was much more comfortable than when I was in Beijing and Xi'an. I was immediately drawn by this quaint sleepy little town with two main streets; compare to Xi'an and Beijing, Dunhuang is clean (unpolluted), relaxed, and friendly. It took me about two hours to explore majority of the city, and nary a person on the street in high noon, whereas in Xi'an, crossing the streets required absolute conviction and total fearlessness. For a historic town Dunhuang looked remarkably modern due to the flood in 1979 causing the majority of the city to be rebuilt.

I took the advice of waiting until 6pm to head out to the sand dunes to watch the sunset. The sand dunes rise unexpectedly just to the south of the city. I had never seen sand dunes in person and it's really a sight to behold. The landscape seemingly changes as the winds blow, creating the illusion otherwise known as mirage. I came here for the camel ride so I passed the dune buggys and headed straight for the post. My camel was #382, but that seemed rather inpersonal, so I named him Quasideux, on the account of it being double-humped. The ride was smoother going up the sand dune and on sand compared with when we travelled on harder surfaces. It was a good training for the horseback rides in Mongolia, I hope.

I originally wanted to spend the night by the Crescent Moon Lake but changed my mind because I wanted to spend more time in the city. It turned out to be a good decision as I couldn't imagine spending the night in the desert after getting sand everyhwere. I allowed myself plenty of time to make my way up to the tallest and closest sand dune to watch the sunset (too steep for camels), yet still I struggled mightily (admittely it was more like crawling than climbing). I had to stop every few steps and rest; with battery acid coarsing through my veins, the only thing that kept me going was knowing that I will never do this again and I'd hate myself for not finishing this. When I finally made it to the top the total exhaustion overshadowed the sense of accomplishment at first, but soon I was reminded of why I put myself through the pain, and it all seemed worth it.

With sand everywhere on me but hungry after the climb, I headed back into town and found a completely different atmosphere than the one I witnessed several hours ago. It seemed the energy of the town goes up as the hour gets later. At the night market where the whole town seemed to be congregating, I told myself it was time to try local cuisines. Besides, there were no KFCs or McDonalds anywhere here, unlike in Xi'an and Beijing. There were literally 100s of stands selling practically the same thing - kebobs. Several types of meat were on the menu - lamb, beef, pork, squid (where the heck did squid come from? We're thousands of miles from any open waters), and veggies. They tasted great, but the seasoning was very strong (salty and spicy, I woke up in the middle of night dying of thirst). People at the night market eat under the evening stars, and at every table there was one standard item - a beer keg that put the Yard House signature to shame. Food and drinks were but two of many things one could find at the night market; arts and crafts, clothes, dry dates, fruits...there was even live performance on a stage! After sampling assorment of kebobs, I bought some watermelon and headed back to the hotel to clean the sand out of my teeth.

(My camera ran out of battery while I was on top of the sand dunes, so I took some photos with my iPhone which the hotel computer does not recognize.)

Next morning I woke up early to head to the famous Magao Grottoes. It's a World Heritage Site and one of the most important archeological discovery in Buddhist history. For more information, check out http://idp.bl.uk. I decided to rest in the afternoon heat and soak in more of the city later that evening, which I found myself falling in love with; it's such a tranquil, peaceful, friendly, warm (both literally and figuratively)....place, that it's no wonder the people I talked to have no desire to leave for the bigger, more modern places. Why would they! I can totally see myself quitting the rat race and get a job at a local hotel here catering to foreign travelers, and supplementing my income by teaching English, maybe even find a beautiful local girl and settle down...or it's more likely that I'm suffering from heat stroke.

The last day in Dunhuang was packed with sightseeing from 6:30am - 5:30pm to more remote places. The tour guide told me people in Dunhuang work half a year, and rest half (what a wonderful concept, no wonder they looked so happy!). Besides tourism, the other major output from Dunhuang are cotton and grapes, but they can't compare with Xinjiang, my next destination. I also learned that cars here are powered by combination of natural gas and gasoline when the tour van pulled over for a refill. That didn't sit well with me as I was worried the entire trip that a simple collision and I'll be nothing more than a memory. They also make most use of wind turbines and and solar energy. In some ways, China is more advanced than the US.

I visited the western end of the Great Wall (built around 100 BC), which was nothing more than a 50 yard stretch of mud/clay structure now, unlike the eastern end near Beijing, as well as the Jade Gate Pass and South Pass, which marked the end of Chinese territory back in Han Dynasty. I tried to conjur the feeling of weary travellers heading west into what was considered very dangerous territory (controlled by Kazaks, Turks, and other extinct ethnic groups at various times), and was aided by the fact that this vast area we're visiting was closed the day before for military target practice! On the way back we had to drive thru a sand storm (a mild one I was told), and I can't imagine what a severe one would be like. Our driver was hauling ass when visibility was barely 30 meters. Even though I need to get back in town by 7pm, I felt inclined to tell the driver not to hurry, and was met with a chuckle, at the expense of my yellow streak.

Unlike in Xi'an and Beijing, where I felt like a tourist lost in a big city, in Dunhuang I felt like I really got to know the place. I really enjoyed Dunhuang and was sad to leave. I hope this was a good omen for good things to come on my journey. It was time to catch a ride to Liuyuan for my train to Turpan, the hottest place in all of China! Hooray!

permalink written by  Chihyau on June 26, 2010 from Dunhuang, China
from the travel blog: Backpacking in China
tagged China and Dunhuang

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Drowning in Humidity

Xi'an, China

I've been in Xi'an for two days now, and to tell you the truth, I don't quite know what to make of it. Getting here, however, was quite an adventure.

The train ride from Beijing to Xi'an took about 10 hours. To get to the train station in Beijing, I hopped on a taxi, which was basically a 3-wheeler motorbike with a metal box on top of it. I sat in the cage facing backward as the driver, missing two fingers and all (and few more teeth), snaked his way thru traffic, honking and cursing non-stop. I didn't know if the missing fingers had anything to do with his complete disregard for braking, but I was running behind on schedule so I didn't mind too much.

We ran into a police check point about half a mile from the station entrance (no vehicles were allowed access), and the driver tried to persuade the police officers to let us pass, and he wasn't shy about leveraging my status as a foreigner to get his way ("our brethren from America" were his exact words). It was an exercise in futility and I was happy to walk the remaining way with my 30lb backpack in 85% humidity instead of risking never been heard from again.

The scene at the train station was caotic, and I made it to the waiting room just when boarding began. I had stopped by a ticketing agency earlier in the day and planned to get a 'Soft Sleeper', but the train was completely sold out and all I could manage was a 'Soft Seat'. At first glance it looked decent; clean, comfortable and plenty of leg rooms compared to airplanes. The seating arrangement was in quartets (2 facing 2, with a table inbetween). That would prove to be a problem, however.

The train moved at a steady pace and I suspect it's to ensure a smoother ride conducive to sleeping. There wasn't much outside the window to see, so soon everyone started dozing off. I tried to sleep but my body can stay contorted for only so long, and the quartet seating took away any meaningful legrooms I was hoping to enjoy. My night was broken up into small naps and muscle spasms. Lessons learned: buy ticket early as possible and get myself a Sleeper the rest of the trip.

The first light at 5am was a welcomed sight; my first encounter with China's countryside. The train traveled along the ridge of a long gorge, with towns located down below in the narrow flat land. Cell phone signal was spotty depending on if the train happened to be traveling by a town (or village?) at that particular time. The train was an express so it whizzed by train stations without stopping.

The gov't in Beijing implemented a 'western mobilization initiative' a few years ago to develop the vast unpopulated area of the region, so it wasn't uncommon to spot huge factories and chimneys, as well as giant construction equipments. For about an hour all I saw were factories, followed by rows of undescript Soviet-era apartment buildings, huge shipping yards, then nothing. Repeat that sequence several times and you get the idea.

The train pulled into Xi'an at about 7:30am and it was quite a scene outside the station. Under the old city wall (train station is right outside of the north wall) hundreds of migrant workers camped out (without tents) waiting for their trains to go wherever they were headed (home or wherever work is waiting). I was told that they do this because they have no money for hotels and want to save a day's room/board, and yet 30 yards away the city folks in their fashionable attires and import cars presented a stark contrast to the inbalance of mildly rich and poor.

Xi'an is a city of roughly 5 million people and a popular tourist destination for both foreigners and Chinese nationals (its economy is largely built on tourism). Xi'an is where 13 dynasties called their capitals, and it's easy to see why: geographically it is surrounded by mountains and two rivers, making it easy to defend against any invaders. The soil is fertile and the area produces many precious minerals, including gold and jade, a favorite of the Chinese people.

Tired and dirty from the long train ride, I spent day one just getting acclimated in city center, and although there were plenty of old stuff around (like the Drum and Bell Towers used to signal dawn and dusk each day for over 1,000 years), they were surrounded by giant shiny shopping malls and residential buildings. It's almost as if Xi'an woke up one day and realized people actually would come to the city to see these old relics they've neglcted for years, so they put up a new coat of paint, slapped on signage, and started selling souvenirs. I checked out a few places on the guidebook, but the best part of the whole day was visiting the Muslim Quarter night market and watched how the locals spent their evenings.

The next day I headed outside of city for the Huaqing Garden, the tomb of the fist emperor of China, and ended at the Terracotta Warriors. My guide, Mr. Sun, a farmer who lives around the Terracotta Warriors, told me his family will eventually be relocated to make further excavation possible. He was not a professional tour guide but anything he could've told me I can read up on my own. I found his view of the country most interesting, such as 'South produces scholars; North produces generals' and many more. He showed very little interest in America. I guess when one hasn't even traveled outside of his own province, a country an ocean away might as well be another planet.

I got back in the city at around 5 to visit the Tang Dynasty Pagoda in the southern part of the city, distinctly newer compare to the city center. The area around the Pagoda had been designated National Heritage Preservation Site, and most of the people there were locals. There were plenty of open spaces for a casual stroll in the evening and street vendors lined the outer perimeter in nicely built stalls. Next to the Pagoda huge recreational spaces and parks were perfect hangouts for families and young lovers. People number in the hundreds were exercising by dancing in unisom to music selections ranging from hip-hop, techno, waltz, to folksongs; and smaller groups to the side doing their best DWTS imitation. This happens every night! Further west were rows of nightclubs and bars, boutqiue stores and a Universal Studio-like theme park. I decided it it was time to head back.

My impression of Xi'an is that it's like any other major cities around the world (minus the subways, which is coming soon). I am glad I can now check it off my list, just be warned that the tourist attractions are packed with people and hot/humid as hell, which made absorbing the information very difficult. Unless you are a history buff, skip the city and your sweat glands will be grateful to you.

By the way, I had to write this note 3 times, once due to power failure at the hostel, which also wiped out all of my photos. That certainly didn't help me form a favorable opinion of the city.

Next stop is Dunhuang and I am very much looking forward to it. After all, the Silk Road can't begin with Audis and BMWs aplenty on the street of Xi'an, in my opinion.

permalink written by  Chihyau on June 22, 2010 from Xi'an, China
from the travel blog: Backpacking in China
tagged China and Xian

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China,We Finally Meet

Beijing, China

After 30 hours of travel I finally made it to Beijing last night, although my stay is a short one as I'm heading to Xi'an tonight by train.

The trip from Capital Airport to the hostel was uneventful, although the humidity hit me like a bucket of water as soon as I stepped outside. The first rule of surviving Beijing is HYDRATE. The second rule of surviving Beijing is...HYDRATE!

My first observations of China:

Talk about bigger is better. The Capital airport is quite impressive, boasting world's largest continues roof spanning the entire airy terminal supported by huge columns. It really shows you what ambition and vast space combined can achieve.

This city is changing right in front of its residents, and most of them couldn't be prouder of their beloved Northern Capital (what Beijing means in Chinese). There are constructions everywhere, and the subway system is very convenient, clean, and packed! I looked around my fellow passengers on the subway and I swear I could have been in Tokyo, Seoul, or Barcelona (you have to squint your eyes a bit and imagine you are overhearing conversations in Spanish). However, as soon as I walked outside the subway station toward my hostel, it felt like a different world: locals gathering outside the station trying to cool off on a hot summer night, kids playing soccer, and vendors selling delicious smelling snacks from makeshift coal burner. The hostel is located in downtown Beijing, but the neighbor still retains its old charm. Narrow Hutongs crisscrossing like a maze, lined with stores selling everything from latest electronics to ancient herbs. Right outside of the hostel several folding tables and chairs lined the sidewalk and neighbors gather to eat, drink, and generally enjoying each other's company. Right in the middle of the street is a TV showing the broadcast of a World Cup match.

My hostel was full, so they got a room for me in a binguan (loosely translated, business hotel) nearby, with my own bathroom. I guess my first hostel experience will have to wait. It was midnight by the time I showered and repacked my backpack. Time for bed.

I set my alarm at 7am and was awoken by the bright sunlight thru the windows. I thought I had overslept and did a double take when the clock said 4:30 am. It was no mistake, and China does not observe DST, and the whole country is on one standard time-zone. It's going to be interesting as I travel west on the Silk Road.

After breakfast I headed out in search of a travel agency to help me arrange my travel to Mongolia at the end of this trip. It was only 8am and a Day Market outside of the hostel was already in full swing. You can find people selling and buying everything from fresh produce to antiques to portable DVD players. By the time I returned 2 hours later the crowd had completely vanished, and only the employees of the stores lining the street sweeping and cleaning up offered a clue there were about 10,000 people crammed into a space roughly the size of half a football field hours earlier.

I had an entire day to explore after I took care of my travel arrangement so I headed again. It didn't feel like Sunday with constructions equipments humming in symphony with the traffic and the entire city was filled with a positive energy. Store windows showoff the latest fashion from SoHo and Paris, and people walking about strutting their stuff. It was clear that Beijing folks are unaffected by the slow economy, and their optimism for the future is in stark contrast with how we feel back in the US of A. Beijing knows capitalism even better than us, as evidenced by about 80 banks in 4 square blocks.

While exploring the hutongs I smelled something delicious but can't find the source. It was quite frustrating but probably for the better. I decided to play it safe and went to Mickey D's. A Combo meal of a Big Mac, regular fries and a small drink cost USD$2. I guess exotic cuisine will have to wait after I give my stomach a chance to toughen up.

The day went by pretty fast and I need to head to the train station to catch my overnight train to Xi'an, the ancient capital of Han and Tong dynasties, and the beginning of my Silk Road journey. I'll be back in Beijing for a few days before I head to Mongolia, and the Forbidden City awaits.

permalink written by  Chihyau on June 20, 2010 from Beijing, China
from the travel blog: Backpacking in China
tagged China and Beijing

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Place of My Birth

Taipei, Taiwan

Two meals and several unsatisfying naps later, China Air Flight #7 touched down at Taoyuan International Airport at 5:30am local time. I couldn't help but smiled as I walked off the plane after the 13-hour flight, glad I wasn't in too bad of shape, but knowing there will be more nights like this ahead, as my trip includes several overnight train and bus rides.

At this early hour the whole place was deserted, I didn't see any shops or snack bars where a cup 'o joe can be bought. Although I've always pride myself in able to find my way around in places I'd never been before, I needed help to get my bearings. As it turned out, all the actions are on the floor above me, so I headed up to the main Departure Level and found what you would expect in any International Airport terminals around the world...duty free shops, food court, high end luxury good stores...etc. The whole place was quiet in this early hour; airport workers and shop employees easily outnumbered travlers 2 to 1. I found a quiet place to lie down and stole a quick nap. By 7:30, however, the whole place was buzzing with activities.

The last time I visited my birthplace was in 2005. In fact, I've only visited Taiwan twice since my family left at the end of 1987, when I was 13. I suddenly recalled a poem I had studied in elementary school about the prodigal son returning home, not knowing what to expect, only to be greeted by the local children as if he's a visiting tourist. I think that's an apt description about how I felt (well, minus the 'prodigal' part). Still, there was an instant connection with this place, and I couldn't help but smiled and nodded to everyone that I made eye contacts with.

First thing you need to know about Taiwan...it is NOT Thailand, it is not anywhere near Thailand, and it is not anything close to Thailand.

I began exploring after my nap. The airport has 2 terminals and gates are divided into 4 sections. It took me a little over an hour at a leisurely pace to complete the loop. Needless to say, had this been the setting of Tom Hank's movie 'Terminal', it would have been a short film. While the place is not new, it was very clean, maintained by ever present cart-toting cleaning crews like you'd see in Disneyland.

I literally yelped when I saw a Starbucks sign on the horizon, except it was on the other side of the plexiglass separating Customs, so instead of coffee, I ordered tea for breakfast, figured I'd better get use to it anyway. Tea drinking is an art form here in Taiwan; Taiwanese tea is the best in the world, there is simply no comparison, but I'm looking forward to sampling Butter Milk Tea when I get to Lhasa. I also ordered 'Chicken Pot Pie' (at least that's what was printed on the menu), but it turned out to be chicken in egg pudding...

After breakfast I continued exploring the airport, figured I can use the exercise to get my blood flowing after the long flight while train my muscle for the hikes in the weeks ahead (wishful thinking, I know). Paying more attention than before, I noticed the nuances that set this place apart from most US airports. There are more cultural displays in the airport than I can count, and not some flimsy billboards and the likes, but carefully designed, high production value display areas showcasing the many facets of Taiwan. The reason for them would become clear to me later.

The entire airport is wifi enabled (free!) and every 50 yards or so there are computer stations offering Internet access and phone charging stations. Despite the abundance of these services, every station was occupied, but people were very courteous and the wait was hardly 5 minutes at worst.

I walked by an outdoor smoking area, and felt the urge to light one up, but the duty free shops only sell cartons. I see quitting in my futre. I tried to take my mind off nicotine by looking for weird celebrity endorsements, but no luck on finding Brad Pitt pimping electric all-in-one egg beater/hair trimmer/battery recharger. Although I did find many 'relaxation zone' equipped with free massage chairs, and also a massage parlor charing $300NT (roughly $10USD) for a 15 minute session.

When one is stuck at the airport for near 10 hours, one must find things to pass the time, so i studied the flight information monitors and can definitively say that Japan and China are by far the most popular destinations. (Found one direct flight to Detroit....why?!) Majority of travelers in the airport were made up of locals and visitors from China, and hardly any westerners. It seems Taiwan is a stopover for many on their way to some place else (China, Vietnam, the Phillipines, Thailand, US...). Too bad, Taiwan has so much to offer: friendly people, wonderful cuisines, perfect blend of modern citylife and old country charm, and beautiful sceneries anywhere you look. Then it dawned on me the purpose of those displays - intercepting the stopover traffic.

There is a bit of sadness in me knowing I'll be saying goodbye soon even though I never stepped out of the airport, but quickly I need to focus on several details still needing taken care of once I land in Beijing and before heading to Xi'an tomorrow night, then the trip truly begins.

permalink written by  Chihyau on June 19, 2010 from Taipei, Taiwan
from the travel blog: Backpacking in China
tagged Taiwan

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